Sometimes the smallest changes to the familiar can be the most impactful: the minor deviation from formula, the slight detour from the expected. So it is with Soul Sacrifice, the first PlayStation Vita game from Keiji Inafune's Comcept.
If you squint, Soul Sacrifice might look more than a little like Monster Hunter, with its multiplayer-friendly series of arena fights against giant bosses and item crafting systems. But it's the little differences that make Soul Sacrifice work. It's the nods to accessibility, empowering players to go it alone if they so choose. It's the narrative framework, in which a flippant Necronomicon allows the player to read (and rewrite) another sorcerer's story. But the two biggest little differences come in the form of the game's visual design and morality system.
Ugly is only skin deep
Soul Sacrifice's sense of style is consistent, and consistently intriguing. On paper the adversaries that populate the game's arenas are an uninspired stroll through the old Monster Manual, complete with goblins, ghouls, slimes, and harpies. In practice, few of Soul Sacrifice's monsters are as run-of-the-mill as all that. Some are stylish re-interpretations of the standard; not content to settle for a standard Centaur fusion of man and horse, Soul Sacrifice stitches a full carriage into the mix for a grotesque triptych. And the hulking Cyclops has a giant eye across his forehead, sure, but he's more like a walking potato, his skin covered by tinier peepers. And that's not even counting his trident, itself a Soulcalibur-worthy mix of blankly staring eyeballs and rusted metal.
Beyond tweaked standbys, there are also departures from the norm for which I have little frame of reference. For example, I've never seen a depiction of orcs quite like Soul Sacrifice's: man-sized Cheshire cats with lopsided razor smiles who feast upon their own fallen and projectile vomit bile when injured. Then there's the raging sea serpent with a human face atop its head, an offputtingly pristine countenance whose expression vacillates between nonchalant, enraged, and agonized. There are even a few, such as the monstrous apples with toothy grins but no other face to speak of, that might elicit a well-deserved "LOL WUT".
And as anyone who followed early coverage for the game likely saw, combat has its own variations on form, even when the function of spells (melee attack, projectile, grenade, stat boost) is less-than-innovative. Nowhere is this more evident than in the game's Black Rites, spells that grant tremendous power, but at a steep price. For example, the Excalibur spell sees the player rip out his or her spine, at which point it becomes a sword that can grow several stories tall to deliver a killing blow. Of course, that's the sort of magic that takes a toll on a caster, so the player will constantly bleed out hit points until they can undo the damage in between levels. Then there's the Gorgon rite, where a player can sacrifice an eye to turn enemies to stone, but you will find your vision greatly reduced afterward.
Six of one, half-dozen of another?
That idea of trade-offs is at the very heart of Soul Sacrifice, built into a morality system that could be mistaken as run-of-the-mill at first blush. As with most game morality systems, Soul Sacrifice's morality is binary. Your actions are either good or evil. But just as the game's style succeeds by tweaking convention, so too does its approach to morality provide a fresh take on an old concept.
Most games I've played with morality systems run into the Jesus-Hitler problem. They give players two choices in any given situation; essentially, save the school bus full of orphans on their way for life-saving transplant operations, or run it off the road and eat them because you're peckish, then go rifling through their pockets for lunch money. Typically, the player's actions will also play into their character progression, so especially noble players unlock defensive or healing advantages for being good, and irredeemable jerks get other (typically more entertaining) offensive powers for being the kind of character who ties a woman to the railroad tracks for no reason.
These morality systems present players with a parade of decisions to make, but it's usually the same decision over and over again. Players made their decision to be good or evil at the outset, and the optimal playthrough is to take a min-max approach, doing everything possible to be as good or as evil as it takes to unlock the super weapons on either side of the skill tree. So it doesn't matter how many decisions the game asks players to make; they stopped considering the individual situations after the first one, and now they're simply optimizing. Any deviation from their path toward Jesus or Hitler is simply counterproductive, so they plow onward.
Soul Sacrifice may have a binary morality system, but the system is set up in such a way that hardline good and evil stances can be more difficult than moderation. Morality in Soul Sacrifice is expressed in how players treat the defeated. When an ally or an adversary is beaten, the player can choose to either save them or sacrifice them, each building up separate good and evil experience meters. While the two meters are not directly linked (one doesn't shrink as the other grows), they are tied together. A character's alignment is determined by the discrepancy between the good and evil experience levels, and the total of the two can never surpass 100.
