Not quite heavenly
Playstation 4 review code provided by Sega.
I’m a bit envious of ACE Team. I cannot think of a developer on the market today with a more varied output. Consider their past works: it began with Zeno Clash, one of the most hauntingly bizarre first-person games you will ever play. They followed that up with Rock of Ages, a tongue-in-cheek riff on ancient history in shades of Monty Python. Then they released Abyss Odyssey, which combines elements of a Roguelike and Super Smash Bros. with elegant art direction. That lead to The Deadly Tower of Monsters, a twin-stick shooter representing a long-lost science fiction b-movie getting a director’s commentary track.
And now, here we are with SolSeraph, a game that is unabashedly a spiritual successor to the SNES classic ActRaiser. Actually, it doesn’t even feel fair to call it a spiritual successor; at first glance, this is so close to the real ActRaiser that it almost seems illegal. ACE Team even hired the legendary Yuzo Koshiro to handle SolSeraph’s soundtrack, who also provided the music for ActRaiser. It makes for a package that does more than just evoke the original game, it may as well be a direct sequel.
That’s not to say it’s an exact recreation, though. It had been a long time since I touched ActRaiser, so between sessions of SolSeraph, I went back to the SNES launch title just to refresh my memory. My takeaway: SolSeraph is an improvement in nearly every category.
The basic structure is vaguely similar, blending a side-scrolling action game with city building elements. Those city building segments are what sets SolSeraph apart from ActRaiser the most. In the original game, you played more of a top-down shooter while the computer AI handled the city building below you. You could suggest where they placed roads to entice your servants to seal monster lairs, but that was it. While this was an interesting idea in 1990, it proved to be an incredibly tedious distraction between action game levels.
SolSeraph trades one type of city building for another, turning the whole segment in to a game of tower defense. At set intervals, waves of monsters will funnel out of various monster lairs in an effort to extinguish the bonfire at the town center. The road they take is often long and winding, giving you ample space to set up defenses by playing a lite-strategy game. There are three major resources: people, lumber, and food (well, and souls, but we’ll get to that). Everything in the game costs some amount of up to two of those resources. Food and lumber will build houses to generate more people. You get food by building farms with lumber, and lumber is acquired via sawmills, both of which need people assigned to do the work.
Defensive structures need people, as well. You can train three warriors at a barracks, which will patrol nearby roads for incoming monsters. Half a dozen more defensive structures gradually unlock as you play the game. Eventually, the goal is to build a temple near a monster lair (using the souls of dead monsters) so that you, the player, can fight the evil located within. In ActRaiser, you generally had two action stages per zone — one at the start and one to cap things off on your way to the boss. In SolSeraph, you have anywhere from 3-6 action stages of varying types contained within these lairs, from small arenas where you fight waves of enemies to more full-length levels.
Action stages are way more involved than they were back in ActRaiser, but still feel kind of basic compared to modern video games, especially at the start. In SolSeraph’s side-scrolling stages, you’re equipped with a simple three-hit combo, double jump, dodge, and a shield for blocking projectiles. To supplement this, you also have special abilities, starting with a bow and arrow, with more acquired from defeating bosses (sort of like getting sub-weapons in a Mega Man game). These provide just enough flavor, as without them, combat feels a little flat.
But then, a lot of the game is a bit flat. SolSeraph is more than a little under-baked, often feeling like a higher-profile student project. Almost everything in this game lacks impact — the animations for the player character are stilted, and the enemies float around levels at half gravity. Sound effects often feel weak, or are outright wrong. You can build metal forges in the tower defense segments to boost the attack of nearby structures, and blacksmiths stand outside banging their empty hands on to steel anvils, making the sound of an axe chopping wood. Those same blacksmiths stand with their bodies halfway clipped through their anvils, legs embedded in the metal. And despite most of ACE Team’s games featuring voiced dialog, not a single word is spoken aloud here — it’s all just text.
Art direction is a bit of a mess, as well. Character portraits for people inhabiting cities look great, but the textures used to paint environments are basic, looking more like the free textures included with the engine. The same goes for the effects, too. Particle effects like fire look like the stuff that comes stock in Unreal Engine 4. That means they look good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s the exact same effects you’ll see in every armchair game developer’s Youtube video. It cheapens the look of SolSeraph a lot, worsened by a general lack of detail and occasionally nasty framerate problems. It leads to a game that feels like it was cobbled together from whatever was easiest and cheapest.
As you might expect, it’s also lacking massive amounts of polish. Levels aren’t terribly designed, but none of the enemy placement feels smart. As you progress through the game, you’ll encounter action stages that haphazardly flood the screen with more and more enemies, never feeling like a finely-tuned challenge. Tower defense segments vary wildly from being stupidly easy to becoming a mad dash to destroy all the monster lairs before you get overwhelmed. And should you get overwhelmed during a tower defense segment, good luck digging yourself back out. The game auto-saves after every wave of enemies, meaning you could paint yourself into a corner with no way to start the map over and fix a bad layout. Instead of properly balancing any of this, a lot of SolSeraph’s completion rewards center around making your character too overpowered for it to matter. Calling this clumsy is an understatement.
In spite of these shortcomings, it wouldn’t be fair to say SolSeraph is a joyless game. Though I’m worried about the status of ACE Team if this is all they could muster, they still know how to chase a creative concept. What helped me appreciate this game a lot more was actually going back to the original ActRaiser and seeing just how much of an improvement SolSeraph really is. But those are the standards of 1990, and a lot of ActRaiser’s problems could be forgiven by its status as a SNES launch title. SolSeraph doesn’t have such an easy defense, and any fun I had with the game is in spite of it’s zero-budget presentation. There are a lot of good ideas in here, but everything needs a lot more work to be considered ready for the mainstream.