Every person has his price. Calvin (the kid, not the theologian) claims to cost about two bucks cold cash up front, the million dollar man checks in at roughly $1,346,822.19 when you add in interest and other factors, and I’m even willing to do weddings and bar mitzvahs for a box of donuts as long as I get some Boston Cremes in the process (no funerals though; I’ve never been partial to the dead). Obviously the concept of buying and selling human lives has been around for a long time, so it comes as no surprise that there was a spunky little action RPG made for the SNES on this very topic by the name of Soul Blazer. Here’s my review.
Legend tells of a kingdom of old, known only as the Freil Empire. Its ruler was a man named King Magridd, and while he had been a brave warrior who served his country well in his youth, he proved to be a greedy, careless king. He often spent his nights pondering ways to line his coffers with gold, and one fateful evening he came up with a hair-brained scheme of epic proportions. He had his soldiers capture the wise Dr. Leo, a kindly man of science who cared only for the betterment of society, and locked him in his basement until he invented a device to summon the lord of darkness Deathtoll. So much for careful investment practices…
The grim specter tried to strike a deal with the avaricious monarch, but apparently the king wasn’t interested in selling his own soul. Instead, they struck a deal of far greater proportions: for every living thing that the king brought the demon, he would receive a single piece of gold. After all, who would miss a few squirrels anyway?
At first the losses were minor. Some trees here, a dog there, but nothing major. Soon though, biological life became a scarcity. The king began sudden raids at night of suspected traitors, dragging them from their families on bogus charges. They were never seen again. Slowly, the entire kingdom, as well as the surrounding kingdoms that the king could gain access to, began to dry up. Finally, only the king remained, and at that point Deathtoll just kidnapped him and had successfully stolen every soul in the entire world. In your face Satan!
It is at this point that you enter the story. You are a Soul Blazer, a celestial being who serves the almighty Master. It is your job to travel to the realms of the Freil Empire and free the puny mortals from Deathtoll’s grasp. And so, armed with a wing and a prayer (and a sword too, conveniently), you begin your mission from God. And while this mission isn’t quite as lovably zany as the Blues Brothers’, just remember that it’s the best they could do without John Belushi.
Soul Blazer is a fine example of the overhead action RPG. In it, you control your hero from a ¾ overhead view as he slashes his way through six separate worlds. Each world is divided into at least two parts, a town and multiple battle areas, and in each your goal is to clear out all the monsters from all the rooms, releasing the souls of the captured life forms. It’s a fairly simple system, but it works.
To better explain things, let’s start with the enemies. Each room contains a certain number of Monster Lairs (red flashy squares), and each Lair has a set type and number of enemies inside of it. As soon as a Monster Lair comes on screen, it will begin spewing out its type of enemies every few seconds. Once it has set loose its store of monsters, a Monster Lair will simply sit there until you’ve cleared out all the freed enemies. After that point, it becomes a Cleared Monster Lair in a poof of smoke.
At this point, you need to step on the Monster Lair to free the contained spirit and seal it up forever. Usually this is a fairly simple process, but a few are placed in out of the way areas that require a bit of exploring to reach. After stepping on it, the imprisoned soul is liberated and something will change. This usually is nothing more than a bridge appearing nearby or a wall being pushed out of the way, but occasionally the results are more drastic.
Some of the Monster Lairs contain villagers that once populated the town areas of each world. By freeing them, they’ll appear in town and offer you various forms of assistance like building new houses or offering advice. For example, when you first reach the Grass Valley, the entire area is simply a sprawling plain. After unlocking the Old Woman, a house will appear with the Old Woman inside and you’ll get completely healed every time you visit. Other changes are less noticeable. You’ll wind up releasing vines and flowers along with the townspeople who once called these lands home. In the end, there’s no real strategy involved in rebuilding as most Monster Lairs are found in an extremely linear fashion, but it does provide a decent measure of your progress.
Anyway, back to battle. Clearing out Monster Lairs requires killing the hordes of enemies in your way, and this is done through the usual mixture of swords and sorcery. Your hero wields a variety of swords that he finds along the way, each a little more powerful than the last and usually possessing some new power such as the ability to steal HP, paralyze enemies, or instantly destroy foes with a single hit.
