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Soul Sacrifice

Score: 85%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Developer: Marvelous AQL
Media: Download/1
Players: 1 - 4 (Local and Online)
Genre: Action/ RPG/ Online

Graphics & Sound:

Keiji Inafune is a hero of mine. Why? Come on, dude created Mega Man! His controversial comments regarding the state of Japanese game development resonate with me on a base level. I love games with Eastern sensibilities as much as the next gamer, but I'd like to think I'm not the only one who can recognize that Final Fantasy's best days are far, far behind it. Stagnation has become the rule, rather than the exception, and with Dynasty Warriors games coming out of the woodwork, it's hard to argue with that. So naturally, anyone who takes the industry to task in such a fashion has got my eye. Inafune's latest game, Soul Sacrifice, is a wonderfully weird action game that should be played by anyone who owns a PlayStation Vita.

Soul Sacrifice is many things at the same time: a pile of gore and bones one moment, a verdant pasture the next. A stone crypt after that, and a windswept desert after that. Your prison looks like it was built from the ribcage of a giant beast, the floor looks like viscera, and skulls constitute the general scope of the furnishings. You will not leave this place until the end, but the power of an ancient tome will take you to an assortment of strange locales, where the subject of the story comes into contact with a host of disgusting horrors. In Soul Sacrifice, flesh is an aesthetic sensibility; exposed muscle, bone, and sickly-yellowish connective tissue gives each of these beasts a nauseating appearance. The action looks fantastic; every time you earn a new offering, you'll be eager to try it out just to see how awesome it looks. Connecting with enemies has an incredible sense of impact, and the visuals associated with saving and sacrificing enemies are colorful and wild. As far as the storytelling goes, it's very easy to appreciate the storybook narration as well as the visual text that pops up when monsters are near death.

Most handheld games can't deliver sound in the same way that a good computer or console can. Soul Sacrifice sounds great, particularly if you're using headphones. Creepy piano licks accompany your time in prison, while the soundtrack ramps up to something more sweeping once you slip into the sorcerer's past. Offering attacks sound as brutal as they look, and monsters howl with rage. The voice acting is good enough to hold up the story, which isn't great. Librom is a particularly endearing companion, and not just because the circumstances of your partnership are so bizarre.


Gameplay:

In Soul Sacrifice, you are a slave in the service of the immeasurably powerful sorcerer known as Magusar. You are also about to be sacrificed. However, as you waste away in your prison of bones and gore, a rather sinister-looking book springs to life and starts chattering away. His name is Librom, and he belonged to Magusar's deceased partner. Contained within his pages is the story of how Magusar became the monstrous wizard he currently is. It's your job to gain an understanding of Magusar, and finally, challenge him in mortal combat. The story of the sorcerer is delivered through a series of narrated and illustrated chapters and arena-based combat missions. The story isn't great, but the voice acting sells it well enough to render it simply forgettable.

You don't leave your grisly cell until you decide you're ready to fight Magusar (which can be at any moment), so Librom acts as your mission hub, customization menu, and online portal all at the same time.

Online play (local and online) is fast and furious. You join up to three other sorcerers to take on Avalon Pacts, which are fairly standard kill quests. Getting caught in a whirlwind of offering attacks is intense fun, but things become really interesting if someone falls. Just like monsters, a fallen sorcerer can be saved or sacrificed. The truly inept will simply leave the sorcerer to die, but they'd be missing out on the assistance they'd get one way or the other.


Difficulty:

Like most other games that are unapologetically and radically different, Soul Sacrifice is a tough nut to crack. Learning how to play the game is akin to being thrown into the water at the beginning of swimming lessons. There's a lot to learn, and if you don't get on top of it quickly, the game will put you down suddenly and unceremiously. You can't haphazardly arm yourself with the most random selection of offerings and expect to take names. Nor can you rush into battle all willy-nilly, hoping that your skills at indiscriminate button-pressing will get you through each encounter.

So here is where the game is slightly unbalanced. Because story missions can jump from pushover to ruthless at the drop of a hat, you'll need to grind online. Avalon Pacts are optional, but not really. They are your grinding tools, and they often feel like padding, hardly the difference between a weaker character and a stronger one.


Game Mechanics:

Soul Sacrifice's idea of sorcery is kind of brilliant. You're not running around with a sword, shield, bow and arrow, or anything realistic. You have offerings, special consumable magic powers that vary wildly in effect. One offering might transform your arm into a flexible molten-stone whip with a giant fist at the end, while another literally fires your own blood as if from a machine gun (at the cost of your health, of course). Each offering can be used up; if you continue to use an offering without finding a spot to renew it, it will be depleted.

Your character powers up in a binary fashion: either life or magic can be upgraded upon the defeat of each monster. However, this requires a decision from you: will you save the monster's soul and level up your life, or will you sacrifice it for a boost to your magic? Many of these decisions carry consequences, whether it is a penalty to your other major statistic or a refill to your offerings. It's not really a moral choice, though the game will often tell you whether a particular soul is good or not. They are more functional, relating to what you need at that exact moment. If you're on the verge of death and you have the opportunity to save or sacrifice, sacrifice is a dumb idea.

Tying into the theme of sacrifice is the Black Rite. These extraordinarily powerful attacks often come at a terrible cost. For example, the first one you earn results in the arena being transformed to scorched earth. Enemies are roasted alive and massive damage is dealt, but your defense is halved. If you want to reverse these effects (or refresh your offerings), you must use lacrima, which are literally Librom's tears. However, lacrima costs grow exponentially as you spend it, and it won't be long before you have to seriously consider the ramifications of your gameplay decisions, regardless if it's the difference between life and death.

If you own a Vita and are looking for something new to sink your teeth into, you could certainly do worse. Soul Sacrifice is nothing if not ambitious and innovative. It may not hit every target it seeks to, but most of its risks pay off in grand fashion.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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