This is a hard review for me to write, and it’s all Penny Arcade’s fault. By the time I had played the game to the point where I was comfortable reviewing it (beating it and then some), I had time to either pull my notes together to and sit down to write or prepare for PAX. Thinking (because I’m a fool) I’d have plenty of time to write while in Boston, I put it off.
Now I’m back and decompressed, but more than a week away from the last time I summoned souls to save myself from a bat, so we’ll see what emotions I can pull out of these notes. Because Soulcaster is a love letter to the games of my youth, and yet the actual game is nothing like what I remember. The retro graphics disguise a deeper complexity.
You control a wizard that stumbles on the souls of the three immortal spirit guardians of Averica. First you meet Shaeda, the archer. His arrows are strong, but his body is weak. Before long you stumble across Aeox, the knight. He’s the bruiser with a tough hide and a sharp stick. Finally you obtain Bloodfire. He throws explosive potions — even over walls, but he’s even weaker than Shaeda, and explodes when he dies.
The game works like this. When you meet each guardian, they give you a soul. You can then buy two more at the shop, giving you five souls to work with. You can use the souls however you like, summoning the three heroes in any combination.
As you move through Averica, looking for a chalice to cure the land’s ills, the dead come after you. They spawn when you cross certain tiles, and you have to summon your souls to protect you. If the souls die, they take a few seconds to become unsummoned and usable again. A few seconds you usually don’t have.
It plays a bit like a mobile tower defense game. Your wizard can summon souls anywhere he can stand, though he can’t pass through them (so don’t trap yourself). He can also unsummon the souls. The most basic strategy is to put an Aeox or two between you and the monsters, then place Shaedas or Bloodfires in sniping or bombing positions.
Earlier stages give you plenty of gaps in walls to plug with Aeox and impassable rivers for Shaeda to snipe over. Later in the game, the environments are mostly open, and you have to make your own cover. The open fields for you to be constantly on the move, rapidly summoning and unsummoning souls. If you get in a jam, there are scrolls the wizard can use to damage everything nearby, but you can only carry three and they don’t kill everything outright.
That’s really all there is to the gameplay. But there are a dozen or so monsters, each with different attributes. Some are fast and fragile, others slow and powerful. They come at you in combinations, so you have to prioritize your targets. You have to decide when to engage and when to retreat.
It’s thrilling and hard, but totally worth it.
Soulcaster hearkens back to an older generation, right down to the 4:3 aspect ration, the 16-bit graphics and the passwords. Keep a pencil and pad nearby, because if you want to stop playing you’ll have to write down 24 characters. Given the self-imposed limitations, the graphics look great, and they suit the simple grid-based gameplay.
Going into the store starts off some heavy rocking. I don’t know why the developer went in that direction, but I’m not complaining.
The story really only serves to introduce the game’s central mechanic. But it does have some charm and some amusing moments. There isn’t much text, but what is there is worth reading.
I’m a pretty big fan of the tower defense genre, and Soulcaster has probably supplanted Defense Grid to take the No. 2 spot in my heart. Aside from the passwords, which are a pain to enter, I can’t think of anything bad to say about this game.
Go buy it, it’s worth the 240 points.
[DIYgamer.com was provided with a copy of this game for review purposes. This in no way affected the outcome of the review. More information can be found at the Xbox Live Marketplace]