Mega Man meets Monster Hunter

For a fella who regularly espouses the need for Japanese developers to mirror Western game design, Keiji Inafune’s Soul Sacrifice is about as Japanese-y as they come. I realize that’s an impossibly vague description of the game, but it’s arguably the most apt. There’s fun to be found in the former Mega Man director’s first non-Capcom title, but that fun is geared to a very niche crowd—and that’s not what the PlayStation Vita needs right now.

Granted, yes—the Vita needs everything and anything, but Soul Sacrifice isn’t a breakout title. It lacks mainstream appeal, and it’s certainly not accessible to the Western gamers Inafune undoubtedly has in mind.

Comcept has constructed a game that revolves entirely around slaying monsters. Big, small—Soul Sacrifice has got ’em all. Players assume control of a personality-deprived customizable character that interacts, primarily, with a sentient tome named Librom. Through this book (who functions as a talkative menu), the player magically relives the past life of a powerful sorcerer—one who spent a great deal of time with the game’s main antagonist, Magusar. It’s through these retellings that the player gains and masters more and more magical powers—and learns just what happened to bring the world to its knees under Magusar’s cruel rule.

Narratively speaking, Soul Sacrifice is a chore. All of the characters are bland, their personalities paper-thin; they come and go throughout a story that lacks any sense of coherency. While some gaps are filled in through the lore section in the living book that is Librom, the absence of in-story contextualization is nothing short of shoddy, sloppy writing. And at the risk of being culturally insensitive, I’m tired of excusing this persistent problem with Japanese RPGs by blaming the localization. Sure, there’s only so much magic localizers can work, but I’m inclined to think the game’s story—regardless of translation—simply took a backseat during development. Inafune’s focus was clearly on all the systems he and his team tried to build into Soul Sacrifice.

And there are quite a few systems. Perhaps not overwhelmingly so, but enough that it’s hard for me not to look back on Soul Sacrifice and remember spending more time tabbing through Librom’s pages and managing these systems than I did actually in the world at play.

Chief among the managerial responsibilities is Offerings—consumables collected from murdered monsters that are sacrificed in order to cast a variety of spells (be they attack, curative, et cetera). There are a lot of these to wade through. A lot. And as consumables, keeping a close eye on how many are used during each Phantom Quest (mission) is key. The player can equip up to six spells at once, so management extends beyond Librom’s binding and into the gameplay itself. In addition to Offerings, there are also Black Rites (the big, heavy-hitter spells), Sigils, (stat boosters), Soul and Life Essence (defense, attack), and AI allies for Avalon Pacts (side missions) in the absence of co-op partners.

All of these elements aren’t necessarily complicated, but Soul Sacrifice never outwardly communicates their intricacies. And while they offer the aforementioned variety, the game fails to adequately compel experimentation. More often than not, I stuck to the comfort of familiarity, allocating the Offerings I liked best and only swapping them out when a particularly powerful spell fell into my lap.

But as I said earlier, Soul Sacrifice can still be quite fun, once sucked into Librom’s pages. At its core, there isn’t much to the gameplay—movement, a dodge roll, and the player’s six spells—but there’s something undeniably enjoyable about facing off against foul creatures and emerging victorious that has a hook to it. Provided, of course, you possess an inherent appreciation for—and grasp of—Japanese role-playing games. If repetition and grind don’t jell with you, stay away from Soul Sacrifice; it doesn’t offer an experience rich with things to do. There isn’t much in the way of exploration, and visually, the world’s wholly forgettable. Neat environments occasionally crop up, but I spent so little time in them that they never left a lasting impression.

I don’t fault Soul Sacrifice for playing like so many other countless Japanese action-RPGs I’ve spent time with since 2002. But I find it difficult to reconcile the strange disparity between what Inafune practices and what he preaches. The JRPG enthusiast in me misses the days when I was young and dumb and thought Japanese videogames were the height of storytelling in this medium—and before I’d played more engaging action-RPG hybrids. And while Inafune’s Sony debut is far from focused on narrative, there isn’t much to write home about in terms of its gameplay, either. It’s fun, its various systems come together coherently—unlike the story—but what actually defines the gameplay is pretty minimal and doesn’t offer much in the way of “action” as I understand it nowadays.

At the end of the day, Soul Sacrifice serves well as a Vita release. The Phantom Quests never take longer than five to 10 minutes to complete, which is perfect for public-transportation playtime—the single-player, at least. For RPG fans partial to portable gaming, Soul Sacrifice is certainly a title worth checking out. But as a step toward bridging the gap between Eastern and Western game-design philosophy? Well, Inafune’s still got a long road ahead of him, if Soul Sacrifice is any indication.

Developer: Comcept • Publisher: SCEA • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 04.30.2013

Soul Sacrifice is a decent action-RPG for fans familiar with this type of game, but for newcomers, there’s very little that will impress or feel particularly interesting. It’s the very definition of “fine.”

The Good The temptation to fight Magusar at any point is a surprising motivator to keep leveling up—it puts the fear in you.
The Bad The one-note focus makes for a repetitive, indistinguishable series of of adventures.
The Ugly Writing so bad, I got a glimpse at my own brain.
Soul Sacrifice is available exclusively on PlayStation Vita.


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