Soul Sacrifice Review
If you're a Vita owner, especially if you were an early adopter, you already know about Soul Sacrifice. Hyped for months, the action RPG was supposed to be the Vita's killer app, the game everyone was waiting on to save the day and boost the handheld's flagging sales numbers. More recently, it was to be the answer to the system-selling and PSP-saving-grace Monster Hunter series making the jump to Nintendo's 3DS (a jump now made permanent by official word that the series won't make it to the Vita in any capacity). After Call of Duty disappointed everyone in November, Soul Sacrifice was the one game everyone was pointing to as the reason not to get rid of Sony's sadly under supported system. Well, it is finally here; the game everyone has been waiting for has made its debut on the Vita. Should you Sacrifice your cash for the messiah of Vita games? Our will doing so leave a blemish on your Soul? Ugh... that was awful. Sorry.
We should start the review with Soul Sacrifice's story. You might be surprised to find out that unlike other games in the action RPG hunting/grinding genre (Monster Hunter, Gods Eater Burst and Ragnarok Odyssey, just to name a few), this title actually has one. And it's actually pretty good. A crazy looking sorcerer named Magasur has imprisoned your character, and after a fellow captive meets his untimely and gross end you find a book named Librom. Yes, named; this book is a sentient being that looks like the cousin of the Necronomicon from the Evil Dead films. Librom starts out full of blank pages, but as you read more of the story gets filled in and it may, you hope, reveal a way to defeat Magasur before he turns you inside out and eats your skin. When I say "read more of the story," I mean complete missions and destroy enemies in vignettes that are set up as Magasur's memories. In case that didn't register, you spend most of Soul Sacrifice playing through the bad guy's past, looking for a way to kill him. It's a cool setup, and certainly better than any other game in the genre.
On a kind of related note, Soul Sacrifice also provides and intense amount of backstory to the events you'll witness. Librom is filled with dozens of topics and pages detailing everything from battle tactics to world history to a full bestiary. A lot of work was put into fleshing out this world, and reading through everything can add some context and even additional enjoyment to playing the game.
Next, let's talk about how the game looks and sounds, features that seem a bit more important because of the Vita's beautiful screen and speakers. Soul Sacrifice still doesn't top Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Atelier Totori Plus or Dead or Alive 5+ as the prettiest game on the handheld, but it's up there. Graphically, the game looks nice on the Vita's screen, but character models and environments aren't as detailed as they probably could have been. What the game lacks in graphical detail, however, it makes up for in style, with Librom's pages slowly filling in or some of the monster effects being the high points. It definitely looks better than its contemporary/competition Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate does on the 3DS' screen, but I don't feel like this is the game you'll use to show friends and family what the Vita is capable of from a visual standpoint.
The sound is a different story entirely, as the quality fluctuates on an almost constant basis. The background tunes will never really knock your socks off, but it works as a barely noticed soundtrack to all the battling and monster murder. The voice acting, though, is excellent. Librom is a dynamic, believable character simply because his English voice track is so well delivered. That goes for all the spoken performances across the rest of the game as well. My only beef is that you'll hear the same phrases shouted by allies over and over during the battles. I have to ding the sound design for this because after I'd been playing for a very short amount of time, I was already imitating the shouts I knew were coming, over and over, from my teammates. After a while, I just ended up muting the sound during battles and pumping it back up for my encounters with Librom. There is also a Japanese voice track available as either a pre-order bonus or a purchased bit of DLC. Some people will flock to this option, but I didn't feel it made much difference one way or another. And this comes from a die-hard Dragonball fan who simply will not deal with dub tracks over my beloved Japanese with English subtitles. You'll have to listen for yourself to see if you think it adds anything to the game. I didn't.
