Soul Sacrifice review: burnt offerings
Soul Sacrifice fails to live up to its potential. The debut effort from veteran producer Keiji Inafune's new studio could have been something truly special, but it ultimately compromises its vision. The story is half-baked. The combat is a chore. Worst of all, the one truly remarkable and unique feature of the game, the notion of sacrifice, is hobbled to the point of meaninglessness.
Outside of menus and story sequences, the entirety of the game is composed of bite-sized combat scenarios in open arenas. This smart step acknowledges the strengths of handhelds by delivering digestible chunks of gameplay. Thanks to the small number of stages and enemies, though, you'll find yourself battling the same handful of creatures over and over. Those engagements are interspersed with significantly tougher boss battles, but Soul Sacrifice lacks a happy medium. Either you're fighting scads of simpletons, or being beaten repeatedly by bosses with enormous bars. The best way to build yourself up for battling these monsters is to grind levels with weaker enemies, creating a vicious cycle of tedium, frustration, and then tedium again.
The mechanical underpinnings can be unforgiving. When you run out of magic, you need to turn tail and run to a well that refreshes your spells. The appearance of these varies from stage to stage, so it's difficult to tell where they are without using a special kind of vision that obscures the battlefield. In single-player, you will run out of magic, constantly. You can only equip six slots with magical powers, each with their own limited number of uses. With the rare exception of going back to play much earlier stages, I never once made it through a stage without running low on at least one spell. More often, I'd run low on them all and need to refresh, with monsters hot on my tail. During the tougher boss encounters, I might run out four or five times. Using a spell just once after it has run low breaks it, rendering it unusable for the rest of the battle.
The battles force you to juggle all of this while simultaneously fighting the camera and constantly fidgeting lock-on system. This is especially accented since the arenas themselves aren't particularly well-designed for their tasks. Some arenas were too small to give any safe ground away from the larger monsters. On more than one occasion I found myself trapped between a jagged corner of a stage and a boss, helpless to move until the beast did.
Choosing your spells, at least, is actually fun. The game boasts an extremely customizable character builder, which can be shifted throughout the game. Swapping out spells is the most common function, but you can also shift the passive boosts assigned to your arm, the currently active forbidden spell, and even aspects of your appearance, gender, and name. Even after you start a game, you're not locked into one character model.
All of those attributes can be changed because of the story's premise. You are a prisoner of the Magusar, and reading about all of these magical adventures in a talking book named Librom. While the world-building shows glimmers of interesting mythology and Librom himself gives a wonderfully sardonic voice performance, the story never amounts to anything significant. You know from the start that Magusar is the chief villain, and some mysterious organization forces Sorcerers to sacrifice all monsters. It never progresses beyond that point. That's not to say it doesn't try. The plot is full of twists and turns, but it introduces them in such a disconnected fashion -- through reading about them in a book between combat arenas that usually have nothing to do with the plot--that I never felt a connection to any characters.
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The worst crime of Soul Sacrifice, though, is its inability to commit to its core concept. The idea of sacrifice invites creative applications that could lend serious weight to decision-making. This root binds itself to every part of the experience. Many monsters, especially the larger ones, can offer more life or magic at the expense of the other one. Leaning heavily in one direction will impact the affinity of your arm, each of which gets better passive bonuses from its boosts. This encourages you to steer your character in one direction, forgoing the other, to get the best results.
When you fall, you have the option of asking your human or AI companions to sacrifice you. This creates a powerful attack, but counts you out of the running for picking up the wealth of experience that comes at the end of the match. Likewise, you can make a decision about whether to save or sacrifice your friends, with or without their consent. When it comes to AI companions, sacrificing them loses them as a comrade during the optional quests.
The forbidden spells trade a powerful effect for an extremely negative payoff. The ones I used were appropriately clever, like sacrificing an eye for a powerful spell, but then leaving my "vision" on the screen severely impaired for the rest of the battle.
But each of these sacrifices are severely undermined by how easy the game makes it to undo them. The book, Librom, lets out tear-like droplets of lacrima on a regular basis. By exiting out of the main menu and talking to him, you can simply touch his eye to get more. Lacrima fixes broken spells, re-balances your arm affinity, cures bodily sacrifices from forbidden spells, and revives sacrificed allies. In other words, it undoes absolutely everything unique and interesting about forcing choice in the first place.
The word sacrifice innately means giving something up, but more often I found myself turning to this mechanic for a powerful finishing spell when my other magics ran low. I never once struggled with the choice, because I knew how easily I could undo it afterwards. Librom's droplets are technically a limited resource, but they regenerate at a regular place and never create true scarcity. Considering Comcept and MarvelousAQL based the entire game's philosophy around these tough choices, one would expect them to follow through.
With the exception of meaningless sacrifice, most of this is eased by multiplayer. The tedium and control problems persist, but the addition of human players at least alleviates problems created by the single-player's terrible AI companions and interminable bosses. Multiplayer matches are limited to the optional quests from single-player, ruling out most of the significantly more difficult story mode. That leaves them relegated to grinding territory. Sacrificing a teammate in multiplayer means giving them up for the rest of the round, but otherwise brings no consequences.
Simply put, Soul Sacrifice is a mediocre game stuck in a concept that deserves better. The lore could have legs and the suite of character customization is impressive. The idea of forcing truly difficult choices on the player is a concept unexplored in most games of its kind, but the promise here is more appealing than the result. A sequel might make good on its considerable potential, but this first try is largely a missed opportunity. 
This Soul Sacrifice review was based on a digital version of the game provided by the publisher. The reviewer spent approximately 20 hours with the game, but did not complete it.