WARNING: you're in for a long review.
The quick bits:
Available on PS Vita through retail or PSN download
My total playtime: 6 or so hours in the Japanese demo, 19 in the US demo, 16 hours (so far) in the retail release
Worth it? Yep.
TL;DR: a boss-hunting game with punishing difficulty, a huge number of spells and customization options, tons of cool bosses, interesting lore, and online multiplayer. 'Nuff said.
When I have to pry my own fingers away from the Vita in order to review a game, that can't be a bad sign, right? AGAIN! WARNING: you're in for a long review.
Soul Sacrifice is a much-needed game for the Vita for numerous reasons. For starters, it isn't a port, a cross-buy, or a remake. It's a brand-new IP from Keiji Inafune of Dead Rising and Mega Man fame. Sony's previous handheld thrived in no small part due to a little game called Monster Hunter, a game that the Vita's direct competitor ended up snatching up as an exclusive franchise, and Sony fans have been itching for a replacement. But truthfully, the biggest reason why the Vita needed Soul Sacrifice is because it is the first game to really show off the Vita's muscles. It does not hurt that the game is addicting, too. A word of warning: I'm a huge fan of “boss hunting” games, especially Monster Hunter, so comparisons will be frequent in this review.
Immediately after beginning a new save file (or importing your save file from the demo), you are confronted with the game's gruesome premise: sorcerers in this world sacrifice other people to enhance their own power. Pretty soon, you will be given the opportunity to begin your own arduous journey as a sorcerer-in-training by experiencing battles from the past through your talking book, Librom. What you learn is that sorcerers are the only thing standing between the helpless populace and a never ending onslaught of evil creatures. In a shocking twist that surprises no one, it is your job to murder these creatures and absorb their souls. However, you can play the rebel by saving their souls and letting them go free, instead. The save/sacrifice dichotomy of Soul Sacrifice is the main method by which you will improve your character. Not only will you be able to increase your health (Save) and enhance your damage output (Sacrifice) but the items gained through saving/sacrificing will be used to create stat-enhancing sigils. Additionally, you will gain several new spells (called Offerings) at the end of each battle. The type and amount of spells is determined by your performance in battle. For instance, you will gain bonus points if you complete the battle in a short amount of time. Another way to gain bonus points is to exploit a monster's elemental weakness. This point system is far more reasonable than the completely randomized loot drops of Monster Hunter, which can sometimes require you to replay a battle a dozen times before you get the items you need to craft a new weapon or armor piece.
Soul Sacrifice makes a daring decision to integrate storyline into the fabric of the game. I say “daring” because Monster Hunter has always done fine without a focused narrative, and other games in the genre that attempted storyline (like Gods Eater Burst and Lord of Arcana) fell flat on their faces. Since 80% of the story is tucked away in Librom's tattered pages, Soul Sacrifice does not force you to participate in the story if you do not want to, and that was a wise choice. With that said, I eagerly devoured every scrap of lore and information that the game offered. This game has some of the best world crafting (used in the literary sense) I have experienced in quite a long time. Each monster's own backstory is told through a fairy tale that would not feel out of place if found in a medieval German book of folklore. These stories are quite grim. They allow a gradual peeling away of the world of Soul Sacrifice at leisure instead of forcing it down the player's throat. While I won't dive into detail and spoil these stories, I will say that they add a tragic side to the grotesque monsters you fight. These aren't just mutated birds or cats. They are heartbroken women, greedy merchants, and passionate soldiers that all got caught up in a horrible curse, and now it is your job to put them out of their misery. Or, you can always opt to save their souls. It is up to you.
Battles are fast and brutal. Each enemy has its own behavior and tendencies. The cast of enemies will begin to feel recycled once you get toward the end of the single-player story, but keep in mind that a large number of enemies and areas are only playable in the non-story mode, Avalon. Now, this is important. A lot of other handheld co-op boss-hunting games in this genre get marked down for this. I've heard it in every single Monster Hunter review, as well as Lords of Arcana and MGS: Peace Walker. Reviewers often complain that lots of the content is "impossible" outside of co-op, and since most of those games are ad hoc only, they feel like most players aren't going to be able to access the harder content. Well, be aware that co-op partners are always in great supply in Soul Sacrifice since you can play online with friends and strangers alike (more on that later).
