tiistai 27. elokuuta 2013

REVIEW - Soul Blazer | SNES | 1992

GENRE(S): Action / Adventure / RPG
RELEASED: January 31, 1992

Among the first games to be reviewed on this blog was ActRaiser, a SNES cult classic from 1990. In this game, you took on the guise of God himself - localized "Master" in North America - and rose against the monstrous hordes of Satan - localized "Tanzra" - in a clever mix of a city-sim and a straightforward action game. In 1993, the game spawned a simplified all-action sequel shunned by just about every fan of the original. Between these two games, Quintet developed an action-RPG named Soul Blazer, an ActRaiser spin-off and spiritual successor that was to spawn a couple of spiritual successors of its own, ending up regarded the first game in Quintet's unofficial "Gaia trilogy". Soul Blazer is an intriguing and fun game, and frankly, I think it's more of an ActRaiser 2 than that one piece of trash ever was.


King Magridd - under the influence of his malicious, sociopathic and greedy wife - summons a soul-stealing spirit named Deathtoll and literally sells every living creature in the Freil Empire to him in exchange for one gold piece each. The Master sends one of his most trusted allies, an angel known as the Soul Blazer, down on Earth to rebuild the Empire to the way it was and liberate its people from the forces of evil.

Gee, thanks for all your appreciation!
After deciding that the next review was going to be about a 16-bit RPG, I didn't have to look far to find the perfect solution. Soul Blazer is the kind of loose end I've been babbling on about for the last year due to its strong connection to ActRaiser - far stronger than I expected, actually - a game that I've often mentioned as one of the most unique and interesting SNES classics. Also, it will lead me to a pair of some of my favourite non-Square genre games on the SNES. The main difference between Soul Blazer and those two games, as well as ActRaiser, is that I've never actually played this game before. I might've heard its name mentioned a few times when I was a kid, but like I said in the Final Fantasy VII retrospect, it's an Enix game and Enix games went largely unnoticed in these woods since they were considered a second-rate company in comparison to Square - the most ironic thing about it is that there were way more Enix games on the international market than Square games. Being linked to ActRaiser, this game might've garnered in a bit more attention than the usual Enix IP, but that's not much. Soul Blazer is not as unique, interesting or fun as its spiritual predecessor - actually it's most like a cross between that game and a poor man's Legend of Zelda - but it's entertaining in a lot of ways, a fine game to pass a fistful of time with. Basically, everything that ActRaiser 2 wasn't.

Scouting the bottom of the sea.
Soul Blazer wasn't really released at the best time in Europe, either. With the European release postponed as far as early 1994, the game was inevitably deemed obsolete and out of value. I'm so grateful that things have changed in the past 20 years - most people have begun to learn to put things into perspective and appreciate some good games, if not proper gems, they originally rejected for reasons of vanity or initial monetary worth. To put it simply, I just know I'm in for a comfortable experience when I start this game up. Not great, but comfortable. I don't get that from a lot of games nowadays, there's nearly always a creepy feeling of some proportion jolting up my spine. Maybe that's the spice of gaming to some of you folks out there, but I enjoy knowing I'm not wasting my time here before the game's even begun. Well, I think that's enough of the middle-aged gamer's ranting, let's get on with the game.

The graphics are quite good, but nowhere near the Super Nintendo's best, not even in 1992. Once again, there's a strong resemblance to ActRaiser in a different gameplay setting, due to the same, or at least very similar, font used for the HUD, and similar character design. There are lots of different environments, though, it's not just about switching the palette, so I've got to give the level design some credit. I would've expected Yuzo Koshiro's soundtrack, but we've got another composer at work here - Yukihide Takikawa - and even though some of the tunes stand up to the best of ActRaiser (and then some), it's very inconsistent and even uncharacteristic. Repetitive funk doesn't really go well with a genre game, be it closer to Legend of Zelda than a traditional J-RPG or not. "Solitary Island" has still got to be one of my favourite 16-bit tunes ever.

Soul Blazer is indeed a lot like ActRaiser in the most basic sense. You have six kingdoms to save, and there are two different sides to gameplay: going around battle arenas, releasing the captive souls of the kingdom's citizens from monster lairs and sealing them up, and exploring the rebuilt cities and interacting with those citizens to get ahead on your quest. Everything's alive and able to speak in this game, including woodwork, which takes a while to get used to, and saying this makes it easier for me to explain an example that requires you to show a raft (yes, a raft) a bunch of leaves from its home village, so it believes you're with its people and agrees to carry you across a marsh to the next dungeon. Those expecting this game to make some semblance of sense can turn to some other game. It's weird, it's outright retarded at times ("hey, I know I just met you and this is kind of a strange question anyway, but would you like to be my child?"), but I kinda like it that way. The actual gameplay derives a lot from The Legend of Zelda, all three games that were released up 'til that point; the character development system and half of the item managing comes from traditional console RPG.

