Sometimes, as part of my duty writing reviews for all of you, I find myself playing games that are decidedly out of my wheelhouse. Smoke and Sacrifice is a brutally difficult survival and crafting-based game with very dark themes. For context, my last three reviews involved a teen-friendly graphic novel about Greek mythology, an anime-style crossover fighting game, and a cardboard piano. I say this only to properly set up my review as coming from someone who isn’t used to this type of game. That doesn’t mean it didn’t get my interest, though. The hand drawn visuals are striking, and the promise of a unique plot elevates the game over the mountains of indie survival games out there. So, let’s take the plunge into the Underworld together, and see how long we last.
The first thing I want to talk about is that art. I imagine most people stumble upon my reviews, but if you read a lot of them, you’ll know that I despise the overuse of pixel graphics in indie games. For every Shovel Knight that uses this style in a way that makes sense, there are hundreds of games like Over 9000 Zombies that use them for no apparent reason. Smoke and Sacrifice isn’t one of those games. The visuals are striking, displaying a dark world that nonetheless contains beauty, at least in some cases. The snowy areas of the game particularly look almost like they belong in a bright and cheerful title, until you remember that you’re surrounded by skeletons. The character and world designs are interesting too; the style of the setting is a sort of cross between steampunk and dark fantasy, which creates an uneasy feeling matching how the main character would respond. Some of the enemy designs are gross, but they’re supposed to be; a few designs remind me of another indie game I reviewed, Mushroom 11. Putting this art together can’t have been an easy task, and I commend developer Solar Sail Games for recognizing that the effort they put in was worth it for a beautiful game.
The storytelling, while not front and center, also has some impressive moments. Within the first few seconds, your character has to sacrifice her baby in a ritual that supposedly keeps her village safe from monsters. There’s very little dialogue and no real time to get to know the characters, but you already feel for main character Sachi, which is saying something. The plot serves its purpose well in motivating the character, and it works well when it shows up. But don’t get the wrong idea, as it seems some players have; this isn’t an RPG. But given how many survival games out there don’t even bother to include a narrative, the story here stands out, minor as it may be.
Now, when it comes to the gameplay, things really start to depend on the kind of player you are. This is a survival and crafting-focused game, so that’s mostly what you’ll be doing. You forage for materials, learn recipes, and try to figure out how to complete each goal based on the resources available to you. It starts off pretty much telling you exactly what to do, but it also doesn’t bode well that there are so many steps just to make a lantern that you need to progress anywhere in the game. Unless you really get excited by the growing list of things you can craft, it’s hard for the game to not feel rather tedious. Maybe some of these collecting and crafting tasks would be more compelling if they tied back to the narrative better, but I can’t say for sure. Combat doesn’t add much depth either; you can attack and dodge, and that’s about it. While you probably won’t die to the first enemy or anything, the game is definitely hard, and you’ll have to run away from monsters decently often. All of this being said, it does feel like a legitimate challenge, and not unfair difficulty. And if you are the kind of player who thrives on being at the edge of death more often than not, which I know some are, you’ll be happy here.
Smoke and Sacrifice is a game that should be celebrated for providing an engaging experience beyond the trappings of its genre. The visuals are top-notch and bring to mind Vanillaware’s hit games, and the story behind your character’s need to survive and explore makes it more compelling than your typical Minecraft-like game. That being said, for a lot of gamers, the gameplay and layout will just not be all that much fun. While the visuals and story speak to a wider audience, the gameplay definitely sits squarely in its genre. If that genre is for you, give it a try. But even if it isn’t, at least appreciate the work and thought that went into this game.
Graphics - 9/10
Gameplay - 5/10
+ Great visuals
+ Interesting narrative
- Gameplay doesn't draw you in