I remember watching The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke was training on Dagobah. At one point, he looks over his shoulder at Yoda and asks, "Is the Dark Side stronger?" Yoda, in his ever-wise (at least until the prequels) way answered firmly, "No. Quicker. Easier. More seductive." I kept remembering those words pretty much through the entirety of my play of Soul Sacrifice.
Soul Sacrifice is the latest game from the mind of Mega Man creator, Keiji Inafune. The game places you the player as a prisoner to the powerful mage, Merlin, awaiting your eventual demise at his hand. Through a twist of fate, or perhaps sheer coincidence, you manage to obtain the living book, Librom. By reading through the pages of Librom, you experience the stories written within, which take place in the form of a hunting action game, and slowly the the origins of the evil mage Merlin and a story of sacrifice and salvation. Very conflicting stuff. And by the end of it, that's how I felt about the game.
Good - Gameplay:
Looking over the basic gameplay, you get an idea of what the meat of the game is like. Overall, it's a well put together action game where you battle various monsters of varying sizes and shapes. You start out with a few basic spells and by clearing missions, you can obtain different and potentially more powerful spells. You can only equip 6 spells entering a mission and each spell has a limited number of uses in a mission (after a mission is cleared, unless completely depleted, spells regenerate all uses). You can replenish your spell uses by either sacrificing a defeated enemy (see below), or by finding and using a recharge point in the field. Spells can be upgraded, but as a general rule of thumb, the more powerful the spell, the fewer uses it has. Enemies also have different strengths, weaknesses, and general methods of attack. This leads to an added strategical element in which spells to take with you on which mission.
This isn't to say the gameplay is without its flaws. The lock-on system can sometime flip to a target other than the one you're aiming for which can be fatal depending on what you're fighting. Also, some of the maps could have been better tuned for the enemy being hunted. There were a couple of maps where I was battling a giant monster where it managed to pin me in a little alcove, where I couldn't dodge or escape, and proceeded to play Shoot-the-Ducks-in-the-Barrel which I found annoying.
Outside of the missions, the basic user interface involves flipping through Librom to different pages that serve as the character menu. This style of interface can be repetitive and can take a bit of getting used to, but the story mode of the game slowly leads you through it, so by the time I really got into the game, it wasn't that big of a problem for me.
Good - Dudly Do Right or Snidely Whiplash:
Save or sacrifice. It's the overarching theme of the game and it pops up constantly. Defeated enemies and allies can be either saved or sacrificed. Each choice has its benefits. By saving an enemy, you can heal damage and ultimately, you defense and healing ability increase. By sacrificing an enemy, your spells are replenished and your attack strength goes up. By saving an ally, you give them half of your hit points and they can rejoin the fray. By sacrificing an ally, you unleash powerful spells and that ally is lost.
Most players will try to take either the law ("good") path of saving everything, or the chaos ("evil") path of sacrificing everything. At first glance, these choices seem balanced and fair, but in reality, they're not. At the end of a mission, you're given a score depending on your performance. The higher your score, the better your loot. Interestingly, you receive a bonus the more you sacrifice things, but there is no bonus for saving things. Through its design, the game actually encourages the player to choose the chaos option rather than the law option. In my play through the game, I was playing the "good" guy and there were a couple of boss battles in the story mode that I simply could not get past because I ran out of spells due to sheer lack of firepower. I could probably have easily gotten past these enemies if I had opted to sacrifice more enemies and increase my damage (or if I was a better player), and yet, Yoda's words still rang in my mind. I felt if I chose the quick and easy path, I may win the mission, but I would have lost to myself. I eventually managed to get past those bosses by playing free missions and obtaining and upgrading to stronger spells, but feeling the tempting pull of the Dark Side made the game far more engaging and enjoyable than I thought it would.
Good - You Can Die Anytime:
One of the interesting features of the game is that at any time, you have the option of battling Merlin. You don't even have to complete all the story missions (although doing them is much more enriching). Obviously, since he's the last boss, Merlin's a bit of a tough cookie. I tried fighting him when I was two thirds through the story and he completely wiped the floor with my ass. I'm quite certain that a more skilled player could have defeated him (as my video shows, I can't dodge worth a damn) but the fact that the option was there was very interesting. It gave the game a sort of foreboding atmosphere which added to the sense of purpose and meaning.
Mixed - Meet Me in the Lobby:
Soul Sacrifice has both adhoc and wi-fi network co-op play capabilities, which was a real blessing, since I only have three friends who own a Vita, and only one of them owns a copy of Soul Sacrifice. I played a few rounds of network play, and it was pretty much the standard solid gameplay with more difficult bosses and other players instead of AI followers.
One major problem I noticed with the multi-player was the lack of a real social lobby. This was one play where Soul Sacrifice should have taken a page from the Monster Hunter playbook. One of the strengths of the Monster Hunter series is the player interactivity. This is enhance through network play where players can't see each other through the game lobby where player avatars can run around and chat and emote. The Soul Sacrifice co-op game lobby is pretty much your standard multi-player lobby with players listed and their avatars visible, but immobile. At the end of my co-op experience, while I did get extra bonuses for my play, ultimately, I didn't care about the people I was playing with. I ended up caring more about the AI companions I had in the story mode and free play than the living breathing people who were playing with me in co-op.
Mixed - The Story:
Overall, the theme of saving and sacrifice was very thought provoking. Even after I put the game down after a session of play, I would spend some time thinking about what the creators were trying to say. Unfortunately, the game suffers from what most games involving moral choice do - No matter what choice you choose, there's only one plot line. There were points in the story missions where I would defeat an enemy character, but when I chose to save them, they would get back up and keep fighting me again and again, eventually forcing me to sacrifice them to progress the story. While I understood that these points were pivotal and the story required that I sacrifice instead of save, but if that's the case, I would have preferred that the game not give me the option to save them in the first place.
This also brings me to the end of the story mode, which, without spoiling anything, I believe will divide people heavily on whether their like the game or not. For myself, as I stated in the beginning, I found myself conflicted about it. I understand and appreciate the game designer's choices in how the game plays out, but at the same time, in a game that's about choice, the final decision wasn't "mine."
Overall, Soul Sacrifice is an engaging, well put together game, with an almost deceptive deeper layer of thought, but seems to suffer from limitations more of concept than design. It's probably one of the best games for the PS Vita out right now, but with current Vita circulation, that's almost a backhanded compliment. If you own a Vita, and action games of this kind are your thing, it's worth it to check out, but keep in mind that it belongs on the long list of games that falter at the end.