"It's the sort of thing you'd get if you combined the 1000 Years of Dreams from Lost Odyssey with Phantom Dust and Monster Hunter."
I'll admit that when I first heard about Soul Sacrifice, the only thing that really drew me into it was the fact that composing legend Yasunori Mitsuda was involved. As someone who hasn't enjoyed a single Monster Hunter title (not even the original on PlayStation 2), I didn't expect to find much of interest in this dark fantasy action RPG by Megaman creator/vocal Japanese development critic Keiji Inafune and developer Comcept. But after loading up the demo and logging over seven hours on it, I was hooked — and now, having completed the single-player storyline in the game, I can say that Soul Sacrifice is one of the strongest games in the Vita's library.
The story takes place by means of a rather clever framing device: you are a nameless schlub scheduled to be on the receiving end of an upcoming sacrifice (in other words: a mean old creeper called Magusar is going to kill the bejeezus out of you and use your soul to perpetuate his immortality). After watching another poor sod try to use the powers of a magical book called Librom to take down the villain, it calls out to you. Like all good talking books, Librom is snarky and has teeth, eyeballs, and a story to tell. It is within his nebulous pages that your character experiences the life of a young sorcerer with ties to the treacherous Magusar, in the hopes that he might learn something to help him avert his impending case of chronic deadness.
Leafing through Librom's pages reveals the entire menu system of the game. Side-quests, character customization, skill loadouts, lore/bestiary entries, and story sequences are all presented within the context of this magical book — and man, what a presentation it is. Every line of dialogue is voiced expertly, and some gorgeous artwork accompanies the scenes that unfold before and after each chapter of the tale. There are no in-engine cutscenes, which creates a bit of a disconnect between gameplay and story, but it also helps keep pacing brisk. Much in the vein of another famed Mitsuda-composed game, your character can opt take on the well eye-ndowed antagonist at any time after you reach a certain point early in the story. Doing so too soon is folly, of course, but the option is always waiting for you should you choose to take it.
The main flow of play involves choosing a chapter of the tale, watching the unfolding storyline, and then being thrust into an arena to take on fiendish beasts. If you've played the fantastic Xbox classic Phantom Dust, you'll know what to expect in this regard — there's no exploration to be found here, only combat. You choose six skills from your collection of hundreds, carve sigils (which function like equipment) on your body, and dive into the fight. While I'm not normally a fan of this style, it works well for Soul Sacrifice in that it allows you to eat up a few chunks of story and gameplay at a time without having to make a massive time commitment.
The combat flows well; you've got a lock-on, sprint, dodge roll, and a palette of skills at your disposal at any time. Killing enemies gives you the option of saving or sacrificing them, which powers up your health/defense and your magical strength, respectively, up to a combined maximum of 100 (you're free to respec, of course). If things get especially hairy, you also have access to Black Rites, the game's well-advertised gruesome flesh sacrifices in exchange for incredible powers. The cost is high — each rite leaves a lingering detrimental effect that persists through battles, such as halved defense — and the currency used to undo these dastardly disabilities is scarce. However, these abilities almost always turn the tide of battle in your favor, and what's more, should you emerge victorious, using them nets you special unique skills, so there's the constant question of "is it worth it?" as you battle on.
Skills come in all shapes and sizes: some grant you weapons, like a flaming pitchfork, a saber wrought from ice, or a giant fist to clobber pitiful fools, while others armor you, change your dodge mechanic, speed you up, grow fruit that augments your abilities, summon giant beasts, and all manner of other effects. You're free to fuse your skills (called offerings in the game's parlance) to create new ones, as well as combine similar skills to give them a boost. In conjunction with the sigil system, which allows you to give yourself bonuses to defense, speed, elemental damage, and a number of other things, there's a lot of strategy to consider, and a big part of the fun is finding a combination that works well for a given threat.
Special mention has to be made of the writing in the game — simply put, it's fantastic. Every enemy has a detailed lore entry explaining where this particular beast of badness came from, personality flaws, and key weaknesses that would be useful for an intrepid slayer of said beasts. The dialogue is well-written, if a bit heavy-handed at times, and the prose (this is a book, after all!) is poignant. It's the sort of thing you'd get if you combined the 1000 Years of Dreams from Lost Odyssey with Phantom Dust and Monster Hunter. The overall narrative is engaging, and even aside from the addictive gameplay (which is undoubtedly the focus), I found myself pushing ever forward to see the next episode in the chronicle of the doomed sorcerer.
The AI can be hit or miss — I had to restart missions a few times because an evil-loving ally would sacrifice me rather than save me, leaving me to float around in spirit form pathetically as he fell into an infinite loop of "heal, get hit by the boss, heal again, get hit again." While the main story can only be played solo (with an AI companion occasionally joining you as the plot dictates), many of the side quests can be tackled via adhoc and online play, and this is where things really shine. I didn't have a whole lot of time to spend online, but the few battles I did took on a fantastic new dynamic that really emphasized teamwork and good planning. One player, for example, can use a channeled skill that stops time and drains your health for as long as you hold it, which lets your pals jump in and really do some damage.
The game looks gorgeous — there's some real artistry to be found in the book, the world, and the characters. Skills have a large variety of visual effects that are always fun to experiment with. There's the problem of the occasional blurry texture or slowdown in particularly busy arenas and battles, but for the most part, things stay manageable. The music, while not as effective outside of the game, really does a great job capturing the intensity of battle and the poignancy of key story beats — and as I mentioned before, the voice acting is great.
What else is there to say? Soul Sacrifice is what you'd get if you smashed Phantom Dust and Monster Hunter together and added a meaningful plot, and it does what it sets out to do with aplomb. Things can occasionally feel a bit repetitive as you find yourself fighting a different version of the same archfiend (boss enemy) in two different missions in two different locations, but these are relatively small hiccups in light of the huge amount of stuff there is to do in this game and how lavishly-produced all of it really is. If you own a Vita, there's no reason not to check out the demo of Soul Sacrifice — your progress carries over to the full version, and there's a whole lot of game to enjoy here.