Who will save your soul?
PlayStation Vita may be capable of console-quality gaming, but its largely untapped strength rests in its potential to provide those experiences in commute-friendly, time-sensitive bursts. Soul Sacrifice straddles the line between delivering the depth typically found on console and the on-off-on-again routine of handheld gaming, and the result is something that will likely please Vita owners hungry for a quality, grind-heavy RPG.
Delivered by Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune, Soul Sacrifice suffers from problems endemic to likeminded games in the genre – think Monster Hunter or Phantasy Star Online – but it also does some unique things that help keep it fresh. While it can occasionally bog down in sheer repetition and the rampant overuse of monsters and maps, there’s something inherently and undeniably addicting about Soul Sacrifice.
Its charm rests, at first, in its presentation and story. Soul Sacrifice tells the tale of an imprisoned mage – your character – who is accompanied in his miserable cell by a strange-looking book. This isn’t some dusty old tome, but a living, breathing entity named Librom, and through Librom, your character will relive apocalyptic events from the past, giving you the skills, information and gusto necessary to escape from your current predicament.
The story is delivered via voice-acted text with few frills to be found – actual cutscenes are exceptionally rare in Soul Sacrifice – and the plot pretty much never stops winding. Virtually every mission, whether on your primary quest or through a slew of side quest paths, is given context in the storyline. The plot can get a little confusing, made all the more muddled by the sheer number of characters you’ll encounter on your journey, but regardless, the fact that there’s a story worth reading at all is a step in the right direction in a sub-genre of RPG that emphasizes grinding, customization, and a whole lot of battling over any sort of meaningful exposition. I found myself skipping the story as I got deeper into the game, not necessarily because it wasn’t interesting, but because I was eager to get back into the fray.
Librom’s voice-acting is expertly delivered, and exploring his many pages is done easily via the Vita’s touch screen. Each and every mission is embedded on Librom’s digital parchment, along with an insane amount of “lore,” touching on enemies, locations, and more. When you’re not in battle in Soul Sacrifice, you’re invariably reading Librom, and developer Comcept has done an amazing job of making this unusual menu scheme work. It would be easy to feel confined by such a system, but Librom’s sheets are vast and easy to navigate, and paging through with regularity is integral to your success.
When you get out of Librom and onto the field of battle, however, Soul Sacrifice becomes a little more of a typical third-person action RPG. Combat lacks any sort of verticality here, however. In other words: you can’t jump, making fights feel a bit more stringent and a little less arcadey than similar games like Ragnarok Odyssey.
Once I got used to the way Soul Sacrifice feels, however, it was easy to get pulled into its satisfying scoring and loot systems as I delved deeper and deeper into Librom’s story. Players can fight with Offerings they earn after each battle, rummaging through and organizing them to create various permutations that will best fit the desired play-style. For instance, in your six available Offering slots, you’ll likely want to have some curative moves, perhaps a missile-based attack, and some melee strikes that take advantage of different enemies’ weaknesses. There’s considerable depth here, whether you’re looking to get up close and personal with the monsters you fight, keep a safe distance and launch spells from afar, or just about anything in between. Offerings can be upgraded and combined, too, opening up yet another door through which you can easily get lost in customizing bliss.
The actual act of fighting with these Offerings is also quite enjoyable, although action is occasionally held back by a sometimes-wonky lock-on system. If you’re fighting multiple enemies, you may have a difficult time locking onto the enemy you actually want to go after, and the camera will bug out if you’re stuck in a corner with an enemy breathing down your neck. But these problems aren’t encountered often enough that they ruin the experience.
Indeed, Soul Sacrifice plays very well, with a combination of Vita’s dual analog sticks, face buttons, triggers and only the rare use of the touch screen combining to make for an easy-to-understand, easy-to-use control scheme. You may tire of fighting the same enemies over and over again, but Soul Sacrifice does enough right to make such a complaint nothing more than an aside.
At the crux of Soul Sacrifice’s combat system – its namesake, in fact – is your character’s ability to manipulate the souls of those around him. This adds an extra dynamic to Soul Sacrifice that sets it apart from its more trite and boring contemporaries. In short, when an enemy is defeated, you can opt to assimilate his or her soul for the gain of extra life power or extra magic power. Sometimes, one comes to the detriment of the other, forcing you to choose what’s more important to you. This represents the center of Soul Sacrifice’s leveling system, one that does away with the statistical minutiae I admittedly prefer and instead focuses almost entirely on this binary feature. I chose to build my character evenly; at the time of this review, my character is level 28 in both categories, for a combined level of 56. But you can go all-in with one or the other or create a different sort of build that emphasizes magic over life or vice-versa.
Furthering the open-ended feel of Soul Sacrifice are the choices you make in who you save and who you sacrifice at the end of battles. Virtually every boss enemy is, in reality, nothing more than a suffering human, and you can save or kill just about any person you meet to benefit your two ever-dueling statistics. Cooler yet, saved characters will join your party as AI allies that you can bring into battle. In other words, be very careful with the choices you’re making, because they most certainly matter. Meaningful consequences like these are very rarely a bad thing.
Further character customization comes by way of powerful Black Rite attack spells, which represent the ultimate sacrifices. For instance, calling down flames on your foes will also burn you, halving your defense. Summoning a powerful set of ungodly melee weapons will make quick work of your foes, but also cause you to go mostly blind. This is an expertly executed cost/benefit system: it has real ramifications if used too often, especially because you’ll need to spend rare in-game currency called Lacrima to undo said ill-effects.
Soul Sacrifice can be played entirely alone – I spent a vast, vast majority of my time playing on my own – but if you want to get online (or ad hoc via wifi) and play, you can do that too. Matchmaking options are surprisingly fluid, and it’s easy to invite some friends to a match. Gameplay is identical whether you’re by yourself or with friends (except that you’re limited to a set of missions known as Avalon Pacts), and this is where Soul Sacrifice will likely find its long-term following.
My in-game clock has me somewhere north of 20 hours in Soul Sacrifice. And speaking of clocks, I got mine cleaned as I did battle with the final boss, letting me know that I have more work to do. Even with this review behind me, I’m going to do that work, complete the uncompleted side quests and take on the final boss anew, because there’s something admittedly alluring about Soul Sacrifice, even if it isn’t Vita’s killer app.
Action RPGs like Soul Sacrifice are often mocked for their repetitious nature, and a lot of that criticism is deserved. But while it falls prey to the same pitfalls as many of its contemporaries (Is it really that hard to have a greater variety of maps and enemies?), Soul Sacrifice does so much so well that its action bears a good deal of repeating. Whether you’re playing for minutes or hours at a time, it’s an addictive and rewarding experience.