Game Review – Soul Reaper

IT’S PRETTY EFFECTIVE! SOUL REAPER’S GRINDING ADVENTURE DOESN’T OVERBURDEN

Game: Soul Reaper
Developer: Power Level Studios
Publisher: Power Level Studios
Release: 5 February 2020
Reviewed: PC

Review copy provided.

ALL GAMES have the capacity to be addictive, but some genres have a more dominant grip by default.

The role-playing genre is notorious for its addictive potential. Particularly the massively-multiplayer online variety. Lord knows how many precious, real-world months some folks have wiled away in RunescapeLOTRO or ESO. Should you happen to enjoy such time-wasting, I come bearing good news. Soul Reaper, an early access game by Canadian team Power Level Studios, has inherited some great RPG genes and is poised to suck up your free hours quite mercilesslydespite lacking the massively multiplayer element. It’s still wading through Steam’s early access program, which, of course, entitles it to an extra level of leniency should any bugs materialiseand materialise they have. Power Level has done its darnedest to spray copious amounts of pest control, and those efforts have certainly helped to mould Soul Reaper into a more stable form.

But despite these preliminary flaws, Power Level earns much kudos for taking its inspirations—CastlevaniaPokémon and Diabloand utilising them to create a compelling, original debut title.

MY NOT-SO-STRANGE ADDICTION

While Soul Reaper features a wonderful script and some incredible creativity in monster nomenclature, its main draw is the progress bar. That’s what hooks you.

You’ll begin a weakling. Almost statless. That’s standard procedure in RPG-land, of course. What would the destination be without the journey? Soul Reaper’s protagonist, the eponymous ‘Soul Reaper’, looks like Skeletor’s unborn offspring: a bony midget with an oversized scythe and an acerbic sense of humor. You love to see it. After his unceremonious demise at the hands of his archenemy ‘The Herald’, he winds up in a state of limbo where a cast of crazy (albeit very helpful) NPCs familiarise you with controls, navigation, objectives, and so on. Turns out the Reaper’s been split into seven (it’s always seven, eh, Voldemort?) variants, each one a fragment that alters the type of elemental damage dealt. The party to reunite all reapers gets started in Volcanheim, Soul Reaper’s first explorable world. This is where you’ll quickly become acquainted with the level-up loop. It’s a simple progression system that advances whenever you consume more ‘souls’, the game’s (highly-flexible) main ‘currency’, if you will, but it’s not as specific as Castlevania. These souls are far more nondescript and are ultimately just XP fuel. When you fill out the bar, you’ll be rewarded with stats to spend on the usual suspects: strength, agility, intelligence, and vitality. That sounds incredibly innocent. It’s not.

Like Pokémon before it, Soul Reaper bewitches you with a false sense of achievement. When confronted by increasingly powerful monster broods, your only option to defeat them is to get more powerful. In this context, that means being able to attack faster (agility), deal more damage (strength), boost your elemental damage (intelligence), and increase health to last longer in battle (vitality). So there’s suddenly a magnetic, very enjoyable pull that’s driving you to keep grinding away.

Like Pokémon before it, Soul Reaper bewitches you with a false sense of achievement.

Naturally, elevating your stats alone isn’t enough to conquer tougher foes. That’s where the weapons come in. A wise man once told me it was dangerous to go alone, and I hate to admit it, but he was right. You can’t buy weapons from merchants ala Diablo, but they do randomly drop post-successful enemy encounters, pop out of treasure chests, or sometimes, automatically appear in your inventory after you’ve completed a ‘feat’. Feats are just one of the many, many ways Soul Reaper keeps you tethered to the screen. They track how many souls you’ve reaped, how many treasure chests you’ve opened, and so on. So if you have compulsive tendencies, beware. Although weapons are tiered, you can absolutely use a weapon that’s levelled higher than the Soul Reaper. Normally, that wouldn’t be possible, because games like to make players wait until the legal age, but, bless their heart, Power Level disagrees. This surprised me at first. Why would a developer remove the barricade preventing a player from earning a weapon? Wouldn’t that negatively impact the player’s motivation to keep grinding?

No. Not in Soul Reaper, at least. Power Level has ensured there are many ‘backup’ systems that the general difficulty level is never too easy, and the player has something to work towards. The pure randomisation of finding legendary items in treasure chests, for instance. Or completing rare ‘sets’ of arsenal that work in tandem to give the reaper battle bonuses. You can also infuse the sockets of your weapons and armory with monster souls (gems are so yesterday) to confer various perks. But there’s more. Soul Reaper is a never ending tango between customisation and strategisation. Strategy comes into play when you’re designing your squad loadout, and, if you like quietly plotting behind the scenes like me, you’ll probably find it’s the best part of gameplay.

Soul Reaper is a never ending tango between customisation and strategisation.