As we get into talking about Soul Sacrifice's most important attribute - the gameplay - I'll probably make at least a few references and comparisons to the Monster Hunter series, the one that this game borrows liberally from and even seeks to replace, due to the Vita's lock-out on the franchise. There just isn't any way around this, from a reviewer's standpoint anyway. So, no, there is no bias here, no animosity toward either game. I'll make comparisons to illustrate points by building on readers' existing knowledge, not to advance some hidden agenda.
With that out of the way, we can finally get to the meat of this title. The gameplay in Soul Sacrifice is, in short, a disappointment. A disappointment with some high points, but a disappointment nonetheless. For each mission, players are dropped into single zone arenas and given either a number of minor enemies, a boss or some combination of both with which to deal. Players equip all kinds of powers and attacks to deal with each menace; powers accumulated by finishing missions, finding them on the battlefield or merging weaker ones into more powerful versions. In short, it is a hunt/grind RPG in its basest form; you fight, get stuff and use it to fight bigger stuff, just like all the other games in this subgenre, an admitted favorite of mine.
Let's discuss what is wrong with what I've already brought up. First, the single zone arenas choke any hope of exploration out of the proceedings. There are items and spells you can collect and even use on the fly in every battle zone, but it feels as though there is little importance placed on doing so. You main goal is to kill everything indiscriminately, not check out the areas in which you'll need to do so. The destructibility of certain parts of these stages is definitely a nice touch, but each single zone is identical the last in every respect, save how it looks. Genre favorites Monster Hunter and Phantasy Star Online know that simple murder isn't enough to keep the player grinding, so they toss in different mission types and large areas to discover. For example, Monster Hunter mixes in gathering items, trapping foes and other mission-based anomalies across huge locales. You know, stuff beyond just killing everything you see in a single area, and the variety makes the game infinitely more playable. Not Soul Sacrifice. With this game, its just drop in, kill everything and drop out. And it doesn't stay fun for long.
And remember what I said about gathering magic and powers? The process feels shallow and one dimensional because you are only really gathering attacks and spells; you can't build or equip armor and intelligently crafting items isn't an option either. As a matter of fact, crafting doesn't really exist beyond combining gathered attacks and spells into more powerful versions of themselves. Part of the draw of games like Gods Easter Burst and Monster Hunter are farming items from powerful beasts in order to create that next best weapon or armor set. In Soul Sacrifice, ice spell #1 plus ice spell #2 equals ice spell #3 or #4 and so on. Combining these spells can yield new spells, sure, but the game never puts the carrot at the end of the stick like a Monster Hunter does. For example, let's say you want to build the mighty Thunderclap longsword in Monster Hunter. You know EXACTLY what you need to gather to build it, and the grind becomes fighting the Lagiacrus multiple times, breaking different parts of its armor to accumulate the pieces you need. In Soul Sacrifice, you get set spells from missions completed, but combining them feels scatter shot, and certainly not a main goal. Monster Hunter becomes all about better weapons and armor, Soul Sacrifice is all about fighting using whichever spells you may have, without that constant push to better your equipment. Without armor equips, multiple areas to explore, meaningful, intelligent crafting and varied mission goals, Soul Sacrifice feels like a hollow, "me-too" echo of bigger, better games in the sub-genre.
