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Review by tankMage (April 2016)
Soul Blazer is the first game in Quintet’s eponymously named spiritual trilogy and a good start at that. In order to review a game, I take notes on its strengths and weaknesses and contemplate how they interact. While not the bottom line, these notes generally indicate how I feel about a game (although some games with few problems can be boring, while highly flawed games are sometimes very fun). Soul Blazer really surprised me in that it had so few real flaws. Even the fact that it is in many ways simplistic, belies its profound nature. Soul Blazer is also just plain fun and borrows elements from great games like Legend of Zelda and Gauntlet while adding its own ideas into the mix. Consequently, I really wanted to give this game an “A”, but could not due to a few problems that keep this one from being a true masterpiece.
On a side note, this is actually the title that got me into retro gaming. I remember seeing Soul Blazer sitting on the shelves of my local game rental place, but never tried it for some reason, then I decided to give it a go back in 2012. After thinking the SNES had nothing new to show me for nearly twenty years, I was blown away by this title and it started a new chapter in my gaming life. Out of all the the games I’ve reviewed thus far, Soul Blazer has come the closest to getting an “A” and here’s why….
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy modern games, but Soul Blazer made me realize I was really tired of wandering around barren grey wastelands. Everything in this game pulses with the vibrant and yet subtle color palette of the SNES. The hero is clad in gleaming gold and deep crimson that is contrasted by his shock of blueish black hair. Towns and even dungeons are filled with colors that draw the eye. The visual vibrancy of this title makes it feel that much more alive. There’s also quite a bit of detail in the sprites and tiles that make up the world of Soul Blazer. Add in a slew of enemies, diverse scenery, plus some nice layering effects, and you get a game that has aged with the dignity one would expect of a 16-bit classic. Of course there were some graphical problems with this title; the walking animations for some NPCs and the protagonist were slightly clumsy and some of the monster designs that appear towards the end of the game also came off as lazy; I really felt like Quintet was running out of ideas when I was fighting silver rectangles in the final level, but hey, nothing’s perfect.
Button inputs feel a touch slow to register, which can be a minor liability at times. This issue isn’t game breaking, but gameplay would have felt smoother and more natural had the hero been a bit quicker to respond after you hit the strafe button. There are also way too many ways to bring up the menu, which is perhaps an unusual complaint, but having several buttons that all bring up the equip menu, status window, and info on the area you are in took some getting used to. On the bright side, this system works nicely once you get accustomed to it, since it becomes easy to check your status or equip a weapon without having to navigate submenus.
Aside from the slight input lag, movement, attacking and spell casting are all well done. The hero can strafe (the game calls this crab walking) while brandishing his sword à la Link to the Past, which is a great tactic when dealing with charging enemies. The sword also has an excellent reach and hit arc, which is important in hack and slash games (it’s also a refreshing contrast to games like Light Crusader and Lagoon that had terrible sword fighting mechanics). The item menu was also conveniently laid out and easy to get to, which kept switching items from being a chore.
Music and Sound Effects
From the intro screen to the closing credits, SB’s music is exquisite. Beautifully written neo-classical pieces play in the Master’s domain (where the player can save the game and move from area to area) and in towns. Funky rock tunes that have enough slap bass to make Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers blush play in the game’s various dungeons. This is one of my favorite 16-bit soundtracks and I recommend checking it out even if you don’t wish to play the game; it’s just that good.
Quintet liked to recycle sound effects and you’ll recognize many of Soul Blazer’s bells and whistles from games like Act Raiser and Illusion of Gaia. The reuse of sound effects, which was a bit lazy and an obvious attempt to cut back on costs did little to damage these games, because it made them feel interconnected and acted almost like a trademark for Quintet. Striking enemies usually produced a sound that was vaguely reminiscent of a shovel whacking a waterbed filled with pea soup, which was oddly satisfying. Too bad the annoying metal clanging sound enemies emit when deflecting an attack also made its way into this game. All and all the sound effects are fairly good.
There aren’t a lot of surprises in Soul Blazer, but the premise is entertaining and Quintet did a pretty good job of building certain elements of the plot up, making the story quite memorable. Upon waiting a few seconds after the title screen is displayed, the player is treated to a simple and concise summary of the events that lead up to the game’s opening scene (an excellent theme song plays in the background all the while). A greedy king named Maggrid summoned the lord of evil, Deathtoll, with the help of a brilliant inventor known as Dr. Leo in order to make a pact with the dark god. Maggrid agrees to exchange every living thing in the world for a gold coin each. The story kicks off in the Master’s domain, where he informs your character that the entire world has been gobbled up by evil and it’s your job to fix the mess. The plot may seem kind of cliche, but Soul Blazer does things differently: instead of freeing everyone at the end of the game, the player liberates various beings during the course of the game by defeating Deathtoll’s minions. Freed NPCs will often reward you with clues, humorous dialogue, and snippets of the game’s story. This approach to the manner in which the story is told was novel and meshed with the gameplay excellently to create a real sense of progress as you release entire cities from imprisonment.
