**Friendly warning: this review is extremely long.**
In the world of Rathenna, a young man travels far from his home, bringing news of his father's recent death to his closest remaining family, an estranged uncle. Contrary to the warnings of the Madrigal townsfolk about Andrus' reputation, the young man is greeted warmly by his uncle, who offers to put him up while the bad weather makes travel inconvenient. Granted, Andrus also charges rent, but hey, at least it comes with the offer of magic lessons!
And the young man will certainly need them. After all, it's hard to earn gold in a community where most of the populace has been abducted by brigands for slave labor. Brigands who in turn serve higher powers with wider goals...who in turn may be manipulated, by forces thought destroyed by a legendary hero long ago...
More people probably know Soulbringer as "that game that came packaged with Planescape Torment" than anything else, which I feel is kind of a shame. While it probably wasn't all that memorable when it came out, Soulbringer is still fun to play. But enough of that, let's get started.
Soulbringer is a single-player, single-character RPG for the PC. You control the nameless protagonist as he explores the world of Rathenna, encounters and interacts with people, kills things and loots the corpses, and grows personally and through experience.
The game interface is primarily point-and-click, which makes it simple enough to figure out, in the event that you don't care to trial-and-error your way into the keyboard shortcuts. On the other hand, clicking objects in motion or in a group, like enemies, can be difficult with just the mouse. As well, the right-side action interface is relatively small and takes time to navigate, which doesn't help when movement and combat are in realtime. Many actions like weapon selection and item use can be routed through the inventory screen if you're really pressed...in fact, this works with everything except spells.
Trinkets, Arrows, Cloaks, Dreams...goddammit where's my book of Medicines?!
When you're not going toe-to-toe with a foe or flying in blind panic, however, there's nothing to get in the way of traveling the world at your leisure. Exploration can be simultaneously a rewarding delight and a towering frustration, as Soulbringer's world is fairly large, but lacks a true travel map. Instead, you rely on your own eyes, vague directions from NPCs, a few navigation spells, and a pair of compasses - a normal one that sticks more than the second little piggy's house, and a useful magic compass that points to hex stones - to guide you. Those hex stones (large magical sculptures, basically), in fact, wind up being the game's multi-purpose tools, serving not only as compass landmarks, but eventually as teleportation points, gateways to the five magical worlds, and one-shot mana replenishment stores.
Speaking of RPG elements, the game features a fairly simple five stat setup (increased on a points-per-level basis*). Magic, of course, increases mana store, but also unlocks higher-level spells. Similarly, points put into Combat unlock stronger attacks for various weapons, and makes combos more effective - more on that later. Strength increases how much you can carry and how hard you whack things, Speed increases armor and movement/attack rate, and poor Health languishes by simply increasing hit points.
For these, the earliest healing items in the game are non-magical food, ranging from apples that give you a quick fix all the way to whole baked hams for serious injuries...both of which take the same amount of time to eat. Sadly, potions and magic eventually become more cost- and weight-effective; there's something lovably ridiculous in running from a pack of vampires, scarfing a few roasted chickens in three seconds, and leaping back into the fray. Wild herbs and mushrooms can accomplish similar things, and provide a host of other beneficial effects...if they don't poison you, make you sick, or in one case explode when you eat them.
Douchenozzle Barthalego the Asshat Apothecary can tell you which is which.
There's alcohol, as well. Ale heals you a very small amount per mug (of course it comes in mugs, you fantasy-illiterate philistine), and wine makes you walk like a drunk while the screen wobbles. Drinking too much of either makes you vomit and lose health, so while the can still be sold for cash, they're still wastes of inventory space...
...at least, they would be, if this game didn't use the RPG-standard "hammerspace" interpretation of inventory, as what you theoretically could carry with your Strength, without regards to leverage, spatial considerations, or sheer common sense. If you're technically strong enough to carry twelve longswords, a warhammer, various magical runes, half a bookcase, and those few bottles of Thardolin Red wine, then by Jove your inventory space won't get in the way. Or rather, while your pack is limited to 25 spaces, you can use bags that hold just as much as your normal pack, which stack with it and each other infinitely.
Yes, every bag in Rathenna is a Bag of Holding.
If this were Dungeons & Dragons, I'd have imploded the universe by now.
The healing and inventory systems form the "hate" section of Soulbringer's love/hate relationship with realism. On the other side, the game features breakable weapons and armor, implemented in a surprisingly sensible manner. Rather than be good for a certain number of chops to their kneecaps/blows to your midsection (ala Fire Emblem or World of Warcraft), all armors and all but two weapons have repair qualities from "perfect" to "ruined." All items can be repaired from "ruined" upwards, though magical weapons and armor require certain steps. The better shape your arms are in, the better they perform...and they last longer against the right opponents. Much like Dungeons & Dragons, Soulbringer's weapon damage is divided into crushing, slashing, and piercing types, each working best against certain types of armor. That thick cloak may protect you against a club, but a spear is a different matter, and swinging that scimitar against a living rock golem is just plain silly.