If there's one less positive word to describe Soul Blazer as a whole, it's "clumsy". For starters, you don't really have a party; the few folks that join you are actually "part of you", starting with a magician that joins you right away. He appears in the form of a blue orb circling around you for the rest of the game. If you want to use magic, you need mana points, which in turn appear in the form of golden orbs yielded by defeated enemies and found in treasure chests. Magic is extremely useful in this game in itself, but using it is a pain. Every time you use a spell against an enemy, you have to make sure that you're facing the enemy you want to blast at, AND that the orb is aligned with the enemy. It's kind of tough to explain, but what this results in, especially in more demanding situations, is a lot of precious magic gone to complete waste and getting your ass kicked by the other potential threats on the screen while you're trying to focus on a single enemy you necessarily cannot reach with your sword. Also, just having any type of item in your inventory isn't enough. If you want to use an item, you need to have it equipped (think Castlevania: Symphony of the Night). With some more weight on it, this concerns ANY type of item; from helpful accessories such as a bracelet to consumable items such as a medical herb. Let's elaborate.

The bosses don't really shine in design, but
God damn, they're hard to beat.
You're in a tough spot, and you decide that you'd be better off equipping a bracelet that nulls half of the damage taken. Even having the bracelet on isn't enough, and you get your ass kicked. You're thinking to yourself: "well, I have an herb in my inventory, it'll save me if my HP falls to zero". It doesn't do shit if it's not equipped, so you die, whether you have it or not. What you need to do on the brink of death is to quickly switch the bracelet to the herb, sacrifice the benefit from the bracelet for your few final ticks of health, and once the herb is used, you need to switch to the bracelet again. A nuisance, to say the least, as well as the fact that the game keeps giving you both useful equipment and consumable items, when you no longer are in desperate need of them. You just completed a dungeon with bridges of fire for its main attraction - for your efforts, you get an armor set that enables you to walk on fire unharmed. Urgh. You will need the special armors later, but usually by that time, their value as protection is long gone, which means more constant menu toggling between armor sets. One more thing about the items: you can't carry any more than one item of any type at a time. Which means that if you have an herb in your inventory, each herb you find is a wasted, rare opportunity. There are few creatures with endless supplies of herbs, and you can return to any of them any time you use up your short supply, but this calls on some serious, unwelcome backtracking.

Deathtoll's an asshole.
To be frank, the game lives on backtracking. Very often you will need the citizens' help to get forward in an outdoor battle arena or a dungeon. Actually, the easiest way to proceed in this game is to die, over and over again, 'cause the monster lairs you've already sealed remain sealed as long as the power's on, and each time you save the game at the nearest Master's shrine - where you're always taken when you die - the sealed lairs are saved as well. Only the respawning enemies - the grind fodder, as I like to call 'em - come back to annoy. The Master's shrine is always within the confines of a safe area, so dying or going back there via a warp point found from two different locations in each level, enables a quick observation of everything that's been going on since you left to battle the last time around and a quick catching up with more or less important NPC's you've saved thus far. Since sealing the most essential monster lairs in each area manipulates the environment even within those areas, shortcuts which go through the dungeons are often created, so backtracking's not THAT much of an issue in the end, at least in comparison how disturbingly long it takes to get used to the quirky magic and item management.

You can get used to all the quirks, and that's a relief, since the game is very hard thanks to its borderline unreasonable bosses who will outright wreck you, every single one of them - well, perhaps one's an exception and it's quite weird that he's actually smack in the middle of the game. Even the first boss is not that easy at all. Of course, Deathtoll himself takes the cake as one of the most frustrating bosses of the era, right alongside Tanzra in the original ActRaiser, as a matter of fact. It's also quite easy to miss some details on "secret" items that'll help you a great deal; I don't really like to call them secrets since I couldn't imagine being able to beat the game without 'em. Anyway, if you're good and quick about it, and are out to accomplish every single task in the game, you'll be done with Soul Blazer in about 15 hours or so.

Even if immensely frustrating and outright stupid at times, Soul Blazer is worth a peek in the vault, the true follow-up to ActRaiser in my books, and a precursor for something perhaps even better than the mother game.

+ Immediately accessible, surprisingly well explained gameplay
+ Adorable in some of its core stupidity
+ Quite a unique story
+ Some extremely good music...

- ...But ultimately inconsistent soundtrack
- Dumb NPC's with bone dry sense of humour (not quite sure if that's an up or down)
- Clumsy item management and magic use, lots of unnecessary menu toggling
- Constant backtracking

< 7.5 >

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