is big. Very big. I would not hesitate to say that it one of the most expansive titles yet released on Sony’s portable, with a story mode lasting more than 20 hours and practically unlimited potential in multiplayer. And that’s before the new bosses promised in free DLC and additional paid for story missions on the way.
The narrative kicks off with your character waking in a cage of bones, set to be sacrificed by the dreaded Magusar – a powerful and evil sorcerer who rules the land. But you are not as alone as you think, hearing a voice you rummage around in a skeletal pile (via the Vita’s touchscreen) til your hands grasp a talking book!
This tome goes by the name of Libron and is the source of everything you’ll do in Soul Sacrifice. It’s the journal of a powerful sorcerer and you’ll read the pages to learn magic in order to escape and maybe even bring down Magusar once and for all.
And to do that, you’ll have to read. Delving into the book reveals a narrative, told via text and some impressive animation, which also forces you to get involved. When you reach a new chapter, you’ll dive into the story as your character, fighting the battles and deciding on the fate of certain characters. It all helps to build up some backstory behind your current situation, with shared characters and some extremely dark dealings.
It’s a nice framing idea, which also gives you the chance to customise your look (as many times as you like, this is your story) and swap out powers as the game progresses. Arguably it’s all just setup for the numerous battles but at least the developers have delivered something a little unique.
Libron - the book that speaks! Enlarge
It’s here that Soul Sacrifice
starts to come into its own. While the graphics can’t square up to those on regular consoles, there’s a reasonable amount of detail in the character models (though the lack of lip sync is distracting). More importantly, the enemies look great, with a huge amount of imagination in their design and the arenas you’ll fight in - though expect some repetition as you progress.
Viewed from the third person, the action on show is mostly magic-based – you’ll map spells to your face buttons and run and dodge around the battlefield, trying your best to avoid death while dishing it out to numerous spawning enemies. Often, the levels end with a boss fight, some of which present a serious challenge, even at the beginning of the game.
The controls are decent, though there’s some stiffness in the movements around the level. You can lock on with the left trigger, while the right trigger swaps between different layers of spells. Offence and defence are catered for, with your character able to conjure shields, or weapons out of different elements (which can be matched, rock-paper-scissors fashion to do more damage to certain foes) – with ranged attacks also catered for. Perform well in the fights and you’ll be rewarded with new spells and abilities and you can even combine identical powers to upgrade its effect.
There’s a huge amount going on Soul Sacrifice
and the game does a reasonable job of keeping you apprised of what you need to learn next. The mainly touch enabled menus are a little more cluttered than they might be, especially the miniscule spell icons and some awkward dialogue boxes, but it doesn’t take long before you’re on top of most of the mechanics.
Naturally, that’s not all. There’s a management system centred around morality – when you defeat an enemy you have the choice to save or sacrifice their mortal soul. Spare them and you’ll gain a little health and some element of their form will run away happily (rats, or a cute kittie). Murder them and you’ll restore some magical energy, and stamp their remains into mush.
These actions also have consequences, particularly during boss fights. While you’re generally there to kill the deviants stupid enough to attack, you can also save them, potentially recruiting them as an ally. You’ll level up the light and dark sides of your character, giving you health and power buffs along the way.
Magusar. He's kind of a bad guy Enlarge
Further magiks are available in the form of black rites. These powerful spells are one sure fire way to end an aggressive argument but come at a permanent cost - for example one flays your skin for its attack, leaving your defences weakened for the rest of the game. The effects can be reversed by using Lacrima, a substance which occasionally leaks from your books eye, but it’s a valuable resource so spamming isn’t possible.
From an extended opening tutorial cunningly concealed behind a halfway touching story, the game opens up to give you more freedom. You can choose to pursue the rest of the narrative, including more information on Magusar’s early years or heading to the Inside Avalon section where you can take on some side quests and pick up followers and more magic powers to use across the entire game. You can also choose to take on the big bad in a final battle at any time, though prepare to get almost immediately pasted, followed by an inevitable credit scroll.
There’s also a multiplayer component to the game, taking the nasties on with up to three other friends, but my release code didn’t have access. All reports from the Japanese release in March suggest it’s a great addition and I’ll update this review once I’ve had a chance to play.Soul Sacrifice
isn’t the easiest game to get into. The graphics are far from fabulous and the pages of menus and some overwritten dialogue are a barrier at first blush. And the levels themselves can be difficult, with gruelling fights and boss battles that take many minutes to beat, and death practically assured when you first come up against a new enemy type.
But the learning curve is more subtle than it seems, layering up your practical knowledge of new elements in a way that manages to be challenging and rarely overwhelming. Action fans can feel free to skip right over the story but the plot does meander in some interesting ways and the level of depth in the surrounding universe - that you can discover through the pages of the book, is exhaustive.
Presentation issues aside, there’s something oddly compelling about Soul Sacrifice
. The fights rarely feel unfair and you’ll always be curious to see what garishly gruesome beast is around the next corner. Those looking for a strong and slickly presented story should look elsewhere but A-RPG fans won’t find a better, or more lengthy, adventure on Vita.