Because you only get one attack maneuver throughout the entire game though, and most foes can be defeated in under a second merely by rapidly button smashing, there’s really no advantage to using one sword over another besides the offensive power. Still, the enemies provide enough variety in attacks to keep the battles interesting all the way to the end.
As for magic, all of your spells are found along the way in chests or acquired from people you meet. Each spell costs a certain number of gems to cast, and gems are acquired by beating enemies in one-or-five gem supplements.
Along with owning the actual spell and having enough gems to cast it, you also have to possess an item called Soul of Magician. This item will rotate around you in the form of a blue orb, and by pressing the Magic button, you’ll activate it to spit out the equipped spell. Say you cast the Flame Ball spell. After you cast it, a fireball will be sent out from the orb in whatever direction you’re facing. The idea of having the spinning orb cast the spells instead of you allows for some creative conjuring, such as a spinning wall of death, and the range given to you lets you hit enemies hiding behind walls much more easily than if you had to chop them to bits. While only needed at a few points in the entire game, the magic system is innovative enough to be interesting while still sticking with the basics.
Then there’s armor. This is pretty straightforward, consisting of you finding a suit of armor and then equipping it. Of course, there are other bonuses besides simply helping you take damage. Each suit usually has its own special ability, like walking on lava, breathing under water, or simply ignoring the attacks of weak enemies. These are minor bonuses, but they do make a difference.
Sadly, there’s not a speck of variety as far as minigames are concerned to break up the normal pace of things, but the boss battles do make up for that. Most boss enemies are big, mean, and generally follow attack patterns that take a while to memorize and provide you with a nice break from the smaller enemies. Soul Blazer is a hack and slash fest the whole way through, but it’s definitely one of the better ones in that genre.
It’s too bad that the graphics weren’t quite as timeless. As one of the earlier titles released for the SNES, you’ll be seeing some rather bland backgrounds and simplistic opponents. The level of detail in each locale was pretty low, even though there were a few interesting worlds for you to explore (Dr. Leo’s basement, the toy village, bottom of the sea, etc.). The characters were all sprites of dubious quality, but some of the bosses DID manage to look very big and spooky, something that all bosses should try to emulate. Anyway, as long as you aren’t expecting to be dazzled by anything here, you should survive an otherwise enjoyable game.
Fortunately the music came out much more pleasantly in the end. It’s a batch of decent MIDI fairy tale/fantasy fodder, but makes good use of the different areas and is definitely above the usual level found back then. There were even a few that stuck out as real gems, such as the theme for the aforementioned doctor’s basement. It wasn’t the best to be found on the system, but it’ll do nicely. The sound effects were also pretty ancient, but shouldn’t stick out in any way that will annoy you.
As for the storyline, there wasn’t all that much here to talk about in any case. You go to earth, clear out each world, the people in the villages thank you, and that’s about it. There are a few side stories thrown into each world such as the death of Turbo the Wonder Dog and one of the least logical love stories ever, but who cares? You still get to go around chopping bad guys to bits, and when was the last time a little porcelain cherub had the chance to do that? It might not have the most spellbinding plot around, but at least it lets you meet the baddest mofo ever to sing in the celestial choir.
Last but not least are the controls. These are about as simple as you can get in an Action RPG, and there isn’t a single annoying aspect to bring down the score any. Better yet, they decided not to include any annoying pit-hopping action, so don’t worry about that showing up and ruining the game. They even included an extremely useful transport system that lets you reach any area of the game in a matter of moments, and I do mean EVERY. The only thing that got me mildly irritated was the complete lack of minigames, but there were enough secrets to make up for even that.
Soul Blazer is an oldie, but it isn’t half bad. If you consider yourself a fan of the many ENIX Action RPGs that graced the Super Nintendo, do yourself a favor and hunt this one down. It’s a great history lesson for you retro wannabes, and should help you burn a few weeks. I’d recommend this game to anyone with a passion for the past, and hope you’d play it through again if you’ve already tried it long ago. Buy it right now or your immortal soul will writhe in agony for all time in a pond of electrified lava.