Many games offer you choices that they would deem ‘significant’. Options on who to date, who to save, perhaps a dialogue wheel with responses ranging from arse to saint, and yet there is never really any meaningful impact, the only discernible difference being that sometimes you get a different ending if you are consistent enough with your choices. For real choices to exist and for them to be meaningful there have to be implications involved in those choices, there have to be complications that ensure the choice is never reduced to simply picking the ‘right’ option. If you then throw in the fact that these choices can also impact real people, potentially to the extent of comedy emo-rage, then you know that the game in question has got it right. And if there is one thing that you will be able to take away from your time with Soul Sacrifice it’s that the choices you make there are never as simple as they may seem.
Taking a leaf from the Elder Scrolls series Soul Sacrifice sees you start off imprisoned, although this time in a cage of bone and gore awaiting your sacrificial fate at the hands of the evil mage Magusar. For you, unlike the travellers of Tamriel, there is no easy escape, only a demonic journal named Librom which contains the story of Magusar, a story you can relive through the journal’s pages. You’ll spend a lot of time poking around inside Librom as all of the game’s menus and options are tucked away inside his pages; luckily it makes for a rather intuitive system and elegantly covers the fact that the journal is essentially a series of spruced up lists.
After a short series of ‘pacts’ (read missions) that act as a tutorial the world of Librom, and indeed Soul Sacrifice, is opened up for you. You are given total freedom to continue on with the story or begin dalliances with the standalone pacts (and it is within these standalone pacts that the multiplayer matches are played). In fact, rather comically, you can also opt to jump right in and fight Magusar immediately, although you aren’t likely to last very long against this impressively powered boss. Instead it’s likely that you will progress through Magusar’s storyline, dipping into the extra Avalon pacts whenever you find yourself getting overpowered too frequently. The story is essentially a series of arena maps linked by some spoken narrative presented on the pages of Librom. The voice acting of both Librom and the additional characters you meet is competent enough, although the pauses between paragraphs are frequently far too long and you’ll find yourself tapping X as each little bit of speech ends to hurry up the delivery of the next few lines. Depending on what you are facing and your relative power the arenas can last from a couple of minutes up to over half an hour, but for much of your run through you can expect the battles to provide bite-sized content entirely fitting for a handheld.
However, one of the problems that stems from this constant arena play is that the arenas very quickly become too repetitive, the same environments encountered over and over again. To keep frames per second integrity high during the most chaotic of battles (which Soul Sacrifice manages to do fantastically) texture resolution across the ground seems to have been dropped (or perhaps even sacrificed?) and this doesn’t help the washed out feeling you get from hitting the same map over and over. Later pacts do mix in terrain modifications specific to certain areas – a ring that you can stand in to increase defence at the cost of attack for example, or a multi-tiered battleground with wind that blows you around, but these always seem to feel bolted on rather than integral to the design. Each arena does have multiple spell points however, places where you can draw the magic of the environment to give yourself an extra weapon or spell over and above your equipped offerings. The rest of the game looks pretty enough, revelling in its darker stylings and providing many outlandish outfits for you to dress your sorcerer up in. It is a shame that the entire graphical experience couldn’t match the inspiring soundtrack provided by Skywalker Sound, but then you don’t visit an arena battle game for the sightseeing alone.
