Genre: JRPG/Dungeon Crawler
Program: RPGMaker VX
Soul Sunder is a game that advertises itself as a challenging dungeon-crawler that takes place in a survival-horror setting and possesses a powerful, character driven plot capable of spewing out a bunch of different endings depending on how you play. That's a bloody mouthful, so if I have to pick somewhere to start then I'll start with the storyline that's meant to drive all these factors along. The game focuses on a woman named Zero, who was once a girl named Arya, and how she attempts to deal with an accident in her childhood that resulted in the death of her brother, her mother, most of the people in her home village, and the paralysation of her best friend from the waist down. It's safe to say that this game isn't a cheery game. Over the nine years that have passed since this incident, Zero has learned little from her attempts to work out why all those things happened to her and her village; it's only then that she receives a letter asking her to head to a town named Haven. The letter appears to come from a person she holds responsible for the incident and it tells her that the answers she wants can be found within Purgatory, which a dungeon near to Haven.
Once in Haven, Zero befriends a "point man" named Isaac who helps her through the initial levels of Purgatory. From the off-set a general dynamic is set-up between these two characters, with Zero being the stoic/broody/serious-type and Isaac being a more light-hearted/goofier/joking-type. This makes a hell of a lot of sense given the events that Zero has suffered through; I certainly wouldn't be going around cracking jokes if I'd had to see almost everyone I knew die in an incident that I couldn't explain. The game does sometimes forget that this is the case and has Zero engaging a bit too heavily with Isaac's silly shenanigans, or responding a little too childishly too them; a really good example of this is a conversation held after finding a "magical bomb" because Zero's childishness regarding the item is really at odds with what otherwise seems to be a very apathetic demeanour. Fortunately, these sorts of out-of-character situations are definitely not the norm and they don't happen in scenes that are actually important for the development of these characters as the story progresses.
The storyline itself is pretty complex, and it's hard to go into it without giving too much away. The general idea is that almost everyone who has been brought to Purgatory, or at least anyone who matters from a storyline point-of-view, has also recieved the same kind of letter that Zero received. These letters are always from someone who had a part in the past of the character involved, someone that the character has strong feelings for (this can be either love or hate, it would seem), and someone who was at the centre of a life-changing event that happened in the character's life. All of these letters seem to suggests that the writer of the letter has answers for them, and that these letters (and the writer themselves, so goes the implication) can be found in Purgatory. This theme even applies to some of the NPCs that you'll find dead within Purgatory, still clutching the letter that dragged them to the grave; in fact, piecing their stories together can sometimes be pretty interesting and does a lot to flesh out the setting.
Poor Ralph. That's what you get for trying to replace Alex!
Speaking of the setting, though, I actually thought that more could've been done with it, at least as far as town of Haven goes. The basically comes down to the fact that I didn't think there were enough interactive NPCs. There are some NPCs who have stories that progress as you go through Purgatory, and some of these stories seem to be fairly tragic, but they're presented in a fairly superficial way and this means they're never as impactful as they otherwise could be. The town of Heaven is supposed to be portrayed as a tragic place, a place where a people go to find answers or treasures/glory descending through the dungeon that is Purgatory, to ultimately never come out again.
So much could've been done with the survivors that make it out, so much could've been done with how their stories build up from the starting point (eager to get into the dungeon) to the ending (eager to get away from Haven altogether). It's a missed opportunity, because you can see that the game is trying to do it without ever tackling it head on. So much more could've been done. Equally, I felt that some flavour text from the NPCs, such as a drunk man asking for his stomach to be pumped, didn't make much sense given the setting. Unless medical science is far more progressed than the fantasy setting seems to imply, of course!
Ultimately, if you only have one town in a game then it shouldn't be that hard to make that town feel alive, especially when it is supposed to be an absolute mecca for sellswords, adventureres and the like. Those types of people can be anything and everything you want them to be!
The first time in the game this guy does anything other than lie on the floor puking is at the very end. When did he even find time to drink!?
Anyway, back to the storyline. What you find as the storyline progresses and you delve deeper and deeper into Purgatory is that everyone important you've met seems to be linked to each other through a set of coincidental intermediaries. How all of these characters (playable characters, intermediaries and NPCs all) deal with one another once they find out how intricately they're linked is what makes up the real bulk of the storyline on offer. Because it's so vital to how the storyline ends up fitting together, it's a good thing that these interactions work really well; the dialogue is nuanced and progresses at a good rate, the characters don't do anything ridiculous or out-of-character when it actually matters (as I already mentioned), and the changes in personality that each character goes through over the course of the game is set out in a meaningful, proper way that never seems jerky or sudden. The storyline will definitely sink it's hooks into you early and it isn't going to let you go; the storyline will definitely be the thing that drags you through to the end of the game.
