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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (478)

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Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin 3.5/5
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Override: Mech City Bra... 3/5
SolSeraph 3/5

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SolSeraph   PC (Steam) 

ActLowerer    3/5 stars

In 2019, Sega surprised us all with the low-key release of a spiritual successor to one of the SNES’s launch titles, the Quintet-developed, Enix-published “ActRaiser.” This new game, developed by a Chilean work-for-hire studio called ACE Team could not be a true sequel, as Square-Enix still owns the original IP, and shortly after the release of the game in question, “SolSeraph,” the conjoined corporation released a remake of the game that started it all. It was shocking to me that, over the course of nearly 30 years, no other developer or publisher tried to do what “ActRaiser” did, combining the disparate genres of City Sim and 2D Platformer into a single game, replete with intriguing theological lore. Of course, after playing “SolSeraph,” it seems that such a unique fusion of genres never happened again because it’s very hard to do well.

“SolSeraph” is built in the Unreal Engine. While Epic’s flagship engine may get better and better with each iteration, the results of using it aren’t guaranteed, requiring skill to get the most out of it. “SolSeraph” looks fairly bland and lifeless, with generic enemy designs, notwithstanding the handful of boss monsters, who are all rather unique, but don’t really mesh together thematically with each other or the game world. In general, the entire game looks less like an Unreal Engine project and more like a Unity Engine project full of generic, canned assets.

Outside of the 3D polygonal portions of the game, the NPCs who populate the world are represented solely by static 2D character portraits. These characters are universally caricatures of various People of Color, with an Aborigine and Asian woman nonsensically slapped together in one region, an Indian and an African tribesman in another, and no Caucasian people anywhere to be seen – not even in the cold, snowy region where one would expect to see pasty skin and bushy beards.

Audio is almost entirely bland and lifeless. The sole exception is the main title theme, which was composed by the original “ActRaiser” composer, Yuzo Koshiro. The rest of the soundtrack is repetitive and droning, while the dialog, outside of the narrated intro and extro that bookend the game, is unvoiced.

Technically, “SolSeraph” is alright. The game does not properly detect screen resolution, so I had to monkey with it a bit. Fortunately, it does support Xinput out of the box and can switch seamlessly between that and typing. Otherwise, it’s a stable game that never crashed on me; nor did I encounter any game-breaking glitches.

Where “ActRaiser” gave us an interesting outsider’s take on Christian dualism, “SolSeraph” doesn’t really cleave closely to any real-world religion or mythology. There’s a bit of recognizable Greek mythology that was clearly grabbed from Hesiod’s “Theogony,” but it’s generally so messed up and inaccurate that saying the game is ‘based on Greek mythology’ is a complete misnomer.

Our hero is Helios, the God of the Sun and the titular Solar Seraph, in a role that Helios never actually played in Greek myth. Instead of being arrayed against the incarnation of ultimate evil, Helios must instead protect the last dregs of humanity from the wanton destruction being wreaked by a number of other Younger Gods, none of whom have actual names – just titles.

Thus Helios travels from region-to-region, visiting thematically familiar locales that any “ActRaiser” fan would recognize: The Plains, the Desert, the Tropical Island, the Volcano, and the Frozen Wastes. Upon clearing away enough monstrous rabble, a handful of people setup a campfire in each region, and it’s up to Helios to indirectly guide them in protecting their fledgling settlements, clearing away the dark clouds of chaos that protect monster lairs, then ultimately sealing these lairs in order to gain access to the region’s Younger God and give them a beating.

While helping the people build their city, Helios eavesdrops on their campfire conversations, allowing us to get to know them a bit. However, outside of the fact that they are all People of Color, they are all incredibly boring. None of their slice-of-life vignettes left any impression, and their interactions with Helios are quite limited.

Like the original “ActRaiser” and unlike “ActRaiser Renaissance,” “SolSeraph” is a short and concise game with no real optional content or in-depth systems. Thus, it’s possible to complete it in a blind first-run in about7 hours. While that is really short for a modern game, it’s slightly longer than my most recent run through “ActRaiser” took, even though I enjoyed “SolSeraph” a lot less.

Like “ActRaiser” before it, “SolSeraph” attempts to graft-together two disparate genres into a singular experience. In this case, the two genres involved are 2D Platforming and Tower Defense.

