SANCTUARY!!! Most people would assume a place called Sanctuary would be a safe one, but nooo, not in Soulblight. Instead of being a type of refuge where travelers find peace, they instead find nothing but death, destruction, and mechanized menaces roving about. Your nameless character arrives in Sanctuary in order to cleanse the Soul Tree of the blood plague that is withering it and causing the monsters to ravage the land. What follows is a permadeath-toting roguelike that will require a lot of skill -and luck- to conquer.
The game starts off in the hub. Get used to it because this is where you’ll end up the many times you die. There are a few people here to talk to but they’re mostly useless. Cecil and Brothir will sell you items and equipment, but you don’t start with any money and you can’t return to the hub unless you die, which forfeits all your possessions. The only way around this is to stick items in the storage boxes that you will hopefully find during your jaunt through the totally randomized dungeon of the Soul Tree. You can then access them from the hub at the start of your next run. In your explorations, you will come across punch cards. These can be returned to an old woman in the hub by the name of Quara the Scholar. Every one you bring her unlocks bite-sized journal entries to help flesh out the world-lore. Aside from the opening, it’s one of the few things in the game that flesh out the narrative.
Once you hop into the dungeon, you’ll be treated to some pretty good graphics and sound design. Traipsing through a blighted Soul Tree has never sounded so good. The whirring of mechanical gears; the dull clang of metal on metal when swinging your sword at an armored foe; the buzzing of wild electrical currents; and the clacking of the automated platforms coming together will accompany you to the gloomy depths in style. While the visuals are good and feature some cool effects, there were a few issues for me. Soulblight is presented in a top-down manner and its dungeon is a mostly dark, gloomy place. Combine that with the small screen of the Nintendo Switch’s handheld mode and the tiny font (especially in the inventory menu) and you got the recipe for a migraine. I can only spend so much time squinting at the screen trying to read item descriptions and looking for the treasure chest before my head starts to hurt. Even in fullscreen mode it just seems poorly optimized for console. Something like this can put a damper on the fun for a lot of people, myself included, so if you’re a person who has had issues like this before: beware.
The dungeon is fairly simple to break down. You need to scavenge through the level to find the missing gear that unlocks the gate to the next area. The problem is all the enemies wandering around trying to stab holes in you. Aside from the cool distance aspect that I’ll break down in the next paragraph, you have a health and stamina bar to keep track of. Stamina works exactly like every other game: actions such as attacking, dashing and blocking drain it. Inaction regenerates it. Health is trickier. Once you lose a bar of health, you gain an injury. If you have four injuries the next one kills you. There are items such as bandages and sewing kits that can be used to remove injuries, but they can be hard to find. Oh, and they can also sometimes make things worse for you, depending on the quality of the item. It seems everything in Soulblight is out to get you! What kind of world do we live in when you can’t even trust a healing item?!?
There are two interesting gameplay mechanics that set Soulblight apart from the standard roguelike mold. First is the distance management aspect of the combat. All your weapons and armor have two sets of values: attack power for short range/long range attack and defense value against short range/long range attack. You can grip enemies to force them into short range combat, which sort of glues them to your character until you let go, they push you away, or someone dies. That is when your short range attack and defense values come into play. Any attacks used when not in grip mode uses the long-range modifier. Weapons and armor can have vastly differing stats depending on the range, so that adds a nice level of strategy to the encounters that I enjoyed quite a bit.
Next up is the taint system. This is the big one that Soulblight likes to use in all its marketing. Personally, I think it is super annoying: it is an idea that sounds cool on paper but delivers very little satisfaction gameplay-wise. The taint system replaces the traditional level-up style. Instead, you worry about synergy, like some sad business rep trying to motivate fellow office workers over and over with the same catchy lingo. Synergy is your main source of power, the higher your meter is, the stronger you become. At certain intervals in the dungeon, you will come upon some nodes offering you a selection of taints to choose from. These are essentially perks that come with often detrimental caveats. What is interesting is that they are based off of your actions during the game. If you’re like me and you like looting every chest before moving on, you may end up seeing the hoarder taint. This ability grants you a passive bonus depending on how many items you are carrying but penalizes you every time you lose one of them. It is often the case that the taints that give you the best bonuses also come with the worst penalties. My main issue is that the taint/synergy system is your main source of strength but it depends too much on specific situations in a totally randomized game. Hell, I couldn’t even find a food item until my 4th or 5th run so I kept incurring the hunger penalty. The player is often placed in a situation where luck means more than skill and that simply isn’t fun or interesting to me.
Summing it up, Soulblight is a nice-looking, nice-sounding game with some cool ideas that don’t quite add up to an enjoyable time. I was having a fun time for about the first hour or so until the poorly executed permadeath and the overbearing reliance on luck to get me farther into the game left me feeling like the whole thing was an exercise in futility. Unless you’re a glutton for punishment or a person who really loves roguelikes, you should probably avoid this one.
*Note: A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 5.5/10
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