Onto the gameplay, of which a passing glance would suggest mostly consists of battle-screens. Saying that battle-screens are the only thing worth mentioning wouldn't even be a slight against Soul Sunder given that almost every enemy group will give you something to think about; there's definitely an "optimum way" to tackle any given group of enemies and by "optimum way" I literally mean planning encounters from start to finish. Figuring these things out is a big part of doing well in this game given that most enemy groups are perfectly capable of wiping you out (or at least dealing serious damage) if you're not paying attention.
One part of the battle-system that I think exemplifies this is the way that enemies telegraph their attacks to you before actually using them, which is because most enemies usually require a turn of charging up in order to use their skills. There are three different types of skill, each type has both it's own "charging" animation, and there's a status-effect that disables each individual type of skill from being cast. This means that the game allows you to have a shot at preventing the opponent from ever using the skill they've just charged up, assuming that you're paying proper attention to what's going on, and this means that you only need to use your (often SP expensive) "disabling skills" if you know your opponent is about to do something that needs to be prevented. It's a clever system that gives you something to worry about in-battle other than dealing out as much damage as possible per turn; it forces you to learn the habits that each enemy has so that you can dispose of them whilst taking as little damage as possible.
Another part of the battle-system that I think showcases this idea of an "optimum way" to tackle each enemy is the way that all enemies can be "scanned" before taking your first turn, allowing you to take the time to plan a proper route through the battle (or at least the first turn) before ever swinging a blade in anger. For example, if you know an enemy has a high attack stat then you can choose to blitz them with an all-out-assault on the first turn so that the damage you're going to take from them is reduced; or you can focus more heavily on preventing them from using their skills so that their best damage-dealing abilities are never encountered. Similarly, if you know that an enemy has a high defence stat then you know that throwing magical attacks at them is going to be better than throwing physical attacks at them, so you can ensure that your "warrior"-types focus their abilities elsewhere.
So that's what you're weak to? INCOMING FIREBALLS!
Truth be told, there's a lot more to be impressed with when it comes to the in-battle gameplay in Soul Sunder, but I don't want to go on about the battles so singularly because that would be selling what I think was the developer's vision short. The truth is that the idea of "survivability in battle" is supposed to be something you're thinking about even when the battles aren't happening; it's supposed to be something that ties every system in the game together and you need to look at them as a whole to understand what this game is about.
Take the idea that I just spoke about, the idea that you're able to prevent enemies using skills. This obviously directly links into survivability by affecting how efficiently you can kill your enemies ("disabling skills" deal less damage than skills aimed purely at dealing damage, which means you're killing enemies slower by using them when you don't need to) but it also filters into how you set-up your party's equipment. This is because most skills are granted dependent on the items you have equipped; it's useless knowing that you need to break an enemy's legs if you don't have a weapon equipped that allows you to do that! Once you know what the enemies around you are capable of doing, you're able to change around your party's equipment to cater to those needs, which therefore means that the equipment system has as direct an affect on your survivability as being able to figure your enemies does.
To further illustrate this, I'm going to take a simple starting point (the way that resting works inside dungeons) and run with it. In Soul Sunder, your heroes only have the ability to rest once per save-point, which prevents the player abusing the save-points for unlimited healing. This is coupled with the fact that you can't exit Purgatory to buy more healing items until you finish the level you find yourself on, which essentially places a hard-cap on how many battles you can have in a given area before you're going to run out of healing items and die. Fortunately, enemy encounters are completely avoidable, theoretically allowing you to avoid all battles should you choose to do so, but that obviously wouldn't be a good thing to do because you'd miss out on both the items that enemies drop and the experience gained for killing them. So what the game does instead of encouraging you to avoid battles aimlessly is to also allow you to easily escape battles, which means that you're encouraged to approach battles with risk-versus-reward in mind. This brings the "scan" system to the fore, because before you've even taken a turn you're allowed to look at an enemy's stats to assess whether you're ready to take them on. The "scan" system then allows you to exploit the link between "disabling skills" and equipment that I just mentioned, because what you're essentially able to do is enter a battle, "scan" the enemies, see what they're capable of, leave the battle, and then either re-equip your party to deal with what the enemies are capable of doing or choose to avoid them altogether.
More useful than it is in most RPGs.
It's a clever set of ideas when you think about it, but unfortunately how these ideas work in practice falls way short of how clever they look in theory. This is because of how the difficulty level actually pans out as you progress throughout the game compared to how the developer seems to have wanted it to.
It's true that progression in Soul Sunder is at first as difficult as the developer seems to have wanted it to be, and that the gameplay in these early sections fits perfectly with the "survivability" ideas outlined above, but what becomes apparent over the course of the game is that these ideas only work if you manage to prevent the player from readily massing up healing items. Healing items are distinctly lacking in these early-sections of the game, but problems with an over-abundance of healing items start once you reach the second area of the Purgatory.