Combat, in fact, is undoubtedly the game's most vaunted aspect. At its most basic, it works well enough: select an enemy, click attacks individually, or simply click attacks and hit anything in your weapon's path. Due to the nature of the realtime combat and the motion capture, terrain and positioning play an important role; as attacks have set paths, being lower than your opponent on stairs or hills forces them into using low attacks (which the AI doesn't always grasp). Additionally, attack positions play a significant role; that mercenary isn't going to care that his plate armor protects against slashing damage if you bring your greatsword down on his hapless skull, or stab him in the face.
However, the shining aspect of Soulbringer's combat is likely the Combo system. Combos can be set up to include...well, any sort of action, really, but mainly weapon attacks, and set you to an automatic attack pattern. Aside from mitigating some of the problems in navigating the interface mid-combat (by making you not stand around like a dork while looking for a spell or potion), combos also allow the main character to dodge or parry enemy attacks automatically, based on his Speed and Combat.
Executioner combo. When you just have to kill everything with an axe.
And it's great that close combat is so good in this game, because ranged combat sucks a fat one. No one in the game, main character included, has any concept of "leading the target," so trying to hit something in motion is an exercise in frustration...unless they're moving towards you. Yes, ranged weapons work much better in melee range (which can actually come in handy very early on), but you're still better off pulling out a staff or a mace. While this does have the side benefit of making ranged attacks against you fairly easy to evade, and frees up arrows and bolts as salable merchandise, it is frustrating that an entire weapon class (which even gets its own submenu) is essentially useless.
Finally, between the worthiness of melee combat and the suckitude of ranged lies the mixed bag of magic. On the one hand, quite a few spells you find never become useful, which is amusingly pointed out for certain spells ("Everything you can pick up sparkles anyway, why did Harbinger bother making a Spot Item spell?"). Further, certain ranged spells share the same problem as ranged weaponry when it comes to aiming ("Stop pacing around and walk towards my Spirit Knives, dammit!"), and most viable combat is at close range, where some of the more spectacular spells have a very real chance of causing collateral damage. Casting Stone Rain on a group of zombies and singing "Rocks Fall, Everybody Dies" is fun, of course, but if you're not at a distance, "everybody" might include you.
On the other, I can certainly find no fault in the game's variety. Magic is still loads of fun to play around with; most spells find some use, those ranged spells are usually more viable up-close than their weapon counterparts, and the Seculorum, the game's concept of elemental balance, is a really cool idea. Specifically, like weapons, spells fit certain types, based on the elements of fire, spirit, air, earth, and water (barring pan-elemental spells like Secubolt or Wall of Elements). Using spells of an element slowly attunes the protagonist towards that element, making its spells stronger and gradually letting the protagonist resist them, be immune to them, and eventually even be healed by them...while conversely making his consuming and consumed elements less effective, and making spells of the consuming element much more dangerous.
For context, I could bathe in lava right now.
Along with the combo system, this I feel is one of the selling points of the game. What I mentioned earlier about the chunk of useless spells (which seem to be predominantly Air) certainly holds, and the way spells are slowly found (a magic book of four or five spells and its corresponding rune have to be located) make it hard to take advantage of certain elements until very late in the game. Regardless, it still feels like the designers tried to make it possible to favor any element enough to make balance and imbalance viable. Each element has its examples of utility, combat, and healing spells (there's even a healing Fire spell, Cauterize), while also retaining distinctiveness - Water has poison and more healing spells, Earth has several useful shields, Fire spells tend to be massively destructive, etc.
Further, the changeover is truly gradual, making it feel more like a natural effect of your playstyle; by the time I'd used fire spells often enough on my first playthrough that I could heal myself with Magma, I was 2/3 of the way through the game. And finally, regardless of your path, there are major enemies (typically the Demon Revenants and Hex Seekers) attuned to each element, not only providing a greater challenge from enemies of your consuming element, but making the path of elemental balance even more viable.
At first blush, Soulbringer's story can seem rather underwhelming. An ordinary young man, whose name we never learn, stumbles onto a multi-layered conspiracy with plots on the local (villagers being kidnapped), regional (vampires and corrupt nobles making a power grab), worldly (one empire colonizing the remains of another), and even otherworldly (demonic servants seeking the Hex) angles, all the way up to a plot against the source of existence itself. Discovering this, he takes up the mantle of hero, and takes to it pretty damn well. Despite this, the story as told through dialogue and character actions is simple, almost disappointingly so...which I feel is a misleading impression.
Soulbringer isn't so much story-based as it is lore-based. In other words, what the game offers most is historical backstory, paying an exquisite amount of attention to world-building. Whether through speaking with people (Andrus's discussion on the Hex is a Chekhov's Gun), finding various essays and book in your travels (the Demon Papers tell the story of the Demon Revenants and the hero Harbinger), or even just buying some of those books that mayor Elric is selling (that page from Tamaran's journal seems odd...until you meet Tamaran), all of this aims towards constructing a context for the hero's actions.
...wait. How long ago was this written?
