Soul Sacrifice understands the momentary worth of double-dipping when it comes to grind-intensive action RPGs. The game, an overtly morbid fantasy allegory born from the mind of Keiji Inafune, one of the co-creators of Capcom's Mega Man franchise, doesn't force players to relinquish entire days of their lives in marathon sessions of exhaustive leveling-up and stat manipulation. Instead, Soul Sacrifice is best endured in truncated sittings of embracive quick-fix operations, diminishing the annoyance of repetitive environmental designs, enemy models, and centralized battle mechanics. Very much in the same vein as Monster Hunter Tri, with a healthy dose of Dark Souls-brand brutality (though with more of an emphasis on its narrative progression), Soul Sacrifice's addictive, highly customizable, and incentive-heavy structure feels right at home on the PS Vita, providing ample fodder for curtailed road trips or intracontinental flights; in truth, it wouldn't fare nearly as well on any of today's most widely used non-portable platforms.
The game begins with your nameless hero, an enslaved mage, incarcerated in a hellish netherworld prison by a heinous sorcerer, moments away from meeting death. Before that can happen, however, a demon in the form of a grotesque manual called Librom presents itself, offering valuable information that will likely lead to your freedom being reclaimed. What Librom contains is, in fact, Soul Sacrifice's anecdotal spectrum, past, present, and future. Flipping through the homely tome describes events in the nefarious sorcerer's history, giving you the necessary tools to execute revenge on your corrupt captor. The ghoulish yarn plays out within Librom as its pages are turned, a fittingly classical way to tell this tortured tale. Presentation is one of the game's strong suits; the lack of protracted cutscenes is supplemented by passages of expertly voice-acted text. The sleek menus are easily navigated, and the gloomy graphical aesthetic rarely becomes too overwhelming. Getting lost in Librom's elephantine wealth of knowledge and native lore is a common happening, as the details of each mission and opposing creature are laid out for studious eyes to scan. Admittedly, these extended educational readings mean Soul Sacrifice can occasionally come off like you're taking a class in its subject matter rather than playing a game propelled by it.
Outside of Librom's dense doctrine, there's Soul Sacrifice's combat/experience/reward system, which is both eminently inventive and oddly pedestrian. On one hand, the game's main draw, the ability to decimate or save the souls of those that surround you on the battlefield is a consistently pleasurable aspect of strengthening your character. Not only is there a goal-oriented influence to this (better ranks are achieved through multiple sacrifices), but a moral motivation as well. Don't be surprised if you find yourself struggling with the decision of whether or not to kill someone off; it's a choice that carries a significant amount of emotional weight. In addition to sacrificing characters to gain power, devastating attacks can also be put into motion by way of Offerings. These alms can be represented as magical items acquired through eliminating foes or, considerably more macabre, parts of the protagonist's physical body. Scars appear on your limbs to signify their usage, and eventually you'll run out of appendages to apply. Unfortunately, aside from these innovative features, Soul Sacrifice is a pretty standard third-person spell-tosser. Though movement controls well, there's no jumping, which is always a bummer, the lock-on system is invariably unreliable, and the actual performing of specialized assaults, be they long-distance, close-quarters, or even the super-calamitous Black Rite incantations, necessitates a certain distinctively lurid enchantment that's readily on display in other areas of the game but inadvisedly reduced here.
With spared AI promptly joining your team, there's very little reason to spend much time dabbling in Soul Sacrifice's so-so online modes. This is a game that's most arresting when experienced alone, its grim story one of intensifying emptiness and detachment. Regardless of its irregular pratfalls, there's something to be said for a title this dark that excels primarily in short bursts rather than prolonged, daylight-avoiding tests of mental pertinacity.