This is partly because it coincides with enemies starting to drop healing items more regularly, but that's far from the only or most important problem; how the fact enemies drop more healing items works in combination with some of the gameplay mechanics I haven't spoken about yet is the real problem, and it's a problem that's definitely greater than the sum of it's parts. So much so that what the combination of factors I'm about to outline ends up doing is skewing the difficulty curve so badly that it becomes a difficulty slide. Surviving actually ends up becoming easier as you make your way towards the end of the game and, given that Soul Sunder bills itself as having an "emphasis on survival rather than grinding", this isn't a good thing.
It's not hard to survive when you're literally encouraged to do this...
The main factors that contribute to this problem are the low number of obtainable weapons/armour, a crafting system that allows you to readily make most (all?) of those weapons without having to spend any money, and the fact that there are absolutely loads of damage-dealing "consumable weapons" that are far more effective at killing your enemies than your normal weapons/skills ever will be. Once you combine all of these things together, it quickly becomes obvious that all the money you obtain should be dumped into healing items and nothing else, which in turn means that you should rarely encounter a situation where you lack the ability to heal yourself after battle. What this then does is completely ruin the clever interplay behind the resting/scan/escape/skill/equipment systems that I just spent a couple of paragraphs delving into because you're never actually placed into a situation where survivability is a problem. The battles still retain their difficulty as far as individual battles go, but they're no longer a collective threat because of how much money you end up being able to throw around, and that ruins a lot of what this game is supposed to be offering up.
A really good example is how elemental skills work. As already noted, skills are granted by the weapons and armour that you have equipped. Notably, if you have a piece of equipment that grants an element-based skill then it will usually give you a weakness to the opposite element, and this should emphasise the risk/reward elements of the resting/scan/escape/skill/equipment systems that I was talking about earlier. It should encourage you to enter battles, scan enemies, leave battles and then re-jig your equipment accordingly. It should give you a reason to want as many variations of these items as possible so that you're always prepared, meaning that you should be willing to part with money to get them or the items needed to craft them. The problem is that the elemental-damage dealing consumable weapons you find are so strong (in terms of damage dealt, the fact that they don't require SP to be used, and the fact that they don't seem to be reliant on the stats of the hero that uses them) that they override the need to worry about elemental equipment. Guess where all that elemental equipment goes? It goes straight to the store, because you're better off selling those items in exchange for more healing items.
This leads into the way that these consumable weapons completely void most of the choices available via the synthesis system. I know I don't need to create any of the weapons that synthesis grants me because of what I just said above, so I can take all those crafting materials and either a) sell them b) use them to make even more consumable weapons or c) use them to create more healing items. No matter which option you choose, the end results are the same. The factors that should've and could've made survivability a theme throughout this game end up being downplayed, and the synthesis system ends up being something that might as well have not been included.
Me whilst playing this game. More money, less problems.
The fact that there are so few weapons available probably plays into the two factors I just described more than I've let on, and that's because a low number of weapons means a low number of weapon tiers (or in this case no tiers, just different elemental-flavours spread out over one tier). If there were a greater number of weapon tiers available, with some tiers sitting below and some tiers sitting above how strong consumable weapons are, and if higher tiers required lower tiers in order to be synthesised, then the player would have more to think about. They'd be encouraged to save weapons they find instead of just selling them, because although a weapon might not be useful right that second it could be in the future. Ultimately, they'd end up with less money to buy healing items because there'd be a point to saving items for synthesis. I already said it once but I'll say it again; the synthesis system ends up being something that might as well have not been included.
However you slice it, and however you think it should be fixed, it's pretty frustrating that these three factors managed to screw up the difficulty curve so badly because I think that fixing just one of them would fix the game (most likely the presence of such powerful consumable weapons). Ultimately, this game promises so much by having a solid set of gameplay elements that theoretically do a good job of reinforcing one another, only for other factors to over-ride that system entirely.
And besides, damage-dealing consumables don't just screw up the difficult curve; sometimes they screw up in other interesting ways!
I don't think the problems with the difficulty curve are helped by the fact that there are a lot of glitches (see pictures above and below) and bad gameplay decisions present outside of battle. A basic example would be the fact that you have to hold down a button to sprint, which hasn't been cool since the 90s. Another basic example would be that within 5 minutes of starting I managed to completely break the game when I used the "look forward" command, which I wouldn't mind as much if this ability was even remotely useful as you progress through the game. It isn't remotely useful and so ends up being a broken feature that feels like it was included for the sake of including it.
