Acts of Old
I grew up back during the times of the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64, and it’s an era that I have much nostalgia for…despite never owning either system. Before I turned 13 or so, my parents did not allow any video games in our home (“They aren’t educational.”), so I got most of my gaming memories from time spent at friend’s houses.
One of my friends at the time had a slew of games for his SNES, which he’d often show off to me whenever I visited as a child. Aside major titles like Super Mario World and Super Metroid, there were a few oddballs I remember trying out, one of which was the game ActRaiser.
ActRaiser was an unusual mash-up of side-scrolling action and city management sim. I remember enjoying the former, while becoming confused and bored when the latter portion would rear its head. “What is this? Where did the action go? This is boooooring.”
Yeah, seven-year-old me wasn’t a big fan of slower more thought-intensive games. What a 180 I’ve done since.
The industry really hasn’t seen a game like it since. ActRaiser received a sequel which cut out the city management aspects (I’m sure younger me would’ve enjoyed that one more), and that’s about it. Until today.
The game we’re looking at today is kind of a spiritual successor to ActRaiser, with the same fusion of side-scrolling action and town management…although the latter portion does have a few twists.
Developed by ACE Team and published by Sega, SolSeraph is set for release on July 10th, 2019, on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC via Steam. The PC version was played for this review.
My God is the Sun
SolSeraph takes place in a world created by two deities: the Sky Father and Earth Mother. Together they created the planet and the life upon it, with their favorite creation being humans. After creating the world, the two deities left it alone to grow on its own.
Unfortunately, lesser deities known as the Younger Gods grew jealous of humankind, and have begun tormenting them with natural disasters. Humans have been scattered across the land, with the survivors forming small tribes to continue struggling for survival.
That’s where you come in: Helios, another deity and the Knight of Dawn. You have decided to take up your sword and shield against the Younger Gods, with the goal to eliminate them and the chaos they create so that humankind may survive and, eventually, thrive.
The above synopsis is laid out in an opening text crawl, promising an interesting if somewhat cliche story. The actual plot within the game, though, is very much lacking.
As you jump between different tribes in the world, small conversations between the members of each tribe play out. These usually amount to people lamenting about the state of the world, calling upon Helios, and various other complaints about what the Younger Gods have done to each tribe. Most of the characters receive little-to-no characterization, and nothing ever happened within each mini storyline that led me to care for the characters.
Annoyingly, most of these small conversations occur in the middle of city management gameplay. You’ll be busy planning out your city and building structures, when suddenly you’re torn away from the controls to listen to the humans complain more.
Really, everything after the initial setup feels like throw-away dialogue. That opening text crawl was all that was needed for the game – some background lore, info about Helios and his enemies, and a goal. The half-hearted attempt at human drama is just kind of pointless.
Take the Punishment
As mentioned earlier, SolSeraph is a game with two distinct parts: side-scrolling action and town management. There are six different towns in the game, each of which can be accessed at any time. To unlock them, you have to play through a side-scrolling stage first.
The action stages are fairly straight-forward. Helios relies mostly on a sword, requiring you to get up close and personal with each enemy. He also has access to a bow, but the number of times you can use it is limited by the amount of mana you have. With the bow only firing in three directions (straight ahead or at a 45-degree angle up or down), I didn’t get a ton of use out of it.
As you proceed through the game, you gain access to some other powers as well. These range from a short-range fire attack to flooding the whole screen with water. Much like the bow, I found these to have limited usage. The only unlocked skill I ever really used was a healing skill.
Said healing skill was important because, if you’re playing through each stage as intended, SolSeraph can be surprisingly difficult, and not in an enjoyable way. Nearly every hit I took was due to either a projectile fired by an enemy that just appeared on screen, or by the damn spider enemies that like to drop from off the top of the screen when you’re in the middle of a jump. These situations happened so often that some stages felt less of a challenge and more poorly designed.
