Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Soul Blazer - Review

When I first had the idea to create this game journal, I decided that, while normal entries would just chart progress through and thoughts on a game, after finishing a game I would give a review of it. I then had to decide what format the review would take. Would it be a GameSpot/IGN-style story, gameplay, graphics, sound review? Or would it be an Insert Credit-style Hunter S. Thompson new games journalism stream of consciousness review? While the latter can certainly be entertaining, it usually just isn't me. We'll get something in-between, but I think we will hit on all the mainstream review points.

Soul Blazer is a very traditional "adventure" video game. I put "adventure" in quotes because it has a very different meaning for console games than for computer games. With computer games, you mean King's Quest IV or Secret of Monkey Island. With console games, you mean Zelda, Battle of Olympus, or even the Atari 2600 classic, Adventure. I've seen Action Adventure as another genre to describe these and nowadays, the term Action RPG is used (because collecting items and talking to people totally makes it an RPG!) Screw it, I'll use whatever designation mobygames gives the game and leave it at that.

The story is that the king is greedy and makes this genius scientists Dr. Leo invent a machine that will contact the Lord of Evil. The king makes a deal with the ruler of evil to exchange each soul in the kingdom for a gold piece. The king gets rich, but everyone disappears (because their soul is taken) includuing, eventually, the king. The Master (i.e. God, or a close facsimile) sends you down to free the peoples' souls. Even though there are people to talk to, they generally say useless things and you never get too much more story. You free the soul of Dr. Leo's daughter early on and each other area has someone close to him (his dog, his dolphin) until you get to the royal castle. At that point, you get some more story, a tacked on romance, and then play the final level, beat the game and get a full-fledged ending plus epilogue. The story is fine, just not well told. Part of that is probably the fault of the translation, but just about none of the characters, besides maybe Dr. Leo's daughter had any sort of personality. Oh well, it's not that a story is key to a game like this anyway - the early Zelda games never had a great story.

Each of the seven areas in the game starts off barren. There is just you, and maybe one other living thing there. So you have to go into the dungeon and defeat a bunch of monsters. Every so often, after defeating a group of monsters and stepping on the gem that spawned them, you will release another soul. This will appear as a person (or some other living thing - you can talk to any living thing in this game) in the town area. The souls you free sometimes come with their own architecture or other landscape-changing feature. This is the most original aspect of the game, and probably the most fun. The sense of building up the town is great, and I really liked knowing that I was creating more people to talk to. Instead of just putting all the items in treasure chests in the dungeon, you may now have to talk to certain people to get them, or even run errands or solve puzzles related to them. The world-building really gives the game a good sense of exploration and kept me wanting to push on to free one more soul to see what he would give me.

If the term Action RPG were around when this game came out, it would fall into that category. You have a bunch of stats like strength, magic, and hit points. As you kill enemies, you gain experience points and when you gain enough you level up. You also get different swords as the game progresses. Most of the time, the new one is strictly better than the old, but a few of them have interesting powers. The same is true of armor. There are magic and items you equip as well and I'll get to those later.

Like Zelda, the game takes place from an overhead perspective. Your main weapon is your sword which swings in about a 180 degree arc from your lower right to your upper left. This makes it pretty easy to hit any enemy that comes in your general vicinity. You can also stick your sword in one direction and by holding down the L or R button, keep facing in that direction with your sword out and impaling various enemies. That is almost never useful except against bosses (maybe just one boss?)

You also have magic. Well, you have a soul orb that circles you and you fire magic from this. This can be tricky as the orb is constantly circling you and so you need to time when the magic should fire from it. There are various spells you get during the game, from a single bolt that fires in one direction from the soul sphere, to an omnidimensional one, to tornadoes and fire pillars. The magic that shoots out in all directions is really the only useful one (until you get the Phoenix at the end of the game, and that doesn't use your soul sphere). In fact, Magic in the game is nearly useless. Your sword defeats just about all the enemies fine and the only time it is beneficial to use magic is when you are absolutely forced to - when the enemy is on the other side of a wall. Magic requires gems to use which you get from defeating enemies. It feels so wasteful to have this magic system that is never used, but the game is pretty fun just slashing guys, so I didn't mind too much.

The soul sphere, which you get at the beginning of the game, also acquires other powers as you go through levels and talk to the right people. Unlike magic, these are actually useful like letting you see in the dark or see invisible enemies or passages.

The game really cements itself in the adventure genre by the sheer number of items you collect. Sometimes, these help your stats, other times they do something useful like restore your health or save your gems. Plenty of times, they are just used for fetch quests. Give the acorn to the squirrel or the VIP card to the guard.

