Soulcaster I & II [REVIEW]
For this review I’ll be covering two separate games, the original Soulcaster, and it’s sequel Soulcaster II. They’ve been longtime favorites of mine on the XBLIG Marketplace, and what with their recent launch on the Windows OS, it’s high time I finally show these games some love. The Soulcaster games are an interesting blend of Action RPG and Strategy mechanics that manage to take the hack n’ slash out of the dungeon crawler, and still maintain a fun, unique take on the genre. I’ll be starting off of course, with the original Soulcaster.
What immediately makes these games stand out, is the interesting gameplay mechanics they employ. On the surface it may resemble an old school Gauntlet game, and to an extent, that’s fairly accurate. Where it differs is in the execution. Instead of choosing a class to play as and going to town on baddies by way of your own combative prowess, you instead take the role of a Soulcaster, who uses something called a soul orb to summon “images” of great warriors. You first encounter these warriors by way of a trio of statues, each made in their likeness. From there, the spirits (or whatever they are) of these warriors grant you the ability to summon images of themselves which will aid you during combat, assisting you to thwart the evil that has cursed their land.
These warriors take the form of three distinct roles, one is a long range archer who deals great damage but dies quickly at close range, one is a tank who can take some pretty serious abuse but doesn’t deal quite so much damage as the others, and the last warrior plays the role of a kind of mortar, lobbing firebombs over walls and allies and reaching enemies that would otherwise be beyond reach, but you’ve got to protect him well because when he dies, he explodes, damaging all surrounding units, both friend and foe alike. Each warrior has their own unique pros and cons, and it’s up to you to determine when and where each one would be most beneficial. Oh, and one last little detail, the images you summon may be fully capable of engaging the enemies in combat, but they possess the same lack of mobility as the statues you encounter at the start of the game. In other words, they stay put, right where you summon them.
Enemies will come at you in droves, and you’ll need to make sure you position your warriors so that they can deal with each wave of monsters appropriately. That means blocking those exits with the tank, setting your mortar up behind that wall, and positioning your archer to hit them as they approach from across the river. Sounds kinda like tower defense right? Well, there’s a key difference. The levels in Soulcaster change dynamically as you progress, so a wall that was once defending you from the outside world may suddenly vanish, and you’ll need to quickly recall your heroes and set up some new formation in order to tackle the next wave of unfortunate creatures who think they stand a chance against you. So while setting them up may feel reminiscent of a tower defense game, the ability to instantly recall your warriors to adapt to the ever changing battlefield does a good job of keeping the experience notably more fast paced than that. You will get seriously swamped by your foes at times, and the levels can get downright chaotic.
Another key aspect in the strategy of this game is that you’re only able to summon a certain number of images at a time. You start the game with three soul orbs, and as such you can summon up to three warrior images at a time. This can be one of each warrior, or three of the same, or whatever you like. The decision is yours, so if you think three tanks is more effective than one tank and two mortars, then you are more than welcome to do that. As the game progresses you will earn money, which can then be used to purchase more soul orbs from the game’s resident shopkeeper, which translates in to being able to summon more images. To be precise, you’ll be able to purchase up to two soul orbs, so by the end of the game you’ll likely be working out formations of four or five warriors. In addition to soul orbs, you’re also able to purchase upgrades for each of the warriors. Each warrior has three different stats you’ll be able to boost, such as range for the mortar, health for the tank, and rate of fire for the archer. Which skills you upgrade and for whom is really dependant on your personal playstyle, and invites just a little more depth in to the experience.
Now that you’ve got the basic gist of it down, let’s move on to the next act, Soulcaster II! The idea of reviewing two games at once may seem a bit odd to some, but in this case I feel it’s fairly appropriate, because in my experience, these are two games best experienced as one. You can partially attribute this to the fact that they’re each fairly short games on their own, but what really seals the deal for me is that, moving from the first Soulcaster on to the second, there’s absolutely no difference in gameplay. So very much of the sequel is the same as the first, it really feels like more of an expansion pack to me. From the identical menus, to the identical character designs, and the identical mechanics, it really is more of the same, though with a noticeable level of polish added the second time around.
Soulcaster II takes everything from the original, and then levels it up. The environments not only look better this time around, but their design is also more thoughtful and intricate. Whereas the original Soulcaster had a fairly slim roster of enemies, Soulcaster II adds in a few bonus types such as a corpse that spastically runs around as it’s dying, then erupts in a massive explosion, or a bat that turns in to four smaller bats upon being killed. There was an acceptable variety of enemies already present in the original game, but I really appreciated the new enemy types and how they helped shake things up a bit. Still, that’s really all that’s different between the two games. The sequel has new music, looks a bit nicer, and features more interesting level design as well as some new enemy types. Everything else is functionally the same.
I know those last two paragraphs might make it sound like I’m bagging on Soulcaster II, but I’d like to clarify that that’s certainly not the case. You have to understand, the first game is a pretty short affair, usually clocking in at about an hour, hour and a half total. It’s a great game to sit down and just enjoy for a single play session, and the gameplay does invite you to play through it multiple times with varying tactics, but even then, it leaves you wanting more from the experience. That’s where the sequel comes in. It still feels like the first game (of which I wanted more of), but it adds on enough extra polish so as not to feel redundant. The level design in Soulcaster II really is a step above that which you find in the original.
Technically speaking, the visuals and audio of the game sound like they came from the 16-bit era, borderline 8-bit. Anybody who ever played the original Gauntlet will already have a pretty good idea of how the game appears visually, though the character and environment designs are head and shoulders above what was featured in that title. The audio is good, with competent sound effects and a great soundtrack to accompany you on your journey. The music is very fantasy-esque, and at times even reminded me of a Legend of Zelda composition.
Controls are incredibly simple and you’ll be summoning images of your warriors in various formations at will in no time. I personally found that playing with a controller is the easiest method of control, but if you’re on a PC and you don’t have access to one, there are also configurations for a mouse and keyboard, or just a keyboard, both of which are more than adequate. Another feature that is exclusive to the newly released PC version of the game is the challenge levels, which offer up unique scenarios unrelated to the games’ campaigns. There are some pretty interesting levels here, and I always enjoy a good challenge, so I really enjoyed the addition of these levels.
There are a lot of interesting, hybrid genres out there, especially when you’re looking at the indie gaming scene, but to my knowledge there’s not really anything out there like the Soulcaster games. As with so many other great indie titles out there, Soulcaster took some of the best parts of a couple preexisting genres, and combined them in to one wholly unique experience. They’re dirt cheap, and they’re a ton of fun, so if you’ve got even a passing interesting in the land of dungeon crawlers, do yourself a favor and check these games out. They’re more than worth the price of admission.
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