Keiji Inafune's departure from Capcom left fans wondering what the future would bring. Inafune was the man behind some of Capcom's biggest franchises. Soul Sacrifice is Inafune's first offering since parting with Capcom, and at its heart, it's an attempt to compete with Capcom's Monster Hunter franchise, which is super successful in Japan. While Soul Sacrifice doesn't quite live up to that lofty goal, but it is still an interesting, if flawed, title for Vita owners.
Soul Sacrifice exists in a dark world. Monster hunters, known as Sorcerers, slay horrible and corrupt creatures. One sorcerer, the powerful Magusar, seems to have gone completely mad and is slaughtering everything in his path. You begin as a caged prisoner. A failed escape attempt by a fellow prisoner leaves you in possession of Librom, a talking magical tome. Librom can take someone through the sorcerer's life, allowing the reader to learn the magic. The player must finish the book before Magusar comes and use the power to escape from prison.
Soul Sacrifice offers an interesting world that is held back by the method of delivery. Instead of exploring the world, you merely gain insight about it through the disjointed writing inside Librom. You're confined to your, cell and it represents everything that you'll see aside from the occasional battle arena. The characters are uninteresting, and they're hindered by some awful voice acting. Nier managed to evoke a similarly dark and interesting world, complete with magical tome, but without confining you to one small area and small snippets of written text. There are some interesting elements to the plot, but they're not worth playing on their own.
Soul Sacrifice is a clear take on the Monster Hunter formula. Most stages involve battling a giant boss, known as an Archfiend, in a large arena. Occasionally, they'll be aided by lesser fiends, but they're more of a distraction than anything else. The goal is to take out all of the Archfiends, and unfortunately, this is where the comparison to Monster Hunter really hurts. The Archfiends are interesting designs, but they're not as interesting to fight when compared to the creatures in Monster Hunter. The AI patterns are more simplistic and have a harder time dealing with techniques like spamming ranged attacks from outside of their range. There also isn't a lot of variety to the monsters. You'll face the same basic enemies from start to finish, and that makes it harder to get invested in hunting down an Archfiend. Once you run into monsters that fight exactly the same but are ice-flavored instead of fire-flavored, it takes some of the fun out of the game.
Combat in Soul Sacrifice revolves around Offerings, which are magic spells that come in a variety of forms. Some are weapon types, which temporarily give you a weapon to perform physical melee attacks. Some are magical spells that can damage or stun an enemy, and some are passive buffs that grant armor or shields. While it seems like there are a bewildering amount of Offerings, there's only a small selection but with different elements. You can get an earth shield, a fire shield, an ice shield and so on. Each Offering can be powered up or evolved into new forms. They're fun to use, but they never really feel like a weapon that you worked hard to earn. They're largely interchangeable, making it difficult to want to power them up further.
In combat, most Offerings have a limited number of usages. Weapon and shield-type Offerings allow one usage per activation and only require another usage once your weapon vanishes. Managing your Offering usages is a big part of the game. The Archfiends, the nastiest monsters on the field, are incredibly durable and effortlessly tank through tons of damage. If you go into a battle unprepared, you'll be completely tapped out. There are spells hidden around the arena that can give you a little pick-me-up, but you shouldn't rely on them.
This is where the titular sacrifice system comes into play. Every enemy in the game is an unfortunate mutated creature, ranging from cats and rats to human beings. When an enemy is defeated, it temporarily returns to its original form. At this point, you have two options: save or sacrifice. Saving an enemy heals them of their corruption, and it grants you additional health but occasionally reduces your overall attack. Healing certain humans also allows you to recruit them into your party as AI companions. On the other hand, sacrifice restores your Offering charges and increases your attack power. Whichever you choose gradually influences your morality, and committing firmly to one side unlocks new sigils that you can use to power up your character.
It's a surprisingly interesting morality system. The obvious and tempting choice is to save everyone, but that comes at a cost. If you don't sacrifice, you'll find it hard to restore your Offerings and you'll do less damage. On the other hand, someone who slaughters everything in their path won't have useful AI companions and will have a difficult time surviving attacks due to low health. You really have to consider each choice. Is it worth sacrificing a pack of rats to restore your much-needed charges, or will you save them?
The save/sacrifice system is a neat and natural evolution of the play style, but it felt limiting. Fully committing to either one assigns players into specific builds. If you save people, you won't do much damage, and the limitations on your Offerings become a big deal. On the other hand, there are sets of offerings that have unlimited usages but use up your health. I could have switched between save and sacrifice to balance it out, but I never felt the need, and investing firmly in one side ended up being more useful.
Regardless of how you play, it's unfortunate that the game is fairly grindy. If you save everyone, you'll need to replay stages and areas to build up your attack Offering charges. If you sacrifice everyone, you'll need to do that for support Offerings to make up for your lower health. Going for a middle ground means that you'll need to grind both to unlock the stronger sigils that you need. This wouldn't be so bad if the monsters fought differently or if there were new and exciting things to encounter. Once you've fought one Orc though, you've fought a million of them.
The multiplayer mode balances this out a little. Players can hop online and take on Archfiends with other players. All of the same basic mechanics are in play, right down to the save/sacrifice system. When a player goes down, he or she can be saved or sacrificed by another player on the field. Saving brings them back to life, and sacrificing kills them for the rest of the match but unleashes a powerful attack in exchange. It's an interesting balance. Saving is more useful early on, but toward the end of the match, you might be sacrificed to help your allies.
All of this may sound negative, but Soul Sacrifice isn't a bad game. It just runs into the problem of trying to ape another more popular franchise without being as good. When you're playing the game, especially during the early sections where new content is fresh and available, it's a lot of fun. Likewise, getting into the multiplayer helps alleviate many of the frustrations due to the presence of other people. The only constant problem Soul Sacrifice runs into is that, if given a choice, anyone would pick Monster Hunter over it. Interesting ideas alone are not enough to match the polish that Capcom's game offers.
Soul Sacrifice is a great-looking game, though. The monster design is grotesque and interesting, and there is a lot of effort and detail in how the horrible creatures move. The human characters are well animated, and there are some subtle touches that give them more life. Unfortunately, the battle environments are small and empty. A couple look nice, but for the most part, they're large, open fields for the fights to take place. The voice acting is rather awful, and the optional Japanese voice pack is a recommended download to improve that. For a Vita game, Soul Sacrifice looks top-notch.
Soul Sacrifice is forever doomed to stand in the shadow of its big brother. Inafune may have created some of Capcom's most enduring games, but in this case, he comes in second to his old company's offerings. With that said, Soul Sacrifice still has a lot going for it. The combat is fun, and the basic ideas are flawed but interesting. Someone looking for a Monster Hunter game after finishing all of the available Monster Hunter titles will likely have a good time with Soul Sacrifice.
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