Much has been made of the demise of mid-range games and the subsequent loss of experimentation, novelty, and genre-specific gaming landscapes. While it’s true that many major publishers have become increasingly focused on successful franchises above all else, resulting in certain styles of experience falling by the wayside, dozens of AA studios have sprung up to fill some of those gaps. Reply Games Studios is one of those developers whose most recent, soulsticeembodies many strengths offered by this game scale.
Although its title might make you assume it’s another soulslike, soulstice in fact, it has the trappings of a character action game, a style that is relatively unexplored these days outside of Capcom and PlatinumGames production. A laundry list of elements makes soulsticethe debt of titles like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta is clear: a persistent score in the upper right corner that rates their performance, fights taking place in small inescapable combat areas, being framed by a zoomed third-person camera angle, the importance from attacking and juggling enemies, an arsenal of swappable weapons mid-combo, destroying furniture to produce red orbs that can be used for upgrades, and, well, you get the idea.
As a genre, character action games sell the illusion of complete mastery. Even if you don’t know all the combos, you’re cast as a maestro of ballet violence, guiding the hero through high-octane fights that feel like they’re ripped straight out of an anime MV. Above all, this pulsating sense of style defines what have been described as “spectacle wrestlers”. soulsticeThe new mechanics, solid execution of the fundamentals, and the rewarding state of activation help you enjoy some of the adrenaline honed by what came before. But unfortunately, it’s not all beautiful action choreography. An erratic camera and questionable enemy composition can sometimes make this feel less like a beautifully shot martial arts sequence and more like a shaky, dowdy camera production.
soulstice follows Briar and Lute, a pair of sisters who have been linked into a single body by a mysterious religious organization called the Order. They are dispatched to the holy city of Ilden to investigate a potential Tear, a rift in reality, only to find it already open and the nearby population massacred. From here, they must fight a multitude of horrors and seal the Loom before all of humanity is destroyed.
While snippets of the narrative may seem like a long journey towards an ever-distant McGuffin, interesting complications eventually arise from our protagonist’s backstories. Briar, whose spiked armor, injured right eye, and bulky metal sword give her more than a passing resemblance to the protagonist of Furious, is predictably gruff, while her sister Lute, a blue spirit tethered to her older brother’s body, is more overtly empathetic and naive. While the duo initially seems a bit of a note, they eventually gain nuance as their pasts and the political realities of the world come into focus. Briar is plagued with guilt over her sister’s lost body, but as Lute explores her sister’s memories, she brings out narrative threads about recovering from past traumas and confronting exploitative power structures. Unfortunately, while these story elements eventually fall into place, it takes a little too long to get there, and those twists are marred by a sequel-bait ending that steals the catharsis conclusion.
But when it comes to character action games, success is largely defined by how the experience expresses style through game mechanics. Here soulstice occasionally rises bringing some new features that set it apart from its peers. For one, there’s a heavy focus on constantly switching between your many weapons to deal with enemies, as each tool is particularly effective against certain enemy types. For example, you’re encouraged to use bulky gauntlets to destroy heavily armored monsters, equip a bow to take down flying wraiths, and switch to a whip to cut through mobs of smaller ghouls. There is also a Ikaruga-inspired polarity system where Lute can project a red or blue field to make enemies of the corresponding color vulnerable.
All of these factors make for frantic and satisfying exchanges, forcing you to press almost every button on your controller in a crazy fencing display. Enemies have dangerous abilities that make it important to dispatch them in a strategic order, adding another layer of gratification each time you figure out the best path through an encounter. And if all that wasn’t enough, you should also utilize Lute’s ability to parry blows, deflect projectiles, and freeze enemies for crowd control. Their involvement makes it feel like these brothers are genuinely working together, further helping the sense of brotherhood reiterated in the narrative.
While combos and abilities don’t differ much between your weapons, the complexity comes from juggling your tools to take advantage of enemy weaknesses and maintaining a combo long enough to enter a powerful state called Rapture. In addition to being treated to a delicious transformation sequence where cool poses match a soaring score, Rapture lets you melt through armies in a haze of crackling violet explosions. Achieving that state became my de facto goal, and nearly every fight that ended with Briar in this near-invulnerable trance made me feel like I was playing a legitimate successor to the best of its kind.
But while many of the battles ended in this kind of satisfying climax, not all encounters went smoothly. While soulstice pits the player against a variety of hellish creatures, my biggest enemy has been the adversary that has countered many action titles over the years: the camera. There are two big problems with this. One is that he will constantly be stuck to walls in smaller arenas (of which there are many), making it difficult to see a lot. The other problem is that the aiming system is often a nightmare as it can be difficult to switch to the specific enemy you want to attack. As I was getting in the way to hit an enemy who was about to heal someone else, I would get hit in the back by some invisible idiot that ruined my combo and chance to get back to Rapture state.
Aside from the camera, the other big problem is that some enemy combinations can be a headache. The flying twerps will glide out of range as they attack you from afar, as a spectral mage barricades everyone, and a gigantic monstrosity knocks you down. It can sometimes feel like the stage is too full of dangerous henchmen who demand your full attention, and even with proper planning, these fights can be hard work. While Lute can block off-screen attacks to deal with this kind of chaotic situation, this dodge has a small cooldown, meaning you can easily get overwhelmed if there’s too much going on. While captivating fights outnumbered the disheartening ones, these hobo encounters happened often enough to spoil the power fantasy.
Still, there’s a lot of charm to soulstice. When it all comes together, which it often does, it can deliver captivating sequences where the art direction, mechanics and score are in harmony. Also, while its conclusion detracts a bit from what came before, the story delivers on the family bond between these sisters and offers enough interesting moments to justify time spent away from battles. It would all be well above its weight class if it weren’t for the aggravating camera and some questionable encounter design.
Despite some gaffes, one of its biggest strengths is that it achieves exactly what many AA titles set out to do, delivering a somewhat unusual genre that has fallen out of favor. soulstice it may not reach the highest echelons of character action bliss, but when its art direction, mechanics, and scoring are in harmony, it scratches an itch that only this kind of elegant spectacle can.
soulstice was developed by Reply Games Studios and published by Modus Games. Our review is based on the PlayStation 5 version. It is also available for Xbox Series X|S and PC.
Elijah Gonzalez is an intern at Necklace.
Source : www.pastemagazine.com