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’Soulstice’ Review: Channeling the Best and Worst of Classic Hack & Slash

Soulstice - boss fight

Soulstice is finally here to unleash chaos. Is it a new quest worth embarking on?

 

Traditional “hack and slash” (Devil May Cry, Bayonetta series) games haven’t gone anywhere, but they’re starting to feel like relics from another era — the PS2 one — despite most developers’ ability to adapt to the times. If you simply stick to the genre’s core tenets and try to evoke 2000s nostalgia, you might end up with something that kicks ass but doesn’t feel entirely commendable by today’s standards. And that’s kind of the issue with Soulstice.

 

Milan-based developer Reply Game Studios should be proud of most of what they’ve accomplished with this game: the action which lies at the center is solid and intense, the art direction is remarkable, and it’s a moody dark fantasy ride from start to finish. However, a general lack of polish and clearly outdated chunks of game design threatened to sink the ship at several points during my blood-soaked playthrough.

 

Soulstice - fighting off wraiths

 

Soulstice follows sisters Briar and Lute (both voiced by veteran Stefanie Joosten), regular peasants reborn as Chimera, hybrid warriors born from the union of two souls. While Briar has superhuman strength, agility, and resilience, Lute has become a Shade with mystical powers and a connection to the Veil, which separates the world of the living from pure chaos. As Wraiths invade from the other side of the Veil, the starring duo is tasked with finding out what happened in a doomed city and closing the door between worlds for good. However, there’s more than meets the eye…

 

There’s a more than solid effort here to set up a new mythology which justifies all the carnage that ensues and the dark environments players traverse. The first few notes of Soulstice‘s story might be slow and too dire for its own good — the comical charm of its biggest influences is nowhere to be found — but a slow-burn mystery, coupled with a serviceable character drama, starts to unravel near the end of Act 1 and was just enough to keep me interested until the final credits rolled (massive post-credits cutscene warning). I had my doubts about how much I cared about Briar and Lute’s story halfway through, but I’ll admit I’m curious about where the plot might go next — Reply Game Studios’ ambitions are huge.

 

Soulstice - fields gameplay

 

The “meat and potatoes” of Soulstice should be familiar to veterans of the genre: smacking and slashing enemies in style yields better rewards, and each fast-paced encounter can be fatal. There’s a nice assortment of weapons and upgrades which even rivals many classics’ options and keeps things fresh throughout the entire adventure, but perhaps the game’s biggest ace is how Lute’s powers come into play: two energy fields can be invoked to damage two different types of crystals — which can be obstacles and also offer the power needed for upgrades — and certain enemies, and there’s a constant back-and-forth between the two that happens on top of all the action and platforming. To add some extra spice: Lute can’t hold said fields indefinitely, disappearing for a short while if she tries too hard, so timing is of the utmost importance when facing hordes of monstrosities.

 

Much like the story being told, the games’ unique mechanics might feel underwhelming or simply half-baked at first, but things definitely pick up. Mind you, I wish Soulstice had more of a distinctive voice and approach to how it ultimately plays — I can’t shake off the sensation it only holds real value for players who have exhausted the genre’s AAA offerings — but it works. Thankfully, there are (at least) two gameplay-related surprises which count as huge spoilers (IMO) and add a nice touch to the most frenetic battles the game can offer. Another huge plus is how good the boss fights are, from the enemy designs to the overall challenge each one presents. Soulstice already is a tough game on Knight (normal) difficulty, and it offers three more levels to make hardcore players cry.

 

Soulstice - doomed city

 

On the not-so-good side of things: the platforming is janky and feels as bad as it did 20 years ago. And locked camera angles outside of “beautiful vistas moments” were never good (they were used to overcome technical limitations) and should go. Several sequences in Soulstice are hampered or straight up ruined by the choice of using awful camera angles. Furthermore, the lock-on combat camera often misbehaves and gets blocked by walls or big enemy models in the worst possible moments (which is quite often).

 

Running on Unreal Engine 4 and committed to being a current-gen only release, Soulstice looks fine. Not great, but good. I already mentioned the art direction is pretty convincing, and I must give special praise to the environmental artists as well as everyone involved in making the impressive cutscenes (AAA work in both cases). It’s also packing a genuinely nice soundtrack which can do both unnerving majesty and breakneck thrills, and mixes well with the precise and raw sound design and mixing.

 

Soulstice - armored enemy

 

Sadly, performance on Xbox Series S was quite disappointing (uneven 30 FPS with massive drops in some cutscenes) and probably the worst I’ve encountered in a current-gen release, especially when taking into account Soulstice looks like a last-gen title by all accounts. It should be smoother (I hope) on Series X, PS5, and beefy PCs, giving the action the extra edge it needs; it must play much better hitting 60 FPS. Even worse, high-res textures repeatedly failed to load in correctly for the duration of an entire level and the game’s two final cutscenes. There’s also a constant issue of texture streaming (details take two seconds to fully load) when camera angles are swapped — this is a common UE4 woe, but it was overcome by most devs long ago, and shouldn’t even exist on consoles which pack fantastic SSD speeds.

 

All these issues add up and bring down the (supposedly finished) product that’s hitting shelves and digital storefronts. More optimization work was needed, and I suspect the publisher rushed ahead with the release to avoid clashing against Bayonetta 3 and other major action-adventure releases in the coming months. If you also don’t vibe with outdated chunks of game design, Soulstice might not be the hack & slash adventure you were hoping for. Having said that, if all of the negatives sound like something you can endure in 2022, feel free to embark on an intense romp that will surely test your mettle.

 

Soulstice is now available on PC, PS5, and Xbox Series X/S.

 

Thanks to Modus Games (publisher) and Tinsley PR for the review code.

 

 

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