If you’ve seen anything about Soul Sacrifice already then you’ll know that its main hook isn’t its looks anyway, it’s the ability to save or sacrifice your friends and foes. Each time you kill an enemy or one of your allies dies you can stand over their prone form and decide whether to save or sacrifice them. Both options can level up your right arm, with it able to receive Divine points from saving and Chaos points from sacrificing. Major decisions provide a visceral feeling, especially when you stand over a comrade and your finger is hovering over the sacrifice option. Choosing to save an ally will see them return to the battle with half of your health while taking their soul will kill them and unleash an awesomely powerful attack across the map, devastating most in its path. These attacks are impressive, but they are not the only difficult choice you can make in a battle; receive enough damage and you can cast a Black Rite, sacrificing a piece of your own body in order to inflict your own powerful attack. Each of these comes with a cost though; you can sacrifice your skin to let loose a powerful fire based attack in exchange for halving your defence for the rest of the battle, or you could sacrifice your heart and let your allies pull a powerful magic sword from you. Fortunately you can’t have more than one Black Rite equipped at any time so you can’t cripple yourself entirely and devastate a boss in short order. Both the deaths of AI allies and the effects of Black Rites can be re-written after the battle by spending ‘Lacrima’, a currency based on the tears of Librom that you can collect by wiping his giant eye. It’s a clunky way of doing things, and apart from at the very start of the game you’ll always have enough lacrima to undo anything you fancy, but this in no way detracts from the feelings of awesomeness you get from doing evil things.
Regardless of your usual default stance you’ll want to engage in both saintly and sinner behaviour as each time you save someone or suck their very soul out you gain a Life or Soul Essence respectively. You need these to gain access to ‘sigils’, carvings you can place on your arm to boost certain skills or stats. As your costume choice is entirely cosmetic these sigils are Soul Sacrifice’s equivalent of equipment and you can easily spend far too long farming certain monsters or Archfiends to try to get the sigil you need for that next level of carving.
Extra sigils aren’t the only thing you can expect from grinding sessions however; each time you complete a pact, story or otherwise, you are given a ranking which then translates into a set of offerings (read spells) that you can use in your next battle. There is a huge array of offerings available, ranging from conjured weapons to massive fists that punch up from the ground into your enemies’ delicate area. You can take up to six offerings into a pact, and each offering has a set number of times that you can use them within that pact – this number is somewhat randomised, and you’ll get a warning when you get close to the limit. Continue to use the skill and you risk breaking it, leaving it worthless for the rest of that battle. There are, however, restore points in most arenas and you can always go kill a grunt quickly and sacrifice them to get a use boost to all of your remaining spells. Most offensive spells come with one of five elemental types, and these exist in a kind of circle of weakness, meaning that if you know you are going to a map full of fire-oriented monsters you should probably take some ice attacks to both deal some extra damage and gain the score boost associated with targeting a vulnerability. If you smack a monster with the attacks of a particular element enough then you can inflict an elemental status on that monster (e.g. you could use ice attacks to freeze the monster). From there, you can chain a critical attack by hitting them with an elemental spell to which that status is weak - this all leads you to an incredibly tactical situation where you really get into the minutiae of planning for each fight, deciding what to take and trying to use each one of your offering slots to its full potential. It’s a fantastic battle system that forces you to think about your actions, as well as punishing those who charge to the front and try to simply spam offerings away.
That’s not all these offerings are good for however. As you accrue extra offerings of the same spell through your pact completions you can ‘boost’ those offerings by combining them. This gives you a version of the spell distinguished with a star level that usually comes with an extra use – keep boosting and combine a ridiculous number of the same offering and you can be rewarded with a copy of the spell from the next damage tier, although it’s usually far more sensible to spend your time on the hardest pacts you can complete rather than playing the easier ones countless times. You can also ‘fuse’ certain combinations of offerings to access new spells. The process is additive, and against your better judgement you will find yourself playing the same battle over and over again to get just one more star on your favourite offering, to get the ingredients for just one more fusion. These elements are fun to play with in the early game, but come into their own in the later game where difficult fights (for which you are potentially underlevelled) can last ten times longer than the shorter battles, ensuring that every single cast of every single offering you take with you is precious. And boy will you need them when you start to face some of the harder Archfiends.
These Archfiends really are the posterboys and girls for Soul Sacrifice. Although some (well, most in fact) are based on Classical monsters their interpretation here ranges from the sublime to the grotesque. All are oversized, some of them large enough to dominate your entire screen if you get too close. From rolling fireballs to giant leaps to underground stalking each of these fights brings something different to the table, a list of tactics and tells that you’ll need to observe and learn in order to be effective against them. Each Archfiend has multiple ‘break points’ – areas of its body that are weaker and can be destroyed if you damage them enough. It’s usually a good idea to concentrate your efforts against these areas as if you manage to break one not only could you limit the Archfiend in their use of certain skills or abilities based on that body part but you could also win yourself a special offering related to that Archfiend. Most of your battles in Soul Sacrifice will be against these beasts, and there is nothing quite as satisfying as when you reach the point that battles which previously took you over twenty minutes instead see you stand victorious in mere seconds.
