Coming into Soul Sacrifice I was expecting a button masher of a hack n' slash. That's not at all the case as Keiji Inafune's action-RPG proves a very tactical experience where the player is given a wealth of abilities, customisation options and choices.
Soul Sacrifice sees you begin the game locked up in cage awaiting your execution at the hands of an all powerful sorcerer named Magusar. Now, you may think that escape is your best course of action, but a peek outside reveals that you're probably not better off outside as fire and brimstone dominate the scenery. Underneath a pile of bones in the cage next to yours lies a book. A talking book named Librom. Turns out Librom is a book chronicling Magusar's work, and what better way to pass time awaiting your doom than with a good book?
Well, Librom actually lets you relive phantom quests, telling the story of Magusar and other sorcerers, while allowing you to write the fates of some of the archfiends and characters you run into. It's a journey through all kinds of mythologically themed environments and dangers, where you'll need to think carefully about what offerings (powers or abilities) your bringing with you, what sigils (basically perks) you carve into your arm, and whether you choose to save or sacrifies your fallen foes (increasing your life and magic respectively). You grow stronger and one day perhaps you'll be strong enough to challenge Magusar.
Let's not beat around the bush. Soul Sacrifice is heavy on grinding. You're going to be visiting the same areas and face the same monsters over and over again as you grind for offerings, saves and sacrifices. The nature of the mostly enclosed arenas also underline the grindfest aspect of the game, even if it also helps focus things when playing co-operatively. An interesting aspect of the game is the fact that you can level up to 100, opting either to focus on vitality or magic - the ability to absorb damage or deal it out.
Ever since Phantasy Star Online I've played action-RPGs on console with three abilities/attacks mapped to the top three face button using one of the trigger to shift to a secondary set of abilities. Soul Sacrifice uses the same system for its offerings, but offerings are not just mere attacks or abilities - they add a tactical component to the game that cannot be understated. First of all offerings are limited, you're not always equipped with one, and they will be depleted if overused (and that means you're going to have to spend a bit of Lacrima (Librom's tears - yes, this book weaps and the tears are a currency of sorts) to recover them.
Not only are there tons of different offerings, both offensive, defensive, ranged, melee, area of effect based, but these can also be fused into new offerings and upgraded. After each quest you're rewarded with additional offerings, and they fall into various elemental categories and key to defeating archfiends (bosses) is to find out what they're vulnerable to. There are also black rites, extremely powerful spells where the player makes a sacrifice in order to deal a lot of damage - for instance the first black rite you learn halves your defense after use (this effect can be undone with Lacrima).
This reimagination of the action-RPG won't appeal to everyone. In fact, it took me several hours to wrap my head around the basic concepts and figure out my strategies. There are things that still rub me the wrong way - I like feedback when combatting enemies. The lack of health bars (you see these if you choose death), when in normal combat still frustrates me (you can see their status as green, yellow and red colours when activating Mind's Eye). The lack of visible numbers (health or damage), will force you make some less than informed tactical choices in the heat of the battle.
Monster Hunter was without a doubt the most important game franchise on PSP in Japan, and with no Monster Hunter on PS Vita - Soul Sacrifice was positioned to satisfy the hunters. But while Soul Sacrifice shares some traits with Monster Hunter, it stands tall on its own merits.
When played with others online Soul Sacrifice really comes alive. A lot of the offerings that are kind of useless in singleplayer come into play, and it's sometimes hard to keep up with the action as it unfolds on screen. But the nature of Soul Sacrifice becomes even more apparent when you can opt to sacrifice fallen friends to unleash powerful spells, or revive them. And they can either call for help or choose death - and aid players as a spirit touching fellow players to up their attack and the enemy to lower its defences.
As far as production values goes Soul Sacrifice delivers a great orchestral soundtrack that sets the mood for your dark adventures. The visuals won't rival PS3 counterparts and the limited geometry of the environments makes for a somewhat underwhelming technical side - the occasional framerate issue was also experienced in online play. From a design point of view the game manages to give a fresh look to subjects that have been covered in video games time and time again, which must be considered a positive. The themes of sins, sacrifice and corruption are captured in every enemy and archfiend you encounter as well as your AI partners.
I haven't said much of the story, and while it's nicely presented with voice over and writing appearing in the book, most of it is rather forgettable. A good thing then that you can flip through the pages of Librom and focus on the action.
There is a ton of depth in Soul Sacrifice even if it only truly surfaces when played co-operatively. It can be seen as a flawed masterpiece and is likely to attain some sort of cult status on the fledgling platform. If you're ready to invest countless hours and have a hankering for some online grinding, then Soul Sacrifice provides a novel experience that will challenge your notions of what an action-RPG should be.