Following in the mold of “ActRaiser,” the 2D Platforming segments each serve as bookends for each regional chapter, sandwiching the other type of gameplay between them. Unfortunately, while “ActRaiser’s” rather stiff and clunky platforming gameplay was a ‘product of its time’ and generally the part of the game one suffered through to get to the ‘good parts,’ as a new game made with cutting edge tools and with decades of game design knowledge, “SolSeraph” has no excuse for being stiff and clunky. But it is anyway! Even worse, “SolSeraph’s” level designs feature an excessive amount of trollish monster placements, where avoiding a projectile from one enemy will typically see the player getting hit by another projectile from a creature who only came on-screen due to the player’s evasive maneuvers. Furthermore, there are numerous instances where enemies ‘spawn in’ from either the background or the foreground, making it unclear exactly when they become vulnerable to attack. However, Helio’s set of moves and abilities is somewhat better than the original “ActRaiser,” including a double-jump, a three-hit sword combo, a back-step dodge, and a shield. The shield deserves particular attention as a new addition, as it makes nearly every boss battle (aside from That One Boss, the friggin’ owl) trivial. Helios also gains access to a slew of magic spells and can freely cycle through them during platforming sections, casting them using a radial magic meter. Unfortunately, all spells are not created equal, or are even well-designed in general. The starting spell – a magic bow that shoots a single arrow that can be aimed at a variety of angles – is flat-out the best spell in the game. The healing spell is too weak and expensive to be useful, the other damaging spells have worthless ranges, and the flood spell doesn’t appear to actually do anything.

Even with mediocre platforming gameplay, it was still possible that “SolSeraph’s” Strategy gameplay could save it… but it doesn’t. Between platforming sections, the player is tasked with building a civilization in each region, starting with nothing but a campfire and a handful of people. While “SolSeraph’s” Strategy gameplay is emphatically, 100% Tower Defense at its heart, it does bear some surface semblance to old Real-Time Strategy titles. The player starts each region with a limited amount of resources and people, and must build fields to maintain more people, tents to house them, woodsheds to harvest lumber to make all these buildings, and, most importantly, barracks, towers, and (eventually) specialty buildings to defend the campfire from hordes of foes. These foes spawn every few minutes from the variety of monster lairs that populate each settlement area, and march along a pre-determined path denoted by an ancient brick road. If too many monsters (typically 5) manage to slip by and biff the campfire, it’s… NOT game over, since the game simply reloads the world state to before the monster wave, and dynamically reduces the difficulty to give the player another shot, until, eventually the player gets good enough or the monsters get weak enough.

Perhaps most vexing about the Tower Defense sections is that they are minimally designed, feature vague terminology, and, once completed, offer the player no compelling reason to stick around and continue fiddling with the settlements. By minimally designed, I mean that, while the player does get to see where the monster lairs are, the specific types of monsters coming in each wave are left a mystery. Likewise, while there are a number of advanced tower types that attack in multiple directions or with areas of effect, the layouts of the monster paths in each settlement rarely give the player the opportunity to employ clever placement of these towers, meaning that the basic towers are almost always the best choice. Of course, the absolute worst piece of design in the Tower Defense sections is the fact that sealing monster lairs doesn’t stop them from spawning monsters during subsequent Tower Defense waves. Numerous people have complained directly to the developer about this piece of hideous design, and ACE Team responded that sealing monster lairs throughout each Tower Defense section would make the game ‘too easy.’ News Flash: The game is already easy. News Flash 2: “ActRaiser” was also easy. But making the player’s actions feel pointless is ALWAYS bad design!

Each Strategy section in the game is nearly always a race to build a (free) road to each copse of trees, build a woodshed, wait for the lumberjacks to clear the copse, trash the shed, and build a new one near another copse of trees – and there are a finite number of trees in each region, which do not respawn, putting a hard cap on construction. All the while, of course, it’s necessary to keep building up defenses near the fire, and possibly micro-managing the situation with some godly lightning or a temporary summoned seraph. Vague terminology comes into play with the fact that the player must build a shrine near each monster lair to clear the dark clouds and allow Helios to descend into it and kick some platform butt. Each shrine requires 15 ‘souls’ as an ingredient. For the first few maps, I was never short of souls, but when I got to the Tropical Island region, I suddenly never had enough. I built farms upon farms and houses upon houses, but still, my population of souls wasn’t high enough… but I eventually figured out that ‘souls’ doesn’t mean ‘people worshipping Helios,’ but is an actual item drop that comes from defeated monsters. My huge, sprawling, overpopulated settlement didn’t earn me squat.

Lastly, while “ActRaiser” encouraged players to build the settlements in each region to be as densely populated and highly civilized as possible – even providing little side problems to solve by divinely importing an invention from one region to another – all of “SolSeraph’s” regions are fully self-contained. But worse than that, there’s no mechanic tying Helios’ strength to the strength of the people, so as soon as the boss of the region is gone, it’s in Helios’ best interest to piss off and leave the people to their tents, minimal agriculture, and excessive military spending, since trying to build an optimal settlement accomplishes absolutely nothing.

I was really excited to play a spiritual successor to one of my favorite SNES games. Unfortunately, “SolSeraph” is a poor follow-up to “ActRaiser,” lowering the bar for unique God Game genre mashups in every conceivable way.

Presentation: 3/5
Story: 3/5
Gameplay: 3/5
Overall (not an average): 3/5



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