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Did you play the Dissidia games for the PSP? I see a handful of Final Fantasy fans raising their hands enthusiastically. But only a handful. Even the die-hardest Final Fantasy fan isn’t necessarily inclined to bang his head against a drawn-out leveling grind, creeping up in power one notch at a time, accumulating one tiny crafting ingredient on the way to a ring that boosts a stat a single point. It’s a series of slight imperceptible tweaks to the next fast-paced unbounded flash of anime combat on the way to not much at all beyond more unbounded anime flashes. Dissidia was like staring into a strobe light, and even for some of us who wouldn’t know Lightning from Cloud Strife, just as mesmerizing.

The PSP, and now the Vita, was uniquely suited to Dissidia’s short arena battles. Small system, cramped controls, graphics mini-powerhouse, eminently portable. Three minutes of gameplay at a time, with breaks between to admire your stats, assign points, pick the next mission, whatever. That’s also how Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker got its hooks into someone — me — who couldn’t care less about a Snake or a Pistol Ocelot or a Big Momma. Snippets of gameplay connected by walls of stats? Sign me up. Oddly enough, it’s not that far a jump from Paradox’s strategy games or the numbers-based power leveling in an MMO.

After the jump, dark souls, nier misses, and bearing arms

Instead of Dissidia’s sleek Japanese anime motif or Peace Walkers’ Kojima Japanese Cold War motif, Soul Sacrifice feature Dark Souls’ grim Japanese hell motif. You’re a helpless victim locked in a grimy cage. Ooh, look, someone left a book in here. A talking book! With battles for chapters, with pages of lore, with lists of spells, with a paper doll character portrait, with an attitude. As a narrative, Soul Sacrifice is cleverly framed as a prisoner reading a book, and sometimes the book interrupting with commentary. This book, which makes Nier’s Grimoire Weiss look like a Disney sidekick, is as unreliable a narrator as Morte, as perfect a tour guide through hell as Virgil, as unconventional a cellmate as William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman.

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Since I’m already predisposed to plug myself into long grinds consisting of short battles, it’s no surprise that Soul Sacrifice works for me. But the surprise is how well the narrative works for me. You can’t play Dissidia or Peace Walker without at least dipping a toe into the rich mythology, even if you’re not interested in that mythology, and even if the gameplay doesn’t necessarily support that mythology. In both of those games, the narrative was mainly for fans of Final Fantasy and Metal Gear. But Soul Sacrifice’s mythology is cut from whole cloth and therefore self-contained. It’s like discovering the mythology in Brutal Legend or Dark Souls or maybe even Edith Hamilton, and sometimes just as fascinating.

Soul Sacrifice isn’t necessarily a shuffled narrative, because you can play the missions as linearly as you want. More of less. It’s not quite that simple. But it encourages you to sample pages here and there, dropping into various storylines at your whim, replaying bits, changing the outcomes to explore different paths, unlocking or killing or leveling up allies as you see fit. And along the way, you might find yourself ducking into a passage about the lore. You won’t regret it. The writing is effectively moody and lugubrious, with cooly British voice actors lending gravity in place of the usual transpacific awkwardness.

As for the actual gameplay bits — with such short battles, is it possible that I’ve spent more time in Soul Sacrifice reading lore, fusing spells, and hunting for where to get specific components than I’ve spent actually, you know, playing? — this is at first a brain-dead exercise in spamming attacks onto targets. Zap, zap, zap, whoosh, zap, whoosh, dodge, zap, done. It’s going to be that way for a while. But it gradually morphs into a sometimes demanding game about optimizing your character build, about sussing out monster vulnerabilities, tuning NPCs, setting up online matches for strangers to come in and help you with a tough mission, enduring tough battles in which all your spell juice has fizzled out and you’re so goddamn close to finally killing that one fucker, but are you close enough that using your black rite uber-power will seal the deal or doom you to trying one more time? Or, perhaps, setting up a new character build? Or should you just come back to this battle later, since there are at least a dozen more you could do instead, not to mention re-grinding old battles? There are no dead ends in labyrinths this vast.

A glut of varied detail lurks down the line once you’ve filled a few pages with spells and unlocked a spread of sigils to carve into your haunted arm. That’s part of the narrative, by the way. Sorcerer’s are people with haunted arms. They carve sigils into their arms to complement their spells. You can only bring six spells into battle, each limited by the number of times you can use it. Ammo, if you will. These hard choices, reminiscent of a deck building game or Phantom Dust, lead to a lot of experimentation. Don’t forget that you have a stable of companions, two of whom you can bring along. Or you can go online with up to three other players.

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The spell upgrades are a streamlined version of the crafting in Monster Hunter, but Soul Sacrifice has the same sense of hunting down specific components to make new spells and especially to improve your favorite spells. One of the greatest failings of the interface is how little it supports this monster hunting concept. You’ll want to improve your fire-based djinn arrows, but it takes digging to discover that you need iron pinwheels and giant arms. It takes even more digging to figure out where to get them. What was I looking for again? One of the last games that forced me to keep a legal pad nearby to take notes was Dead Rising, also by Keiji Inafune. I kept meticulous notes about where to find certain components because the game couldn’t be arsed to do it for me. Fair enough. There have been worse interface sins than requiring a pencil and a piece of paper. And for the record, the pinwheels and giant arms are way back in the freakin’ tutorial missions.

You might have figured out by now this isn’t one of those “grand tours through lots of content” games. You’re going to fight the same monster over and over, and even when you’re not fighting the same monsters, you’re often fighting reskinned versions with different attacks and vulnerabilities. Like any great action RPG, the game is about tuning a character build, and shepherding it through increasingly difficult variations of the same things you’ve been doing all along, with friends, strangers, or an AI along for the ride. But unlike many such games, it’s got one hell of a story, insidioiusly barbed gameplay hooks, and the sort of infinite lifespan that makes your Vita worth the money you spent.

4 stars
Vita