Soul Sacrifice is a Vita exclusive designed by Keiji Inafune of Mega Man fame. Released several weeks ago in Japan, the grim RPG/monster-hunting title is now available stateside.
Soul Sacrifice is a third person action RPG with four player co-op support. It has a lengthy and challenging single player story mode and several dozen quests that can be played in single player with AI help or online (or in Ad Hoc mode) with up to three other players. The game begins in a massive dungeon with your character trapped in a cage with the skeletal remains of others scattered around you. The evil sorcerer Magusar is soon to consume you, but in the meantime, a talking book named Librom introduces himself to you. Within Librom's numerous pages are the diary entries of another sorcerer. By reading these pages and reliving the tales (known as Phantom Quests) told within, you are able to change the diary's story and grow more powerful, enough that you may yet be able to confront and defeat Magusar.
But before you can dive in, you'll have to spend a moment naming and customizing your character. Only a few basic clothing and appearance options are available at the start, none of them particularly good, with more unlocking as you progress. You can add up to six spells to cast, too. Interestingly, six remains the maximum number of spells that you can have at your disposal, whether you're Level 1 or 99. Spells are generally offensive and they are based on elements like heat, frost, volt, stone, and venom. Using the right element to combat foes is important, especially given that you can only cast spells a very limited number of times before they become unusable. This particular gameplay mechanic is one I find arbitrary and, after my first several hours, frustrating. It's also annoying that you cannot bring up a ranged spell and "holster it" without having used a Cast. Now, you are able to very slowly Boost spells to allow for additional casting and the casting count can be renewed at certain hidden areas within a battle. Additionally, should you completely exhaust a spell, upon completing the quest you can pay (with the tears of Librom known as Lacrama) to have it revived. Unfortunately, I didn't think that the pacing of these Boosts or the number of casts to begin with scaled properly with the difficulty changes a few hours into the story.
The story, somewhat to my surprise, is split up into distinct quests. This is not an open world game; rather, you accept a quest, review the criteria and rewards, select your loadout, and boom, you're teleported directly to the battlefield. These battlefields are relatively small, and arena-like. You're not likely to feel claustrophobic, but the humble size of most of these quests may surprise you. The quests themselves are usually about finding x number of a certain item or just defeating a certain number of enemy or a boss-class character. I found myself enabling my Mind's Eye (press down on d-pad) as soon as a quest started. This mode cuts out the sound and reduces the world to black, leaving only important things highlighted. Among the highlighted objects are locations where you can renew your spells, hidden life crystals, enemies and their HP, as well as ally locations. Mind's Eye will also show you the vulnerable spots on a boss to try and target.
A typical Soul Sacrifice quest sees you and any assistance you may have taking on small hordes of weaker enemies or a boss. Fallen enemies, and fallen allies for that matter, can all be Saved or Sacrificed. The choice is yours, and no matter how you decide the pages of Librom are likely to be altered. While I have yet to experience it myself, I have read some people saying they essentially broke the game when choices were made that were too out of bounds of the story, and they had to spend a lot of Lacrima to rectify this. Hopefully you won't encounter that. Anyway, your choice also effects your Levels. Unlike most RPGs, there are two level counts per character -- a Saved or Divine Level, and a Sacrificed level. The former gives you health boosts, while the latter gives you power. In the case of a fallen ally, be it in single player or online, Saving them docks your health by half, while Sacrificing them gives you a huge XP boost. Sacrificing another player in online play also executes a huge offensive spell against the CPU enemies. Simultaneously, the sacrificed player goes into Ghost mode where they can float around and say helpful preset lines to the other players and chip-in by "attacking" the enemies in this ghost form in such a way that reduces the enemy's defense, for example.
To save or sacrifice becomes a bigger decision that you might expect. The story is interesting and well told and you may be conflicted which direction to take because of what outcome it might have on the story. Additionally, saving a boss after you have finally defeated it after lengthy struggles may seem impossible, but in those few moments you have to decide, I found myself saving more than sacrificing. The benefit to this is that these saved enemies become allies in the Avalon Pact mode.
The Avalon Pacts are a set of several dozen other phantom quests that can be played with up to two other of your allies, or with up to three others online and in Ad Hoc. The main purpose of the Pacts from a single player point of view is to unlock additional spells and levels to use in the story. There are dozens upon dozens of spells across the various elements, ranging from a shield to long range attacks. Duplicate spells are helpful to create Boosts and Fuse spells together to make something new. You can share these with Near, although I haven't been able to try that. Brief descriptions and a "New" icon next to spells earned from your last battle help make maintaining all of your spells quite manageable.
Less manageable however is the friendly AI that will leave you cursing under your breath at times. Whether they run headstrong into a boss character and get themselves incapacitated or somehow don't get to you to revive you, the AI has its share of failures and letdowns. This fact alone makes me wish the story mode could be done in co-op and not just the Avalon Pacts. I'm also troubled by the aiming and collision system to a degree. It's too bad that you cannot more easily target critical areas of a boss that you have looked at with Mind's Eye. This goes for melee attacks somewhat, but especially ranged attacks. I had some trouble getting the proper distance on some of the spells that utilize an attack (like a punch) coming from the underground, too.
Fortunately, online play has a good following in my experience thus far. I've created rooms and have had to wait only a few minutes to get some players on board to go questing. At all times there were always at least several existing rooms to join. There are lots of high or max-cap players out there, and it's cool to partake in some of the Avalon Pacts far down the line that I have yet to unlock. Also worth pointing out is that, at least in the games I have played, everyone seemed to make a honest effort to work together. The lengths that I and some of the others would go to to save each other are what co-op gaming is all about. I did not experience any asinine sacrifices I'm pleased to say. Interestingly, the downed player can press to have his character request to not only be saved, but also sacrificed. Whether your teammates heed your request is not guaranteed, though.
In terms of presentation, Soul Sacrifice is mostly good, but not without its flaws. I have to admit, I can hardly stand the opera-esque music that plays while perusing Librom. The laughing sound Librom makes when you select to "Read Journal" gets grating after hours, too. On the other hand, I really liked the distorted voice of the narrator reading Librom and, though basic, the sound of the pages turning. Effects in-quest are fine, and the music there is better than that aforementioned as well. Graphically, Soul Sacrifice most excels in the variety of spells (including the massive Black Rite spells) and boss-class monsters. The 'horde' or common type monsters repeat quite a bit and are far less interesting than the piles of slime, the minotaurs, or the cyclop's you encounter. These monsters look quite good and they, as well as everything else, display fluidly.
With that, let's get to the summary...