SoulsticeSeptember 20th, 2022
PlatformPC (Steam), PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S
DeveloperReply Game Studios
Character action games, on the surface, are more straightforward than other types of games, like full-blown role-playing games, but appearances can be deceiving. Being primarily focused on combat, they need to feature very deep systems. Still, this alone may not be enough, as well-realized settings and characters are necessary for this type of game to truly engage a wide range of players. The Devil May Cry and Bayonetta series, to name a few, are now instantly recognizable thanks to their iconic characters and fast-paced, deep action gameplay.
For this reason, it can be challenging to create a good character action game, and the almost niche status of the genre doesn't make many developers want to try their hand at making this type of game. All these difficulties didn't stop Reply Game Studios from making Soulstice, an engaging title that combines the best features from the best character action games ever released with a well-realized setting inspired by two iconic manga series that is just a step away from being one of the best action games released in the past few years, due to some technical and gameplay issues that, while not major, do impact the experience negatively.
As I mentioned in my two hands-on previews, the Soulstice setting and story are heavily influenced by Norihiro Yagi's Claymore, with a few elements lifted from another all-time manga classic, Kentaro Miura's Berserk. Following the war against the forces of Chaos, the Keepers, three powerful deities, sealed evil behind the Veil. With peace back to the land, the three gods built three cities that make up the Holy Kingdom of Keidas, allowing humanity to conduct their lives safe from the forces of Chaos. As it usually is, peace never lasts forever, and evil creatures often manage to appear in the world of man by creating Tears in the Veil, and the knights of the Order of the Ashen Blade, known as Chimeras, are the only ones that have the power to banish these creatures from the world.
Briar is one of these Chimeras tasked with defending men from the evil that breaks through the Veil from the Tears. Like other Chimeras, she gained extraordinary powers by fusing with another soul, her sister Briar's in her case, and she is sent to the city of Ilden to investigate a Tear in the Veil that seems to be getting larger and larger as time passes. Eventually, Briar will understand that this mission is much more than simply killing Wraiths, Corrupted and Possessed, as she will come to understand more about the Order she belongs to and her unique status among the Chimeras.
Despite being maybe a little too inspired by Claymore, the Soulstice setting and story are definitely among the highlights of the experience. While the voice acting is far from being the best, sometimes ruining immersion, the game does an excellent job in introducing the world and characters, making them interesting and engaging from the get-go. Right from the start, Soulstice also presents a few mysteries, and the good pace of the reveals leaves players hungering for more. Being a massive fan of Claymore and Berserk, I knew where the story was going from the start, but this didn't prevent me from enjoying the world and characters produced by Reply Game Studios. An in-game Codex also provides more information on the world, characters, and even weapons (with a system reminiscent of the NieR series), so it's clear how the developer put a lot of care into these aspects.
Even when it comes to gameplay, Soulstice doesn't feel particularly original. And, just like for the story and settings, this isn't a major issue, as things are put together rather nicely, making for a solid character action game experience. The basic formula is essentially a mix between the Devil May Cry series when it comes to traversal and exploration, especially the first entry in the series, and the Bayonetta series when it comes to combat, with a scoring system very reminiscent of the games developed by PlatinumGames. Traveling to the city of Ilden, players must explore a variety of linear locations filled with a lot of secrets and optional Challenges, complete some straightforward puzzles and fight a lot of different enemies in closed-off areas. With set camera angles and plenty of platforming (some of it a little frustrating due to said camera angles), it's very difficult not to think about the first Devil May Cry when exploring the city of Ilden. On the other hand, the puzzle-solving sequences (which involve activating switches and destroying specific color-coded objects with the help of the Blue Evocation Field or the Red Banishment Field) are more reminiscent of the third Devil May Cry. Puzzles become more complex as the adventure proceeds, and they provide a pleasant diversion from what players will be doing the most in Soulstice: fighting all sorts of hellish creatures.
