A grotesque living tome of magic is your guide and hub to the grim setting of Soul Sacrifice. All he tells you is the world is on its last legs, most of humanity has perished and those still alive are imprisoned, awaiting their demise at the hands of the evil sorcerer Magusar. As one of these prisoners you're offered a way to change your fate by reading the talkative journal, reliving the author's past and learning how to defeat your captor.
Quests take place in enclosed arenas, and with no ability to explore the world beyond these confines, your only interaction with it is killing monsters and saving or sacrificing their souls. Saving souls boosts your defense and replenishes some health, while sacrificing them boosts attack power and recharges your items, known as offerings.
Up to six offerings can be equipped, which take the form of weapons, support items and other powers such as summons or the ability to temporarily transform your character. The catch, in line with the game's sacrificial theme, is that each offering can only be used a limited number of times, though magical objects hidden around the levels can replenish offerings, and in between missions their powers are fully recharged. You still need to be careful though, as if you overuse an offering during a quest it will break completely and can only be fixed by spending a bizarre currency called Lacrima.
For a game based around combat, there's little depth to the fight mechanics. Only one offering can be summoned at a time, so combos can’t be created by quickly switching between them, and once a weapon is equipped it’s just a case of mashing one button to use it. Counters are done by striking a blow just before your enemy, but with no block button and one evade move at your disposal, there's little in the way of timing or skill. Weapons are aligned to certain elements and will do more damage to monsters vulnerable to them, so working out the right one to use is important. But with some battles lasting up to 45-minutes, the cycle of evading, attacking, retreating and micro-managing your offerings isn't made much more exciting by the five-way (volt, stone, ice, fire, poison) rock-paper-scissors approach to elemental attacks.
The ability to save or sacrifice bosses, allies and even yourself helps rescue Soul Sacrifice from mediocrity. The bosses, known as Archfiends, are sorcerers gone mad with power, consumed by the souls of those they've sacrificed, and once defeated are revealed to be broken humans begging to be spared. You'll get a large boost to your attack power if you sacrifice them, but opt to save them and they'll join your party as AI allies in side-quests.
If an ally that’s joined your crew dies, they can be sacrificed, prompting a spell that rains down barbed roots and impales all enemies in sight. If saved, you give up some health to get them back in the fray. After being sacrificed they can no longer accompany you on missions unless you spend Lacrima to re-write the journal and erase their sacrifice from history.
Similarly, when you die you can ask to be saved or sacrificed with the same spell triggered should you go for the latter, though interestingly fellow sorcerers don’t always respect your wishes. But it's a gamble whether to use this or not. If the attack doesn't finish off the remaining monsters, you're reduced to a phantom state, floating round the arena. You can tap allies to boost their attack power or enemies to lower their defense levels, but it seems to have no discernible effect. This would be forgivable if your remaining allies were any good, but they seem happy running round doing nothing. On one occasion after being sacrificed, the Archfiend we were battling had a tiny bit of health left, so we decided to wait it out. It took minutes before our bumbling buddy even struck one blow, followed by another couple waiting for them to finish the job.