You are the Soulcaster. A famed and generic wizard, tasked with saving the generic kingdom from yet another generic undead uprising. At your disposal are two vitally important powers: First, the ability to summon images of three generically legendary (and handily colour-coded) heroes to fight on your behalf, and secondly (and far more importantly) the ability to walk. For you see, the armies of the walking dead tend to – by definition – walk around. And these legendary heroes? They don’t. So it’s up to you to get your pointy hat in gear and do all the legwork in this quest, even if you aren’t going to raise a finger to fight the monsters directly.
I’ll admit that I never played the original Soulcaster, but I’ve been assured that the sequel is more of an iterative update than anything, so I’m all good when it comes to reviewing this. Soulcaster 2 has also been one of the more eagerly anticipated releases amongst the Winter Uprising XBL Indie crowd, and having sunk a good few hours into it, it’s easy to see why.
The first thing that stands out is the graphical style – it’s simple, retro and just plain works. Developer MagicalTimeBean have gone out of their way to make this feel like a long-lost NES game, right down to the relatively simple controls (although it does use a button layout more suited to the SNES) and even a password-save system popping up to inject some added nostalgia to the mix, although there’s an option to use a modern save/load system if you don’t feel like writing down codes. Still, the game lets you share these level-codes with friends, which is just cute.
Visually, the whole thing is packed full of brightly coloured, simple and clear tilesets that wouldn’t be out of place at all in an early 16-bit game, or late 8-bit release. The sprites themselves are solid too, but I did find myself wishing that walk-cycles were more than a couple of frames. As it stands, the animation is strongly reminiscent of early Dragon Quest-esque RPGs, but it could have stood to be a little more detailed. That’s just minor griping, though. Outside of the graphics, the music stands out. Way out. It’s not nearly as retro as the rest of the aesthetic, but it is excellent all-round. High-quality audio and catchy melodies reminiscent equally of Amiga SID tracker tunes and classic NES titles. The developers seem to be aware of how good the music is, too, as the combined Soulcaster 1 + 2 soundtrack is on sale for $5. You can listen to a couple of tracks on the official site, too.
Gameplay-wise, you directly control the wizard with the left analogue stick or D-pad, and can move only slowly, and only in the four cardinal directions. On the right side of the pad, the four face-buttons summon the blue Fighter (X), the green Archer (A) and the red Alchemist/Grenadier (B), and the Y button un-summons heroes back to your available stock (up to 3 by default, upgradeable to 5 later) for quick redeployment. As mentioned earlier, the heroes are immobile, so you’ve got to maneuver quickly into whatever position they’ll work best from. You can summon multiple copies of each character, so long as you have any summon points spare. You can also use Scrolls of Ruin (magical smart bombs) by pressing RT if things get too hairy.
The three characters are simple but varied archetypes, each requiring distinct tactics to use effectively. The Warrior has the most health, ties up a single target in melee range and can block half the incoming damage from whatever enemy he is directly facing. The Archer can do a lot of damage but requires a direct, unobstructed line-of-sight to the target (so no standing just behind the warrior), and goes down very quickly to direct damage. The Alchemist can attack indirectly with splash-damage grenades, but can only hit enemies over solid ground and doesn’t lead his targets at all, and has the particular weakness of exploding on death, damaging anything nearby, including other heroes. If a hero dies, then there’s a penalty of a few seconds before that summon slot can be re-used, so if you think someone is about to go down, it’s usually wiser to un-summon than let them catch one more shot. Other than that, your heroes are expendable – line them up and let them get knocked down all you want.
Beyond a couple of special enemies which are immune to certain heroes, and a couple of creative gimmick levels, the gameplay is similarly pure in its design. It’s an interesting hybrid of old and new, owing just as much to modern Tower Defense titles as it does to Bomberman, or perhaps even the original Zelda. Your goal is simple – progress forward through a series of levels, placing heroes to defeat monsters along the way, hoard loot, buy upgrades at the regular item-stores and repeat until the end credits roll. Most levels require you to clear out most of the enemies before the exit reveals itself, so you’ll quickly fall into the habit of identifying strong positions the moment you enter a new stage. Overall, the game is a bit over two hours long, but there’s an optional Hard mode which should give it a bit of replay value. The $3 price-tag is perfectly acceptable for the amount of content on show here.
This is a simple, clever game. It’s tight and focused, giving you all your abilities within the first few minutes, and then just ramping up the complexity and difficulty from there, forcing you to master the use of the three heroes. Each level poses a new series of tactical challenges, ranging from fighting swarms of bats over water, to defending a spiral-shaped garden from waves of swarming foes, or even navigating a maze, looking for a defensible position while deliberately avoiding attacking enemies. You’re always under pressure, but the game is relatively generous with health-potions (which double as both healing and extra lives), so there were few instances where I found myself backed into a corner. The only case where I did was when I tried to outsmart one of the later levels, and got trapped on an island with with no bridges off, forcing me to restart the level. Aside from what I assume was a one-off level design flub, it’s well balanced, consistently paced action, with very little downtime between encounters.
If there’s one aspect to potentially complain about, it’s the near-complete lack of story, but it probably isn’t too big a negative in this context. You start the game launching straight into the action, and aside from the occasional few sentences of advice from your summoned heroes, there’s not much to it beyond ‘keep going, kill undead things, save day’. And that’s fine – this is a fast-paced, arcade-style game, and nothing bogs that down. It’s a self-conscious throwback to the days when the most plot you got out of many games was a page or two in the manual, and it captures the feel well.
Soulcaster 2 is available from Xbox Live Indie Games for $3/240 MS Points, and is something I wholeheartedly recommend to all. It’s simple, it’s focused, it’s compelling and it’s just plain fun. The simple retro aesthetic works well, and the soundtrack is full of energy and toe-tapping beats. Grab it.