Soul Blazer also had a nice variety of settings and all sorts of interesting creatures to talk to, even animals and doors (don’t worry, the character is a divine being who can talk to anything that is or was living). Traveling from a rather mundane town to a village inhabited entirely by animals as well as other exotic places added color to the simple allegoric tale of Soul Blazer and I always wondered what was around the next bend. There were also some rather surprising moments of character development that were rather basic yet profound. Speaking of profound, this game has a few deep moments and players may recognize the various allusions to religion, literature, and philosophy that pop up from time to time.
SB’s story isn’t perfect, however. Some aspects of the story aren’t very clear or seem thrown in on a whim. The progression of the story is very linear and predictable as well, but at least the tidbits of info found in dialogue and some flashbacks give it a sense of depth. Expect the usual “strong silent type” protagonist that doesn’t really talk throughout the game, which I find rather dull, but on the bright side at least he doesn’t whine and complain. The game’s primary villain, Deathtoll, is also very weakly written and lacked personality. Ultimately Deathtoll was just your standard video game bogey man waiting for the hero in the final stage.
Given its minor flaws and simplicity, Soul Blazer’s story manages to present a strong narrative that is also engaging. By the end of the game, I was rather taken with a number of the characters, which is a sign of a decently written script in my opinion.
Gameplay is choppy in some areas, which harmed it’s total score. Since the other issues concerning SB are very minor, this title would have gotten an “A” if not for it’s gameplay issues. First of all, Soul Blazer was fairly well designed overall and I’ll talk about its strengths first. Freeing the NPCs was fun and gave the game a real sense of momentum. Not only that, but the developers used this mechanic rather creatively at times to hide secrets and give the player a real reason to fight the various monsters that inhabit the world. There’s also a good variety of swords and armor; some of which have special properties that allow the player to customize the character in a primitive kind of way. Combat flowed nicely and was smooth like an action RPG should be. Even better, there’s no real need to grind levels as long as you are careful about clearing stages. The magic system was implemented very well thanks to a bit of innovation on Quintet’s part; rather than just firing spells blindly, player must must position them carefully, because they are fired from a ball of light that circles the hero. There were a number of spells, each with their own properties and unique behaviors that made the magic system feel fun and dynamic. Fighting in Soul Blazer had to be approached with strategy and caution, but had a minimal learning curve. A great lineup of monsters that were different for each area kept me on my toes and prevented the game from feeling stale. There were also a few well designed boss fights that were a bit challenging and climactic.
So what’s wrong with Soul Blazer’s gameplay? The primary problem is the game’s difficulty; Soul Blazer is a bit tough at the beginning and very easy in other stages. This can mostly be attributed to the game’s poorly designed bosses. In many of the boss fights I only had to stand in front of my foe and swing away in order to win, while other bosses (especially the next to last boss) were tricky and had learning curves. To top it all off, the final boss was an absolute joke that proved easier than the other bosses in the game. It seems that Quintet was aware of the poor quality of its bosses and decided to compensate by making them immune to magic, which further aggravated the issue by making magic feel less valuable.
There was also a lot of forced backtracking in SB, that really broke the pace of the game at times. I often had to leave dungeons to converse with NPCs and even go back to other areas to find items needed to beat the game. I will say that the backtracking was less of an issue the first time I played, since I was curious to see everything, but it really hurt the t replay value the second time around, even though it’s been nearly four years since I last played.
Aside from it’s lame boss encounters and mandatory (and frequent) backtracking, Soul Blazer is a really nicely designed Japanese version of a hack and slash RPG. The monster spawners reminded me of western games like gauntlet and levels were diverse, which really kept things fresh. Unfortunately, the bosses were just so poorly designed that they took a lot of oomph out of this title.
Soul Blazer is quite the gem and some people may even consider it a minor classic. After playing a lot of mediocre titles in the past month, I found this game to be a breath of fresh air. There’s nothing groundbreaking about this title, but it does try some new things and is very well put together for the most part. SB excels in just about every category, but as I stated, the boss fights and backtracking were what spelled the difference from this game being great to just very good, which still makes it worth playing.
Soul Blazer isn’t an essential Super Nintendo Entertainment System title, but it comes damn close. Anyone looking to dig a bit deeper into the SNES library should check this one out. The only people who shouldn’t play this game are those who can’t stand RPGs or those looking for a game with a lot of replay value.