As the roguelite/like parade continues to march onto the Nintendo Switch, there has to come a point where everyone takes a step back and considers what their limit is. Where is the definitive version of the game that we’re all looking for? After all, we can only have so many takes on what makes something fun because it’s procedurally generated, what’s fun because it’s a novel idea and what’s fun not because it’s good or interesting but because it’s hilariously awful to try to conquer it in one sitting. I personally believe that there are titles out there that strive to be Dark Souls and ultimately turn into I Wanna Be the Guy without even realizing how different the two are. That’s, unfortunately, a bit of where I feel Soulblight lost it’s way, and I hope the developer, a one person team named My Next Games, is reading and taking note of what might change to make this good idea a great game.
Firstly, Soulblight is a really bizarre and deeply surreal story that’s set in a broken world called Sanctuary. It reminds me a lot of Bastion, because there’s fragmentation, and clearly something happened before the player took hold that caused the world to be this way. You have to move deeper into the world by progressing through different Taints, which offer you a choice of wounds to inflict upon your soul. Deciding what kind of darkness you’re going to shoulder leads you down the next pathway, where you have to find a Missing Piece that will unlock your way towards the next Taint. Over time, you become so weighted down with Sins that it’s hard to tell how human you are anymore, but not everything is negative: sometimes the stain is a blessing in disguise. No matter what, remember to love the sinner, hate the sin, and curse the world that’s left heroes to need to live the way they do.
As a top down roguelite, Soulblight has a lot of things going on for it. A single stick controls direction and movement, so no twin stick decisions happening here. You don’t really have character classes to worry about, but, as you go further along, you’ll discover different types of weapons, armor and effects that aid you in different ways. If you prefer a quicker approach and more stealthy combat, be sure to add different armor and pointy things that go more in that direction, and be sure to Taint yourself appropriately: you’re not going to be as subtle as you like when you’re clanking around in massive armor and have a drinking problem. Likewise, don’t be afraid to try swinging in the other direction and turn into a battleship of a person, wielding two-handed swords, killing every jug of wine you find and stuffing your pockets with silver bars and coins. I will admit, this is one of the few games, even roguelite games, that really allows a player to start with a blank slate and start role-playing the way the fates decide almost immediately. There were a few times when I felt like I wasn’t totally given a choice: neither Taint seemed to be particularly appealing, but I had to make a call, and that almost puts me even deeper in the RPG mindset. It’s not always about getting what you want, but dealing with what you have to have.
Visually, there were moments of greatness in Soulblight, and moments of utter disappointment. When you’re in places that are well-lit – the spawn hub, the gorgeous cathedral, even some of the larger enemies that feel bioluminescent – the game sings and sparkles. It has enough darkness around it that even peaceful light feels sinister, and generates a sensation of wonderment even if something is actively trying to kill you. On the other hand, however, were the omnipresent shadows and dark corners of the game. It was pitched so dark that I needed to play in an atmosphere where I could block out as much light as possible in order to see the screen better. Playing on the train or any public transportation was a no go: I couldn’t see a damn thing until the screen was tinged with red. At home, under the cover of darkness, connected to the wifi so the game wouldn’t shame me every time it tried to connect to the Internet, that’s the sweet spot. Anything else was off the table.
What absolutely kills me about Soulblight is that I want to like it. The concept and the world are both really interesting, and I love the slowly evolving lore and history about whatever the hell Sanctuary is and why it stands the way it is. The sins are punishing yet fair, and the whole thing does strive for a great balance wherein you have to decide what is going to help you more than it’ll hurt. And the penalties for different actions – getting a concussion, the guilt of killing an innocent, food poisoning – are all clever and actually make sense, contextually, within the game. It took a few tries before I figured out what I needed to do in order to transmute something, but it finally took and I’m mostly pleased with the way that armor and weapons could be improved and reconfigured. Much like Diablo, however, sometimes the greatest joy and excitement for equipment is just what you can find by chance in different chests and containers. The first time I picked up a weapon, equipped it, and found out it was cursed actually made me chuckle. Well done, that’s a great, classic RPG trap, and I fell for it. Of course, I was drunk at the time (in-game) and being cursed and losing my sobriety in a single turn led to a much expected death.
But the devil is in the details for Soulblight, and it’s the execution that ultimately hamstrings this ambitious piece. Firstly, the whole thing runs so clunky and terribly on the Nintendo Switch. There is constant stuttering and lag, from simply trying to walk across the animated bridges (a very cool thought that loses its appeal when it bobbles) to the game taking a deep breath before you go into nearly any room. It’s like there’s this need to try to download fresh content from the Internet to load up the different areas, but I know for a fact that’s not the case because I’m completely offline. Then, when you get up and running, my character never felt like he was moving along at a satisfactory rate. Sometimes I would seem to just trudge along, like the very first Sin I was dealing with was Sloth, but I never really got a chance to figure out why or the bonuses therein. When you’re being chased around different areas by enemies, you want to feel like you’ll have a real chance to outrun them and maybe find victory, but it just comes down to needing to engage with every enemy you see as they spawn. Otherwise the likelihood is that they’ll overrun you from multiple directions. Just take your lumps, no matter how unfair it may seem.
Maybe that’s the rub. Somewhere along the way, it became a hallmark to really enjoy or be good at a game that seemed to be unfair. I mean…why? Sure, when you get things lined up correctly and you’re able to zip along, dealing massive damage, dashing out-of-the-way and having enough bandages or at least needles on hand to patch yourself up, you became a one-man army. Love it. But when you got a bad roll, which happened more often than not, you were mincemeat. The only way to deal with most enemies was in “stealth” mode, which meant holding the R button forever so you’d see their red waves of recognition zones. Then you sneak up behind them with your stubby arms and do a little “broken neck” animation that would at least keep things from getting crazy. But, since My Next Games is very clear about making the game less about XP and more about progressing through items, Taints and transmutations, having, NEEDING to fight so many mobs just feels frustrating. There’s no reward in successfully beating off four enemies at once. You just get the privilege of “not dying.”
What it comes down to is Soulblight has this fantastic concept that absolutely duffs it when it comes time to put it on stage. There’s this heavy difficulty curve, really cool item set, confusing perspective from the Taint you decide, satisfying penalties for decisions (so I’m drunk, starving, have food poisoning and I feel bad about murdering a snail), and then there are just moments of illumination where you say “Alright, I totally get this game.” And then those moments are over, like shooting stars through the night sky. But it still leaves a trail, and a memory, and that’s what I’m taking away from this game. Soulblight has this great idea, and I don’t think this is the last time I’ll pick up this game. At the current time, for the price, it’s a pretty decent deal for what the game has in potential. If you’re looking for a fully polished and finished game, I’m sorry to say that this isn’t it: there’s just a bit missing in terms of cleaning up and making it run better on the Switch. But if you like to support solo devs, I’ve yet to see a more ambitious project make its way to console already.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.