Preview: Soul Sacrifice suggests it might be time to buy a Vita
One consistent criticism of the Monster Hunter series is its initial learning curve. I’ve never personally played the series, but I’ve heard again and again that it isn’t exactly approachable. Even our overwhelmingly positive review of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate expressed initial hesitations. These games and this genre simply seem to be for a particular audience, making it easy for me to keep my distance.
That’s why Soul Sacrifice has been such a pleasant surprise. I came into the demo of this Monster Hunter-like expecting a rough start, but the game sank its claws in almost immediately. Hours later I emerged from the demo and immediately pre-ordered the game. If you’re looking for that one game to tip you into buying a Vita, this may be the one.
The premise alone is noteworthy. Soul Sacrifice crafts its own unique world in which sorcerers must sacrifice items of value to cast their magic. The more valuable the item, the more powerful the spell, and this feeds into every aspect of the gameplay. Your primary spells are cast using small items like seeds for healing spells or a broken ax that conjures a melee weapon. Everything seems to be fair game, from your dying co-op buddies to the skin off of your back. Yes, you can sacrifice your own organs in Soul Sacrifice. It is a very dark game.
Bolstering the premise is a single-player story mode that opens with the most hopeless of scenarios — you are a prisoner to a dark sorcerer, and the poor sap next to you just got blown to bits. Beneath the rubble and bones is a talking book, complete with a mouth and eyeball. The book explains your fate — read him, experience the life of a powerful sorcerer, and by learning his abilities you might be able to escape your fate, but the book doesn’t have much hope for you.
The demo lets you play through the game’s first chapter, introducing a dark and twisted story of a sorcerer’s first rites. The book acts as a hub, allowing you to customize your character and dive into their adventures, reliving them again and again for better scores and items. Each enemy you defeat comes with its own lore, from plague rats that pile together to form goblins, to cats that get jealous and form orcs. The story behind each creature is strange and twisted, and there are few things weirder than killing an enemy only to find a pile of cats underneath.
Each mission has an objective, whether it’s simply defeating all the enemies or tackling a large monster. The demo features battles against goblins and orcs, an evil Jack O’ Lantern, a Harpy, and a Cerberus. Fights take place in relatively small arenas, and some missions are over and done within a few minutes.
Gameplay is that animation-prioritized combat that makes games like Monster Hunter and Dark Souls compelling. Yes, you can jump in with quick attacks and even lock-on and fire at enemies from a distance, but you’ll also have access to brutally powerful attacks that can take several seconds to pull off. Reading your enemy’s patterns will be key to taking advantage of these larger attacks.
Soul Sacrifice seems to be offering a quick, pick-up-and-play mission design that you’d expect from a portable, but even in the demo I got a taste of an epic battle. I was ill-equipped and learning the ropes, but the battle against the harpy took me nearly half an hour. It’ll be interesting to see how fights play out in the full game, but the longer fight wasn’t a bad thing. On the contrary, the protracted battle was harrowing and felt like a taste of the epic showdowns the final game will hopefully offer.
Playing online I found that the game will benefit greatly from coordinated teams and chatting. The mere fact that you can opt to sacrifice your own teammates to cast powerful spells suggests you’ll want to be communicating to get the most out of it. To be clear, though, sacrificing your teammates is a legitimate strategy, and they won’t be completely out of commission. Dead players enter ghost mode, a sort of commander view where they can see enemy health bars and other stats, as well as cast buff and debuff spells.
The game opens with a brief cutscene featuring some rough voice acting, but from there every moment with Soul Sacrifice has been a joy. I’m chomping at the bit to get back to it. The gameplay and development of your character is addictive and engaging, and it’s all aided by a world and story that’s surprisingly dark and engrossing.
If there are any concerns, it’s that the size of the missions and the book-as-hub arrangement may make for a game that feels a bit claustrophobic. If Soul Sacrifice can avoid getting repetitive without any kind of exploration or open-world element, it’ll be quite impressive, but I have my suspicions it will pull it off.
The demo for Soul Sacrifice is a worthwhile download for multiple reasons. Not only does it feature a good chunk of content, but all your progress can be carried over into the main game. Come April 30th, you won’t have to waste any time learning the ropes.
Barely an article about the Vita goes by without some mention of the system’s long-term viability. That said, Soul Sacrifice may mark an important turning point for the portable. This Vita exclusive seems excellent so far, and potentially packed with content. Combine that with what’s already available, plus a huge pile of upcoming indie games, and Sony’s handheld is quickly becoming an enticing proposition.
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By Joe Donato