One lone design choice lets you in on Soul Sacrifice’s underpinning philosophy. Whether you complete or fail a mission outside its story quests – and, like Monster Hunter, it demands you regularly step away from the narrative – you’re taken back to the mission start screen. It’s understandable that beaten players should want to mash the X button to try again, but surely successful hunters should be invited to move on? “No,” a smirking Keiji Inafune seems to say, “I expect you to grind.”
It’s a decision that will likely resonate more with Japanese players than the western audience Inafune has talked of courting, even if the game touted by many as a Monster Hunter killer offers a more streamlined take on beast-slaying than Capcom’s series. It’s brisker and more immediate, plunging you headlong into its dark fantasy world from the instant you press Start. You’re a caged prisoner, your only companion a sentient grimoire named Librom, with escape impossible until you’ve amassed experience of spells and monsters by consuming the memories of a previous sorcerer.
The story doesn’t so much arc as inexorably spiral downwards, holding fast to its relentlessly grim descent into darkness and depravity. There’s humanity, yes, but it’s buried within a writhing mass of guilt and viscera. Its lore, too, is detailed and well-written, so it’s a pity it’s burdened with some of the worst voice acting we’ve heard in some time. At times, line readings are almost charmingly awful, even as they undercut the bleak narrative, but elsewhere the acting is disappointingly bloodless. Despite his grotesque, fleshy exterior, Librom is a gratingly jovial cellmate, offering none of the biting snark of, say, Liam O’Brien’s memorable turn as Grimoire Weiss in Cavia’s Nier.
Soul Sacrifice shares more similarities with Square’s unwanted stepchild than a talking book. Its combat system is a similar halfway house between a fast-paced arena brawler and Monster Hunter’s more considered slashing. There’s a bewildering array of spells to equip in your six allotted slots, with snaking roots that burrow towards the nearest enemy, speared projectiles and ovoid mortars sitting alongside healing spells, stat buffs and area-of-effect curses. Each comes in a range of elemental varieties to match to enemy weaknesses, but while they’re satisfying to wield, there’s often little to differentiate them beyond colour palette. As such, there’s never the same sense of attachment as with a hard-earned Acrus Lance in Monster Hunter.
They’re quickly consumed, too, a design choice that forces you to retreat from the fray more often than the need to heal. The idea, presumably, is to encourage players to use their full range of spells, while restoration points become the equivalent of sharpening a dulled blade with whetstones. It feels like an attempt to ape Monster Hunter’s combat rhythms, albeit at a faster tempo. It’s possible to exhaust a spell entirely through overuse, leaving it out of commission for the current battle, which seems like an unnecessarily harsh step, particularly given the stamina of many of the game’s guardians. The only answer, then, is to farm resources to boost the durability of these spells, and there simply isn’t enough variety in Soul Sacrifice’s menagerie to counter the repetition. A fresh elemental skin may force you to swap your loadout, but hulking slimes of different shades will all waddle, thrash and jump in the same predictable manner. Efficient combatants can at least alleviate some of the grind: destroying cursed body parts, using counters and avoiding injury are just three of many ways for players to earn extra points from encounters, and with them more resources.
Curiously, it’s a binary morality system, that most hackneyed of devices, that proves to be Inafune’s masterstroke. So often tacked on to offer the illusion of choice, the quandaries here are skilfully woven into the game’s mechanics. Upon defeating a beast, you’re given the opportunity to save it or sacrifice it, respectively giving you extra life energy or making your spells more powerful. As the benefits of the latter are more immediately apparent, the choice will seriously test the mettle of wannabe paragons, and not least because rescuing too many monsters sees an assassin from the sorcerer’s guild sent to punish your benevolence. Sigils carved into your right arm govern your avatar’s abilities, and gain potency the more fully you commit to either side, a tacit encouragement to specialise.
Yet as the story gets ever more macabre, you may begin to waver. Not because the plaintive cries of the beasts reverting to their human form will tug at your heartstrings – even dismissing the weak performances, no character is developed enough for you to care – but because your choices are designed to make you suffer. A single hit from a towering foe will take huge chunks from a dark mage’s health bar, while more altruistic spellcasters may find that chipping away at a colossal Cyclops is an arduous task. In other words, every choice represents a sacrifice of some sort. Having chosen the darker path in that rare game that guides you towards it, we’re reminded of Macbeth’s famous line: “I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
It’s a brave game that dares to weaken players in one way as it empowers them in another. Comcept may be wrong in thinking Monster Hunter would be better if it was just about hunting monsters, but Soul Sacrifice is courageous and thematically bold enough to distinguish itself from the clones that have followed in the wake of Capcom’s phenomenon. As with Inafune’s recurring criticisms of Japan, however, it proves repetition isn’t always the best way to make a point.
Soul Sacrifice is available on PS Vita.