When Sega and Ace Games' SolSeraph was announced late last month, retro game fans felt as if an angel had landed in their midst. SolSeraph is a clear tribute to ActRaiser, a much-loved classic action-simulation that dawned alongside the SNES in 1990. Though we live in the age of franchise reboots, "spiritual successors," and surprise sequels to series believed to be long-dead, ActRaiser's never really been imitated or duplicated until now.
Is SolSeraph the deliverance Quintet loyalists have been aching for these past 29 years, then? Well… eh. Don't mistake me, there's a decent game here, and Ace Games deserves applause for reminding us action games and town building can co-exist without plunging the world into chaos. Problem is, while the action half of SolSeraph does a decent (though far from perfect) job of re-creating ActRaiser's heavy-booted sword-swinging, the simulation half doesn't pour back into the game's action as effortlessly and satisfyingly as it does in ActRaiser.
I think the problem is that SolSeraph's simulation portion is straight-up a tower defense minigame, which is the opposite of ActRaiser's more peaceful, hands-off method of town growth. Waves of enemies emerge from clouded lairs to attack the heart of your settlement, and you have to fight back by building and staffing barracks, archer towers, magic towers, and other defenses. You build houses and farms, yes, but only to feed and house your soldiers. Building temples pushes back the black fog shrouding each monster lair, which allows the player character—a half-angel named Helios—to descend into the fray and do a little manual clean-up.
Once the smaller lairs are gone, you can attack the area's boss and free the land for good. But once that's done, you're left with a scattered hodgepodge of rambling roads, houses, and military buildings. Nothing about the freed town feels interesting or alive. Even the soldiers in the barracks still stand ready, tensed for a battle that's not coming.
The simulation portions of ActRaiser aren't exactly a visual triumph, but it's surprising how much life Quintet packed into those tiny sprites. We see townspeople dance and raise their arms in praise, we see animals graze in their pastures, and we see kids play on the roads you build. The townspeople's crops grow, are harvested, and grow again as time passes and the population slowly grows. It's not SimCity, but neither is it a collection of chaotic roads and disused military buildings and houses that were plonked wherever you could find room during oncoming enemy waves.
I'm not totally against SolSeraph substituting tower defense for the slower, calmer town-building in ActRaiser. In fact, I really like descending into the monster lairs myself and getting hands-on with the sealing process. (In ActRaiser, townspeople automatically seal monster lairs when the expanding road network touches one.) When Helios shoos all the foes from a nest, he's rewarded with upgrades to his health, mana, and magic powers—all of which come in handy when he travels to liberate other troubled lands. While I prefer ActRaiser's method of increasing The Master's powers according his flock's population, sticking swords in mini-bosses to increase Helios' health bar is OK, too.
The biggest problem I have with SolSeraph's tower defense portions is how difficult everything is to see and manage. You need to build up your armies while managing resources like food and wood, but while your total population's numbers are clear, I could never find a way to clearly determine how many free hands I had available to perform jobs. I'd just build a barrack, try to staff it, and discover whoops, I don't have any warm bodies left for the task. Time to build a house to increase my population. Whoops, I'm out of wood. Time to demolish the lumber mill that's clearly tapped the grove of trees they were sent to chop down. Except I'm zipping around the map like a blind idiot god because the buildings aren't labelled, and they all look the same.
Meanwhile, the enemies keep pouring out of their lairs, and bizarrely, clearing out a lair does nothing to stanch the flow of monster soldiers from within. ActRaiser's simulation portion has its hectic moments, but there's never any confusion about what you need to do or where you need to go.
Again, SolSeraph isn't a poor game. Its platforming is decent (if cheap: Hazards and monsters swarm you in thicker numbers than ActRaiser), and its tower defense segments are all right, too. But ActRaiser works so well because its "good" halves work together to make a single experience that's "great." SolSeraph's halves don't talk to each other as clearly, and it suffers as a result.
I still believe ActRaiser's formula is ripe for a revival, and I even think Ace Games can handle the resurrection. SolSeraph is a valuable learning experience, and I hope the studio uses it to grow and give us a game (a sequel, maybe?) we can truly regard as ActRaiser's long-awaited spiritual successor.