The game does a great job of keeping you on your toes, especially when you consider that the most basic enemy can still kill you in a few hits if you're negligent. Even after you have mastered the basics, the game continues to increase in difficulty, forcing you to constantly evaluate your spell setup and your choice of sigils. For those who were worried about a cake-walk: Soul Sacrifice is very challenging, though it is not unfair. It would be better to say that it rewards skill. Anyone saying the game is “button mashy” is lying. Period. Button mashing stops being a viable strategy after the first hour of the game, not to mention that if you're a button masher who keeps dying in an online match, most people will say “screw it” and sacrifice you instead of putting up with your lack of skill. That's exactly what I do (you've been warned if you meet me online). Speaking of sacrificing other players, the game has a wide variety of options when a player loses their health. They can be revived, at the cost of half the healer's current health. They can be sacrificed, which sets off a gigantic spell that hits everything on the map. When they're sacrificed, they're dead, but they can still roam around the map as a ghost, tapping on friends and enemies to help out those who are still alive and fighting. The best spells and the most powerful sigils will not save you if you fail to block, dodge, and maneuver around the battlefield properly. Of course, finding better spells won't hurt your chances, and Soul Sacrifice does not skimp on options. While various news blurbs say that there are over 300 spells available, realistically there are about 75 unique choices, with elemental variants on several of the spell options. Still, that is a huge upgrade compared to a game like Monster Hunter that only offers a dozen weapon classes.
SPELLS AND EQUIPMENT:
The spell selection is one area where Soul Sacrifice completely outclasses Monster Hunter, and I say that as the world's biggest Monster Hunter fan. In Monster Hunter, the only difference between your introductory Bone Lance and the all-powerful Alatreon Gleam lance is a cosmetic change, several hundred points of damage, and some elemental effect. Spells in Soul Sacrifice change appearance and power as you level them up, but spells can also increase range, change attack patterns, increase area-of-effect, and so forth. Spells can be combined to create completely new spells. Take a time-stopping Time Sand, an explosive Irondrake Egg, and the hammer-like Green Giant's Arm (all useful in their own way) and combine them to get a stationary Treefiend golem that attacks any nearby enemies. Since you can equip up to six spells at a time, Soul Sacrifice gives ample opportunity to explore a wide variety of play styles, whereas in Monster Hunter you have (let's face it) only a dozen play styles for the dozen weapon types.
One last tidbit that I really think is neat: you can use the inherent elemental strengths and weaknesses to pull off some cool combos. For instance, fire is weak against ice. So, naturally, you should use ice-type weapons against a fire-element enemy. During battle, your ice attacks will leave frozen chunks of ice on an enemies limbs and even freeze them completely, allowing for players to gang up and lay down the hurt. However, discerning players may notice that ice is weak to lightning. What would happen if you struck an ice-encased enemy with a lighting attack? BOOOM! The ice prison explodes and your enemy soars through the air and hits the ground hard, allowing you to lay down the wallop twice in a row. Soul Sacrifice is full of these sort of nuances, and it's a blast discovering what works and what doesn't.
And I haven't even mentioned the Black Rites, which are uber-powerful one-shot spells that deal a ton of damage, but hinder you in some way for the rest of the battle (and for the rest of your life unless you undo the results by spending Lacrima). The Black Rites are a big addition to this genre of game, because in most circumstances, caution is rewarded. Recklessness is discouraged, usually because you'll die very quickly. The Black Rites shake up the formula by allowing you to deliver a huge wad of damage at the risk of being killed more easily as the battle goes on. It's simple, but it works. All of these super-spells are gruesome and effective, and I like how they effect your character in different ways. The earliest Rite, Inferno, turns your body into an atomic explosion, dealing massive damage to the crab's weak point while burning your skin off and decreasing your defense by 50%. However, later in the game there are more Rites available, and although I haven't unlocked them all, they continue to be powerful options that can shift the tide of battle at a pivotal moment. Having looked at the game manual, there aren't a ton of Black Rites available, and this is an area I hope they expand through DLC. There are so many spells, sigils, and costumes, yet only a handful of Rites. It would be cool to see more variety in this department as the developers continue to support the game as time goes on.
Across the internet, there is a common complaint among my fellow reviewers regarding the small arenas in which your battles take place. Well, they are correct: the arenas are fairly small compared to a game like Monster Hunter, although not so small that your back is pressed against a wall during battle. What these reviewers fail to recognize is that the small arenas are beneficial to a game like this. The focus is battle, right? The focus is grinding quests to get the item drops you want, right? I have done my tour of duty with Monster Hunter, devoting 800+ hours between the various MH titles on PSP. Let me tell you: spending up to 10 minutes searching for monsters gets old, especially if you are repeating a hunt multiple times in hope of getting a rare drop. Sure, I won't pretend that it isn't fun exploring the maps, gathering crickets, and searching for your quarry, but it annoys a lot of people. While I would have liked to see at least two or three large “exploration” maps thrown into the mix for the sake of variety, my experience with other hunting games tells me that being able to jump directly into the action is going to be a huge plus over the long haul when players are replaying a mission several times just to get one or two rare drops.
