Soul Sacrifice deals with morality in a manner that few games manage. While the likes of Mass Effect and inFAMOUS deliver negligible narrative tweaks in response for your borderline binary ethical decisions, Keiji Inafune’s grotesque fantasy adventure aims to explore the core of your moral makeup. Are you willing to surrender the body of a hysterical ally for the greater good? Mechanically, it may not encompass the shades of grey that a Heavy Rain covets, but it still depicts some distressing quandaries as you fight against your conscience to succeed against the title’s rotten roster of archfiends.

Developed in conjunction between Sony’s own Japan Studio and Marvelous AQL, the macabre third-person action game has been billed as the PlayStation Vita’s response to the loss of Monster Hunter – and it certainly fills a demon-shaped void. Despite strong comparisons to the beast antagonising series, though, Inafune’s twisted take on the genre is very much its own game. Battles occur in arenas rather than the numbered hub worlds of its counterpart’s Felyne-inhabited districts, and the action has a much choppier pace to it that makes slaying foes a test of athleticism as much as skill.

You play as an unfortunate spirit imprisoned by a mysterious sorcerer named Magusar. Faced with the depressing inevitability of certain death, you happen upon a talking tome known as Librom, whose pages pledge the secret to survival. Using the novel as a portal into its author’s memoirs, you’re given the opportunity to quietly hone your magical craft, all the while preparing for a conclusive encounter against your captor who waits unwittingly in the wings. It’s a coincidental premise that comes across as a little too convenient, but it forms the blueprints for a dense plot nonetheless.

In truth, purely from a structural perspective, Librom is an ideal conduit for the adventure. Missions are divided up into chapters, which are prefaced by helpings of lore. You can opt to ‘rewrite’ parts of the novel, which is how you create your character and customise your loadout. However, many of these edits cost Lacrima, a kind of teardrop currency that acts as a paranormal correction fluid. The book also plays host to hundreds of pages of lore, which comprehensively flesh out the morbid universe in which the adventure takes place. The narrative does get a bit convoluted in places, but there’s an underlying charm to its dark humour that makes it compelling all the same. Nevertheless, you can easily skip through the reams of text if you simply wish to do battle without the emphasis on exposition.

You’ll still need to set aside time to understand the intricacies of battle, though. Combat revolves around the concept of offerings, which augment your body with short-term attack options such as grenades, swords, and homing attacks. Each of these spells has a designated quota, with its restrictions open to improvement assuming that you augment it with another of its kind. You can also fuse different hexes together, creating elemental alternatives of existing curses or entirely new enchantments in the process. However, regardless of the manner in which you construct your character’s offensive abilities, you’ll always find yourself at the mercy of your loadout’s limitations.

And this is where the game gets really interesting. Every fiend that you encounter on a specific quest can be saved or sacrificed. Selecting the former will reward you with a temporary health boost, and will raise the XP in your Life meter. However, opting for the bleaker option will replenish your offerings, and will increase the XP in your Magic meter. Levelling up your slightly more friendly attributes will improve your overall defence and recovery statistics, while aligning with your sinister side will enhance the potency of your powers. You can opt to keep a balance between the two disparate types if you choose, but if you veer towards one or the other, you’ll be able to take greater advantage of Sigils, buffs which are applied to your right arm.

Confused? We were too, but persevere and it clicks. The game doesn’t do a brilliant job of explaining the intricacies of its systems right away, but the longer that you spend with it, the more that it will start to make sense. The title feels like it wants you to experiment, which is compensated by the fact that you can re-spec your character at any point in exchange for some of the aforementioned droplets. The most important thing is that you can never irreparably hinder your progress, so while it’s unfortunate that you essentially have to navigate a period of trial and error in order to get to grips with the game, it’s possible to overcome the learning curve relatively unscathed.

This is more than can be said for your friends. While you’ll spend a great deal of your time saving or sacrificing vanilla foes such as rats, cats, and crows, you’ll also need to make some important decisions about your allies. Much like the antagonists that you encounter, fallen acquaintances can be saved at any point – but you’re always given the option to sacrifice, too. Should you select the former, your counterpart will jump from the ground and live to fight another day, however the latter will pull your partner out of the battle in exchange for a devastating magical attack. Surrendering a computer-controlled assistant in single player doesn’t necessarily feel like the end of the world, but this takes on a whole new meaning when you’re playing in multiplayer with four real-life buddies or strangers.