Another instance would be that save-points aren't always in locations where you'd expect or require them to be, such as before the boss of a particular area or after a particularly lengthy scene taking place. Sometimes the game will warn you that a boss is coming up without giving you a save point, which inevitably leads to a lot of backtracking to find a save-point so that you can negate the time lost if the boss manages to kill you. This isn't just annoying, it also reveals more bugs because despite the fact that backtracking is (unintentionally) encouraged, several areas (ironically) seem to have been written under the assumption that the player won't back-track. One such example means that backtracking in this manner plays sound-effects intended to foreshadow a boss that you'll have already defeated if you're backtracking through that area, which I thought was a pretty silly mistake to make.
Not shown: Arya. Why? Because the camera buggered off somewhere and then prevented me from moving. This happened a full five minutes into the game!
A further case would be a "puzzle" where an NPC in Purgatory tells you to find the "real" version of themselves, whilst talking to (or even touching) a "fake" NPC deals heavy damage to your whole party. At first it seems like you're supposed to talk to all these identical NPCs until you find the "real" one, but not a single one of them is the "real" one. The "real" one is found by making you way through to a completely different area and triggering a cutscene. This absolutely stinks because there isn't a single indication that you're not supposed to be finding the "real" NPC in the area where you start and so the (incredibly heavy and capable of killing you) damage they trigger is simply a case of "fake difficulty" in the sense that it makes battles in that area more difficult than they would otherwise be if the game wasn't falsely implying that taking said damage was the way to solve a puzzle. It was a good job I had so many First Aid Kits that I could probably drown in them, although my eventual solution was reloading the game and repeating the section over so that I didn't waste anything. Very frustrating because the scene served its storyline purpose without the heavy damage being there; there was just no need to punish the player for doing what seemed to be the correct thing!
If it wasn't bad enough that this sequence exists, the game floods you with a whole corridor of "fake" NPCs to dodge after you do find the "real" one...
The final example of this problem would be the "survival gear" system, which at first seems like a really good idea but ends up being a bit of a joke. The idea is simple; equipping "survival gear" will allow you to do something useful on the map, such as lighting up a dark room or blowing up loose rocks or... those are the only two things. So why even bother with this system existing? Why not just give me two buttons to press, one for the Lantern and one for the Bomb, instead of forcing me in and out of the menu all the time to change equipment? It's jarring and it doesn't feel like it's well thought out; it again feels like something that exists just because it can and not because it should.
I guess the general theme I've been trying to get at over the last few paragraphs is that there are lots of things that are grating or unpolished or probably don't need to be there, as opposed to being downright awful or game-breaking. None of these things are bad to the point of being game-breaking (some of them aren't even things that I'd bring up if they were present by themselves, such as having to hold down a button to sprint), but the combination of them all makes the game feel noticeably worse than it otherwise would be.
Another example of bad design: Selecting "Yes" gives you a straight-up game-over. Guess who accidentally selected "Yes" by pressing the button to skip through dialogue too quickly?
Unfortunately, this sense of a "lack of polish" spills over into the mapping, which floats somewhere between passable and awful depending on the kind of area you're in. There are so many wide-open areas devoid of decoration; tree and cliff-lines that don't deviate from being perfectly straight for screens at a time; houses that are far bigger than they look from the outside and are filled with far less furniture than they'd need to look lived in; and supposedly labyrinthine dungeons that are too easy to navigate your way around.
It doesn't help that the "shift-mapping" (the art of blending tiles together properly) is basically non-existent, making things look even more unnatural than they already do, and that these maps are made using a set of tiles that I personally believe require an excellent map designer to look anything other than awful. Other than the "jail" level of Purgatory, which I thought was incredibly well made in both a layout and aesthetic sense, the mapping in this game really isn't anything to write home about. To be honest, outside of the character portraits (which do a really good job of adding extra emotion to the words that you're reading), this game really isn't pretty to look at.
The same kind of idea (a "lack of polish") applies to how music is used in this game. Although the developer has actually done a good job in choosing the right music for each section of the game, I lost count of the number of times I went from an area with a low volume to an area with a drastically louder volume with no sort of transition in between. These "RIP ears" moments occurred far too often for my liking and they were a massive distraction to me as I played through the game.
I know the "three-tile rule" isn't a strict requirement, but c'mon!
As I started this review: Soul Sunder is a game that advertises itself as a challenging dungeon-crawler that takes place in a survival-horror setting and possesses a powerful, character driven plot capable of spewing out a bunch of different endings depending on how you play. Smashing all these things together is pretty ambitious, and what results here is a game that doesn't really manage to do any of them particularly well. The shining point is definitely the story and characterisation, which was just about good enough to keep me playing until the end despite the problems I had with multiple facets of the gameplay.
Ultimately, for every thing that's good about this game, there's something that's bad. That's frustrating because there's a good game in here screaming to get out from underneath non-essential, unpolished or straight-up-broken features. It's a good job the storyline works well enough to keep you playing! 5/10