Soul Sacrifice, Sony’s first party answer to a still absent Monster Hunter, doesn’t really warrant such a lazy comparison. The Japan Studio developed title might look at first glance like Capcom’s ubiquitous series, but it’s quickly obvious that there’s enough individuality here that – ultimately – there’s room for both. Not that there are any signs of the currently Nintendo-favouring titles appearing on Sony’s portable anytime soon.
But here’s the thing: whilst the first chunk of Soul Sacrifice is hardly the stuff of dreams (it’s a little clunky to navigate the oddly inconsistent menus and UI, and it’s resolutely ugly in plenty of places) it doesn’t take long for things to start to take hold. The action is swift, the magic system near flawless and the difficulty curve pitched superbly – it’s tricky, but there’s that sense that just one more attempt will seal the deal and progress the story.
That story, oddly enough, is delivered piecemeal by an Evil Dead-aping talking book, a most bemusedly animated character that punctuates the plot with a slightly off-putting mixture of directed forward momentum and constant teasing. “Oh, you’re not ready to read that bit yet,” he coaxes, flicking back through pages you didn’t really have time to read anyway.
The book takes the form of a journal, and the player can – eventually – pick and choose their path with a certain amount of freedom from the previous adventurers of a currently-unknown author. It works because the story has multiple angles and needs an objective teller to weave the threads together, but it’s evident that there’s more to come from the freakishly designed compendium before the game is done.
Playing through a special demo version of the game, I found Soul Sacrifice to be hugely enjoyable. Once the exposition gathers pace and the player is dipping into the stories found in the book with some sense of purpose, the monsters, demons and other sorcerers start to pose not only a considerable challenge but one that requires a fair amount of tactical decision-making.
It’s not just the pre-battle choice of weapons that need attention, but on the ground players need to pick wisely, and sparingly. Mapped to Square, Triangle and Circle (at will) players can cycle between two sets of three abilities (the right trigger acts as a ‘shift’) which can vary from simple close-quarter sword attacks to ice spells or healing portions.
Downed enemies grant additional abilities, all of which have limited use before they expire. X is used to pick up and run.
The ability choice becomes ever more important as the enemies get tougher. No spoilers here, but it was only after bumbling through the first handful of levels before decisions needed to be made as to the direction my player character would go in. Opting for longer range attacks might suit some, but close-up brawling deals greater damage, and some of the abilities obtained from the main bad guys need delicate, precise aiming lest they be lost without ever making contact.
The ‘sacrifice’ element to the game is yet to really come into fruition, so far limited to a binary ‘save or not’ system (mapped to either trigger) which in turn translates to RPG-esque leveling up of one of two co-existing ranks. There were a couple of points in the demo that didn’t make a huge amount of sense (saving a soul isn’t always the best idea, apparently) but hopefully further plot development will iron out any issues there.
Visually it’s a bit messy, too. The environments are (literally, in the sense of the ground) rather flat, textures are hardly consistent and the ‘chaotic’ angle the book tries to portray just ends up looking confused. During battles everything shifts around nicely and some of the monsters are deliciously evil looking, that much is true, but there are definitely sharper, cleaner looking Vita games out there.
Regardless, where it counts, Soul Sacrifice ticks the right boxes. The combat system is deep enough to appeal to seasoned hunters and once the game opens up there’s plenty of variety – the multiplayer angle remains untested for now, but those familiar with the way Capcom’s game worked (or, to a lesser degree, SEGA’s Phantasy Star Online) will appreciate this portable-focused adventure.
Soul Sacrifice releases in May, exclusively on PS Vita.