Much has been made about the death of mid-sized games and the subsequent loss of experimentation, novelty, and specific genres from the gaming landscape. While it is true that many big publishers have become increasingly focused on mega-hit franchises above all else, resulting in certain styles of experience falling by the wayside, scores of AA studios have sprung up to fill some of these gaps. Reply Games Studios is one such developer whose latest, Soulstice, embodies many strengths offered by this scale of game.
While its title may make you assume it’s another soulslike, Soulstice actually has the trappings of a character-action game, a style that is relatively underexplored these days outside of Capcom and PlatinumGames’ output. A laundry list of elements makes Soulstice’s debt to titles like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta clear: a persistent score in the top right corner that grades your performance, fights that take place in small inescapable combat areas, being framed by a zoomed-out third-person camera angle, the importance of uppercutting and juggling foes, an arsenal of weapons which can be switched mid-combo, destroying furniture to produce red orbs that can be used for upgrades, and, well you get the idea.
As a genre, character-action games sell the illusion of complete mastery. Even if you don’t know every combo, you are cast as a conductor of balletic violence, guiding the hero through high-octane fights that look ripped straight from an anime MV. Above all else, that pulsing sense of style defines what has been described as “spectacle fighters.” Soulstice’s novel mechanics, solid execution of the fundamentals, and gratifying power-up state help it tap into some of the adrenaline perfected by what came before. But unfortunately, it isn’t all gorgeous action choreography. An erratic camera and questionable enemy compositions can sometimes make this feel less like a beautifully filmed single-take martial arts sequence and more like an inelegant shaky cam production.
Soulstice follows Briar and Lute, a pair of sisters who have been bound to a single body by a mysterious religious organization called the Order. They are dispatched to the sacred city of Ilden to investigate a potential Tear, a rift in reality, only to find it already open and the nearby population massacred. From here, they must fight their way through myriad horrors and seal the Tear before all humanity is destroyed.
While stretches of the narrative can feel like a long-winded trek toward a forever-distant McGuffin, interesting complications eventually arise from our protagonist’s backstories. Briar, whose pointed armor, injured right eye, and hulking metal sword give her more than a passing resemblance to the protagonist of Berserk, is predictably gruff, while her sister Lute, a blue spirit tethered to her elder sibling’s body, is more openly empathetic and naïve. Although the duo initially comes across as somewhat one-note, they eventually gain nuance as their pasts and the world’s political realities come into focus. Briar is tormented by guilt over her sister’s lost body, but as Lute explores her sibling’s memories, it surfaces narrative threads about recovering from past trauma and confronting exploitative power structures. Unfortunately, while these elements of the story eventually click into place, it takes a little bit too long to get there, and these turns are undermined by a sequel-bait ending that robs the conclusion of catharsis.
But when it comes to character-action games, success is largely defined by how well the experience expresses style through game mechanics. Here Soulstice occasionally soars by providing some novelties that separate it from its peers. For one, there is a heavy focus on constantly switching between your many weapons to deal with enemies, as each tool is particularly effective against certain kinds of foes. For example, you’re encouraged to use bulky gauntlets to shred through heavily armored monsters, equip a bow to down flying wraiths, and switch to a whip to slice through mobs of lesser ghouls. There is also an Ikaruga-inspired polarity system where Lute can project a red or blue field to make enemies of the corresponding color vulnerable.
All these factors make for satisfyingly frenetic exchanges, forcing you to hit almost every button on your controller in a madcap display of swordsmanship. Enemies have dangerous abilities that make it important to dispatch them in a strategic order, adding another layer of gratification each time you figure out the best path through an encounter. And if this all wasn’t enough, you also must utilize Lute’s ability to parry blows, deflect projectiles, and freeze enemies for crowd control. Her involvement makes it feel like these siblings are genuinely working together, helping further a sense of sisterhood reiterated in the narrative.
While combos and abilities don’t differ much between your weapons, complexity comes from juggling your tools to take advantage of enemy weaknesses and maintain a combo long enough to enter a powerful state called Rapture. On top of being treated to a delightful transformation sequence, where cool posing combines with a crescendoing score, Rapture lets you absolutely melt through armies in a haze of crackling violet explosions. Achieving this state became my de facto goal, and just about every fight that ended with Briar in this nigh-invulnerable trance made me feel like I was playing a legitimate successor to this genre’s best.
But although many of the battles ended in this kind of satisfying apex, not every encounter went off without a hitch. While Soulstice pits the player against a variety of hellish creatures, my single greatest enemy was the adversary that has batted down many would-be great action titles over the years: the camera. There are two big problems with it. One is that it will constantly get stuck on walls in smaller arenas (of which there are many), making it difficult to see much of anything. The other problem is that the targeting system is generally a nightmare, as it can be difficult to switch to the one specific enemy you want to bash. As I was fumbling to target an enemy who was about to heal someone else, I would get hit in the back by some unseen jerk who ruined my combo and chance to get back into the Rapture state.
Aside from the camera, the other major problem is that some enemy combinations can be a headache. Flying twerps will glide out of range as they pelt you from afar, as a spectral wizard gives everyone barriers, and a hulking monstrosity beats you down. Sometimes it can feel like the stage is too packed with dangerous goons that demand your utmost attention, and even with proper planning, these bouts can be a slog. While Lute can block offscreen attacks to deal with these sorts of chaotic situations, this parry has a small cooldown, meaning you can easily get overwhelmed if there is too much going on. While captivating fights outnumbered the deflating ones, these bum encounters happened frequently enough to spoil the power fantasy.
Still, there is a lot of charm to Soulstice. When it all comes together, which it often does, it can deliver captivating sequences where the art direction, mechanics, and score are in harmony. Additionally, while its conclusion undercuts some of what came before, the story delivers on the familial bond between these sisters and offers just enough interesting moments to justify the time spent away from battles. It would all be punching well above its weight class if it weren’t for the aggravating camera and some questionable encounter design.
Despite some gaffes, one of its biggest strengths is that it achieves exactly what many AA titles set out to do by delivering on a somewhat uncommon genre that has largely fallen out of favor. Soulstice may not reach the highest echelons of character-action bliss, but when its art direction, mechanics, and score are in harmony, it scratches an itch that only this brand of stylish spectacle can.
Soulstice was developed by Reply Games Studios and published by Modus Games. Our review is based on the PlayStation 5 version. It’s also available for the Xbox Series X|S and PC.
Elijah Gonzalez is an intern at Paste.
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