Playstation Vita, it’s fair to say, has been something of a disaster. An excellent machine with barely a flaw in sight as far as its design and interface is concerned, what should have been a proud, strutting stag of a device has been swiftly run to ground and badly savaged by the twin attack dogs of over-pricing and a lack of dedicated software. While Vita isn’t exactly short of games, almost all of them are either ports from other Playstation systems or ineptly-realised second-rate versions of big console franchises (such as the frequently incompetent, clumsily enjoyable Assassin’s Creed: Liberation or the frankly shameful Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified).
Into this bleak landscape comes Soul Sacrifice, one of the few Vita games released so far that actually seems like it wants to be on the system.
One of the first products of former Capcom bigwig and Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune since he parted ways with that company – another being 3DS downloadable game Mushikera Sensha (‘Insect Tank’), about a shrunken Panzer division of the Wehrmacht battling insects on the Östfront – Soul Sacrifice is the latest entry in the increasingly-crowded Hunting Action genre spawned by the phenomenal success of the Monster Hunter series.
Where Soul Sacrifice distinguishes itself from the competition is in its chilling, glutinous atmosphere and in the range of delicate interacting systems woven across the basic four-people-versus-a-monster structure. Where Monster Hunter and most of its imitators seem content to keep the homely community spirit and earnest dedication to self-improvement that characterises so many Japanese videogames, and indeed much of Japanese culture generally, Soul Sacrifice prefers something more coldly vicious, possessing a sort of artisanal cruelty reminiscent of the fantasy films produced by Jim Henson back in the 80s. Enemies have a distorted, rubbery physicality, often taking the form of grotesque variations on familiar animals, and environments are desolate places wherein the wind whips aimlessly through the dust of a civilization, half a mighty statue poking mournfully out of the filth.
The fact that all the companions you are able to acquire to aid you in your quest to see amazing new things and murder them are sinister decadents in fetish outfits who have a habit of muttering threatening things when they think you can’t hear them only serves to heighten the atmosphere of quivering horribleness. There is a melancholic strain of paranoia to the game that meshes perfectly with the game’s stated them: sacrifice.
Sacrifice manifests itself in practically every aspect of the game. An example: you carry into battle two sets of equippable skills, switched out with the R button. Each of these skills, offensive, defensive or other, has a limited number of uses before it eventually breaks. Durability can be briefly restored by sacrificing a downed enemy and harvesting red souls, or alternatively you can choose to free it from its curse in exchange for blue souls and a health boost.
Occasionally choosing one form of XP will cost you a small quantity of the other, so that you are constantly attempting to balance the two. Should an ally be downed, the same choice manifests itself. Heal them for a health refill and another fighter back by your side, or sacrifice them to the malevolent gods of this cruel dimension in exchange for a devastating super attack? Given that sacrificed players are able to roam the arena as a disembodied spirit raising allies’ attack power and crippling enemy defenses with their unholy dead-person magick, both choices are attractive. Rarely has a game been so encouraging of, and rewarding to, a player’s mean-streak.
Soul Sacrifice is a clever, cruel, and engaging game, made with real care and wit and intelligence. It’s the kind of thing Sony will need a lot more of: a compelling, well-realised and charming game that instantly makes the system look at least twice as attractive. Whether or not it will be enough to help the Vita back on its feet and put the strut back in its stride remains to be seen.