Soulstice feels a lot like a PlatinumGames-developed title during combat, thanks to the combo-focused approach of the combat system and some quirks of the scoring mechanics, such as having to complete combo strings to increase the multiplier as if they were Bayonetta's Wicked Weaves. Many others, however, are the titles that influenced the game. Briar and Lute fight together, but players only have direct control of Briar, which is very reminiscent of God of War with Kratos and Atreus. Briar has all seven weapons at her disposal in battle after unlocking them, a feature lifted from Ninja Theory's Dmc - Devil May Cry, so players do not have to worry about the loadout at the start of each mission. Both Briar and Lute's abilities can be further expanded, and the new moves for each weapon and the new special techniques for Lute make combat even more fun. Even at the start of the adventure without any upgrade, however, Soulstice is tons of fun, as the action feels rather snappy and smooth. Animations can be stiff, sometimes, but luckily not enough to impact the feel of the combat system.
However, not every feature in Soulstice is lifted from other similar games. Some heavier enemies come with a Poise gauge that, once depleted, makes them susceptible to launchers and knockdown attacks, so combo possibilities aren't limited to lighter, weaker enemies. Lute, as mentioned above, fights independently, hitting enemies with long and short-range energy blasts whose properties can be further improved and customized via her dedicated skill tree. While Briar is hacking away at enemies, launching them in the air to smash them back on the ground and perform some cool-looking multi-weapon combos, Lute can also protect her by unleashing three different types of counters which deflect ranged attacks, take the impact of a close-range attack and slow enemies down. While the prompts for these counters appear pretty often, players still need to be mindful of what enemies are doing, and this is where Soulstice starts becoming a little frustrating, as the camera often gets in the way.
While it is possible to rotate the camera in combat, it often doesn't provide a very good view of the combat arena. Locking on slightly alleviates the issue, but it's not enough, considering enemies can attack while out of view, leading to more frustration. Sure, the game features some indicators, and Lute even warns Briar of incoming attacks, but these systems can be difficult to keep track of in the heat of the action. Most enemies' attacks don't have amazing verticality, so aerial combat is very viable to avoid getting damaged by enemies outside the view. However, being forced to play in a certain way is never a good thing, so the camera issues definitely impact the experience.
Unfortunately, the gameplay issues don't stop here, as Soulstice includes what I consider the worst feature to find in any action game: color-coded enemies. Wraiths and Corrupted enemies cannot be normally damaged unless they are inside the Evocation Field for the former and the Banishment Field for the latter. The problem, however, is that both fields cause an increase in Entropy which, once full, takes Lute out of combat for a few seconds, forcing players to do resource management during combat. While this could have been just another layer of depth in the combat system, it just gets in the way as attacking these color-coded enemies without the proper field will make attacks bounce off them, breaking the flow of the action. DmC - Devil May Cry featured a similar system in its original release, and there's a reason why it was changed in the Definitive Edition: it's simply detrimental to the experience. Sometimes, annoyance turns into pure frustration, like in a boss battle in the second act where players must activate and deactivate the Banishment Field to damage the enemy and prevent some mines from exploding. All while fighting with the horrible camera, which rarely fails to get in the way. All this, coupled with enemies attacking from off-screen as already mentioned, becomes worse as the game proceeds, with some enemy configurations being particularly frustrating.
While color-coded enemies are a massive annoyance, there are ways to deal with them without managing Entropy and the colored fields. By fighting well, using the right weapons against certain enemy types, using counters properly, and avoiding getting damaged, Briar and Lute's Unity will increase, which will allow the Chimera to use powerful finishing attacks that deal massive damage to enemies, and activate a sort of Devil Trigger state called Rapture whose powerful attacks deal damage to all enemies, regardless if they are color-coded or not. A further upgrade will also allow Briar to activate a Berserk state which requires players to complete some simple QTE to calm Briar down. This mechanic is clearly inspired by Berserk, as in the manga by Kentaro Miura, the young witch Schierke delves deep into the mind of main character Guts to save him from the destructive rage that powers his armor, and it's a nod that fans of the series will surely appreciate.
