The opening moments of Smoke and Sacrifice are brutal. Not in a God of War, beheaded enemy kind of way, but in what is asked of you within a few minutes of playing. You play as Sachi, a woman who lives in a tiny farm community which is protected from harm by the light of the Sun Tree, a strange piece of Steampunk technology. The village, which is governed by members of the priesthood, believes that its continuing safety requires human sacrifices, and so they perform the Rite of the Firstborn, sacrificing each family’s first-born child to the Sun Tree.
As Sachi, you being the game toiling in the fields. This simple, pastoral opening belies the events which follow, seeing you collect your tiny son Lio and then walk disconsolately to the temple, all the while knowing, and fearing, what is to follow. You can try to run away, but it doesn’t work, and you almost immediately have to come to terms with placing your child on an altar and watching him disappear. As impactful openings go, it’s jaw dropping.
Seven years later though, and things are beginning to go wrong. The light of the Sun Tree is fading, allowing vicious creatures to find their way into the village, and the members of the priesthood are nowhere to be found in the midst of this chaos. A mysterious stranger convinces you that everything is not as it seems and that Lio may in fact still be alive, and so you set out in search of your son, delving deep into the hidden and twisted world beneath the one you know.
Smoke and Sacrifice is an epic dark fantasy action RPG, which sets itself apart from the crowd with the addition of survival mechanics. Besides a huge, heartfelt narrative, players will need to make use of things they discover from exploring the world in order to survive, crafting new weapons or protective clothing. Tancred Dyke-Wells, one of the co-founders of Solar Sail played through the opening with me, saying, “We very much wanted to do a narrative-led emotionally driven story, and although it has superficial elements of games like Don’t Starve, it’s much more of a hero’s journey.”
That’s not to say that the survival elements don’t play an integral part, and wandering about the world collecting items, whether from gathering or from slaying enemies, and then turning them into useful items is a loop that works incredibly well. There’s a real sense that this is a living, integrated ecosystem. Tancred continued, “The aspects of those games, that style of game; what we do love is the living world and the emergent gameplay, and the relationships between plants and creatures. That’s something that we’ve tried to maximise for this.”
The game’s art style is striking, and utilising a hand-painted aesthetic plays a huge part in conveying the melancholic air that Smoke and Sacrifice has as its heart. The character designs range from the gentle appearance of Sachi and the other workers in your homestead, through to the grotesque Pogbears and other equally dangerous denizens of the underworld, all of which display a wonderfully imaginative take on the fantasy genre.
Both the art and the sound design feed into the incredibly atmospheric setting, and there’s a real sense of menace to the world that you’re exploring. Sachi isn’t supposed to be there, a fact made abundantly clear in the game’s opening, but she’s driven and determined to attempt to find her child, no matter what she might be faced with. The Smoke of the title is also a looming, omnipresent danger, setting in at the close of every day, and you’ll need to find ways to create light, or stick close to it, if you’re going to survive to see another day.
The game’s systems, from the interaction between the creatures, plant life and yourself, to the mechanics themselves all support the preoccupation with life and death. Tancred pointing out, “This is a game that you have to manually save. If you die, you get returned to your last save point and lose your progress, as we’re trying to be like those older games where it counted if you died. It’s not a Roguelike, but death does have meaning.”
Combat plays an integral part in gathering and in your progression, and while you start from a position of weakness you’ll become far more powerful as you advance through the game, with the promise of plenty of epic moments along the way. “It’s a huge game, 30-50 hours,” Tancred said. “Mid to late game there’s giant creatures and you’re going to be in Iron Man, Steampunk-style armour equipped with guns and bombs and all sorts of things. It becomes very combat heavy, very action orientated.”
As an indie RPG, Smoke and Sacrifice is tackling a genre that’s too often dominated by huge companies with bottomless coffers. Based on the game’s opening though, Solar Sail are turning their position as outsiders into one of strength, with a beautiful, unique take on the fantasy adventure that asks difficult questions about life, death, and parental bonds. It undoubtedly feels as though it will have all the answers when it releases later this year.