I don’t discuss fantasy very often here at FEARnet, and the reason is twofold: one, I find the genre as a whole be rather trite and repetitive (says the guy whose meal ticket is written with scads of zombie games) and two, very little of the genre is dark enough to discuss here. We’ve had the occasional opportunity for coverage (Atlus’ Dark Souls being a prime example), but usually the swords-and-sorcery shtick is left off the table. Soul Sacrifice on the Playstation Vita, however, manages to tweak the fantasy genre in such a way that is tickles my dark heart.
The first title from Comcept, the studio founded by Dead Rising’s Keiji Inafune, Soul Sacrifice is a fascinating exercise in dual identity, a theme which runs through its veins from its storytelling to its gameplay. The game starts off in a unique fashion with your enslaved character finding Librom, a flesh-bound tome that comes off like the Necronomicon’s smart-ass cousin. Within the pages of Librom you find the journal entries of those who have faced the Magusar, the game’s main villain, and you are tasked with reliving these sorcerers’ campaigns against the monsters that plague the land. These monsters have more mundane roots, be they simple cats or shamed knights, who have become twisted versions of their former selves. “Reading” each of these tales drops you into a small arena where, for a brief period, you use your arsenal of spells and rites to combat your foes. Your ultimate goal is to learn from your predecessor so that you can defeat the Magusar yourself.
The unique aspect of the game’s spells and rites comes from their more sacrificial aspect. Some sap your health, others can be fused to create more powerful varieties, but at the cost of your finite stockpile. There are also Black Rites, mega-spells that devastate all around you, but at the cost of your own character’s stats. One summons a giant, fiery demon to scorch everything in sight, including your own skin, which reduces your defense. Despite the dark fantasy trappings of the game, this shocking sense of mortality is a very grounding experience.
The other sense of sacrifice comes from your foes. The monsters, with some awesomely creepy designs, are returned to their more basic forms upon defeat, which you can then choose to “save” or “sacrifice,” which gives you more health or offensive ability, respectively. While the initial enemies can be sacrificed pretty easily (except I felt bad taking out the poor kitty cats because I’m a sap), it becomes much darker by the end of the game’s first chapter.
The writing of Soul Sacrifice is deliciously dark and deep, a strong counterpoint to the fairly shallow gameplay. The first chapter hits it home when you become accustomed to your companion, a woman named Sortiara. While initially aloof, there are hints of tenderness in the writing between levels, as your character comforts her through her physical and emotional suffering. When you are forced to make a sacrifice—her—the gravity of your life as a sorcerer hits home like a brick. While your initial goal is simple, there’s a lot more under the surface that shows that your life is truly bleak. I really can’t state enough just how good this writing is, and it never feels heavy-handed even when the concepts in play could easily be played off in a melodramatic fashion.
For Playstation Vita owners, the game is an absolute must-buy (not that there’s much more out there for the system, but I digress), with its gorgeous graphics and fantastic writing wrapping around a very simple game with easily digestible levels that suit the portable format. It may not sell you on Sony’s fantastic, but poorly supported portable, but it makes one hell of a case.