Sometimes it’s necessary, though. The game is balanced in such a way that you’ll frequently find yourself faced with tough decisions. Further magic attacks known as Black Rites play a part in this design, as employing the supremely powerful attacks leaves you debilitated. Infernus, for example, summons a fiery hurricane in exchange for your skin. You can continue to battle after using the special move, but unless you pay the price – in the form of Lacrima once again – your defences will be halved for the rest of your adventure. As the expense for taking advantage of such tactics is so extortionately high, you’ll find yourself exploring other avenues before you use the devastating spells.

And this all helps to create some extremely tense combat encounters. While not every bout is particularly memorable – you’ll kill hundreds upon hundreds of rats throughout the course of your quest – it’s the archfiends that take centre stage. These comprise of former sorcerers who embody rancid monsters, and occasionally prompt battles in excess of 15 to 20 minutes. Each of these foes has unique attack patterns and weaknesses, which you’ll need to use your Mind’s Eye – a kind of detective mode – to uncover. Different enemies will be susceptible to specific elemental attacks, forcing you to keep your loadout varied with a range of unique spells. You can even chain these types together, by, for example, freezing an enemy and then setting it on fire.

Perhaps most interesting is that each archfiend has a story to tell. As you’re busy beating its cursed areas with your sharpest sword, the beast will relay parts of its history to you, as it pleads for forgiveness. It’s all quite ethically arresting, and while it’s never going to affect you on a deeply emotional level, there’s definitely a deeper metaphor that the title covets without necessarily being particularly explicit about it.

The enemies look horrendous, too. The game has a real dark fantasy vibe to it, which is perhaps best reflected in the aforementioned boss characters. A Cyclops-type foe carries a staff covered with eyeballs, while its head is tautly wrapped by stretched skin concealing a single optic atop its neck. Meanwhile, the harpy combines rotten poultry with a tiara and a ringlet-style haircut – a marriage made in Frankenstein’s nightmares. All of the beasts are brilliantly animated, augmenting battles with a grand sense of occasion. Unfortunately, while the art’s genuinely disturbing, the visuals lack the pizzazz and polish of an Uncharted: Golden Abyss, suffering from a blurry resolution and some muddy textures.

Aside from some minor lag online, though, the performance is generally good, even during hectic encounters, and the quality art is matched by a strong soundtrack composed by industry legends Yasunori Mitsuda and Wataru Hokoyama. The title mixes tonal orchestral pieces with rip-roaring guitar riffs, both of which combine to create an equally eerie and euphoric backdrop to the action. Few things are more triumphant than the melody that plays upon completing a quest, with the jingle that accompanies opening a treasure chest in The Legend of Zelda being a notable exception.

Still, repetition is a problem throughout. While the game boasts a beefy campaign (upwards of at least 35 hours if you’re looking to max out your statistics), too much of it is spent repeating the same tasks. Archfiends are revisited multiple times in the form of doppelgangers which pad out the Avalon Pacts portion of the campaign, an area which serves as an analogue to Monster Hunter’s optional Event Quests. Fighting these beasts in different arenas – winged windmill farms, hazy deserts, and ice-capped islands – is enjoyable, but it feels like the game is constantly recycling content in order to give you more things to do. Some quests throw in time limits to add some variety, while others find you sprinting through unfinished worlds in order to collate forgotten memories. Sadly, these almost always result in you batting down more of the same enemies again, though.

If you’re playing with others in multiplayer, then the repetition is diminished slightly. But even then, you’ll reach a point where you wished that you were unlocking more content at a faster pace. The problem isn’t that there’s not enough to do in the game, it’s just that it feels like it takes too long to get to it at times, and that can be a problem, especially if you’re spending most of your time with the title alone. It helps that the majority of the more dreary quests are incredibly short, making them perfect fodder for a mindless bus ride.

Conclusion

Soul Sacrifice offers a consuming fantasy adventure set in a desperately dark world. It may succumb to repetition in places, but its underlying moral mechanic brings a warped twist to a genre that’s becoming increasingly crowded in the wake of Monster Hunter’s success. The presentation isn’t always as polished as you’d expect from a first-party release, but the perverse art direction makes up for it. If you’re in the market for something a little different, there are worse experiences on the Vita for you to surrender your time to.