Soul Sacrifice stands on its own as an enjoyable title with an ambitious sacrifice concept – it just not quite right.

User Rating: 7 | Soul Sacrifice VITA
Sony's Vita is still crying for that game to signal a rebirth. The Vita hasn't hit its stride and Sony bizarrely hasn't gone into panic mode yet, something Nintendo did when the 3DS was lacking momentum after its release, pumping out quality games to get people interested in the system. This is something Sony needs to do. Sure, some games are good on the Vita, and one of them,Persona 4 Golden, is one of the best I have ever played…but it's an enhanced port, which isn't quite as amazing as having a high-quality, original game for the Vita.

Along comes Soul Sacrifice, a game Sony is promoting as a big gun for its handheld and at the same time, probably due to the lack of games, became one of the system's most anticipated titles. This joint work from Keiji Inafune, Marvelous AQL and SCE Japan was no doubt hoping to develop interest, but sadly, this isn't the right game to do that. That's not to say Soul Sacrificeis bad. It's a good game with fantastic presentation and interesting story, but some issues bring this down from the pedestal of greatness to simply an additional good game for the Vita's needing-to-grow catalogue.

Players take on the role of a prisoner, who is being held against his will by a powerful sorcerer called Magusar. Before it is time for this innocent bystander to be sacrificed, a talking book appears in the rubble of bones and bodies inside the cage and begins explaining itself to the player-created protagonist. This book, called Librom, its material made out of flesh and skin, features a collection of journal entries based around Magusar and an unidentified companion. The story within these pages covers the unknown's journey and their life as a sorcerer, meeting with Magusar, and what happened leading up to the current situation. The magic of the book allows the prisoner to learn the art of magic by reading through the pages and taking part in the quests, which slowly turns the protagonist into a well-crafted sorcerer who just might have a chance at stopping Magusar.

Soul Sacrifice's story is one of the game's strong points, especially in the distinctive method it is told. Cutscenes are at a bare minimum; instead, the dialogue in the pages is voice acted by a narrator, which will eventually hit a point that leads up to the next mission. Beat that assignment and the process repeats, with more voice work and story unlocking as you continue to beat whatever task appears next and uncover the interesting twists and turns the story throws at you. It's like flipping through a physical book and letting its pages absorb you with its words; it's an intriguing and stimulating take on story narration. Librom makes a surprisingly fun acquaintance in the dreary confines of a cell, and with solid voice work to back up his dialogue, Librom becomes highly amusing to listen to as he explains the situation, taking jabs at you with his sarcastic jokes and asking you to stop pushing him over when you tap the back touchpad of the Vita. It's the little things that give Librom charm and personality, lighting up the atmosphere in this otherwise very dark-themed game.

Getting into actual gameplay, Soul Sacrifice has a similar structure to games like Phantasy Star Online or Monster Hunter. This means players pick from one of the many Phantom Quests, which normally involve one of the following tasks: killing one big boss, hunting down a required amount of small enemies, or finding hidden items plotted around the map. While that aspect isn't very unique, it's the concepts that work their way into the gameplay that make it more than a simple rip-off of the Monster Hunter formula.

First up is the game's combat mechanics, which completely remove any sort of class system and give players a choice in how to develop their character. Before entering battle, a hero can equip up to six spells, each one assigned to Square, Triangle or Circle, with the R Button switching between the two sets of three skills. These spells come in a variety of types, such as turning the hero's hand into a bladed weapon, throwing out spinning blades as projectiles, rising up ice shards from the ground or even summoning a stone titan to crush enemies close-by. Although I never got them all, I have been told there are over 300 spells to equip, giving plenty of diversity to the combat.

Combat is very fast-paced and easy to get to grips with. Unlike Monster Hunter which is methodical and calculated in its combat, Soul Sacrifice is the all-out button masher, with a lock-on system, unlimited sprinting and dodging that allows one to spam to their heart's content. The only mechanic that needs to be kept a close eye on is the magic and how long it takes to cast from summoning. It doesn't instantly appear but has to grow into its form instead. Also, magic will only last a scripted amount of time before it has to be summoned again, and it can only be casted a few times before it breaks. At first, this doesn't seem to matter, as the earlier missions are very easy to overcome the enemies. As the tougher enemies arrive, players need to be careful to not overuse the same attack, because magic can only be fixed outside of a mission – unless players find a rare item within a stage that will add additional casting.

If a dire situation arises, then players can opt to use a dark rite, a equipped spell that offers a huge bonus in turn for sacrificing stats. An early example unleashes a powerful fire that deals huge damage in exchange for half of your defence. This handicap will remain forever until repaired, which can be done when not in a mission through the cost of Lacrima, a source of money that comes from Librom's tears (yes, the book cries). Using the black rites is dangerous, as each use increases the cost of Lacrima to remove the handicap. Lacrima is also handy in other situations, since it can be used to revisit a quest with multiple outcomes to change the story and unlock more missions, or to save someone who was initially sacrificed by your hand.

