Soul Sacrifice is a steady ascent to superiority over your captor, a mad sorcerer named Magusar. You can provoke and challenge him from within your fetid cage at any time, but ultimate victory requires toil, repetition and mastery of the same magic that imprisons you. You'll have to play the game to get out, which makes you wonder what the real trap is.
Freedom through power is your goal in the game's fiction and function, with progression framed in a living, speaking journal covered by a contorted face. The cheeky diary, named Librom, recalls the inner turmoil and exploits of Magusar's former partner, from whom you acquire magic and memories packaged as short, perfect-for-portable quests. Discovering the author's identity and exploits is an intriguing, incremental accompaniment to your own gestation as a powerful conjurer.
Soul Sacrifice is a game you play more for the beach than for the sand. Like other sagas that spin around the aggressive acquisition of beastie bits, there is less reward in the act of fighting than the result – and in the case of bigger battles, "epicness" is often conflated with "duration." Soul Sacrifice has no pretense of exploration or towns, just a distilled drip-feed of enclosed arenas and creature extermination that enables new spells, augmented magical prowess or a greater life expectancy for the next challenge. There's a twist, but to describe it as such pins the idea to Soul Sacrifice like a tail, when it's respectably woven throughout every facet. Everything in the game is an offering on the altar of You; the world exists to be depleted in your desire for more power. You pull your spells from exhaustible items, which turn to dust unless you reinvigorate them, and you gain the most magic power from sacrificing archfiends and injured companions. Every attack, be it fireball or stone fist, exacts a toll somewhere. No such thing as a free lunge.
You have opportunity to rescue and purify each fallen creature, thereby extending your health and durability, rather than the offensive capability earned by sacrificing, but it's not quite a choice of trite morality. As the prisoner of Soul Sacrifice, you have signed a contract for your freedom. You are constantly negotiating the fervor of your engagement, tuning the severity of your selfishness, but ultimately it makes most sense to bump up your magic strength. You'll make exceptions in the fight – sometimes you just need extra health to survive – knowing that every inch gained is another lost elsewhere. (To wit, there are only 100 levels available between life and magic power.)
Soul Sacrifice is a better game for this power struggle, because what you do is aligned closely with what the story is about. You are immersed in an overt economy of self-serving, self-preserving transactions that build up until you can buy your way out of the cage.
There's an entire game to be played in the menus, starting with the six items ("offerings") you carry into battle. A simple motion activates their spells – some projectiles must be aimed first – and reminds you that Soul Sacrifice shoots for breadth, quantity and MATRICES, not granular depth in combat. Offerings can manifest in an array of forms, maneuvers and elements, allowing for a flashy repertoire of flaming kicks, stone axes, icy shields, poisonous bombs, full-body armor, golems, teleportation and, in general, shards of pure hurt. The game's economy applies here as well: you can mush together duplicate offerings to create a longer-lasting version, at the expense of a part that could be fused with another offering to create a hybrid spell. You can grind your way through older quests and replenish items, of course, but then you're putting personal time on the altar.
I chose to be frugal with my real life minutes, crafting a fragile mage with a penchant for fire and sweet hats. Donna Fedora has a dark arm, warped by sacrifices and embellished with sigils that exclusively amplify explosive destruction. There are choices like these in every role-playing game – here different sigils are unlocked for saintly sorcerers – but stripping it down to this level of give-and-take means there's no clutter to pad the results. And though forgiveness does exist in Soul Sacrifice, smudging and re-speccing some details within Librom's pages comes with a price too.
So, why play Soul Sacrifice? The action is skewed toward preparation more than improvisation, reward over inherent pleasure, and the game's structure is an almost cynical simplification of role-playing progression. But it's a good game, thanks to a huge diversity in equipment, slick implementation of co-op quests, a grimy narrative, exciting music and the granular adherence to its mantra: nothing comes for free.
I think Soul Sacrifice is worth the asking price, but playing it may exact an unexpected toll on your thoughts. To enjoy it is to engage with its unvarnished contract, and to recognize your adventure as a sequence of repetitive harvests that culminate in some kind of relief and freedom. That I was so driven to maximize my abilities and overthrow my captor is the game's credit and curse.
This review is based on a retail copy of Soul Sacrifice for PlayStation Vita, provided by Sony.
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