My final major complaint is that Soul Sacrifice feels all over the place from beginning to end. As Librom's pages fill, your options and mission structure opens up, but I never really felt I had a grasp on where things were going; I never had the ability to set up a plan for finishing things in any manageable way. This complaint might seem nebulous, but stick with me and I'll try to explain. As you beat the first set of about six missions, everything seems like it is moving in a singular direction. Finishing these opens the book wide open, and pretty soon you've got more missions with the first companion in mind, a new set of missions with a second companion, another set of missions that may or may not be meant for online play, a bunch more options and plenty more to read - and all on different pages inside Librom. As a new player, I had no idea where to go next, and many hours of trial and error were spent figuring out which direction I was intended to move after that first small set. This meant going into missions I clearly wasn't strong enough for, dying, and jumping to another part of the book in hopes of finding a coherent path forward. This stumbling in the dark means of progression didn't end there. As a matter of fact, I didn't start combining spells (I was boosting their power, but not combining them with one another) until I was at the end of the game, levels built and ready for my fight with Magasur. Why? Because I didn't realize I could. The process and explanation of it got lost along the way, buried in too many vaguely named menu items in Librom's extensive page count. To me, this also hurts the main draw of games in this genre - the grind. How am I supposed to want to keep fighting the same monsters over and over if I don't know which missions I'm meant to play and a basic aspect of the game - combining spells - doesn't even register, lost in so many confusing avenues through the game's progression? Monster Hunter gives it to gamers straight, even at the cost of losing players who might hit a wall, unable to beat a quest necessary to move forward. Soul Sacrifice throws everything at the player (almost) all at once, and leaves you to figure it out - or not, as it was with my playthrough and not combining a single spell until the very end.
None of this means the game is a total wash, the end of the Vita as we know it. It has some charms and perks that even Monster Hunter can't compare with, namely the process by which you level your character through either saving or sacrificing other characters, good and bad. When an enemy is vanquished, players can choose to "save" or "sacrifice" them; saving will level up your life bar and vitality, sacrificing with do the same to your magic skills. You can build a character to level 100, with points distributed to either life or magic in any balance you see fit. I went with a higher life percentage because of my love of getting up close and personal with melee attacks, an approach that means you're going to take some damage in every fight. Ranged players can do the opposite, watching their life bar remain static as their magic gets ever more powerful. As an added bonus, bosses who are "saved" can actually join your team as NPCs who will help you and your companions, whereas bosses that are "sacrificed" yield extremely powerful and extremely rare spells. It is a very cool risk/reward system that really forces you to think about character development and how you like to play.
Soul Sacrifice manages to out-Monster Hunter Monster Hunter is a few other ways as well. A competent lock-on system with a fully featured weak spot detector, called the Mind's Eye, relieves some (not all) of the pain induced by an unruly camera, and Capcom's series should take note of how well it works here. Also, ranged attacks in this game FAR outstrip their usefulness in other genre games due to a working lock-on system and some Resident Evil 4-style, over-the-shoulder aiming. Ranged weapons aren't even an option for me in Monster Hunter, but Soul Sacrifice's ease of using them had me switching back and forth between long and short distance combat more than I thought I ever would. Finally, though Soul Sacrifice can be played online with up to three other sorcerers, you can make it through the entire game on your own. I'm no fan of multiplayer games, and I've always resented the subgenre's insistence on making me play with strangers to complete everything. I never felt as though I was missing out on anything by sticking to my single player guns, and I wish other titles would give me the same option. Multiplayer is cool and everything; some people really like it. But it should NEVER be a requirement for success, and Soul Sacrifice gets that.
So is Soul Sacrifice the Monster Hunter killer, the system-selling game everyone desperately wanted it to be? Not by a long shot. Monster Hunter still rules the roost, and Sony's handheld will probably feel the sting of its absence right up until the next Sony handheld is introduced, provided there is another Sony handheld post-Vita. Worse yet, I can't imagine a single person out there dropping $250 on a new Vita just to play this game. Expectations for this game were crazy high, and the finished product can't live up to what everyone wanted it to be. That said, Soul Sacrifice is still worth your time if you are a fan of the genre or you are just an existing Vita owner with nothing to play. The story is cool and the visual style is undeniably appealing. Though the grind is a shallow muddle puddle compared to the ocean-like depth that is Monster Hunter, it still has the power to grab you and not let go, provided you are the right kind of gamer in the right circumstances. My recommendation is to give the demo a try before picking this one up. If you like it, your progress can carry over into the full game, and if you don't, no harm done. Looks like Sony will have to wait a little longer before the Vita gets its killer app, but I can think of worse ways than Soul Sacrifice to eat up that time.
Final Rating: 71%. Not quite a Monster Hunter killer, but not bad.