As well as providing the Soul and Life essences essential for most sigils (and good luck farming some of the rarer essences!) the Archfiends can provide you with new AI companions for use in the multiplayer pacts while playing offline – that is, if you choose to save the Archfiend after defeating them! These companions aren’t a patch on the real thing however; let yourself die and be sacrificed by them (fairly easy to do if you run with the dark armed ones) and watch how they interact with the Archfiends. They are clearly of more use as meatshields, most of their time taken up with their dreadful AI having them run directly into danger before using windows of damage opportunity to heal themselves. Each additional companion you take to a pact increases the health of the monsters within that pact, and these guys simply do not pull their weight when it comes to the damage stakes – they do, however, provide an important source of essences when the inevitable Save/Sacrifice choice comes with them, as well as allowing you breathing space if you aren’t strong enough to solo the encounter.
It’s a different story over in the multiplayer section of the game. Here the intelligence of your companions is hugely variable (as you would expect from any game played online) and you can expect to see any number of idiotic events. However, the majority of the time playing with real people is a fantastic opportunity to learn new skills and combinations of offerings, the twenty-four offerings split between four players allowing fantastic scope for innovation. The fact that Archfiend health is boosted for each additional player means that there is nowhere to hide on the harder pacts, no chance for one strong player to farm bosses for three weaker players hiding out for the ride. The flip side is that a couple of skilled players can easily pick up the slack of underlevelled players that join the pact, and the increased adversity from the additional challenge proves itself exhilarating for everyone involved. Even better - if you’re running through pacts with a useless player you can self-police that player out of the active game. That chap who is running around saving all the trash souls and spamming away the same useless spell within damage range? When they die, sacrifice them and enjoy the damage hit to the Archfiend. Sure, there is a danger of griefing play with certain people sacrificing everyone that drops even at the beginning of a fight, but examples of this kind of behaviour seem to be few and easily avoidable. The netcode for the game deserves a mention too – hardly any evidence of lag was witnessed in any of the online pacts we played though and that is a remarkable achievement considering the sheer amount of action that can be occurring at any one point. Match ups can be arranged either online or ad hoc with up to three other players, and while the match making moves fast enough grinding sessions would be so much simpler if you could search for specific pacts or even Archfiends instead of having to drop into multiple lobbies to find a game fitting your desire.
There’s more than enough to keep you going in the multiplayer pacts, even if you are just soloing them offline. And yet, as you progress further into the game it begins to seem fundamentally unbalanced, promoting certain skills and styles over others. For instance, it is a very rare pact indeed in which you would not want to take at least one ‘Egg’ Offering; these long range bombardments offer the perfect weapon to use against those nasty Archfiends and all their high damage skills, as well as allowing you full control over where to fire them by using the right analogue stick to free aim. If you have taken one ranged Egg to use as it’s the perfect weapon, why not take another, potentially with a different element attached to it? By now, of course, it makes sense to arrange your sigils around these explosive Offerings, and suddenly you have reduced nearly every Archfiend fight to an exercise in aim and fire. If you don’t fancy the Eggs then you can load up on throwing spells and sigils for nearly the same effect, trading off some damage with a higher chance to inflict an elemental status on the targeted Archfiend. Thankfully you’ll not get away with this on every Archfiend fight but it’s scary how often this works, and in a game that rewards you for not getting hit and the speed at which you can kill something why wouldn’t you seek to exploit the skills that seem to work the best?