Another thing reviewers have missed is the importance of Soul Sacrifice's online portion. So far, the online multiplayer has only received a casual mention or a brief compliment, at best. What we have here is something special: the only handheld hunting game (currently available in the West, since Japan does have a few more) that offers online multiplayer. Not only that, but Soul Sacrifice is compatible with the Vita's Party app, meaning you can voice chat with other players using the Vita's own microphone. Playing online is a breeze. Lag is nowhere to be found. Players quickly fill up your lobby after you pick a quest. You can Quick Search if you want to dive into the action, and while I do have a soft spot for the prolific Guild Hall found in Monster Hunter and its contemporaries, there's something to be said for a game that takes every measure to get you back into the action with as little downtime as possible. And in case you weren't aware, Sony will be gradually releasing 10+ bosses as free DLC, including new Black Rites, maps, and Offerings to go along. There will also be paid DLC chapters released down the road.
The online multiplayer is a massive advantage over Soul Sacrifice's closest opposition, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate on the 3DS. While the Wii-U version does offer online play, 3DS owners can only participate in local ad hoc multiplayer. Sure, there was a time long ago when I was able to stay up all night with a quartet of friends in the same room, hunting hordes of monsters, cursing and laughing out loud. It is with this group of friends that I accrued my 800+ hours of Monster Hunter-ing over the years. However, those times are past. I have a wife and work and kids. Those same Monster Hunter buddies have families of their own, college classes to attend, jobs to work, and bars to crawl. Simply put, we have less time to play these sorts of games. However, it is a testament to the simple convenience of online play when I consider that I have played more Soul Sacrifice with my original Monster Hunter buddies in these past two weeks than I've played Monster Hunter with them in these past two years. The majority of early reviews did not have access to the online (or couldn't be bothered to try out the free demo), and neglecting to review the online portion would be like reviewing Mario Kart 7 after only playing five races. A large number of monsters, maps, and spells can only be attained outside of the story mode in the Avalon mode (which can be played online, offline, and via ad hoc). I laugh when I see review comments like “there isn't much variety of monsters” following the admission “I didn't play the online portion”. Again, that would be like someone complaining Mario Kart 7 doesn't have very many tracks or racers or car parts, but then later admitting they only completed the first two Cups in 50cc mode.
Some other online options (that were not in the demo, and which reviewers have ignored) include the Peddler, which lets you passively leave (and receive) spells from other players. Whispers is something I don't fully understand, but I think it's similar to the Joker's rumor-spreading powers from Persona 2: IS. You select these whispers and they affect the quests in a particular way. For my fellow stat-nerds out there, the game also keeps detailed records of all the things you've done online (and Offline too, I think). The monsters you've fought, whether you sacrificed or saved (and how many times), the spells you use most often, the battle awards (like "Counterstrike!" or "Attacked Cursed Part"), and much more are tracked for you to see and other players to marvel over.
I refuse to go as far as to say “Gaming journalists are being unfair! They're being biased! They're just mad that Soul Sacrifice is a Sony exclusive. They're just Monster Hunter fanboys!”. However, the treatment of Soul Sacrifice so far seems completely skewed. The demo made a huge splash when it came out. Some players sank several hours into it. I managed to sneak in nearly 20 hours before the full game came out. Other players put in more than double what I invested. And we're talking about a demo here, folks. Clearly, excitement for this game increased dramatically once Vita owners were finally able to put their hands on it. Gaming sites across the web covered the demo and covered the fervent hype building and building. And then? The reviews come out and give a collective “meh”. It doesn't add up. My recommendation would be to play the demo for yourself, and though the online functionality of the demo won't be available for much longer now that the full game is out, it should give you a better idea of what the game offers compared to what many reviews are saying.
All in all, Soul Sacrifice is the hunting game that Sony fans have been wanting for quite a while. It has flaws, yes. Certain elements feel out of place, yes. Yet, when you consider what the entire game offers, it is definitely a knocked-out-of-the-ballpark home run for the Vita. It likely will not convert fans of, say, strategy RPGs or first person shooters to the Vita, but if you are a fan of action games, or if you want a new hunting game to consume your life, Soul Sacrifice is one of the best options on the market. I'm reminded of the first Monster Hunter Freedom on PSP, which was also a fun but flawed game. I'm reminded of all the fun I had and how much I disagreed with the game's low review scores. Soul Sacrifice is only the first game. Already, Inafune has expressed his desire to do a sequel on the Vita in the future.
I gave the game a 9 out of 10. If you're not a fan of the boss-hunting genre, or if you insist that your boss-hunting has ample amounts of aimless exploration, kitty cats, and barbeque spits, then it might not be a 9 out of 10 for you. However, if you've been hungry for a good action game, Soul Sacrifice is among the best available.
Thanks for making your way through the entire review! Oooof! I told you it was a long one. If I left anything out, or if you had any specific questions, please feel free via PM or in the comment section below.