The Soul of this Blazing Hot Action-RPG Still Burns
What do you think of when you hear the word, 'Enix'? If you're a video game fan, you probably think of Dragon Quest. That may be Enix's most successful RPG franchise, but they actually released a number of quality action-RPGs for the SNES during the 16-bit era.
When it comes to action-RPGs, Enix is most famous for ActRaiser and Illusion of Gaia, but few people know of the title that was released in-between those two gems. A relatively unknown title released in 1992 known as Soul Blazer actually spawned a three-part franchise that includes the popular action-RPG, Illusion of Gaia.
Unfortunately, this action-RPG blazed by my younger self, but I decided that I would purchase it after playing Terranigma and the god game/action RPG/platformer known as ActRaiser. I hadn't read anything about Soul Blazer before purchasing a used SNES cart, so I was unaware of the quality of the action-RPG that awaited me.
When I finally received Soul Blazer, I was surprised that it felt like a game I'd played before. It wasn't like ActRaiser as you might expect; rather, it felt like the inspiration for a popular PS2 title known as Dark Cloud. If you're not familiar with Dark Cloud, it's important to know that it's a 3D action-RPG that has you traveling through dungeons to restore towns that have vanished from the world. During your spelunking expeditions, you'll rescue people, animals, objects, and buildings, which will restore various towns to their former state.
In Soul Blazer, you do the exact same thing, but in a 2D world that is part of a cartridge that was released nearly nine years earlier. As you can imagine, Soul Blazer must have felt quite fresh in 1992. Sure, it borrows a few concepts from ActRaiser -- there's a duality that includes a "Master" and "Evil One," and you restore towns, but in a much different manner.
This time, you aren't actually the Master; instead, you're his heavenly servant who appears to be human when you descend to Earth. Also, instead of running and jumping in side-scrolling environments and playing a real-time strategy game as a god, you're playing an action-RPG that controls similarly to Zelda.
You view your character from an overhead perspective, and you can travel in four directions, just as you did in the original NES Zelda. Unlike Zelda, your character resembles an actual human, and looks to be the inspiration for the main character of Suikoden II.
This messiah of sorts is not only capable of walking in four directions -- he can also strafe, guard, attack, use items, and cast spells. Most of these maneuvers are easily accomplished, but to cast spells, perform attacks, and use items, you'll have to equip a weapon, suit of armor, magic, and items. You'll often have to switch equipment and items, so fortunately, you can enter the menu at any time (even during battle) without being penalized.
As you travel through dungeons looking for ways to restore towns, it's important to search for various pieces of equipment that are necessary to progress. Certain weapons, armor, items, and spells are essential for passing through different types of terrain, so it's necessary to be thorough during your expeditions.
For example, one dungeon has you traveling beneath the sea, so it's important to find Bubble Armor that enables you to breathe underwater. Other dungeons have seemingly indestructible enemies, so you might need to backtrack to a certain area once you receive a weapon that is capable of filleting the deadliest of foes.
Part of your enjoyment from Soul Blazer will come from equipping various tools that will allow you to travel in the dark, walk on ice, and survive deadly flames, but it's also fun engaging in battle with the game's thick enemy roster.
Unlike later action-RPGs such as Secret of Mana, the enemies in Soul Blazer emerge from portals, and continue to appear until you've defeated an entire set. Once you fell what is usually four to eight beasts, a certain part of a village will be restored. Sometimes, a building will materialize; other times, it might be a village elder, or a simple rope ladder could appear that will allow you to reach a new area.
As you're traveling through dungeons, you'll eventually reach areas that are seemingly impassable, and at that point, you'll want to head back to town and solve various puzzles. Usually, you'll want to talk to new creatures that have appeared, but sometimes you'll need to solve puzzles or use certain items. Even though some villagers will spout uninteresting dialogue, towns are usually fun to explore, as you'll encounter gnomes, mermaids, snail jockeys, and all other sorts of oddities.
Restoring the world is generally an easy endeavor if you're thorough, but occasionally you may get stumped. The only time I had much trouble was when I had to backtrack to obtain a few items necessary for a spell that is required against the boss of the game. Fortunately, Gamefaqs exists to help the modern gamer.
The only other portions of Soul Blazer that might challenge veteran action-RPG fans are the boss fights. Most of Soul Blazer's bosses have an enormous amount of HP and a high attack power, so you'll need to have good equipment and devise clever strategies quickly if you want to survive.
Fortunately, the game is kind to those of us who're unable to beat bosses on our first try. You rarely have to fight any enemies beyond the ones that are normally in front of you (unless you want to stock gems for magic), so grinding before fighting bosses is unnecessary. Also, if you manage to fall in battle, the game will only penalize you by taking your gems -- your experience, items, and tasks you've accomplished still remain. This combined with excellent saving and teleportation options generally make Soul Blazer a pleasant experience, without destroying the challenge presented by some of the bosses.
Besides the excellent (albeit a bit repetitive) gameplay, Soul Blazer also presents an interesting tale and decent music. The story is fairly basic, but it's enough to motivate you to experience the entire game.
The opening scene explains that a once noble king had used a famous scientist to create a machine to access a being of a great evil known as Deathtoll, that would make him the most powerful and wealthy human being. To obtain the wealth he desired, the king had to kidnap most village people and sacrifice them to Deathtoll, which is why you're tasked with restoring the world. There's the occasional plot twist, but most of the characters other than the ones mentioned in the opening scenario are fairly forgettable.
Soul Blazer's music is actually quite similar to the story. There are a few memorable tracks, but you'll forget the majority of the songs after your first play-through. It's a shame that the sound quality isn't as great as ActRaiser's nearly orchestral-quality compositions, but what's there is good enough for an SNES title.
As a whole Soul Blazer may not have what it takes to compete with the SNES' best such as Secret of Mana, but it's still an innovative action-RPG that should be experienced by those with a grey 16-bit console. If you're a fan of ActRaiser and Terranigma, Soul Blazer is definitely worth checking out to experience the changes action RPGs went through between those two titles. If you're someone who doesn't own an SNES, you might want to pray for a Wii release, otherwise there may be no other legal way to experience it.
· An innovative town-restoration action-RPG that likely inspired Dark Cloud
· Dungeons have plenty of fun puzzles to solve
· Grinding is unnecessary
· The game is very forgiving of players who tend to die regularly
· Includes plenty of saving and teleportation options
· The soundtrack has some good tunes, but most are mediocre
· Forgettable characters and story
· Some charge attacks and a robust magic system would've been nice. Certain bosses might be too challenging for some players