Is Soul Sacrifice the game Vita needs? Our review finds out.
Published on Apr 29, 2013
It’s no secret the PS Vita is missing a beat here on Western shores, less popular than sandpaper bog roll and approaching Avril Lavigne levels of obscurity. Maybe that’s cruel... it’s more popular than Avril Lavigne.
A Keiji Inafune monster hack ‘n’ slasher that has been performing incredibly well in its native Japan sounds – on paper, at least – like a good thing. It is a good thing... however, as we know, what rises to fame in the East often falls into obscurity in the West. Quality has nothing to do with it, taste and preference does.
No matter where it rises and falls, the question is: Soul Sacrifice, any good? The simple answer is, yes, it’s good. The more helpful answer is, it’s very good but it’s not for everyone.
Soul Sacrifice - Is It Like Monster Hunter?
Here is a game that sets out its rules and mechanics very early. It then proceeds to ram them down your throat for tens of hours; forcing you to learn, improve and steadily increase your understanding of how everything works. Don’t bother learning and you’ll die. Don't bother improving and you’ll die.
It can be wonderfully rewarding to set out on such a journey. It can also be a bit of a grind. If you’re not ready to embrace and love both sides, then Soul Sacrifice probably isn’t for you.
This is a game about fighting monsters, learning their behaviours and reacting in such a way as to give you the best chance to kill rather than be killed. Initially it’s tempting to classify it as a Monster Hunter clone in gothic makeup, but the more you play the more Soul Sacrifice stands on its own and unleashes its unique set of gifts upon you.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that, because you don’t like Monster Hunter you automatically won’t like this. Gameplay is chopped up into individual battles called quests, and come in story and extra-curricular, ‘side mission’, variety. The bulk of these task you with destroying a specific number of beasts with or without the aid of AI partners, although the further you progress the more you’ll be asked to tackle enormous and ridiculous bosses as well as search for loot within a set area while being besieged by nasties.
Soul Sacrifice - Getting Your Strategy Right
Magic is the order of the day, with spell collecting, combining and casting the pillar of your attack and defence. These spells, dubbed Offerings, come in a wide variety of favours but can be grouped into three distinct groups; attack, defence and support. These groups act exactly as you are likely thinking. Attack spells damage the enemy, defence spells focus on your own wellbeing and support spells buff your stats (making you faster or increasing your attack power, for example).
There is no standard attack button, and that’s something that must be understood and accepted early on if you’re interested on avoiding frustration.
Other games tend to provide you a standard sword, punch or gun to compliment your magic, not here. Casting an attack is not so much a case of launching a fireball or bolt of lightning (although, there are spells that do that), as it is about conjuring a sword or axe to deal element-infused melee damage on your foes.
At least, that’s the way I play. Part of Soul Sacrifice’s beauty is that, once you’ve unlocked enough spells, there are so many approaches to battle that there is no right or wrong approach. Well, maybe there are wrong approaches, but there’s certainly no single right one. I suppose it’s perfectly feasible to concentrate fully on long-range attacks while taking the risk of getting caught out up close, and with practice that could become an effective strategy.
The point is, the limits that are imposed on your spell selection mean you are forced to define an approach; you can’t have all your best long-range, health and melee magic with you at one time. You’re only able to carry six spells into battle, meaning you have to make difficult decisions frequently based on your own experience, preference and the qualities of the enemy.
A flying enemy requires long-range weapons to hurt it and bring it tumbling out of the sky, but you may have only built up your melee spells. A fast ground target may be caught by using a spell that makes you equally as fast, but you may not have ever used it before as you’ve shunned any support magic in favour of all-out aggression.
Do you focus on a specific few spells and risk getting caught out, or do you take the time to improve a wide number in order to have something in reserve for every situation? Again, there’s no right or wrong answer, only different approaches.
Soul Sacrifice - Difficulty And Leveling Up
The individual stage structure allows you to alter your magic loadout prior to each battle, meaning you can learn from your defeats and retry with a completely new arsenal at your fingertips. Over time, as you start to understand the abilities and weaknesses of common enemies, you become more adept at knowing what to expect before the mission begins simply by knowing what you’re going to encounter.
