Soul Sacrifice feels like a game designed by somebody in a bad mood. This exclusive for Sony’s handheld is all about using your own pain—or the agony of others—for power. Grim? Sure. But, it’s also the best reason I’ve had in months to keep my Vita charged and in my bag.
So, the bad mood thing: it’s the most logical conclusion I’ve been able to come to while playing this exclusive for Sony’s handheld. Soul Sacrifice feels like the design of a person annoyed at all the political correctness and hypocrisy that runs through the modern age. That person is most likely Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune, since the game is the product of his Comcept design studio. "People will prey on each other if they can get away with it," I can picture him saying. "I will make a game that revels in that truth." For something premised on such a nihilistic view on human nature, Soul Sacrifice feels damn good.
Players control a trapped sorcerer who gets to relive a mysterious past thanks to a talking necromantic tome named Librom, which holds the life story of a powerful, time-lost mage. The ultimate goal of the game is to jump into that wizard’s battles and earn enough magical acumen to defeat an immortal tyrant named Magusar. Every bite-sized battle leaves you with spells, essences or items that you can fuse with each other. What you get as end-of-mission loot changes depending on the rank you earn after the fighting’s done.
You’ll get to choose from melee weapons, mines, long-distance attacks and a whole lot more to take down the smaller enemies and larger Archfiends. The creature designs are truly grotesque and there’s a ton of lore—all of it embedded with cryptic hints—in Librom’s pages about the legends, beasts and lands that you’ll encounter in Soul Sacrifice, too.
The game’s plot fuses slightly cheesy Evil Dead tones with a deadly serious atmosphere that keeps jostling you into a self-serving ruthlessness. You’ll periodically have to kill a partner to build up your own powers in a cursed right arm, where their knowledge, skills and personalities will still linger in your skull.
It’s refreshing how Soul Sacrifice upends the typical understanding of magic-wielding protagonists. Forget noble wizards like Gandalf the Grey. These spellcasters kill wantonly, we're told, and it's probably to justify the game's mechanics.
In Soul Sacrifice, spells are called Offerings (as in sacrificial offerings). They can be exhausted during a mission, meaning that you'll lose a power you love if you spam it without strategy. There can be ways to resuscitate an offering—either by sacrificing lesser foes for energy or finding places seeded with magic in the environment— but none of them are easy when you're under attack.
The game’s arenas are bigger than you'd expect and have a nice variation of visual styles. One level looked Venetian while another places you in a ruined Baroque cathedral. Running around the arenas quickly reveals that there are pick-ups and quick-use weapons embedded into the environments, making you appreciate the aesthetics even more. These points aren’t signaled by glowing outlines either. But when you find them using the alternate Mind’s Eye viewing filter, they'll yield essential but temporary gear like fireproof armor, do things like renew spell strength or heal you back to full strength.
It’s critical to note that Soul Sacrfice passed the all-important commuting test, too. I was able to bang out one of the easier boss fights, sort my loot and craft new offerings/weapons during several quick subway rides during my time with the game. It’s that right-size design that makes the game feel like a great example of what the Vita is supposed to deliver: large-scale experience that you can take with you. Most mobile game experiences aren’t this involved. I can’t stop going back to Soul Sacrifice: it’s quick, it’s deep and it’s satisfying. Yes, people will stab me in the back. But even that feels oddly rewarding.