a review of Soul Blazer
a videogame developed by quintet
and published by enix
for the super nintendo entertainment system
text by Andrew Toups
Towards the end of Soul Blazer is a puzzle (and I call it “puzzle” only for lack of a properly denigrating term) in which the hero must flatter the queen in order to be rewarded with a VIP card, which grants access to the next dungeon. She asks you “Do you think I look pretty?”, but of course the question is completely fucking academic: she’s a dozen of pixels tall for Christ’s sake! Are we really to think that she’s any prettier than any of the other palette swapped poofy-gowned females rendered on a scale thirty-two by sixty-four? Are they really prettier than any other of the game’s graphics? What, really, does “pretty” mean in the context of a 16-bit videogame, anyway? But of course we aren’t expected to take this question seriously in any sense of the word — this is, after all, a game which, with as straight of a face you can imagine, declares: “[You] just acquired the soul who can see invisible monsters in model towns”. On the other hand, we’re all a bunch of 12-year-olds who have been sitting in front of a television set for 2 or 3 hours at this point. Who knows what we take seriously.
Aside from that, it’s alright: a sorta-novel spin on the usual one-man-saves-the-universe Dragon Quest trope. Except this time you’re some kind of foppish, short-haired yet headbanded wingless angel-who-wields-a-sword-of-righteousness, sent from the almighty divinity to rescue a world ruined by technology driven awry by human greed. There’s grassy valleys, underwater kingdoms, a forest full of talking animals (right, actually, the animals don’t talk: the player — being this sort of divine vessel — is just able to intuit what they want to say; not that it makes any fuckin’ difference) and even some steampunk type stuff thrown in for a little thematic resonance. And there’s a genius scientist whose talent is exploited by evil for the destruction of mankind, and a vaporous love story involving his daughter… Other highlights include a gnomish race whose civilization is based around their one-year lifespan, a dungeon which consists of a living painting drawn by a mad genius, another dungeon which consists of exploring a miniature town model, complete with lilliputian archers and calvary on the assault, town music which changes to a subtly more upbeat variation upon completing each stage… mostly just nice little touches, and the general warm fuzzy feeling that the people who made the game actually cared. Of course none of these things are quite as nice as they sound when you actually see them… but it keeps you from feeling like the whole deal was a complete waste of time.
But the point of this whole bit is that Soul Blazer is a lot better than it should be, even though us veritable zen masters over here at actionbutton have sufficiently drawn back the false veils of “fun factor”-style reviewing to know that no role-playing game can ever actually be good, let alone one so half-heartedly modeled after Zelda. Soul Blazer, despite being a real “it is what it is” experience at the end of the day, has heart, which on its own wouldn’t really mean much, except that it’s actually really clever about it. See, the real point of the game is to repopulate all these barren, deserted villages across the land by releasing the captured souls of their populations — which is cliche and lame, but bear with us — so you clear out these monster lairs — which are basically just like those things in gauntlet, except less obnoxious — and for each one you release a captive soul. Who these “souls” belong to is refreshingly imaginative — while many are plain old human souls, there are also souls of goats, dolphins, mermaids, gnomes, and even a rocking chair which just happens to be an object of intense sentimental affection to a completely unimportant townsperson. And with each soul you also restore some physical surroundings in their village: usually houses, fences, sidewalks, and other objects which are sentimentally attached to the soul’s owner. And sometimes you might release the wrong soul in the wrong order (ie, you release a soul of one that lives in a house that is really more attached to someone else’s soul, one you haven’t yet rescued), and the soul just appears in the village as a will o the wisp, and if you talk to it, it will usually mention that it’s in this kind of unspeakable agony, or at least that’s how it always seemed to your humble reviewer. And there’s a “dream rod” which lets you enter (and briefly explore) the dreams of a sleeping person, or creature, or thing, that you’ve saved, and these dreams are sometimes wistful, sometimes surreal, sometimes soaking with vague melancholy, and otherwise downright morbid.
And the implications of all of this stuff are so deliciously pantheistic, in this real aw-shucks Walt-Disney kind of psychedelic way, and it’s all just so understated. These (somewhat far reaching and admittedly laughably new age) ideas about souls bonding with inanimate objects, inaminate objects sometimes having souls of their own, and sometimes the souls of those inanimate objects are fixed to other inanimate objects… These ideas are never explicitly spoken of. They’re just there in the background. So while the actual presentation of the game is rather mundane (occasional gorgeous aurora notwithstanding), the real ding-dong weirdo cosmology suggested in the game’s basics mechanics (if we, Those Who Play These Things, can delude ourselves long enough to call the carrot-rope bait-n-switches that structure these kind of things “mechanics”) really keeps the whole thing rather spiked and engaging.
And so it goes that by releasing the bridge guard, you also restore the bridge, and can then cross the river. Naturally the game likes to disguise these little riffs as actual puzzles, but there’s really no thought required aside from “clear out the monster lair”. — of course, the beautiful thing is that most of the souls are entirely unnecessary. But even once you do find the two or three requisite souls per level, you will want to find the remaining ones: not out of some sick desire just to see everything in the game, but because the game does its best to enamor you to those villages you’re repopulating and rebuilding, and so naturally you want to meet every last character and see every last corner of each village… Which, we suppose, is really just a clever way of rationalizing the gamer’s general obsessive-compulsive tendencies into something a little more human and ordinary. A nice gesture, anyway.
Never mind that none of this is “gamey”, really… the whole thing is just another scripted series of switches-to-be-pressed, and the associated fighting is just the usual sort of brain dead sword waggle to which any person who self-identifies as a gamer inevitably and morosely grows accustomed. Although there’s a bit more nuance to it than most other games of its ilk, even those made by Quintet, and honestly I can’t think of any other top down action adventure which actually let you strafe. And there’s this kinda interesting magic system wherein you have to time your attacks with the periodic motion of an orbiting magic-pod-thing… and yeah, the graphic of the sword on the title screen is pretty bitchin’, especially with that pumping, minor-key, so maudlin-it-hurts heroic theme music playing beneath it, and it usually ensures a strong enough “fuck yeah” to restore any momentum lost from the last play. Not that any of this adds up to anything, and the design is ultimately uneven and boring despite itself. But again, never mind, for none of that shit matters.
So what does matter, doc? Not much, I reckon. I guess there’s the good feeling you get towards the end of the game, when you level up so high that hit point life bar just can’t extend any further to the end of the screen, so it just up and changes color — and you realize, you know, that that’s some pretty serious shit, given that only boss monsters have colored life bars, and those monsters are some real, actual fuckers of myth, and they don’t just chickenfuck around like these other brain dead losers you get used to swiping at. Yeah, I’d say that’s a pretty good feeling — a real in-game way to signal that shit, and kudos to the fine turnips at Quintent for realizing, advertently or not, that this is the actual real deal when it comes to “feeling good” from a videogame. This kind of thing has to be signaled from some vestige of interactivity. Aside from that, I dunno, there’s the sorta nice, warmhearted gesture that the player’s otherwise diseased motivation to “view all in-game content” is maybe rooted in an honest-to-god desire to do some good in the world. And that, you know, the central “mechanic” (again, if you can even call it that) is neatly tied in with the meager, unassuming worldview the game wants so humbly to share, which is really all just for getting at a kind of feeling that resembles nostalgia or sentimentality for its own virtual world; which itself is, I guess, just lovingly crafted enough to warrant something resembling nostalgia or sentimentality. And we may as well face the reality of the situation with regards to Anything Resembling Feeling At All In Videogames: we have to take what we can get.