Admittedly, this is a less reliable form of storytelling than normal. The academic approach can be hit-or-miss compared to typical dialogue and cutscene exposition (which are also present), and some pieces of the backstory require the player to go out of their way to discover them - casting Death's Recollection on important corpses, going through every dialogue option, paying hard-earned cash for books and scrolls - which can be off-putting at best, and at worst simply not occur to the player. Speaking as a Tolkien fan, though, I personally loved the approach, and found the overall story of finishing the work of a legendary hero, with a bittersweet ending, to be well-constructed.
Individual characters don't get the same level of treatment as the story, but there was certainly effort made to make each individual NPC (barring generic enemies and most ordinary townsfolk) unique with regards to artwork, personality, and voice. As well, it is good to see how the attitudes of NPCs change with the character's actions and events happening within the world.
Then there's the protagonist himself, and I'm not sure why I like him so much. As mentioned, he never states his name (the one time he tries, he's interrupted) and is simply called by a variety of monikers...yes, eventually including "Soulbringer." Nonetheless, he's not only one of the better-voiced characters, but his personality (and even his character art) changes in a fun way throughout the game, from sincere young man to wandering hero, to driven force of nature. And it helps that his last line in the game is one of the most badass statements ever uttered.
You can count the individual pixels in every part, but for a game of its time, Soulbringer's design is actually quite good. The artwork and sprites are well-drawn and unique for each character, and the backgrounds and world are a delight to view. One complaint I've seen others make is the rendering distance of the background being rather small, and beyond that distance being a uniform black, as though Rathenna were, in someone else's words, "the land of eternal night." I don't see the problem, myself (I found the darkness so atmospheric that I didn't even notice anything odd with it), but I figured I'd better bring it up. As well, the camera is very friendly, with panning fully controllable and the protagonist always in the center view (even if the camera has to swing to a bird's-eye vantage), and motion capture was a wonderful addition. Character actions in the game usually feel very fluid and are a joy to look at (especially in combat)...most of the time.
The motion capture that would otherwise complete the trifecta of the game's awesome features (with melee combat and the Seculorum) is also probably its biggest flaw. One gets the feeling they were quite meticulous with the capturing, because character motions are always very deliberate, even to the point of paradoxical clumsiness. Watching the protagonist shift slightly for a better angle on his spell, stop-and-go several times walking around boxes, or shuffle a bit to pick an herb, he avoids clipping errors so fervently he seems to be living a life-size game of Operation.
This room is a nightmare to navigate. Even mayor Elric is trapped.
The stilted motions usually go away when there's space to navigate, but two sorts of instances balance that with sheer frustration. As mentioned, the point-and-click interface can be difficult to use, which is only exacerbated in cramped areas, especially during combat. Also, while the game strangely makes one on several combat work very well (while you only focus on one enemy, your attacks can hit others, and they can hit each other), you will come to dread fighting alongside allies. Even aside from preventing your use of cataclysmic spells (using Magma on a group of vampires would be great...if your Bloodkin allies weren't in the way), working around friendly NPCs is a chore, and accidentally killing them costs experience.
The game is light and ambient in the way of music. Most of it is pretty good,constructed of a variety of strings and woodwinds, with each individual town and certain other areas with their own unique themes. That said, I'd only consider a couple to be standout pieces, one of which is reserved for certain climactic boss fights, another for large-scale battles. The game's miscellaneous sounds are all very good, from footsteps and wind, to sounds of work and combat, and can even be used as navigation tools in some instances...just be sure to keep the second disc in the drive, or they don't show up.
While it does crib together various accents from the British Isles, the Middle East, and Native America, voice acting runs the full spectrum of quality. Most of the performances, including the protagonist, are pretty good. Some performances, like generic townsfolk NPCs, are mediocre. And two in particular are so mind-bendingly awful (an asthmatic cockney-accented sheriff who's been hitting the absinthe, and a vampire lord who's equal parts Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bela Lugosi), they're downright hilarious.
This game is flawed, no doubt about that, the victim of good ideas that suffered in execution. Motion capture flaws and a difficult interface stand in counterpoint to innovative combat and magic systems, and the story is told in a way that takes effort to sort out. And it certainly doesn't help that the game hits its low point surprisingly early; the moors outside Madrigal are the first large map to run around in, but with only vague directions on what to do, a single book of magic (without the navigation spells), no way to interact with hex stones, and very limited character capabilities.
Despite that, the game's flaws simply keep it from being a masterpiece, rather than make it not fun. In fact, my biggest disappointment is that there is no sequel, as not only do I feel the game's strong points are worth repeating and refining, but the plot is resolved...and then gives an epilogue with a clear sequel hook! As such, it's one of my favorites, and I wholeheartedly recommend trying it if you can find it.
Note: This review was entered into the second Review Wars competition...or rather, it wasn't. This review is a vastly-expanded version of my entry, which conformed to a 1500 word limit.
Congratulations again to the winner of that contest, Pigeon_of_Doom, and his review of Jak and Daxter!
Same as last time, really. If I get over my writer's block, I'll have Melty Blood out soon. True Love didn't hold my interest well enough to distract from the game I was going to play after.
Coming Soon, Neutral Drow reviews...Kana: Little Sister.