Back in June, I had the chance to preview Soulstice, a character action game that stood out from its contemporaries for its dark aesthetic and hectic action, pitting its two protagonists against hordes of enemies as they traverse the ruins of a gothic city thoroughly inspired by anime and manga.
Everything from the (mostly) static camera to the hack-and-slash gameplay featuring different combos and the switching of weapons hearkens back to the PlayStation 2 era of action games. The mere existence of Soulstice is an exciting prospect given the rarity of new releases that take direction inspiration from those titles, but the obvious question still needs to be asked: Will this be a simple retreading of those ideas, or will it build on their foundations?
Developed by Reply Game Studios and published by Modus Games, Soulstice is set to release on September 20th, 2022 for PC, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series X|S. This review is based on the PC version of the game.
A Point of Order
Once a pair of ordinary sisters, Briar and Lute are now two halves of a Chimera—a living weapon employed by the Order of the Ashen Blade. They’re sent to the city of Ilden to investigate an ethereal tear in the sky above the city’s center that let loose an army of twisted wraiths and monstrosities. Briar and Lute arrive to find the city sacked and in flames by the creatures from the other side of the rift, leaving them no choice to to fight their way through the city themselves.
Following Briar and Lute on their journey is Layton and his very adequately named crow, Corvo. He serves as an occasional relay of information and middle man between the Chimera and the Order of the Ashen Blade, sharing developments as the situation in the city worsens and pushing the sisters toward their next objectives. He’s a regular fixture of Soulstice given that he’s also a means of spending currency to acquire new skills, but he has unique dialogue each time you come across him that expands on the lore of the game’s world and provides additional context to Briar and Lute’s history prior to their becoming a Chimera.
I found myself consistently impressed with the writing of the dialogue; it’s interesting and even thoughtful at times without devolving into purple prose. The amount of dialogue is higher than I was expecting given the genre as well, and what starts out as a straightforward plunge into chaos eventually gives way to an emotional story about sisterhood and moving past trauma in addition to the mysteries surrounding the Order of the Ashen Blade.
Still, this is a character action game we’re talking about at the end of the day, and while the story in Soulstice is far better than it needs to be, it still isn’t overly ambitious and didn’t twist or turn in ways that wowed me. The emphasis the game places on the presentation of its story, though, is impressive. There are frequent cutscenes that often showcase artful decision making with camera angles and animations that perfectly highlight the events being depicted.
The narrative is further enhanced by the existence of an in-depth in-game codex that isn’t required to understand the events of the story, but still provides extra context to deepen the player’s understanding of the city of Ilden (and show off some very neat concept art, to boot).
Going Berserk With a Claymore
The primary goal of every combat encounter in Soulstice is to build the level of Unity between Briar and Lute. This is done by dishing out as much damage as possible as Briar while avoiding taking damage by pressing a separate button to parry enemy attacks with Lute. Briar is able to dodge moves on her own as well, but correctly responding to the parry button prompts is one of the most unique facets of Soulstice’s combat in addition to being crucial to performing well.
Like many games of this kind, taking down enemies while alternating combo lines and switching weapons on the fly is key to succeeding, but Lute’s side of the combat kicks the activeness up several notches. In addition to the parry mechanic, certain tougher enemies will require you to activate a field around the sisters using the trigger buttons in order to open them up for attack. It isn’t as simple as activating it and then going to town though, as keeping these fields up for too long will disable all of Lute’s functionality for a few seconds, which can be a death sentence in certain encounters.
All of the above is to say that, as I penned in my initial impressions of the game a few months ago, Soulstice’s combat is highly active. Rather than deriving that activeness from requiring the players to recall and execute highly complex inputs, though, it instead asks the player to maintain awareness of the various mechanics and environmental hazards in each encounter.
And this extends to the weapons as well. While each secondary weapon in Soulstice sports its own benefits and drawbacks, nearly all of them have a similar series of inputs that function similarly (i.e. every weapon has an attack that launches enemies into the air and a combo that requires pausing after two attacks before continuing).
This is a departure from the standard of its contemporaries in the genre to be sure and something I can see being divisive to some, but I appreciated this emphasis on mechanical complexity over combat complexity for precisely that reason. It does have the unfortunate drawback of making some encounters feel more similar than not though, especially during longer play sessions.
