There are several matters of debate when it comes to the character action game, with discourse of the categorization often ranging from defining the term in the first place to establishing which title incepted the genre as we know it. And yet whether you think the genre began with the 2001 release of Onimusha: Warlords or didn’t find its proper stride until Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening four years later, there’s a prevailing stance that’s difficult to disagree with: character action games can be hard to get right.
Not only does a new addition to the genre have to provide satisfying, free-flowing gameplay, it also has to present itself to an audience that carries something of an expectation with regard to stylistic presentation and flair. It’s in this landscape that Soulstice, developed by Reply Game Studios and published by Modus Games, finds itself. I jumped at the chance to play through its demo this week, and after spending several hours with it, I’m confident there’s a lot Soulstice is primed to get right upon its full release for PC, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X/S later this year.
Soulstice puts you in control of Briar and Lute, two sisters that have been changed by means of ritual sacrifice into a Chimera, a living weapon for the Order of the Ashen Blade and a fusion of two souls. When a rift appears in the sky above the city of Ilden, Briar and Lute are sent to investigate and find the city ransacked by an army of grotesque baddies called the Corrupted. With no other recourse, the two sisters plunge into the city and begin their treacherous ascent to the tear in the sky.
While this demo begins with the game’s second mission and was very much focused on the gameplay side of Soulstice, I still found myself pulled into the narrative presented to me in medias res. Considering the circumstances surrounding Briar and Lute’s Chimera status, it makes the dynamic between the two sisters an interesting one to watch unfold. The dialogue is especially enjoyable for the fact that both characters are brought to life by a single voice actor (Stefanie Joosten of Metal Gear Solid V fame) who displays an impressive range between the differing personalities of each sister.
One of my favorite segments had Briar and Lute witnessing an “echo” of past events. As they scanned the spectral remnants of the people who were once there, they pieced together what happened by discussing the evidence back and forth with one another. Given the mysteries it presents and the way it furthers the interactions of the siblings, I’m hoping this detective work is something we end up seeing a lot of in the full game.
Once Briar and Lute are on the move, Soulstice instantly feels like a classic mid to late-2000s hack and slash game updated to the standards of the modern day. As you explore, the camera will pan and automatically follow Briar in order to better establish the scope and scale of the environment, but when proper combat begins, it zooms in on the action and grants the player directional input over it to better suit the visibility of the enemies.
The inky, dark fantasy visuals hearken back to Japanese character action games of that era too, and while they’re certainly evocative of a few popular manga and anime series, they still set themselves apart enough to avoid feeling like a pastiche. Most importantly, Soulstice sports its slick design without muddying the action itself too much.
While both characters participate in combat, most of your input will be through Briar. In this demo, she had access to a greatsword fit to slay a dragon, a huge hammer somewhat resembling a ship’s anchor, and a barbed whip that would make any Belmont blush. Each of these weapons come with their own combos and attack options to unlock as you progress, offering options like the ability to launch an enemy into the air or a new series of attacks that trade speed for more damage.
Lute will passively attack enemies while you’re hacking away with Briar, but the active element of her gameplay comes in the form of parry prompts that appear during specific ranged and melee enemy attacks. Speedy reaction to these prompts rewards you with a brief stun on the enemy, priming them for a walloping and also building what’s referred to as the Unity Meter.
Apart from turning every enemy into mincemeat, raising that Unity Meter ends up being your primary goal in each battle. Effective parrying, avoiding damage of any kind, and switching up which weapons and attacks you’re using mid-combo are a surefire way to build the meter fast, and in that sense it’s highly reminiscent of the style rankings of the Devil May Cry series.
The benefit of a higher Unity Meter is gaining access to a powerful Synergy Attack that deals devastating damage to multiple enemies and a higher score evaluation at the end of the encounter. Playing optimally isn’t a requirement for progress by any means, but it’s an immediately understandable incentive for improving your gameplay, and that’s something not every action game can communicate as efficiently as Soulstice does in a brief demo.
All of the above combines to give an even higher level of activeness to an already involved combat system. Needing to take your finger off your current attack button just in time to parry and let Lute smack an arrow that would have otherwise hit you, as well as seeing your Unity Meter rising, is exceptionally satisfying. It all gave the impression that this was a gameplay system with a high skill ceiling, and this sentiment clicked with a quickness after reaching the demo’s boss fight. The sheer amount of mechanics and variety of its attacks ask the player to utilize all the mechanics the preceding level taught them, and it makes for a very fun time.
When not fighting, the demo sees Briar and Lute traversing a linear environment with the occasional short offshoot that usually rewards you with skill points and an extra exchange between the sisters for good measure. There’s also some platforming here and there, but a very generous double jump and no shortage of invisible walls means you’ll never face much of an issue getting past them.
On the note of skills, the tree you purchase them from is surprisingly expansive. Briar’s options are relatively straightforward (a new combo, launcher, or special move for the available weapons), but I was particularly impressed with the breadth Lute’s tree—or trees, rather, since there are three different types of skills to purchase for her.
The offensive skills were the ones I gravitated toward most, such as the node that caused Lute to unleash an offensive volley after every Synergy Attack to further empower an already heavily damaging move. Many were locked as a result of the demo’s brevity, but it feels as though there will be no shortage of opportunities to prioritize skills that suit your own personal gameplay style. What’s more, you can easily refund purchased skills at any time, should you regret your decisions after the fact.
Keeping all of this mind, I did have some gripes with this slice of character action goodness. Battles are sometimes more chaotic than they need to be, particularly when there are many enemies to deal with it at once. It can be challenging to scan every opponent at every juncture to figure out when you should dodge out of the way or throw yourself back into the fray, especially with just how fast some of the enemy attack animations are.
Granted, that concern could very well fade as one gets more comfortable with the way combat works in Soulstice, but I also found myself wishing I could at least enable enemy HP bars to help with my decision making. They are present when you utilize the game’s lock-on feature, but given the sheer number of enemies you fight at a time in most situations in this demo, focusing on just one enemy and limiting your view of the battlefield feels like placing yourself at a disadvantage.
The attack animations, particle effects, and lighting look great, but the audio design that accompanies them is typically more hit-or-miss. Some sound effects just lack the oomph you would expect from the weighted impacts their animations imply. I also encountered some performance issues, but they only amounted to minor hiccups at their worst.
Luckily, all of these concerns are things that could very much be ironed out prior to the game’s full release later this year. The fact that I booted up the demo again just minutes after I finished my first playthrough of it speaks volumes to the engaging fundamentals of the gameplay. I’d already had a great time playing through the demo casually, but I still wanted to better my understanding of the mechanics at play.
I wanted to figure out the best way to deal with each enemy type, the fastest method to boost the Unity Meter, the skills that best complemented my crowd-controlling, whip-loving playstyle, and that’s always a good sign. Soulstice feels like a game that could be carried exclusively by its gameplay, which makes the potential of its intriguing characters and setting all the more exciting. It’s a title well worth keeping your eye on, and if Reply Game Studios can keep the entire experience as engaging as this 45-minute chunk was, fans of character action games will have a lot to look forward to.
Preview beta access provided by Modus Games for PC. Screenshots taken by writer. Featured image courtesy of Modus Games.