Evil Trees and Horrific Monsters
Soulblight is not exactly a unique experience. The indie game scene has been rife with Roguelikes that look to replicate the success of games like Binding of Isaac and Darkest Dungeon. These games seek to make a campaign feel more like long runs, intended to be played multiple times, and gradually ramped up gameplay. Soulblight has all of these and combat that will be familiar to anyone who’s a fan of FromSoftware games. However, even though Soulblight doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it’s a refinement of the Roguelike formula with deeper mechanics layered on top. This makes for an intimidating, yet satisfying gameplay experience that invites the hardiest of genre veterans to test their mettle.
Let’s get this out of the way: Soulblight is tough. Like, really tough. While that may be off-putting to some players, you learn to enjoy making gradual progress. No matter how marginal the improvement, you start to learn how to get further into each run and how to set yourself up for a good attempt. The run is pretty simple on paper, there are three bosses at the end of each map. Beat the third boss and you win. The game can take as short as a few hours to complete, but you will more than likely die countless times trying to defeat even one of the bosses found on the various paths. Soulblight seems small in scope at first but after just a few hours of playing, this game feels deeper than many other Roguelikes you could otherwise be playing.
The combat system in Soulblight is proudly taking a few ideas from that of the Souls series. You’ll have a stamina meter and different attack power and speed depending on what weapons you wield and will need to use stamina to dodge and wait for an opening from your opponent. Each encounter with an enemy is a possible death and the stakes feel high even after a few battles. You have a health meter as well, however it functions a bit differently than a traditional health bar. On the left side of the UI, the player has an injury tracker. The player can withstand 4 injuries, or 4 depletions of your health meter, before going down. However, you’ll also have to worry about the negative effects that come with these nasty injuries. Some like a crushed lung can make you use more stamina, or bleeding will make you lose health faster. There are items to aid you like sutures to stitch up cuts or certain medicines to take if you’re concussed, but you better hope you get the right item for the right injury.
You’ll need to carefully pick off each enemy one by one in order to maintain control, getting surrounded is pretty much instant death. However, there are items that can mitigate a lot of these dire scenarios. You can wear armor with spikes on it in order to damage enemies that get too close, or switch to a longer weapon if you need to take down an advancing line of enemies. The options at your disposal are more or less limited to melee combat, but you can still have a lot of fun figuring out which setup works best for you.
Live, Die, Repeat
Finding your playstyle in Soulblight can be a journey and a frustrating one at that. Instructions aren’t totally clear out of the gate as to how to successfully transmogrify or really to what end do you need to engage with this stuff for. You find out about the three bosses by reading through some of the game’s lore, I didn’t even see the final boss of the game and probably wouldn’t have known about it unless I collected as many punch cards as I did.
Unfortunately, you might not always get the exact setup you want though. Every time you die in Soulblight, you start with absolutely nothing. Whatever you had in your inventory or on your person is gone. Doesn’t matter if it was a trinket or lore collectible, you will lose everything. To even the playing field the player can find personal storage chests on each map, everything you place into one of these chests will show back up in the place where you start your runs, Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is where you can trade in some of the items you stowed away into the personal storage chest for better items before you begin your new playthrough. This is especially helpful for transmogrified items, which are weapons or other items you can upgrade with magical artifacts you find in your runs. It’s recommended to transmogrify at least a couple pieces of armor and weapons during each run and storing them away so you can start anew with much better stuff everytime you get closer and closer to the last boss.
Players can also take on Taints every new game. Taints are perks that allow the player to craft a specific character the way they want. Traits, like having uninterruptable attacks or being invigorated by injury, are available, but each Trait has a drawback. For instance, one Trait allows intoxicated players to do more damage, but they will receive a wellness penalty that will affect their overall stats if they are sober for too long. The Traits are very fun to explore on each run so the replayability factor is there. However, you’ll find that a lot of these Traits aren’t worth the steep drawbacks they incur so it’s often best to avoid using them entirely if you have good enough items.
An Interesting, Frustrating Package
While I appreciate this level of nuance to a game like this, I felt lost trying to remember the myriad of things I had to do in order to prep myself for a decent run, and would often die before getting the chance to store my stuff. The game became more enjoyable as I got lengthier runs, but getting to this level took more time than I liked. There is also the problem of the Nintendo Switch hardware. The Switch is a great console but Soulblight runs like an unoptimized mess on the system in both handheld and docked modes. There were times when I was in the middle of a heated fight and the frame rate would dip below 20fps. This choppiness would happen noticeably often and I’d say I experienced choppy frames at least one time during all of my runs. I am not sure who’s at fault over that problem but it needs to be addressed as Soulblight demands precision from whoever is playing it, and if the system can’t keep up that sucks. Having such an everpresent issue in this version of the game is a massive drawback that impacted how I felt about playing the game almost every step of the way. I would seriously recommend playing this game on another platform or the PC considering the possible limitations of the Switch.
It’s a shame too because Soulblight is a frustrating game by its very nature, and having some deaths beholden to the version of the game you play doesn’t make for a compelling experience. While I’m sure Soulblight is a fun game, the Nintendo Switch version of the game is hampered with such steep technical issues that it feels incredibly tough to recommend.
Final Verdict: 2.5/5
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch (Reviewed); Publisher: Movie Games S.A.; Developer: My Next Games; Players: 1; Released: October 4th, 2018; MSRP: $14.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a Switch review copy of Soulblight given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.