Once you progress into the second half of Soul Sacrifice, and the enemy difficulty increases sharply, there’s enormous joy to be had from planning for and beating monsters on the first try.
Along with improving your chest of magic, you also need to make sure you’re making good decisions on the direction of your character itself. With every kill you’re given the option of either saving or sacrificing your victim’s soul. Sacrificing results in an increase to your spell-casting level, saving increases your health.
You’re free to level each side up in tandem or to prioritise one over the other; however, be mindful that you do so in a way that suits your playing style. Long-range fighters might be able to get away with a lower health level as they’re (hopefully) going to be out of range of the enemy.
Those that prefer close-quarters combat like myself require comparatively more health given the increased level of punishment we’re likely going to absorb.
There are moments throughout the story portion of Soul Sacrifice that require you to perform a specific action to continue the narrative. Some monsters must be sacrificed, for example. These enforced sacrifices are very few and far between, preventing you from feeling that you’re being needlessly limited by the plot in a game that is clearly about offering approaches to gameplay over all else.
Soul Sacrifice - Co-op Play And Dumb AI
Despite that gameplay focus, the story on offer is surprisingly engaging given the fact that it’s told exclusively through text and minimal animation. A gothic yarn of witches, wizards and cursed souls, Soul Sacrifice is hardly comparable to Shakespeare or Dickens, but it’s more than enough to make villains feel villainous and allies to feel like more than just helpful pixels.
The difficulty curve of the story missions spike relatively severely between chapters, meaning that the optional monster quests become more essential than optional as there the only way to level up enough to keep pace with the narrative.
At times this can feel like a bit of grind when you’re pitted against groups of small, pitiful foes. Soon enough, though, these side missions (found under the ‘Avalon Pacts’ menu option) transform into soon extremely challenging bouts with the toughest and biggest enemies to be found in the game.
It’s these toughest of enemies that provide the long-term challenge and satisfaction, beating them requiring multiple attempts and loadout experimentation. Unfortunately, the AI controlled allies struggle to be of service during these more difficult moments.
Their decision making in when and where to use attack and support items that affect both the enemy and you is regularly sub-par. Particularly irritating is their insistence on using damaging area-of-effect spells without a care as to whether you happen to be in the kill zone or not. Literally, it’s bad decisions on their part that can be the difference between life and death. It’s possible to go it alone, but expect a long, hard slog.
A better idea is to team up and play with other over co-op over wifior using the Vita’s ad-hoc connection.
It’s in co-op that different approaches to play can really combine into a unified whole. Having long-range and melee fighters on the same team can reap great rewards, with one getting in close and acting equal parts attacker and distracter while the other fires in spells from afar. Add someone with a supply of top quality support items and you’re a bonafide A-Team.
A word of warning, though. When an ally dies in battle, they can be sacrifice or saved in the same way as any monster. The difference is the effect it has on battle.
Saving an ally provides health experience points to the resurrect-or and puts the team back at full numbers, but sacrificing unleashes incredibly potent magic that can change the course of battle; the negative being that that player is gone for good from that battle. Yes, it’s tempting to sacrifice players despite them wanting to be saved. Be aware of how these decision can impact the long-term cooperation of your team.
Soul Sacrifice - 'Geek-Out Game At Heart'
The lasting draw and real quality of Soul Sacrifice is the diversity offered by the sheer number of possible combinations. For these willing to take the time and effort to delve in and explore, there’s an enormous amount of content here just waiting to be experimented with, debated about and absorbed.
Even when you’ve defeated a monster there’s genuine fun and satisfaction to be had in working out if there’s a more efficient set of attacks to get the job done, or whether you had the attacks right but the timing wrong.
It’s a geek-out game at heart, then. Meaning not everyone will like it, but those that do will love it. Whatever the case, like it or not, the quality on offer cannot be argued against and you owe it to something as well-executed as this to at least give it a shot.
Monster hunting might be your thing after all.
Version Tested: PS Vita
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8.5 / 10
Diverse, stuffed with content and challenging, Soul Sacrifice might not be the game to save PS Vita but its attention to detail and stellar execution means it is one of the handheld's best.