As I've mentioned, the gameplay consists of going into a dungeon, fighting enemies and releasing souls, and then going back to town to talk to people so you can explore new dungeons that have opened up. This culminates in the final dungeon having a boss you have to fight and then you can move on to the next area. The play control is fine, though it feels a little stiff. You cannot move diagonally ever and you can't move while attacking. It doesn't detract from the game, but it definitely feels dated. The enemies themselves are well-designed and present the variety you would expect from a game like this. There are some that are really quick, some that move unpredictably, and some that shoot things at you. The levels are also designed well. They typically have obstacles that are removed by defeating a group of enemies. They don't have an incredible amount of exploration, but they work well. One thing that is very nice about the game is that even though there are areas where you go through an area, go back to town and get something, and then go to that area again, there is never a tedium in this. There are always teleporters or soul crystals that take you near enough where you need to go.

My only other gameplay complaint besides the stiff controls is that the game is a bit easy. While the enemies aren't always that easy to kill or avoid, the damage they do to you is never very significant and there are plenty of opportunities to restores your health. The biggest challenge comes with the bosses. It is true old-school gameplay where you have to learn the pattern and the right way to kill them. While I died maybe twice when not fighting the bosses, I died several times when fighting them. Thinking back, I guess it wasn't so easy because of my deaths - I guess maybe part of it is that the penalty for death is so low. All that happens is that you lose all your gems and start from the main room of the area (which generally has a teleporter right back to the boss). Since, like I said earlier, you rarely use magic, losing your gems means absolutely nothing.

Here is the standard graphics and sound paragraph. The graphics are bright, colorful, and distinct, though not amazing. They do the job and look pretty enough, but there are few amazing effects. The music and sound is similarly well done, but not spectacular. There are actually quite a few good musical pieces in the game, but they are a bit short so they repeat a lot. The town theme can be especially annoying in how often it repeats. The sound is generally just there for what it needs to be. The sound effect for slashing, killing, picking up items, etc. are fine, but not memorable.

I feel like I may have been quite down on this game in the review without getting across the point that it is quite fun. The action is good and well-paced and it is enjoyable to figure out the right strategy to beat the monster groups. You always feel like you are figuring things out and making progress. The unique soul-releasing mechanism really works well as you feel like you are building the world and creating more places to explore. The game feels non-linear despite the fact that you almost always just go from one place to another. In short, it's a bit like a Zelda light. Not quite as engrossing or as well put-together as your typical Zelda game, but pretty damn fun.

Now here's the part where I'm supposed to quantify how much I enjoyed (or didn't) the game. I thought of several systems, with maybe the letter grade system making the most sense (as, if a game gets an F, it doesn't really matter if it is bad or extremely bad), but when I listen to my heart, I really want to use a 0-10 scale where 0 means the game is fundamentally broken, 10 means it is pure delight to play (though not necessarily perfect) and 5 being average. So, here we go.

Rating: 8 / 10


WildKard said...

I've seen Action Adventure as another genre to describe these and nowadays, the term Action RPG is used (because collecting items and talking to people totally makes it an RPG!) Screw it, I'll use whatever designation mobygames gives the game and leave it at that.

heh. well actually as far as Mobygames is concerned, what makes it an RPG is mainly the player statistics (life, attack, defend, etc) being able to be improved (experience points) and upgraded over the course of the game. I know that "Role Play" is actually a pretty lousy name for these types of games... but "Adventure" is even worse. I have yet to see somebody properly define what is an adventure game, and like you say, the traditional games that fall under adventure seem to be quite different (or whatever tells us fits it :).

Having said that, you make a good point about the number of items being used in the game and what lengths you have to go to in order to use them at the right place or bring them to the right character who wants them. For this reason, I would in fact argue that Soul Blazer is an "adventure game" also. Mobygames is all user-contributed, so I believe I'll submit a correction.

Finally, for some strange reason, Soul Blazer was one of my favorite SNES games growing up. I know it's a bit unpolished and has you doing some fairly silly things ("You have resurrected... a plant!"), but there was just something that really appealed to me about restoring the world from oblivion, bit by bit. The game's "unofficial sequels", Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma, covered the same basic idea... but in a completely different way that didn't involve restoring every individual item to life. In my opinion, the next game that comes closest to Soul Blazer's essence in my mind is Sony's Dark Cloud games for the PS2. (Also Katamari... but that's a whole other weird direction.)

WildKard said...

Whoops. I misunderstood what you were saying. Yes, the RPG probably needs to be added as far as Mobygames is concerned :)

Red Hedgehog said...

I must say, I'm impressed to see a comment by someone I don't know. Well, I'd even be impressed to see a comment by someone I know since I've only told two people about the blog so far.

I'll be playing the spiritual sequels to Soul Blazer at some point, but I am disappointed to hear that they don't have the restoring the souls to the towns that Soul Blazer has as that is part of what made it so fun.

Indeed, the game has a fun quality despite its traditional flaws and I really loved playing it, even if I can't say it's great game - merely good. I was torn on whether to give it a 7 or 8, especially since most of my review was negative, but I'll get over it. Number distinctions on a 10 point scale are relatively arbitrary and it isn't like a significant number of people will use my review to decide whether to play this game.