This review was originally written for One Hit Pixel, found here.
The Monster Hunter series sitting in Nintendo’s pocket left a hole in the PlayStation Portable’s heart. Monster Hunter’s style of mission-based multiplayer (often called Hunting Action) was a major draw to the Sony handheld. So when the PlayStation Vita arrived and Monster Hunter wasn’t around to claim its usual spot, a surge of competitors arose to take the throne.
And surprising everyone, Keiji Inafune got involved. Yeah, the Mega Man/Mighty No.9 guy. His entry, Soul Sacrifice, was one of the earliest titles for the Vita and it did… underwhelmingly. As with any new IP, it had teething problems.
The challenge in Monster Hunter is how limited your abilities can be – attacks are slow and leave you open. Running and dodging consumes stamina. You spend as much time chasing your target as you do fighting it.
Soul Sacrifice has its challenges, but they rarely overlap with the Monster Hunter framework. Your attacks are agile and rapid, you can run and roll indefinitely, and quests put you right up in the target’s face with no scouting required.
Ultimately, it wasn’t the exact experience veterans craved and that left it critically lacking.
Soul Sacrifice Delta is the result of a return to the drawing board – taking the base game and tweaking the mechanics but more importantly adding new content. While it didn’t magically become Monster Hunter in the transition, the experience has been polished to a sheen, enjoyable in a context wholly separate from its peers. In fact, the presence of Delta renders the first game thoroughly obsolete, and has, in a way, a second game’s worth of new things to play.
It gets Grimm from here on out
Soul Sacrifice‘s premise is how the tales of European myth would play out if magic was based around sacrificing something in exchange. Anyone has access to magic if they’re desperate enough but humans giving into such powerful desire will swiftly turn into monsters.
Sorcerers are the unfortunate souls tasked with hunting down these monsters, and sacrificing them. The player is not a sorcerer themselves, but relives the experiences of one through a distressingly fleshy (and chatty) magic book, Librom.
The game embraces the themes of sacrifice and written legends utterly. It’s hardly subtext – You are constantly reminded that your combat abilities work through sacrifice in some fashion, and every story mission is narrated as a blood-spattered picture book.
The lore pages are definitely of note – it’s not just a bestiary, but a series of short stories on every monster and location. Knowing precisely how and why the Harpy came into being both gives you some hints about its combat ability, but also can make you think twice over whether sacrificing a target is the right thing to do.
So… do you use your left or right arm to do it?
In fact, sacrificing isn’t always the answer. Anyone defeated in the field can be saved or sacrificed. At first, all you need to know is that saving something will restore your health, and sacrificing will restore the strength of your weapons (which have limited uses and can break for the remainder of the fight if over-extended).
But soon enough you will be introduced to the idea of Life and Magic experience, gained by saving and sacrificing respectively. They go towards two separate level counts that have a combined maximum of 100 – Life increasing your defence and healing capabilities, Magic increasing your damage-dealing.
Soon, your decisions will be based on whether you want to favour a particular type of experience, and once the game wheels out alternate Sorcerer factions that instead of slaying foes favour saving all monsters and straight up leaving it to fate, you begin to feel committed to an ideology.
I’d give an arm and a leg for that
The constant talk of saving and sacrificing gives the game a very bittersweet tone. You quickly learn that the story arcs are destined to never end well. While none of the forces at play are objectively ‘evil’, no one enters into the world of magic and makes it out unscathed.
There is a very palpable sense of both horror and terror in Soul Sacrifice Delta. Contrary to what you might think, they’re actually separate concepts.
In Gothic literature, horror is the feeling of revulsion. Soul Sacrifice‘s visuals are all very meaty. The humans transformed into monsters are pretty repulsive, and I won’t forget the first time my character used a Black Rite (one-time super spell that uses your own body as the sacrifice) by ripping out his own eye, compete with screams and gouts of blood.
Terror, on the other hand is the suspense and feelings of dread. Knowing that all of your resources in combat are ever-dwindling is a heavy burden – as did the screen going almost entirely black after that aforesaid eye-gouging. In multiplayer, the knowledge that other players can (an often do) sacrifice you should you die is a great motivator to be helpful.
Your story begins here
While the plot of Soul Sacrifice deals with a rigid set of characters, you’re given a lot of customisation depth. There are hundreds of Offerings at your disposal, across 37 different types. You are limited to carrying only six into battle, but if Pokémon has taught us anything, restriction can draw out creativity.
Indeed, experimentation and using a few different Offerings in tandem produces powerful results. Summon a golem, and use a roaring attack to split it into mini-golems. Non-elemental weapons can absorb the element of nearby floating mines.
Character customisation is decent. There are a wide number of outfits (here called Raiments) to unlock, purchased from an in-game shop. You can mix and match the top and bottom of Raiments, with an even larger number of hats and accessories.
Although the narrator and protagonist of the story is male, you’re able to have a female player character who gets outfits decidedly more Hot Topic than Dark Souls. It strikes me as odd only because the monsters in the game have a decent mix of genders, and make no real attempts at being sexy.
Female sorcerers in the plotline are never the gruff badasses the dudes are and suffer from the same revealing wardrobe female player characters get. However, the characters that have some of the largest impact on the story are women, which is nice.
Soul Sacrifice Delta aims to fill the spot of Monster Hunter, and while it’s definitely not that series, it’s a perfectly good alternative. Completing all the story chapters is already an entertaining time-sink, but if you want to put the extra hours in, there are plenty of extra missions to complete, with new ones made available online every so often.
There’s even a (very challenging) endless mode, which is a great way to test out new weapon loadouts and teamwork skills.
It’s not necessarily a better game (there is something satisfying about specifically crafting weapons and armour from your kills that Soul Sacrifice doesn’t feature), but the way it takes its story themes into its game mechanics and back again is a wonder, and a new personal benchmark of how gameplay can evoke a theme.