“I’m not a hundred percent sure what I’m playing but I think I like it.” Never before have these words seemed truer than in my current delve into Soulblight, a nifty little roguelike which released last week. Soulblight is the utter hell I can only imagine would be born from an amorous encounter between From Software and a standard roguelike. This game is infuriatingly difficult and maddeningly addictive in equal measure. Am I having fun? Define fun. Am I enjoying playing the game and do I want to keep going back to see if I can get any further? Yes I am and you bet I do. Am I getting nowhere fast because this game makes elements of Dark Souls look like a walk in the park? Agonizingly yes.
In Soulblight you take the role of a wandering hero (obviously, it’s just that sort of game) heading into The Sanctuary in a bid to remove the blight from the Soultree. This is basically the tree that created man, among other things. Being nice and thankful, man built The Sanctuary to keep the tree safe, but over time they forgot about it. Eventually the tree became blighted and started spawning hideous monsters. There’s obviously more to the tale than that but that would involve spoilers so you can work the rest out for yourselves.
Soulblight‘s difficult comes in layers. This seems to be a game about sin, about testing your own strengths while coping with the dark side that these strengths offer. You actually choose your character’s traits by completing levels; you then go on to face some hideously powerful bosses with these merits and flaws in play. For example, you might choose reckless as your trait. With this trait, you will become stronger the more wounds you receive and gain battlecry which is a nice little bonus for killing multiple enemies at the same time.
The thing is, a lot of wounds won’t go away unless you do something about them, like applying bandages, so you have to weigh the risk of bleeding against the reward of berserker strength. I actually rather like this as it gives the game the feel of a balancing act. You also have to deal with other things like hunger which makes you weaker. Eating can rectify this unless of course you get food poisoning. For every plus there seems to be a minus and this makes for really fun play. This also makes your character feel human, which I love; you get a bit sick of playing these heroes that become literally invincible as long as you play well after a while.
The next layer of difficulty presented by this game is the obvious one. Soulblight is just plane hard and, as a budding member of the roguelike genre, I wouldn’t expect anything less. I wouldn’t necessarily say the grunts were any more or less tricky than each other, but none of them are going to go down easy if you don’t have the correct gear and tactics in mind. You also need to work on timing and skill to defeat the baddies in this title. Remember how I mentioned Dark Souls earlier? Well we all know exactly how far in that game the “hit and hope” approach is going to get you. The same applies here. Flailing your weapon around in the hopes of murdering things is only going to get you killed. The level of thought you have to put into staying alive is actually a lot more than in many other games of Soulblight’s ilk and this is both welcome and refreshing.
The last level of difficult is a slightly artificial one. The controls take a bit of getting used to because there are three ways to approach combat. On account of this it can be a bit easy to get button bashy when things get hairy. When you take a breather and stop hitting everything on the pad in an attempt to survive, you get a bit pickier with your tactics. You can go for an all-out assault, which is a good move if you have hard-hitting heavy weapons. This drains your stamina which means you aren’t always attacking as quickly as you’d want to be. This makes sense because you’re swinging a big heavy axe or two handed sword but it doesn’t do you a great deal of good if your foe is nippier than you are. Secondly you have the ability to block which is handy if you have single handed weapons and, of course, a shield. This really takes good timing and just standing there with your shield up isn’t a very good strategy especially because you get absolutely mobbed.
The last way of getting your kill on is to grab your opponent. You have a grip bar. The bigger this meter, the longer you can keep your hands on the enemy. This offers some decent killing strokes. The enemy can do the same thing, however, and they aren’t always the easiest to break free from. Lastly, and really interestingly for a roguelike, you can take the stealthy approach. This requires a lot of patience and timing and one small slip will see you getting a lot more than you bargained for. If you stop creeping too soon you’ll make noise. Do this and everything in your radius will be using you as a pin cushion in no time short.
Something that struck me as very clever with this game is the way your life works. You don’t have a health bar in Soulblight, you have a “well being” bar. This starts at 100% (as it should), but this is a base level. You want this figure to be going up from here and under no circumstances do you want it dropping. This meter doesn’t just effect your life, it effects your strength and defense as well. The higher it is the harder you hit. This makes absolute sense. The better you feel, the stronger you are both mentally and physically. You’ll also be wanting this to be good and high if you’re going to get at all far in the game. Remember me mentioning that balancing act? This is where all of that comes into play. Your traits offer pluses to this meter depending on what you do but there are plenty of chances to make it drop as well. Getting it all just right is fun an infuriating in good measure.
I always look at the positive things in a game first. I guess this is my attempt at cushioning the blow of the things I don’t like so much. To be honest there aren’t actually that many that I’m seeing so far. The difficulty level is going to drive some players crazy but actually makes me want to go back for more so I’m not going to call this a negative. What is, however, is a transmutation system that doesn’t really seem to work.
You find transmuters on all of the levels. These need fueling with certain items. You put something in and if you’ve also added enough fuel you get something else out. The thing is, even when the game tells you this process has worked you can’t always see a difference, which makes the whole thing a bit pointless. You’ll find recipes dotted about the world and this will give you hints to what works but I’d much rather be told that my combination just failed rather than it worked but I don’t get the spoils. Whether this works or not you get to keep the item you’ve put in and this is a plus but the whole idea really needs refining.
My other issue with this game is that it isn’t always easy to figure out your stat boosts. Usually when you equip gear it’s very easy to determine as to whether that gear is making you stronger. You’ll see pluses to your stats but it’s not always clear exactly what is going up. I’m just seeing a series of figures getting higher but unless I know exactly what those stats relate to I can’t really hone my character exactly the way I’d like. This kind of just boils down to a series of numbers but those numbers still have to mean something and I’m not sure these meanings are clear enough.
All in all the game looks nice, the music is good and everything plays relatively smoothly. If you’re a massive masochist like me, I think Soulblight will be right up your alley. The game is definitely fun and addictive with a few rough edges. These small gripes aside I’m loving that I’m seeing new things being introduced to my favorite genre and will absolutely keep playing this game. Soulblight is going in my, “things to do when I don’t have a lot of time,” pile. As these are the games I usually play the most this is definitely an accolade and a big compliment on my behalf. If you don’t mind ripping your hair and cursing a lot, you may well want this one in your gaming library.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Bring on the blight!
Challenge - 8/10
Concept - 9/10
Look and feel - 8/10
Replayability - 9/10
Story - 7/10
This is a brilliantly difficult, infuriatingly addictive title. When a game being almost too hard just makes you want to play more, you know you have a winner. This in not one for the faint of heart but those of you who don't mind a beating will keep going back. All in all, if you're patient, Soulblight is well worth your time.