I have made a great many sacrifices.
Between my own memories and my victims’,
I can no longer safely distinguish.
Was it truly I that authored this journal…?
The narrator in Soul Sacrifice, a sorcerer, has some problems. His trade requires him to kill marauding monsters roaming the dark fantasy landscape of Keiji Inafune’s strange new Vita title, though these beasts were once human. Corrupted by greed (or other material sin), ordinary people wanting nothing more than some measure of escape from the misery and toil of such a world took on hideous new form—the memories and thoughts of which are stored interminably in the sorcerer’s right arm following their slaughter.
Compounding this is the death of the sorcerer’s partner, the unfortunate outcome of a kill-or-be-killed duel and a long ago necessity to complete initiation rites into Soul Sacrifice’s magical order. She, as the unnamed magician’s penned thoughts often reflect, remains an ethereal presence with him in tortured perpetuity. She will not let the sorcerer forget his act. Nor will her dormant, insatiable bloodlust cease, even as it pulses within his forearm’s veins. Of course this unquenchable thirst to do violence, in tandem with the mingling of his victims’ would-be souls, is slowly driving the sorcerer insane. This all sounds pretty interesting, right?
On paper, Soul Sacrifice has a lot going for it. It’s an action-RPG that appears to carry a hybrid design sensibility straddling the line between Monster Hunter’s co-op and the inherent, challenging dread of Dark Souls’ Lordran. Here you’re essentially working your way through a cursed tome, re-living past feats of the unnamed sorcerer. As it turns out, this means little more than fighting through untold numbers of five-minute battle scenarios in order to grind and gain new equipment.
It’s a vicious cycle. New spells and abilities, harking back to Ocarina of Time’s customizable control scheme and fleshed out in the style of a sloppier, lower-rent Dragon’s Dogma, can be used to change up weaponry, magic, defensive and support abilities as needed—which is often, given the frequency of different elemental variant enemies you’ll encounter.
Yet it’s all in service of more combat. What Inafune intended on delivering, a bizarre multiplayer-ish experience where sacrificing oneself (or one’s allies) was as crucial a gameplay component as it was to its thematic core, just isn’t really here.
Blood offerings are nevertheless still part of the game’s lore. A sorcerer is bound by the order’s code to take the life of those who have become monsters, even when their last shred of humanity begs for mercy before death. It is unusual (and, tragically, so close to genuinely engaging) to see a massive pumpkin-chested demon or a bloated, horrific harpy screaming about how much they miss their mother, or how a lost lover has abandoned them (excellently portrayed, even, through subtitles and unsettling voicework approximating an ancient tongue).
Narratively, it’s the price these aberrations pay for allowing themselves to fall to the lore’s incomprehensible corruption. In practical design, the outcome of this would-be moral choice is merely the difference between raising your defensive stats or gaining experience for dark magical powers. (Which nets you which is pretty obvious, I’m sure.)
It works the same way for you. Should a comrade fall in battle, you can again choose to resurrect or offer up their life, respectively letting them rejoin the fray or using gruesome death to bring about a supposedly cataclysmic spell that will devastate any and all it comes in contact with. At the same time if you’re the one who falls, you can either tell your friend to sacrifice you, kill yourself (the same thing, practically) or make an entreaty for revival.
This can result in a few different outcomes, though it should be noted that bothering with this mechanic at all is only potentially worthwhile for towering boss encounters. If you’ve sacrificed an ally, the screen will rain down projectiles at random intervals in bloody vengeance for about five seconds. If you’re sacrificed, you turn into a ghost, like a poor man’s summon in Dark Souls, providing attack boosts to anyone still alive and weakening a monster’s defense.
That said, the gesture is all but worthless when playing with NPCs. The scattershot sacrifice spell rarely hits a boss more than a few times, whereas groups of enemies in a lesser mission can be button-mashed to death with ease.
Choosing to offer yourself up fares no better. No matter how many stat boots you try to give your AI companions, their myopically one-sided command path results in their quick death, particularly against Sacrifice’s myriad hulking foes. Don’t even think to ask for help in the wake of a giant beast, either. Partners will beeline toward you regardless of any impending danger, crumpling to the ground in seconds.
Online play is a similarly insulting. There doesn’t appear to be any option to let your PSN friends enter the fray with you when tackling a story mission, meaning right off the bat you’re relegated to the C-list extra quests tucked away in a comparatively unread section of the tome. Seemingly neutering multiplayer access to the main meat of the game—the only motivation you’ll have to keep playing Sacrifice in the first place—boggles the mind, and somehow quests in groups are at least as bad as playing solo.
Regardless of which side of the sacrificial spectrum you’re on, the mechanic remains a tired gimmick in multiplayer, where taking a life yields the same ineffectual sacrifice spell. The allure of affecting change as a ghost in the furious battle of the still-living wears off in less than 30 seconds, as your spectral abilities begin and end with the power to spam your status change spells repeatedly. You’ll sooner want to just bow out of the match entirely.
You’d think, given its modus operandi, that the game would allow you a full suite of complex and interesting sacrificial abilities when choosing to backstab a friend. Whatever hidden depths the design may yield aren’t worth the investment.
Without more sophisticated ways to interact with what’s supposed to be the thematic core of the game, Sacrifice becomes as baffling as it is existentially unsound. Trying to follow the senseless logic here may make you angry (it’s senseless!). But you won’t find any real answers.
To be fair, Soul Sacrifice has some wonderful elements. Reliving the journal of a bloodthirsty wandering sorcerer is at least a unique way to present the repetitive and usually joyless “kill all monsters” and “find the hidden items” missions. When you do gear up for a boss encounter, the strong art direction helps somewhat offset the paltry, invisible-walled levels that make up the entire game world—this is in some ways only an “RPG” in the barest sense of the word.
I was also surprisingly taken with Sacrifice’s moody classical soundtrack and black narrative, chronicling the madness and grief (and at times even pity) of the unnamed sorcerer, slowly losing his grip on reality, destined himself for eventual death.
Invoking black rites, a type of self-sacrifice originally touted as the game’s big hook, is a fascinating notion, as well. Enacting self-immolation or ripping out one’s spine to form a sword in battle at the cost of severe stat reductions sounds like an innovative design appropriate for a dark fantasy, especially since the rite’s debt must be paid through somewhat finite resources. Still, like nearly everything else here, its tepid delivery doesn’t quite work.
Upon first booting Sacrifice, the first image you see is a hellish mosaic: a pair of monstrous warriors clad in spiked, irregular mail and tattered cloaks, wielding unnatural arms hideously conjured, as if made from spidery flesh and blackened obsidian, bracing for battle with nightmarish grotesqueries in a furious, debris-field shockwave of lightning and fire. From here you can imagine you and a friend in this position, having traversed hell and chaos to get to this climactic point where loyalty becomes a question.
Wouldn’t that have been great?
Steve Haske is a gun-for-hire journalist based out of the Pacific Northwest who writes for EGM, Edge, Unwinnable and a host of other publications. You can find him on Twitter @afraidtomerge.