By keeping the Unity meter high and avoiding damage whenever possible, Briar gains access to powerful attacks that absolutely decimate any enemy unfortunate enough to be on-screen at the time. You gain access to these mechanics early on in the playthrough, but what really makes them work is Soulstice’s consistency in tweaking these tools and giving you new ones as the narrative progresses.
The game also has a noticeable learning curve when it comes to building Unity. Even on the default difficulty, it can be a challenge to get the hang of actively switching weapons mid-combo while also parrying attacks in the early game, and plenty of encounters will have the player struggling to reach a high enough level to unleash the strongest attacks. As you improve and get better at maintaining everything the game asks of you, however, it creates a great feeling of satisfaction as you’re unleashing combos and weaving in and out of potential damage.
I’ve been mostly singing its praises thus far, but there’s one specific area where Soulstice is unfortunately lacking: its boss battles. They’re certainly memorable as far as their visuals and story beats are concerned, but in many cases their gameplay design falls victim to attempts at making them more cinematic.
Nearly all of them are flashy and stylish, but the overemphasis on cutscenes, periods of boss invulnerability, and phase switching happening throughout their runtime causes them to feel more like minigames using Soulstice gameplay as a base rather than a fresh spin on the core experience. They feel mechanically divorced from the majority of the game’s combat, and that makes them a much larger sore spot than one might expect from a character action game.
When it comes to level design, Soulstice is more than passable. The entire game is darkly beautiful (more on that in the section below), and it’s easy to appreciate the effort that went into not only designing levels that were fun to go through, but also creating interesting sections of platforming and puzzle solving to make sure each location stood out from the previous ones.
That last aspect is something of a saving grace, as the game does tend to overly rely on narrow level design, with hallways leading to rooms that then lead to more hallways. There are sections where things open up and offshoots that reward the player with secret challenge missions or extra currency to purchase skills, but never to a point that hides the linearity of the rest of them.
Manga in Motion
There’s no denying that Soulstice is a gorgeous game to look at. Every inch of the game’s stages are intricately detailed with debris and the aftermath of the city’s destruction. At no point did I feel like there were any shortcuts taken with the decoration of the levels. Every area, from the dank and dingy sewers to the shattered wooden structures of Low Town feels realistically portrayed, with environments melding to create an ambiance as dark as it is consistent.
The use of shadowing and lighting in particular works wonders in making it feel like you’re playing through the ink-streaked pages of a manga, which is very fitting considering the degree to which its visuals are evocative of works like Berserk and Claymore. The animations are heavy and impactful with sound effects to match these similarities as well.
Something that consistently stood out to me in the game’s presentation is the way it establishes its sense of scale. Soulstice may be clearly delineated into chapters and levels, but it never really feels that way thanks to the way it visually communicates Briar and Lute’s location as they work their way towards the rift above the city. You can see yourself inching closer and closer to your objective every time it’s able to be seen, and it heightens immersion in a way that not every game of this kind is able to reach.
The static camera—which is completely locked until you enter combat and are given more control—is something that I greatly enjoyed about Soulstice initially, but found myself caring less for as time went on. It’s appreciable for the way it pays homage to the games it takes inspiration from, and it never gets in the way of the game itself, but I couldn’t help but feel a more standard third-person camera would have worked better for immersion during exploration.
Stefanie Joosten, best known for her portrayal of Quiet in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, provides the voiceover work for both Briar and Lute in an impressive display of acting range, but almost all of the voiceover work is similarly well executed.
Sadly, the music is not quite to the level it should be. It’s decent and similarly appreciable for the way it subtly references the soundtracks of games like Devil May Cry 3: Dante’s Awakening, but it simply isn’t up to par with the rest of the experience and very much blends in with the background.
Soulstice absolutely works as a love letter to action games of the bygone PlayStation 2 era. Vitally, however, it does so without losing a clear identity of its own. Its combat system is unique in the way it asks players to actively monitor mechanics while also avoiding enemy attacks and dishing out flashy combos in true character action game fashion.
Its boss battles leave quite a bit to be desired, and the level design may be a bit too narrow at points, but Soulstice manages to make up for these shortcomings with an emotional story and a unique brand of observation-based gameplay that ensures its status as a confident addition to the genre.
Review copy provided by Modus Games for PC. Screenshots taken by writer. Featured image courtesy of Modus Games.