Hacking and slashing on a budget
While the triple-A industry is perhaps increasingly moving away from the third person over-the-top action games of old, with the likes of God of War being rebooted, some series remain true to their roots, as in the case of DMC. This opens the door for smaller studios to try their hand at the subgenre, and that's exactly what developers Reply Game Studiosattempted with their new release Soulstice. This action title borrows many ideas from the past and present, and introduces a twist or two of its own. And while most of the ideas work, the game still feels largely limited in scope and lacks variety.
Soulstice opens with a bit of an unnecessary lore dump, telling the players about the world and its history. But the goal of the adventure is far more immediate. In this mysterious land, where evil and chaos were once sealed off, a Tear has opened above the city of Ilden. Agents of Chaos and Wraiths then killed or took over local humans, and destroyed much of the land in the process. Players assume the role of Briar, a young woman who has been sent by The Order to put an end to this problem. Briar is a Chimera, which means she has supernatural abilities and is soul bound with a Shade – a ghost named Lute, who also happens to be her sister. Together, they enter the city and begin fighting their way to the Tear in the sky, hoping along the way to meet more fellow Chimeras that have also been dispatched.
But things do not go according to plan, as you can expect. The other warriors are nowhere to be found, and only some brief encounters with Donovan, a warrior who does not have a Shade, provide insight into what happened in the city. Players will also occasionally meet with their handler, an observer named Layton who also acts as the vendor for supplies. And last but not least, Briar has some of the chaos-corrupted blood in her, in a constant struggle to prevent it from taking her soul over. On the surface it may seem like there's a lot going on, but the narrative is actually rather straightforward, with occasional memory chapters that provide reveals about the two sisters' lives and how they ended up as warriors. There are a few predictable twists, and on the whole the writing is average at best, but it doesn't bog down the game too much. There cutscenes are surprisingly frequent for a game such as this, used for both narrative and just to showcase action moments.
Soulstice handles as a rather straightforward third-person action game with a mostly fixed camera. Much like God of War and many others, players will run around the largely linear levels in search of combat and hidden paths. You'll want to run to the edges of the screen often to force the camera to shift perspective and reveal small hidden areas, usually containing extra orbs to collect. You could also find an extra healing item or two, or a Void portal to the optional challenge arenas. The arenas often present you with a simple goal, such as defeating enemies in a certain way before a timer runs out. You could also find crystals that, when expectedly combined in a set of three, increase Briar's overall health or her Entropy capacity (magic level). While functional, the exploration is at odds with the narrative, given that in cutscenes the heroes can effortlessly scale walls and perform gravity defying leaps, but in-game you have to solve basic environmental puzzles multiple times to unlock an elevator.
The level design is largely predictable and linear for the most part, as you will traverse across the city's bridges, through the slums, sewers, castle ramparts, and eventually to the High Town and beyond. The destroyed homes, broken carts and collapsed walls are fairly typical for a medieval setting, and evokes memories of the early Dark Souls games. The environments are dreary, and stay pretty much the same across the entire adventure, except towards the end when things get covered in snow and ice. The camera can also occasionally be a hindrance, as it doesn’t change positions when you often have to backtrack, so you're just running blind. This becomes particularly annoying during a mid-game chapter where you have to solve a bunch of navigational problems to unlock yet another elevator. Not only does this chapter hurt the pacing of the game as a whole, but trying to navigate with the camera constantly shifting angles and resetting its position makes it more annoying than necessary to memorize the layout of the level. Still, there are at least a couple of other levels that change things up enough to help somewhat make up for these puzzle interludes.
Environmental obstacles are not so much puzzles, and more like navigational challenges to get to special small crystals that must be destroyed in order to break the main one. The game keeps repeating this design throughout the game, and late-on tries to switch it up by forcing you to destroy all of the small crystals within a short time window. The same design gets re-used for a different smaller-scale trap, and there are even moments where your powers get limited until you destroy a special emitter. But again, there's no thinking involved here – the enemies you face in the meantime can still be defeated – it’s just another proverbial switch to flip.
Most of the time not exploring will be spent in combat. Here again, Soulstice has a unique idea, but most of its elements are basic implementations of typical genre mechanics. For whatever reason, the default controls are not typical – the light attack is on Triangle while heavy is on Square, and your Dodge is on the bumper instead of Circle. Thankfully, all of this is easily re-mapped in-game. Other accessibility options are also very welcome, such as increasing the text font size, and making the game pause when opening the inventory. When you've got the settings tuned as you want them, combat proves to be enjoyable initially, but begins to grow very stale over the course of the 15 hour campaign. Towards the end, when you are faced with room after room of foes, it just becomes a workout for your fingers.
