Soul Sacrifice starts as it means to go on - by letting you launch a firework display of various magical spells at a boss the size of a small island.
Oh, and by being so bastard-hard that, should you even be victorious, your character will still most certainly be burnt to a crisp.
The clue is in the title; the back-of-the-box selling point for this hardcore action RPGs is that you'll need to make personal sacrifices if you want to unleash your full potential - and we don't just mean chocolate, ceremonial goats or your social life (though the latter make come under strain if you plan on mastering Soul Sacrifice).
The true sacrifices you'll make in this title are limbs, skin, maybe even an eye or two. Send one of those appendages to the virtual slaughter house and your sorcerer will unleash a screen-filling blast of combustible win that will eat a massive wad of health from even the hardiest of foes. These powers are called Black Rites, and they're a perfect example of the delicate risk / reward balancing act at the core of Soul Sacrifice's battle system.
Performing Black Rites burdens you with a permanent handicap (halving your defence, say) that can only be reversed by spending copious amounts of 'lacrima' - the game's magic currency. Considering you'll also need reserves of lacrima to maintain your arsenal of offensive and defensive spells, deciding when to deploy a Black Rite is of huge tactical importance.
It's an excellent system, made more risky by the deliberately vague indications of your enemies' remaining health (they simply glow either green, yellow or red meaning you can never be /quite/ sure whether your last-ditch attempt at victory will be successful).
But this won't be your only conundrum; levelling-up your sorcerer is also a moral dilemma in miniature. Sparing defeated enemies will boost your defence stats and hit points, yet sacrificing them will strengthen offensive abilities. It's a novel approach to character building; forgoing the 'skill tree' model of most RPGs in favour of a more immediate system of character-by-character conundrums. It's also a brilliantly flexible approach; encouraging experimentation and allowing you to try separate strategies without having to build an entirely new character.
So what to do when you've built a worthy sorcerer? You take them online into Soul Sacrifice's excellent four-player co-op, that's what. Here is where specialised magic users really come up trumps, where co-ordinated gangs of fireball-flinging mates can team up and take down some splendidly designed monstrosities. The best bit? You can sacrifice friends too.
Online provides the perfect chance to experiment with different spell combinations and test for enemy weaknesses while other players can cover for you if everything goes south. Of course, they could choose to sacrifice you if you prove to be more use as a fleshy projectile than as a sorcerer.
If you happen to be sacrificed by so-called friends, then there is a chance to get involved. While hovering around in 'ghost mode' you can use PS Vita's touch screen to lower enemy defences or boost your party's attack power.
Soul Sacrifice's combat is so balanced, so deep and packed with graphical flair that any time outside of boss fights feels a little pedestrian, and sadly there's plenty of narrative padding, particularly in single player mode.
Each mission is preceded by a lengthy bout of histrionic waffle presented by a talking book who also acts as your in-game guide. He's called Librom and is bursting at the seams with optional lore (and sometimes useful info on enemy weak spots). Sadly, Librom's priority seems to be bending your ear every five minutes. The text-based exposition feels lazy in comparison to the vividly realised characters, monsters and spells.
But it's a testament to the quality of Soul Sacrifice that its over-theatrical story is its only real flaw. The PS Vita finally has an RPG you can get your number-crunching teeth into; a game that offers both strategic depth with seemingly endless customisation of spells and battle load outs, while simultaneously feeding you a smooth, responsive battle system that is at once tactile and visually spectacular.
Considering it was partly conceived by former Capcom star developer Keiji Inafune, it is perhaps expected that Soul Sacrifice is unapologetically hardcore and initially hard to penetrate. You'll die lots at first, but stick with it and you'll find Soul Sacrifice is a shining example of the handheld action RPG.
The PS Vita has an RPG that offers strategic depth with a smooth, responsive battle system that is tactile and visually spectacular.
- Finely balanced levelling system
- Excellent four player co-op
- Forgettable downtime between battles
- Weak story delivered over-theatrically