Of course, as I said, this is what happens if you’re playing through each stage “properly.” While there are some small battlefield-style stages that require you to kill every enemy on screen, the main stages of the game (typically the “unlock a town” stage and the main boss stage) have no other requirement than simply getting to the end. Upon realizing that, I played every stage as a mad dash to the end, jumping over enemies and purposefully taking hits from those I couldn’t dodge. This approach was much less frustrating than replaying each stage over and over to predict where random projectiles would fire from.
This strategy wouldn’t have been possible, though, if the bosses of each stage weren’t such pushovers. Most only have one or two attacks which are obviously telegraphed and easily dodgable, and as you complete stages and gain more health, they become even easier to brute force. Hell, I beat the final boss of the game by smashing my face into him and furiously slamming the attack button, eating every attack he threw at me, and I took him down with a quarter of my health remaining (although I did use my heal spell a couple times).
Outside of speed running action stages, you’ll be doing some town management as well. I was excited for this portion…until I actually sat down with the game and realized it was less “town management” a la ActRaiser and more of a tower defense game. As you build your city, swarms of monsters will occasionally flow out of an enemy generator and follow a pre-determined path to your town. If any of them reach the bonfire in the middle of your town, you lose health…too many and its game over.
The goal of these portions is to survive and grow your town to reach each enemy generator, where you can place a Temple building and send one of your villagers to it, allowing Helios to enter and fight in a side-scrolling stage. There’s usually five or so of these in each town, and once they’re taken out, you can access the boss stage.
While I can’t say I’m much a fan of tower defense games, there were two glaring issues to me in SolSeraph in particular. The first: many of the buildings you have access to are useless. Most of the buildings initially unlocked in your first town are really all you need in the game: houses to generate citizens, farms to feed them (you need more farms to build more houses), logging cabins to cut down trees for resources, barracks to create ground soldiers, and tower to create archers. Those five are essentially all I used to complete every stage, occasionally sprinkling others in for flavor.
There are other buildings available which can boost your defensive buildings’ range and attack power, but I hardly needed these for one reason: you have access to two incredibly-overpowered skills. You can chuck thunderbolts at enemies at any time to take them out, or you can send down a special warrior to assist your citizens. Both are supposed to be balanced by costing mana, but that is easily restored by moving your cursor through the clouds floating over each world, of which there seems to be an infinite supply.
The second major issue with these tower defense segments is that they’re just as easily cheesed as the side-scrolling segments. There’s one particular item that you can build that costs exactly zero resources: roads. Roads can be built out from any area you already control, and by doing so, you gain control of the area around them. I quickly realized that I could speed through each tower defense area by immediately building roads to each enemy generator, letting me build my Temples immediately after the first couple enemy waves. This allowed me to knock out each game segment in 30 minutes or so, getting me to the credit scroll in about four hours of play time.
Illuminating the Land
If there’s one thing I can (mostly) give to SolSeraph, it’s that the game has a beautiful visual presentation. The environments in both tower defense and side-scrolling areas are lush and attractive, and Helios and the monsters he faces are well-designed and smoothly animated. I also love the effect of monsters entering the screen from the foreground and background, although it can be hard to judge just when they enter your plane to attack them.
The sprites of the humans and villagers that pop up during story conversations, though, I’m not as fond of. Their cartoonish design clashes greatly against the aesthetic of the rest of the world.
As far as sound goes, I can’t say there’s much notable about it. The music was forgettable with no particular tracks standing out. The only voice acting is present in the opening text crawl as well as the ending, and the actor for it does a decent job…although I think it’d be rather difficult to screw up a narrator’s performance.
Clipped Wing Angel
Overall, SolSeraph feels like a half-baked attempt at a spiritual successor to ActRaiser. It’s like ACE Team knew what kind of experience they wanted to present to the player, but not quite how to go about making it.
The action stages often feel like they have fake difficulty while the tower defense portions are just the opposite, not presenting enough challenge. Both segments are easily brute forced, and I can’t say I feel like I missed much by doing so.
If anything, it feels like the game was rushed to market. SolSeraph was announced just two weeks before its release date, and much of the game itself feels like it needed more time spent on it. Modernizing such an intriguing game as ActRaiser is a noble idea, but SolSeraph really isn’t the revival fans are looking for.
Review copy provided by Sega for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.