Given Monster Hunter’s shift to Nintendo in recent years, and that franchise’s almost single-handed propping up of the PSP in Japan, it’s understandable that Sony would want a new hack-and-slash pseudo-RPG for the Vita.
Soul Sacrifice’s inspirations are clear in gameplay, if not story. Starting as a captive destined to be consumed by the dark mage Magusar, you find brief respite through a mouthy tome called Librom – a flesh-bound monstrosity that’s effectively the Necronomicon’s sarcastic kid brother. Reading its pages allows you to relive chapters of another sorcerer’s life in the past, learning magic yourself by channelling their experiences. Each stage offers demonic creatures to slaughter, with their remains harvested to power up your spells. Combat works well for the most part, with a good selection of spells and melee attacks to hammer away with, though camera controls and targeting are a constant problem. Areas are also usually small with little scope for exploration, and objectives rarely extend beyond kill quests.
The biggest difference is one of tone. Where Monster Hunter routinely offers up a curiously cheery round of beastie slaying, Soul Sacrifice goes for dark fantasy. Very dark, in fact – the game is filled with impressive and often genuinely disturbing monsters, while its lore contains cannibalistic sorcerers, mutilation and gory magic-fuelled murders. It almost seems to be trying too hard at being grim and gritty though, occasionally feeling farcical when the content should be shocking.
Where the game stands apart though is its core concept of sacrifice. The cost of using magic is physical deformation, with your character’s body parts offered up in times of dire need in exchange for power. This causes semi-permanent status impediments – reduced vision and accuracy if you traded your eyes, stunted mobility for lost limbs, and so on – until you restore them using Librom’s rare tears. Sacrifice is also central to the game’s growth and balancing system. Each victory lets you choose to save or damn the enemy’s soul. Saving boosts health, while sacrificing grants power. It’s a great alternative to the typical experience points system, and being forced to consider the morality of your actions – constant narrative reminders that sorcerers are murderers, meant to kill rather than redeem those overwhelmed by magic – provides an oddly powerful emotional weight.
The brevity of the missions makes Soul Sacrifice perfect for the portable format, and its more innovative ideas make the game worth a look for Vita owners. Sadly, repetitive action and some truly awful English voice acting will prove off-putting after a while.
Reviewed by Matt Kamen