Soul Sacrifice: Monster Hunter in different clothing?

Can Soul Sacrifice carve out its own niche, or is it riding on the success of its predecessors?

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This week at its pre-TGS press conference, Sony Computer Entertainment Japan announced that Soul Sacrifice--its Vita-exclusive action RPG collaboration between Marvelous AQL, Japan Studio and Keiji Inafune’s company Comcept--has been delayed until Spring of 2013. While the game will make the jump from the East to the West at a later stage, international release windows haven’t yet been confirmed. As part of behind-closed-doors presentations and a hands-on demo here at TGS, the team revealed additional details about the game, and we can’t help but get a distinctive Monster Hunter vibe from what we’ve seen so far.

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The game’s premise is simple: a demon book tells you what monstrosities you need to take on, and you and up to three friends crack some fantasy-creature skulls in search of glory and gear. The twist is that the game allows you to sacrifice items, enemies, your body parts, and even members of your own team to create weapons, boost your health, and imbue buffs that improve combat effectiveness.

However, while the basics of loot lust and big, nasty creatures to slay may sound familiar, there's one major difference: the development team is banking on the addition of player choice to make this a slightly more cerebral experience than your typical hack and slash adventure. For each enemy you kill, you will be given the choice of either salvaging or sacrificing their souls; and in the process, helping put a little consideration into your bloody rampage. While the game takes place in a dark fantasy setting, many of the boss creatures we’ve seen so far blend human and animal forms, such as Hydras with people faces, bipedal wolf creatures, and warped cherubs. Perhaps the team figures it’ll be tougher to pull the trigger on a mockery of nature when it looks more like the old woman you see walking her poodle at your local park than the tortured sketches found in the back of your average teenager’s high school textbooks.

Everything has potential to be a weapon in Soul Sacrifice, and while casually plucking out your eyeball and turning it into something a little more deadly sounds cool (because it is) doing so will come at the expense of something else. Opting for a weapon built on one on your peepers impacts your vision, adding a persistent penalty to your field of view. How long the effects last still remain unclear at this stage, but the system shifts the mentality away from unlimited ammo and regenerative shields and health to a more micromanagement-focused, finite resource that players need to monitor and spend carefully to stay alive and progress., rather than spam incessantly.

Rather than penalise players who wade in weapons hot and end up on the wrong side of the health bar, those who fall in combat give their squadmates a chance to either exercise benevolence by resurrecting them, or use them as a destructive battery waiting to be drained; activating a fiery meteor shower at the cost of them able to continue to participate. There’s no game over screen or reset if someone in the unit dies. Instead, you continue on in spirit form, taking on an overwatch role that allows you to easily monitor other players, share buffs, and weaken the enemy by tapping on the Vita’s touch screen.

Like the other popular action RPG titles Soul Sacrifice appears to be drawing inspiration from, a heavy emphasis is being placed on coordinated attacks. While you’ll be able to play it as a solo handheld experience, the game benefits from involving others in the hunt. Summoning a stone shield protects weak members of your crew; slowing time provides a window for compatriots to charge up a bigger attack, or allows a fellow soldier the chance to summon helpers that spew out elemental attacks.

Inafune conceded that the social experiences that have become synonymous with games such as Monster Hunter and God Eater have gained the most traction in markets like Japan where handheld ownership is high, and people meet in person to play together. With Soul Sacrifice setting its sights on a global audience, he hopes the game will be the catalyst to kick start similar gaming gatherings around the world.

Japanese composers Wataru Hokoyama (Afrika) and Yasumoni Mitusda (Chrono Trigger, Xenoblade Chronicles) have been tapped to work on the game’s soundtrack, with recording being done at Skywalker Sound.

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While there’s no doubt that the addition of the sacrificial mechanic gives players a healthy dollop of choice to determine which powers to use, and when, it’s impossible to ignore the well-worn footsteps the game is stepping in; and as a result, the inevitable comparisons with its contemporaries. Is there room in the action RPG space for another contender? Stay tuned for more details on Soul Sacrifice ahead of the game’s launch on the PlayStation Vita next year.

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