Monster designs are exceptional, blending folklore from a multitude of cultures to create some peculiar creatures. The large creatures, named Archfiends, are the highlights, each with their own specific attack patters. The Cerberus is a towering three-headed beast that, unlike its Greek mythology inspiration, can walk on either two or four legs, with both stances having unique attacks. The Harpy, on the other hand, is a huge, overweight bird, far-fetched from the skinny enemies in God of War. Its face is a human head that slavers blood down its neck, as it chases players to devour them and spit them out when done. They're disgusting, which is a perfect word to sum up the backbone for all these awesome creature designs. It's a shame that most enemies are defeated with the same spamming tactics. It's voided of any need to strategise against such huge beings, and the AI for them isn't all that smart, seemingly not adapted to four players rushing it down. One scene had a boss confused about which direction to go past a pillar and just walked left and right in a bemused state as we all leathered it with spells.

All these monsters were once living beings, human or animal, and for whatever reason formed a pact to inherit its new form of power. Once destroyed, the monsters revert back to their true form and the player is given a chance to save or sacrifice the soul that lies before them. Sacrificing or saving enemies is a huge part of the game – what you do will affect the development of your hero. Saving someone will permanently grow the defence and also offer health regeneration, while sacrificing will permanently increase the effectiveness of your magic attacks and refill the use of your magic. After enough of one type, your hero will eventually gain enough experience to level-up one of these two stats. In total, the combined levels cannot reach any higher than 100. Since it's all down to the player to build their character, it offers the prospect of having a character developed to how you play, such as a well-balanced character or allowing one to go all power by constantly sacrificing, and so forth.

Sacrificing or saving bosses rewards with a substantial boost in experience, but one thing extra that is gained from saving them is the fact they become computer-controlled characters that can be used in all of the game's side missions. This is the same area of the game where the multiplayer lives, which is available locally or online with up to three other players. It's simple to set-up a session: Create a room, pick a mission and wait for people to join, and then go. Fights don't take that long. I never found myself spending 30 minutes on one fight, which is often the case on the last quarter of the content in the Monster Hunter games.

Multiplayer is stress-free, thanks to its simple button-mashing and loose rules on death. The game only ends if everyone is dead, and it seemed you could revive fallen allies as many times as you want, as long as you had some health to give. Even in multiplayer, fallen allies can be saved or sacrificed, but everyone online was so nice when I played that they would always save me. If you do ask them to sacrifice you (which can be done with a quick button press), then you become a ghost entity that can see the health of the enemy and cast debuffs on them, along with buffing your allies by simply touching them with your finger – all in the name of moving the tide of battle in their favour. There's no real need to communicate with other players, since the environment structures are so small that it's virtually impossible to get lost or not know what you need to kill or do. Multiplayer feels less involving than the single-player content, as it isn't soaked in the wonderful story, coming across more as an additional feature that's there to make grinding more fun.

Finishing a mission rewards with loot. It always remains the same, so if you are looking for specific items to create a new spell or upgrade an exist one, then all you need to do is find the right mission and farm it until you have the desired amount. This can lead to repetition, which isn't helped by the nature of its combat. Monster Hunter gets away with it by allowing various missions to offer the same materials to find, but also the battle with the beasts is one that keeps players' minds alive and active, due to the many ways you can approach its methodical battles. This is not the case with Soul Sacrifice, and it's a game that actually lends well to its handheld nature, as I couldn't play it for extended periods of time without feeling a little exhausted with it.

Soul Sacrifice is a looker, no question about it. The only thing that spoils the graphics is the slight blur, due to the below-native resolution the game is running at, but its art direction is so strong that I simply didn't care. It's a world full of twisted and warped creative design that is brought on by its detailed lore. A shame, then, that the world cannot be fully explored past the limited arenas that contain these horrors. Soul Sacrifice features one of those rare worlds I would love to explore more. Maybe with talks of a sequel in the pipeline, the design of the next game might open up more than its gladiator ring environments.

Sony's quest for that one Vita title still remains, but don't let that statement dampen the good parts of Soul Sacrifice. Even with its similarities to Monster Hunter, Soul Sacrifice stands on its own as an enjoyable title with an ambitious sacrifice concept – it just doesn't get its core mechanics quite right. Soul Sacrifice should be highlighted for trying, and I feel it deserves to be plotted next to Gravity Rush as a game that brings a unique experience to Sony's portable machine. If you're looking for a handheld game that oozes quality presentation and attractive story but don't mind some of its simplicity, then take Soul Sacrifice for a taste; it just might pull you in.

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