Briar has a default sword that is always equipped and is bound to the light attack button, and a series of different special weapons that are bound to the Triangle button. The default sword only has a couple of combos and cannot be upgraded or improved over time, which seems like a miss. Instead, with story progress you will unlock access to new special weapons – a hammer, gauntlet, whip, bow, and so on. Each of those weapons has their own combos, and can occasionally combine with the sword, as well as your jumps and being mid-air. Each weapon has a different feel and is best used against different types of enemies; the bow does most damage to flying foes, gauntlets to armor, etc. But regardless of weapon used, the controls and combos remain the same, so you're executing the same moves for hours on end.
The combat can be occasionally satisfying, but it does grow rather tedious and even tiring in certain moments. Things get particularly bad when the game decides to have a fight in some very small indoor spaces, which become further confined by invisible walls during a fight. The camera becomes a serious problem, as you often cannot see what is going on and trying to adjust mid-fight. There is a lock-on system, but it is very awkward to utilize, and it often refuses to work for larger enemies and bosses.You have a dodge, but it is limited to three in a row. You can try using your items – such as healing, reducing Entropy, or even becoming temporarily invincible. But that may not be enough, and so you'll fall – but there is an item that can be used that revives you back into the fight without losing progress, and it can be a great option if you don't want to start over from a checkpoint. Difficulty can be a bit all over the place, with some regular battles being annoyingly long, while a boss is easily defeated.
There is one unique aspect to the combat that gives you a dynamic element to worry about. With the help of your ghostly sister, you can manually create an aura that is centered on Briar. This can be either an Evocation Field (blue), or a Banishment Field (red), created by using the L2/R2 triggers on the controller. Activating these fields allows you to fight corresponding enemies nearby that are otherwise invulnerable. It adds a dynamic element to the gameplay, and also additional intensity – having a field active constantly increases the Entropy meter. When the meter reaches its peak, your ghost companion Overcharges and becomes temporarily unavailable. The aura system gives you something to keep tabs on during combat, but can become a problem when enemies are frequently mixed together and if a wrong-colored type enemy is closer, you simply get a bounce back animation for your attack, which leaves you exposed and wastes precious time. To help things along, the range of your fields can be increased with Lute's skill unlocks, and with an upgrade where Entropy is reduced when dealing damage.
The aura system is also used as a very basic mechanic during exploration, as the blue field can reveal platforms, and red can make crystals blocking your path vulnerable. Sometimes, you may need to switch the aura mid-jump in order to strike at the red crystals higher up. Platforming overall is very clunky, as it can be tough to gauge your position and depth of the platforms. It is rarely used - except near the end, where you are faced with a series of platforming elements and an arbitrary countdown.
Another aspect to combat is the duality system between the sisters. Your ghostly sibling will automatically block and parry a few melee and ranged attacks, but you can also do so manually by hitting the trigger button prompt with good timing. For the most part though, your sister is best utilized as a passive companion, which feeds into her upgrade tree. The game has an upgrade path for both sisters; in case of Lute, you spend blue orbs that are dropped from exploration and combat to unlock new passive abilities. These can include everything from performing more blocks automatically, to more passive attacks, blinding enemies, dealing explosive damage when Overcharge happens, and so on. Consequently, Briar's weapons are upgraded by spending red orbs gathered from a similar source. Interestingly, skills can be reset and re-selected at any time. In combat, the two sisters also have a unity level that grows together with your combos, and when at capacity, special stronger attacks can be executed.
With all these abilities and complexities, the enemies you'll be fighting are rather basic. The Corrupted are transformed/infected humans that come in a typical range of melee, ranged, and big guys with hammers and shields. The Wraith types are blue demons that float around and cast magic from afar, and can only be damaged when within your activated blue field. The Possessed types are monsters that are weak when within the red field, and also come in flying types. Most late-game enemy types tend to be quick and it's just as annoying to deal damage to them as is it to simply keeping them close so they are within your field. One late-game twist requires that you defeat a red type enemy, then blue Wraiths that possess it spring out – and if you don't defeat them in time, they reclaim the body and you have to defeat the red enemy again.
Dishing out enough damage increases the stun meter, which lets you juggle the enemy helplessly in the air, as it flops around in a basic animation. The animations are pretty substandard throughout, even in cutscenes, so this is not a top-budget production. Across the board, the visuals are average at best, and certainly below what you'd expect for a current-gen only release. There's nothing here that looks like it couldn't run on a PS4 or Xbox One. The voice acting and sound design are similarly of lower budget. The music is mostly minimal, and when it kicks up during combat, it chooses a techno style that doesn't seem to fit the game's setting. Another strange creative choice is the inclusion of nudity during the game's memory flashbacks involving the history of the sisters.
Soulstice is a decent enough action romp that follows the predictable design guidelines of the genre, while adding one or two twists of its own. The player-controlled aura system is decent, and gives you more to worry about in combat, but not without some drawbacks. Despite a few different weapons, the combat grows tedious over the length of the campaign, and while you can go back and replay on higher difficulty levels, there's not enough variety here to warrant it. The game carries a lower price tag, with a presentation quality to match it. Soulstice may appeal to fans of score-based third-person action games looking for their next fix, but temper your expectations accordingly.