Format: PS Vita
Developer: SCE Japan Studio
Monster Hunter is a handheld system seller. That’s a fact, particularly in Japan. Yet we’ve only heard the slightest of rumours about the mega-series bringing its giant-chasing exploits to Sony’s underperforming handheld.
We don’t know if it’s a case of Sony not being able to agree a deal with Capcom, but until that champagne spraying day arises, Soul Sacrifice is here to carry the burden and an hefty amount of expectation in the face of the Vita’s barren landscape of recent or future releases.
The story begins with you waking up in an underworld jail with a talking book that insists on reliving the tale of a sorcerer and his road to infamy. You play as a character in the book as you read each chapter. The fleshy tome is essentially a menu system where you select missions or edit your skills and so on. The voice acting from the book and the narrator are coma-inducingly poor and the various stories that are mixed together as you play different mission strands while trying to straddle the difficulty curve are ultimate fantasy fan fiction dross.
The book uses the touchscreen (optional) to flick through pages, but it’s a cumbersome mess requiring too many touches, especially when you want to replay missions to XP grind or look at the mission rewards list to top up on certain items. But what of the missions themselves?
Soul Sacrifice is an action-RPG pitting you against anything from car-sized rats (that are inexplicably called goblins) or slobbering, flying harpies the size of a house. Rather than unleash you into a large world to explore, each chapter places you into a small map, and by map I mean oddly shaped arena.
Spells and special moves named offerings are assigned to the circle, triangle and square buttons, with R acting as a modifier to open up another three slots. Magic spells typically involve elemental attacks such as launching a blast of ice along the ground or summoning a large fist to smash upwards from the ground. A wide variety of more traditional melee moves can also be summoned allowing you to hit enemies with the likes of a stonified arm, or a sword as many times as you can while the offering is active with real-time button presses or holds for a charged attack. Projectile weapons are also available, which come in use against aerial targets. Healing spells and other defensive skills are also available later on.
Almost as if by rule of the genre, combat is extremely sluggish. Regarding melee, it’s not necessarily the moves themselves that are slow, it’s the awkward ‘summoning’ that each type requires when swapping between them. While your avatar raises their arms and basks in a magical glow for a second or two while a sword is being conjured into their grasp they’re left open to attack. It’s just so bloody unnecessary. Go and play the Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning demo then ask yourself why this sticky mess would ever seem like a good idea. These spells can only be summoned a certain numbers of times, do it too many and they’ll break for the rest of the battle, needing to be repaired in the main menus later on. That is unless you find an area in the arena to replenish offerings, which also takes a lengthy button hold, while you’re open.
Ok, so the combat, that vital spine of the game is off to a poor start. The game’s depth is where it starts to claw back some interest though.
Sacrificing souls is the game’s unique hook. Upon killing any enemy, minion to boss, you have the option to hold the L button to save its soul, or R to sacrifice it. These actions top up one of two XP bars. One for Life, the other for Souls, coloured blue and red respectively.
Between the two bars, you can level them up to a shared total of 100. Go blue to enhance your HP and defence or red to improve your offensive skills. So far, I’ve been leaning more towards the blue, as death is never far away, in what is an incredibly tough game at times. The souls you save/sacrifice are also saved to help build combat/defensive buffs, so it’s worth having a diverse collection.
Choosing the fate of bosses, or Archfiends, gives you a larger amount of XP, but also a more practical choice. Save them and you can usually use them in the Avalon Pact missions. These are side-missions you attempt with AI partners unlocked by saving souls or from completing story missions. Saving/damning souls also unlocks unique chapters and you can replay boss battles to make your sure you play all the possibilities, but overall it’s very poorly explained. Expect the online community and wiki sites to help more than the in-game advice.
Extra allies aside, the benefits of saving/sacrificing are very difficult to see. The damage output of various spells listed in the equip menus doesn’t go up and there are no hit numbers during battles or health bars to enable you to see what offerings are the most effective.
Pressing down on the d-pad during a fight plunges the world into darkness, allowing you to see where you can replenish offerings or pick up temporary armour/weapon pickups by heading towards a distant glow. Enemies will be green, orange or red, which as good as it gets as far as knowing how close to death they are. Larger enemies also have highlighted weak areas when using this alternate vision, although you can’t attack while in this mode.
Knowing weak spots is mainly useful against larger enemies and only if those weak spots are accessible from your height. Flying enemies can be shot in the wings with weak projectiles to anger them into coming back down to earth to guzzle your innards.
Ah yes, you’re going to die a lot in this game. Each mission has a difficulty rating and while they all start at a 1/10 rating, they vary between easy and dead-in-three-hits. Go back and grind some older missions though and it shouldn’t take too long before you can enjoy a successful rematch. But thanks to the lack of decent signposting around your character’s growth, it can be frustrating judging your progression.
Playing the game on your own is generally a thankless task. But after Chapter 6, the Avalon co-op missions unlock. At the time of writing, I couldn’t take the game online as the servers were not active, so I’ll come back to that when the game officially launches.
Dying isn’t so bad when you’re in a team as you can call out to teammates to come and revive you, although it costs a meaty chunk of health for them to do so. The same goes for when you revive them. Everyone also has the option of sacrificing each other to gain a more selfish boost, but also possibly unlock unique rewards. When dead your can continue in spectral forms as a floating cloud entity and tap the screen to inflict restrictions on the enemy. Sounds a bit vague? Get used to it. There’s another reminder at how the game poorly explains almost every aspect of its existence. I’ll come back to these elements in part two of the review.
Some will like the lack of handholding and having to pour over wiki sites for information on how to tie your shoelaces, others will hate it. The game’s not in the same league of cruelty as the likes of Demon’s Souls, but at least that game had elements of exploration. Here, the depth is all in the offerings, item fusing and buffer system as you slowly create stronger skills to make progress that little bit easier. With the combat being so sluggish though, it often feels like too much of a grind, just ticking off missions in a mechanical fashion and having more fun in the equip menus, trying to find some cool tools of destruction.
When you look at each element of the game, it’s hard to find any that really stand out enough to drum up the enthusiasm to stick with it. Aside from the odd decent sweeping view cinematic at the start of a fight, the graphics look like a cottage pie in a blender. Enemy design is generic at best and a random selection of nonsense at its worst (see above image). The equip screen, where you’ll want to spend a lot of time, has the most maddening of music with someone la-la-ing away in the background on a loop. The story, voice acting, lack of open environments and the same series of repeated arenas threaten to drown your own soul in a bucket of your own tears.
Yet, you may find yourself persisting with it. The first attempt at some boss fights end almost as soon as they begin, but an hour later you’ll wipe the floor with it, renewing your confidence for the next few missions before you have to start grinding again. Many aspects of the game take too long to unlock though, and many may lose interest long before as the game appears deceptively shallow for the first few hours.
The depth does eventually turn up though. But will you carry on playing because you’re enjoying it? Or will you play out of stubbornness from coming this far? Frankly, I’m hovering somewhere in the middle. I’ll give the game a final score once the servers go live and I’ve had a chance to take on the hellish hordes in co-op (because, unlike other sites, we don’t review online portions based on demos!). Hopefully, the save/sacrifice mechanic becomes clearer once used with real people, as the AI seemingly can’t survive without you by their side. So if you see me online over the next few days, try not to sacrifice my soul first chance you get.
Stay tuned for the final part of our Soul Sacrifice review, coming soon.