Soulstice Preview: A Tale Of Two Sisters
It’s easy to compare Soulstice to Devil May Cry. Shades of that game and other character action games like Bayonetta and Ninja Gaiden are around every character in this tale of two sisters who have been turned into a chimera, a union between two souls. You fight through dark, gothic castles and churches against ghosts, zombies, and various demonic foes who just keep coming. Light puzzle elements surround a whole lot of combat, with the balance feeling just right.
The strengths of its genre are present in Soulstice, namely in the super satisfying combat. Some of the weaknesses such games are prone to are definitely here as well, and at times they could be frustrating. Overall though, I’m upbeat about Soulstice finding an audience when it releases next month.
It only takes one touch to turn someone into an abomination in Soulstice so by the time sisters Briar and Lute arrive in Ilden, the city is already long past lost. At this point, all they and their fellow chimeras can do are hope to clean up the mess and stop it from spreading, while hoping to close a tear in the veil which has led to this whole mess. Doing this involves a whole lot of similar foes needing to be taken down, with a few bosses thrown in for good measure.
Almost immediately, it struck me that I couldn’t control my camera. While running around and exploring, you’re stuck with fixed camera angles. At times this can lead to a more cinematic feel, but I can’t say I’m a fan. Often the camera feels a bit too pulled out and there were frequent areas where I found the camera was getting in the way of my exploration. A fixed camera isn’t a deal breaker, but giving the player more control is almost always going to be my preference.
Thankfully, that changes when you enter combat. Soulstice isn’t a game where enemies just randomly appear, combat happens at set locations which allows it to shift the camera into a fully player-controlled setup with a behind-the-back camera. It’s pretty much essential and helps the combat, but it still isn’t perfect, struggling mightily in corners. There were still times when the camera got in my way during a fight, but it works much better in combat, even if the transition between two very different camera systems can be a tad disorienting.
That combat is the highlight of Soulstice. While you start off with only two weapons, over the first two acts of the game, I was able to explore, I unlocked three additional ones, a bow, a whip, and a gauntlet. Each of these has its own feel and swapping conveniently between them with only the tap of a button allows you to really get creative in a fight. Early on, flying enemies are a bit of a pain, but once the bow and whip unlocked, I felt like I was gaining the tools needed to really compete. That you can easily move between all of these options is a testament to how tight and well-mapped the default control scheme is.
Combat feels smooth and impactful with a wide variety of foes. Early on you’ll just be facing standard zombie-esque enemies, but soon, archers will join them, and then more and more enemies from hulking brutes to floating ghosts will start showing up. Enemies that initially show up seeming almost like mini bosses quickly become regular enemies who will show up in mobs, though once you learn how to beat them, they just become part of the routine.
While you’re primarily fighting as Briar, Lute is always there for her sister. A big part of combat is a sort of parry mechanic that can either deflect attacks or, in some cases, freeze them long enough for you to get a few good hits in or at least get out of the way. Lute’s abilities, not to mention Briar’s weapons, can all be upgraded with resources spread pretty much everywhere from combat to the environment. Upgrades to your weapons allow a lot more freedom in combat, but it’s upgrading Lute that really helps you go far. She can learn to deflect attacks on her own should you miss the parry timing, attack enemies of her own volition, and gather resources for you. By the time I reached the end of act 2, Lute felt like a true partner in combat and there were still a rather ridiculous amount of upgrades left I could gain. Even better, the ability to remove upgrades and respec with no penalty encouraged experimentation and finding the best strategy for different situations.
What sets combat in Soulstice apart are the two energy fields you can use at any time. The evocation and banishment fields are basically blue and red glowing circles that will surround your characters. Calling up the right one is crucial for different situations. Ghostly foes, for example, can only be damaged in the evocation field, while others later in the game can only be hurt within the banishment field. Switching between these on the fly becomes essential as does toggling them on and off as keeping one active too long can wear Lute out, causing her to leave your side briefly. While she’ll return, this leaves you super vulnerable. It’s a simple mechanic, but that’s kind of the point. It gives you something to worry about and provides an added layer of complexity in combat without distracting you too much from just bashing on enemies. These fields are used outside of combat as well for puzzles and gathering collectibles, helping players to get used to swapping between them.
The few bosses I got to take on were suitably epic, huge monsters which required unique strategies. They were challenging and required me to break out of my routine. One later boss I took on, I was really struggling to finish until I realized that I was probably supposed to be using the whip, which I had recently unlocked and hadn’t yet worked into my combat repertoire. Once I did, I felt like the encounter transformed.
While I enjoyed exploring the world of Soulstice and think it mostly looks great in a gothic sort of way, I do think the city is overdesigned. Invisible walls are everywhere, with scenery that you are completely unable to interact with blending in with the boxes you’re meant to be destroying to gather collectibles. If these stood out more, it might not be a big deal, but as is, I spent a lot of time trying to break things or go down paths that I couldn’t, and it got old rather quickly. This is even an issue in combat at times. I died against a boss at one point because I tried to dash into what looked like an open area but turned out to be an invisible wall.
The story in Soulstice didn’t really grab me initially, but I was over time drawn in by likable characters as I mostly enjoyed spending time with Briar and Lute. Strong voice acting, particularly for Briar, went a long way. It would be nice, though, if the final game had a bit more variety in lines. Even thirty minutes into the game, the amount of repetition started to get old. If I have to hear Lute yell, “My sister is my knight!” one more time or hear them talking about if this is the end of the world again, I may throw a controller. Or maybe I’ll just mute the dialogue, you can do that. It would be a shame to do so though when the performances themselves are quite good.
Soulstice isn’t particularly original, but its combat offers a nice twist on its genre and feels great. While issues with the camera and over-designed environments concern me this late in development, they don’t seem like they’re going to stop the game from being a good time for fans of the genre. If the developers can clean up those issues in a rather short amount of time, Soulstice could really stand out, but even if they don’t, I look forward to checking out the rest of the game next month.