Picking monsters that inflict maximum damage is obvious. But the way you enhance them matters. Supercharging your team with items that bestow extra strength or higher chance of dodge can be the difference between life or death —an important theme, as it turns out. You see, each time the Soul Reaper perishes, you’ll lose one of the fragments you worked so hard to earn. So it’s quite fortunate (and rather prescient) that Power Level has installed convenient save points right before boss battles. Every monster can equip the same armour, headgear and weaponry the reaper does, so there’s a nice overlap. I found, early on, that going hard on agility stats helped me travel quite far, but in largely neglecting strength, I soon came face to face with overpowered beasts that squashed me like a bug. Ouch. Bosses, for instance, are considerably more beefed up compared with the general goons running about the vault, but even lesser henchmen will plague you if you don’t assign stats with caution. Bosses act as narrative roadblocks and, sadly, there’s no alternative mini quests other than feats, which become very grindy after some time. This is one suggestion I would put forth—capture player interest between boss battles with tasks that don’t overuse the central mechanic of soul reaping. In a patch, Power Level introduced the ability to change items into souls, and vice versa. That was a genius move, but there’s still space in the fabric. Melting igloos in Polarus added some excitement without requiring soul consumption. What about if players could encounter bosses after having defeated them? Where’s Percie’s husband? (No, really, I want to know)

GLITCHES: GOING, GOING, GONE!

Any game in early access deserves leniency should glitches sprout. It is a ‘work in progress’, after all, and Power Level has been extremely responsive to player feedback, eradicating the most problematic bugs and then some with detailed patch logs. That’s always a great sign. Soul Reaper has been significantly improved since build 0.1.1, which was plagued by a ‘battle pause’ issue that forced the player to ‘self-sacrifice’ (and thereby lose a soul fragment) in order to resume play. It was a soft-lock that seriously hindered long-term exploration due to the location reset and having to defeat soul reaper clones all over again. Build 0.1.2 weeded it out entirely and the resulting mental freedom to safely explore is simply the best.

One thing that hadn’t been removed for a considerable amount of time was the ability to go out of bounds. Although Volcaheim and Polarus always possessed tightly sealed borders on their archipelagoes, Elysium was once a much looser fitting shirt. In other words, it was very easy to break free from or clip the boundaries imposed by trees, cliffs, rocks — you name it. In one way, this was a bad thing since it invalidated the need for any sort of hurdle, and completely dissolved the motivation to acquire the boss abilities which would normally let the player overcome them.

One of my personal favorite discoveries was the final boss access glitch. This boundary break could be performed at any time, including in a new save file. It was possible due to certain areas around The Void not being properly blocked so the player could clip through ‘weak spots’. And although Power Level had done a solid job plugging in the gaps around 95 percent of the final boss stairwell, there was an Achilles heel on the left hand side that remained wide open for exploiting. Please see below.

Old save file:

New save file:

Another enjoyable glitch was the ‘speed demon’ effect, which went into effect when you lost the final boss battle or self-sacrificed. The game reloaded the menu as per usual, but when you accessed your save file, everything was ten times faster. This super-speed allowed the Soul Reaper to force his way through barriers with much greater ease and navigate out of bounds regions all over Volcanheim, Elysium and Polarus.

All these glitches—final boss glitch, super speed glitch—have since been patched, and given the effects they had on player motivation, rightfully so. There are still a few errors that strike here and there; the Cardinorc enemy occasionally blowing you into a bit of terrain you can’t escape from, and permeable barriers that let you enter the lava in Volcanheim are two I’ve personally experienced.

REPTILE/REAPER ROMANCE?

It’s evident the writing team at Power Level had a lot of fun with Soul Reaper’s script. The unabashedly wacky humour that shifts depending on which soul fragment is equipped is a lovely way to encourage multiple replays, but it also succeeds in setting Soul Reaper apart from a large swathe of why-so-serious conventional RPGs. Here’s a small taste of what to expect.

Conversations like these just left me longing for additional interactions with bosses. I found myself unconsciously looking forward to each battle, not only for the satisfaction of defeating the next bad guy in line, but for the amusing things they might say. That’s rare. It’s clear all of Soul Reaper’s enemies have been crafted with a lot of passion. The artistic variation that’s present suggests this developer truly cares about keeping players intrigued; Rather than rehash familiar designs, or reuse attack styles, Power Level gives us a vampire prince, fournicorns, and a boxing reptile that riffs off Rocky, each of them with unique animations. That alone deserves a serious amount of respect. And it would be remiss not to mention the music, which ranges from a darkly soft ambient style in the Void, to a light, relaxing choral number in Elysium that is to my ears reminiscent of The Sims 4 theme. The compositions suit the environments they’ve been paired with well, and the only change I would suggest is not restarting the tracks from the beginning whenever a player finishes battle—this would allow a much smoother auditory transition.

Soul Reaper quickly hooks player attention with an effectively deployed progression system, and does a fine job in offering multiple avenues to keep engagement levels high. While enjoyable for the most part, its grindy nature can render it tiresome, and the current lack of proper side quests beyond feats leaves something to be desired. Still, it’s a good debut, and a fresh ambassador for the RPG genre that leaves a lasting impression by defying convention.

THE PROS:                                                                                   

  • Addictive
  • Fantastic character art
  • Extremely creative nomenclature
  • Good music

THE CONS:

  • Grind can become tedious
  • Glitchy
  • Lack of proper side quests

Soul Reaper is out now for PC.

GAMEPLAY: ★★★☆☆

GRAPHICS: ★★★☆☆

SOUND: ★★★☆☆

REPLAYABILITY:★★★☆☆


OVERALL: ★★★☆☆

64/100

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