If you’ve ever pulled a devil trigger or set your clock to witch time, Soulstice wants to take up arms to battle for your heart. And though its developer, Reply Game Studios, follows the recipe as best it can, Soulstice is a great reminder that not all character-action hack-and-slashers are created equal. Combat is the shining point, but it’s plagued with a terrible camera, some buggy performance, and a steep learning curve. And while monsters are inspired and test your reflexes and wit, but the world they occupy is bland and lifeless, even more so than a blasted-out city in the aftermath of a small apocalypse should be.
The story of betrayal and intrigue within a holy order of knights is full of pretty predictable twists and turns, cackling bad guys, and shady anti-heroes that are all pretty mediocre overall. It’s the touching relationship between Briar and Lute, sisters whose bodies and souls have been magically joined together, that is the strongest bit of storytelling throughout this 20-hour journey. This bizarre process creates super soldiers called Chimera that are tailor-made to fight the monstrosities from another dimension pouring into this reality. Briar and Lute aren’t the only Chimera in the world, and the comparison between them and the other clandestine duos makes them stand out, as they seem to be the only body and soul duo that actually like each other. But by the time you’re sent on your mission – to investigate a supernatural storm corrupting all life it spreads across turning them into heinous beasts – you're the only one around to get the job done.
The city of Illdan, under attack by otherworldly forces, is a bland place populated with eccentric monsters. Your journey to the ominous storm in the center of the fortified city takes you from the sprawling slums, into the castle walls, through the dank sewers, and into the reality-bent heart of the city itself. Yet the many of these locations are dull and unappealing, and with the exception the last few locations in the end game, barely look any different than one another. If I saw screenshots from each of those missions, I’d have a hard time telling the difference between them as they all feature the same dingy stone walls, dilapidated gates, and firey ramparts. Contrast that with the exceptional monsters populating the place, which are hit after hit of truly twisted and creative creature design worthy of being mentioned alongside the genre’s finest, and the environmental design seems especially lackluster.
These freaks take all manner of shape and size, with the most eccentric having glowing prisms where their heads should be, or literally being a giant head that opens up to reveal a pulsating colossus within like the world’s most grotesque Matryoshka doll. Bosses have a wide range of attacks and patterns that can be easy to identify but hard to master, on top of being visually expressive and cool. Even Briar and Lute, who constantly are attempting to avoid succumbing to corruption and transforming into monsters themselves, look super cool when they occasionally lose that battle.
Actually navigating through these stages is a chore as well. Most involve some form of breaking color-coded crystals to progress, which is just another face on the old-school keycard hunt. It evolves to sending you to backtrack through stages to break smaller nodes in order for their connected walls to shatter, and eventually puts time limits on how many you need to break in succession. I hated every single repetitive second of these sections between fights – and there were a lot of them. And while these linear stages hide collectibles, upgrade points in small detours and unchallenging platforming segments off the beaten path, I wasn’t very motivated to explore these largely underwhelming locations, especially if breaking even more crystals could potentially be involved.
Sprinkled throughout Soulstice’s stages are the far more compelling combat encounters. If you’ve played any character-action game since the original Devil May Cry, you’ll immediately see where this one draws its inspiration from. Your big sword is the bread and butter of Briar’s attacks, though as you progress you’ll gain access to a wide array of weapons like a bow, a bladed whip, or my favorite, tonfas that double as guns. Each weapon has a particular strength; your fist is great for busting armor, and your speedy katar blades overwhelm enemies that need extra time to summon minions. There is some overlap, but for the most part each of the seven weapons felt like it had a specific set of enemies it was tailor-made for, and all are useful. Putting upgrade points into new combos and potency lets you favor one over the others, and if you do you can really drill down and make it powerful.
While Briar does the beating, her ghostly sister Lute acts largely passively to protect her and create openings for attacks. She is a one-stop shop for defensive options, deflecting projectiles, repelling close strikes, and slowing and binding attempted assailants all happens with a press of a button. The various defenses have limits, which can be upgraded, but when things get very busy on screen – and they often do – it's nearly impossible to know how many enemies are frozen on the field or how many times you've deflected an attack recently. This means sometimes, inexplicably, an attack will sneak through your defenses unmarked, and if you didn’t avoid it the old fashioned way you can say goodbye to your combo meter. This is an understandable drawback to the system in place, but placing all your faith on having enough uses of a technique that isn't tracked legibly anywhere always feels bad when you inevitably fail.
Lute is also responsible for managing auras, which affect what you can interact with. While exploring, it means tediously switching back and forth between colors for platforming or crystal cracking purposes. In combat, you can do damage to blue or red monsters, respectively. Enemy groups that mix in both colors, as well as armored, flying, or swarmed creatures are some of the most challenging tests of your reflexes and awareness you'll have in a game like this. On Knight difficulty (the third of five and the highest you can go on the initial playthrough) I saw the “game over” screen dozens of times as I failed to juggle all of the balls required to keep a battle in your favor, let alone do so stylishly. It’s a fun and rewarding challenge most of the time, though some fights felt straight up unfair, as one missed cue could start an avalanche of damage that’s hard to recover from.
When Briar and Lute get access to some flashy moves and a huge power spike if you can excel in combat, but the pressure to be perfect in order to get there felt counterintuitive. When firing on all cylinders, countering enemies, pulling together combos and, importantly, not getting hit, a Unity meter rises. When you hit the threshold, some attack strings end with big finishers that do a ton of damage and you can access a form that super powers all of Briar’s attacks for a limited time. These are great features, but the fact that they’re stuck behind a system that requires you to already be doing well enough that you don’t really need help means you’ll never get an opportunity to use these boons to swing a battle in your favor if you're put on the back foot. This kind of regressive system doesn’t exist in other popular games like the old God of Wars or DmC, which allow you to build up a “super” meter over time and across many battles that can be triggered at will when ready; having them be dependent on building a combo in one specific fight makes them too unreliable to work them into a game plan.
The biggest challenge in any given fight, though, is the camera. It defaults to an off-center position, trying to keep as much of the action in frame as possible, but struggles when you edge up against walls or attempt to move it around manually. Locking on to an enemy might change the perspective completely, and the camera will sometimes end up floating behind something in foreground and blocking the action, or zooming way in if you get cornered, leaving only bits of the enemy in the frame to pummel you off screen. It’s not the only issue – occasionally moves that automatically home in on enemies just miss inexplicably – but it's the one I dealt with in some form in almost every fight.