It's a shame that Soulstice turns frustrating at times due to these design decisions, as the game is very fun when these issues do not get in the way. Enemy variety is excellent, featuring a vast selection of creatures that are weak to certain weapons and require different strategies to beat, and some of them are rather creative and well rooted in the rules of the game's universe. Bosses are also extremely interesting, quite different from one another, and provide a decent amount of challenge, even at the basic difficulty level. It is never overwhelming, however, but thankfully those who want to challenge themselves can choose to play the game at a harder difficulty setting that is available right from the start. Completing the game multiple times will unlock additional difficulty settings, which require perfect knowledge of the game's mechanics to beat without too many issues. Unfortunately, the game doesn't offer much more in terms of unlockables, as there isn't much to do after completing the 15 hours-long campaign other than replaying through it at higher difficulties, which, to be honest, can be a little frustrating due to the aforementioned gameplay issues, color-coded enemies chiefly among them.
The wide selection of difficulty settings is only the tip of the iceberg regarding the accessibility features included in Soulstice. The game features different settings and options, such as different font types, font sizes, button prompts options, colorblind and HUD options, and more. With these options, all players can tailor the Soulstice experience to their liking and enjoy Briar and Lute's adventure to the fullest, so their inclusion is most definitely welcome.
Being heavily inspired by Claymore and Berserk, it's not surprising to see how the developer went for a dark anime show's visual style. Character models are quite detailed and wouldn't look amiss in a proper Claymore or Berserk video game adaptation, and locations have an eery beauty, with the lighting and the cinematic camera creating a very oppressive atmosphere that only enhances the experience. It is not the best-looking anime-inspired game we have seen this year, but far from the worst either.
Strictly speaking about the PC release, Soulstice has a decent amount of graphics options that allow players to tweak anti-aliasing, shadows, post-processing, textures, and visual effects. The game also features an unlocked framerate option and 30 and 60 FPS locks, with NVIDIA DLSS support making it easy for owners of an RTX 20xx or 30xx series GPU to hit high framerates, which make quite a difference in this type of game. No AMD FSR support is disappointing, however, as the technology by AMD is making great strides, and it would have allowed those without an RTX GPU to enjoy the game at high frame rates without sacrificing visual quality.
Unfortunately, despite not being particularly demanding, Soulstice does suffer from frame rate drops, especially during combat. On the system used for the test (i7-10700 CPU, RTX 3070 GPU, 16GB RAM), drops weren't too frequent, but they were noticeable enough to disrupt the flow of combat for a couple of seconds at 4K resolution with the NVIDIA DLSS Performance preset. If the developer recommends a GTX 1080 GPU, this shouldn't really be happening, so hopefully, the performance will be improved with future updates.
If it weren't for the bad camera and the frustrating color-coded enemies, which should never have been a thing to begin with, Soulstice would have been the best character action game to release since Devil May Cry 5. In its current state, however, the game developed by Reply Game Studios only manages to be a solid if somewhat frustrating action game, thanks to a well-realized setting and competent action gameplay that would have worked better with different design choices.
PC version tested. Review code provided by the publisher.
Combining a well-realized dark fantasy setting inspired by Claymore and Berserk and an engaging story with solid action gameplay inspired by some of the best character action games, Soulstice is a competent action title. Unfortunately, issues like the horrible camera and the mediocre handling of color-coded enemies and mechanics impact the experience, preventing it from being the great character action game it had the potential to be
- Well-realized setting
- Engaging story
- Solid action gameplay featuring different mechanics that flow well together
- Multiple difficulty settings
- Great selection of accessibility features
- Bad combat camera
- Color-coded enemies and the related mechanics break the flow of combat and turn simple encounters into frustrating affairs
- Performance drops during combat
- No post-game content, outside of additional difficulty settings