Smoke and Sacrifice begins with a narrative smack across the chops that you’re unlikely to forget. What follows is a tough but fair survival game that, to Solar Sails’ credit, manages to retain its character throughout its generous running time. As Sachi, you embark on a quest to find your son, taken from you as part of a ritual thought to sustain your village, and enter a shadowy world where there are is little respite from the constant dangers that surround you.
Never mind indie games, there are few AAA titles out there that look as arresting as Smoke and Sacrifice. Beautiful hand-drawn art lends Sachi and the various residents of the underworld a look that’s strikingly unique, with Tancred Dyke-Wells’ eye for twisted steam-punk fantasy consistently setting the tone. When tied to the animation, which is akin to Japanese Bunraku, you get the sense of being drawn into a dark diorama, a piece of incredible theatre which you’re a part of.
Taking the survival elements of games like Don’t Starve, tasking the player with scavenging and crafting in order to remain alive, Smoke and Sacrifice merges them with the ongoing quest and narrative structure of an action RPG, and it’s a wonderful match. It’s a world you’ll be interested in, with an interplay between the wildlife and yourself forming the beating heart of the game, while the often grotesque and macabre characters remain compelling, despite a fairly minimal narrative drive.
As you explore the world you learn more crafting recipes which in turn enables you to progress further, and the gear gating brings it closer to something like the Legend of Zelda, steadily allowing you access and the ability to interact with more of the world as you grow.
The difference here is that you’re on a constant knife-edge between life or death – mostly death – and besides the array of wildlife, the world itself is out to get you with the titular smoke that descends every night. It saps your health and makes creatures more dangerous, but then these more powerful enemies will have different drops, forcing you on occasion to engage when really all you want to do is run away, hide and wait for morning.
Combat itself is relatively limited, with your means of attack dictated by the weapon you’re using, and even when upgrading these tools the game keeps you uncomfortable meaning you still never feel wholly confident as the enemies just get bigger, tougher and scarier. There’s still a great deal of excitement to a new weapon or piece of armour, as it offers you just a hint of extra safety, and there are some very cool options as you progress.
For a game that relies on crafting and jumping into the menus often, Smoke and Sacrifice doesn’t excel in making that easy to do. The contents of your pouch are just stuffed into slots as you collect them, and while you can rearrange them by hand there’s no catch-all option to do that automatically, meaning you have to rely on being able to recognise the icon for each thing. They are at least moments of respite from the every-present danger you’re in, pausing the action while you rummage around for something to aid your failing health.
Interacting with others is similarly obtuse, and despite collecting the correct items and conversing with them, there’s an arbitrarily different button to press to hand something over. To interact with quest items you also have to dip back into that annoying pouch, find them, and then select the correct action, when most games would let you just go up to the thing you want to ineract with and hit ‘A’.
While your pouch is pretty unhelpful, the sprawling map and the quest log are much more robust, and you should be able to stay on top of where you’re heading and why you’re going there, even as you gather a few side quests along the way. There’s a very functional fast travel system that uses Drear Tokens to unlock them, allowing you to build yourself a network as you go, and they can be a literal lifesaver when you need to hop back and craft something desperately.
On Switch it’s a shame that Smoke and Sacrifice doesn’t run quite as well as you’d hope, with some occasional frame-skipping and slow down when there’s a lot going on, mainly when playing docked, and I even had a single hard crash. You definitely need to be saving often – and if you’re not you’re definitely some kind of sadist – so in this instance it didn’t hurt too much to jump back in. Hopefully they’re all things that can be ironed out with a patch or two, and by and large the game isn’t too badly affected, but it does detract from what is otherwise a fantastic piece of art.
A dark and twisted fantasy RPG which uses elements of survival games to great effect, Smoke and Sacrifice is a beautiful piece of indie software. Tonally and physically challenging, the artistry on display sets it apart from its peers, creating a foreboding world that’s well worth being drawn into.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Also available on PC