But that's how the morality system works in the bigger picture. In the moment-to-moment action, saving a monster restores health, while sacrificing them refreshes the number of times each spell can be cast. That's a crucial point because the player starts each level able to cast six different spells only a handful of times each, and those encompass the bulk of the offensive opportunities.
Paving the path to Hell
At the outset, I intended to play through Soul Sacrifice as a good character, saving everything I could out of spite for the game's seeming insistence that a virtuous path was impossible. This quickly proved more challenging than I expected, as there were sometimes more monsters than I could defeat with my paltry payload of spells. Power-ups within each arena could replenish my spell stockade, but not nearly enough to last me any sort of extended fight. I began to think that my allies' bloodthirsty barks about sacrificing monsters were intended not as attempts to corrupt pure players, but as simple tutorial tips akin to learning how to jump in a first-person shooter.
And then the game pitted me against a rival sorcerer, with the command for us to do battle to the death as a rite of passage. I won the fight, but chose to save her rather than sacrifice her, giving her half my health in the process. Newly revived, she picked up right where she left off, trying to kill me and harvest my own soul. Of course, I was easier pickings now that I had used half of my health bar to revive her. This happened once more before I gave in, realizing the only way to get her to stop attacking me would be to sacrifice her.
It was a mandatory plot point that took away my choice in the matter because as far as I could tell, the only way to progress was to sacrifice her. But it also threw a wrench into my own noble narrative. I could try to go through the game uncompromisingly saving everything I came across, but what difference would it make now that I'd already taken a life? I was tainted.
So I went bad. Not Hitler bad, but certainly worse than I was. I decided that lesser monsters (which reverted back to harmless creatures when defeated, like a fun house mirror counterpart to Sonic the Hedgehog enemies) could be used as grist for my spell mill. I would instead only save the big bosses, the archfiends, those who turned pitifully human after losing. These guidelines have helped, but I would be lying if I said I had stuck to them faithfully.
I'm now about 20 hours into Soul Sacrifice, apparently a little more than halfway through the game's main story, and I'm still having to think about my choices. "This wounded cat that used to be a monster has a good soul," the game tells me. "I would love to save it," I might respond, "but sacrificing it will give me the spells I need to kill its monstrous family members bearing down on me. But maybe I can do you a solid and spare their souls. Situation permitting, of course."
The great thing is, I don't know if this is the optimal path through the game, or even a good one. Soul Sacrifice's systems are all quite simple, but the game doesn't do a great job educating the player about them, and there's enough overlap between them to complicate things just a touch. So now every time I save or sacrifice a monster, I have to actively make a decision instead of remaining blindly faithful to a decision I made in two seconds back when I first started playing. I have to consider how much "ammo" I've got left for my spells, how much health I've got at the moment, whether the act will put me at odds with my AI-controlled allies (each of whom has his or her own alignment), how it will impact the balance of my own alignment in the long-term, and of course, where I think I want to see the story go. And that decision-making process, that constant choice between principles and practicality, is what makes Soul Sacrifice's morality system work.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: Soul Sacrifice looks stunning. It may not be the most accomplished game on a technical level, but it has a distinct sense of style that sets it apart from the crowd. It's a weird world where eyes don't always go above noses and winged haystacks are just another part of the terrain.
- Music: The audio experience in Soul Sacrifice is more suited to extremes than the morality system. The mournful dirge in the menu screens matches the tone of the narrative well and archfiend battles have suitably soaring scores, but the quickly recycling snippets of wooden voicework from allied sorcerers are almost instantly tiresome.
- Controls: This might have deserved more of a mention above, if only because fighting the controls and camera were sort of a Monster Hunter tradition on the PSP. But thanks to the Vita's second analog stick, Soul Sacrifice's controls just work. The process of toggling between your two sets of three spells with the right bumper isn't exactly elegant in the heat of battle, but it gets the job done.
- Lasting Appeal: This isn't the deepest well in the action-role-playing game world, but there's enough here to fall into for quite some time between the multiplayer and optional content. There are side quests for farming items to use in crafting better spells or unlocking perks, a few narrative-focused detours, and separate challenges that ask players to clear levels within time limit.
Although it's an original franchise, Soul Sacrifice follows the standard formula for a successful sequel. It's one-third same old stuff, one-third tweaked and improved, and one-third brand new. It's like a more approachable take on Monster Hunter with a sense of style to distinguish itself from the pack.