On the arm levelling up side in the early to midgame both Divine and Chaos seem to be appropriate choices that will get you through the story chapters and more than half of the extra Avalon pacts. From the off however attempting to run with a Neutral arm seems like a waste of time, the more balanced defence and attack stats not really making up for the poor sigils available specifically for the build. Once you get to the late game then the difference between a full Divine and a full Chaos build is like (pun intended) night and day. The Chaos build is a glass cannon, squishy yet powerful and able to devastate Archfiends with pretty much any set of offerings they player wishes to put together (probably including at least one Egg...), matched with relevant sigils and so forth. The Divine build, on the other hand, is far more of a survivability build, their shielding and healing potential unrivalled. Sadly, this makes solo play as a Divine player excruciatingly boring as you grind away awash in the knowledge that everything would be dying much much quicker if you had chosen to just bathe in everyone’s blood. Even worse is that there currently appears to be really only one effective late Divine build, one that uses lots of healing spells and sees you spamming one of the blood offerings (which has no usage limitations but damages you as you use it). In the later multiplayer Avalon pacts being the high defence Divine guy will reap you and three others great rewards, but you’d have to be masochistic to get there and the whole system screams for some form of sensible level respec option.
Potentially the most damaging issue though is the in-battle return you get from either sacrificing or saving the grunts. While saving will restore a percentage of your health, sacrificing an enemy will slightly restore all of your offerings, giving you a few extra precious uses for all of your remaining skills. Let’s put this into perspective – for nearly every vaguely difficult fight you will include a healing offering within your loadout. With that in mind, unless you are intentionally farming Divine levels, it makes no sense to save a monster for health when you can sacrifice it and then cast a healing spell as well as gain extra casts of your five other offerings. Even if you are playing a bit of a goody-two-shoes, playing every pact with the intention of saving the Archfiend and recruiting them into your army of followers it wouldn’t be an unusual occurrence for you to slaughter and sacrifice every grunt on the map, redeeming only the boss creature. In fights where time is of the essence no one wants to be running around a giant map trying to find an unused renew point, especially if there’s a juicy monster in front of you waiting to have its soul sucked out. Instead of these issues concentrating your attention on the save/sacrifice dilemma they instead devalue it, the gameplay mechanics so strongly pointing you in one direction that you have no qualms in engaging your monstrous side as and when you need it.
This seems silly to say, but most of the above only affects you if you let it. You may be better off hanging back and letting an AI companion tank a boss while you ping Eggs and other ranged attacks onto its hide, but the choice is also yours to solo the beast, setting up a glorious combo where you set up an immobile golem and an area of effect spell and then use a shield to bounce the Archfiend into your trap. Surprisingly complementary sets of Offerings can be constructed for any of the Archfiends, and it’s especially satisfactory to change your usual strategy entirely and make effective use of some Offerings that are otherwise under-utilised. In fact, sometimes it’s the unintended effect of an Offering that sees you include them in your loadout – who knew that some Archfiends would be more interested in munching down on your support tree Offerings rather than you or your allies. When you throw three other people into the mix a small degree of co-ordination and planning can create astonishing results and you’ll gasp to see Archfiends that were previously your nemesis bossed around the arena, inflicted with elemental status after status and then ripped to shreds by mines, bombs, melee weapons and a whole host of other options.
Soul Sacrifice really is as close to being a ‘must play’ game for the Vita as you can get. It’s action RPG grown up and stuck on evilroids, coupled with a dark storyline and the very best of online (and ad hoc!) co-op play that the Vita has to offer. There’s an addictive set of loot mechanics and the constant progression, even if it only results in the smallest of incremental gains for you, massages away fears that you are wasting your time in a repetitive grind. The first twenty-five or so hours offer an amazing journey through the single player elements and the initial multiplayer levels, but it’s the time spent after this period that can sour the experience somewhat as more of the balance issues become apparent. Soul Sacrifice can stand on its own feet proudly, but it’s the potential of the birth of a franchise that should get gamers everywhere smiling into their Mountain Dew. With a few tweaks and additions Keiji Inafune’s baby could well come back to rule the roost – until then, dive in and experience it but try not to lose your soul to the game...