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‘Soul Blazer’: A Candid RPG about Life and Death

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“Like good sleep comes after hard work, good rest comes after an honest life.”

At first glance, Soul Blazer doesn’t leave much of an impression. After all, the Super Nintendo was never in shortage of top down action games. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Secret of Mana, and even Soul Blazer’s sister game, Illusion of Gaia, catch the eye quicker than Soul Blazer every could. There’s a very isolated quality to Quintet’s sophomore outing. At the same time, it’s exactly this quality which makes Soul Blazer so compelling. On a platform so full of life, in a genre that— at the time— was so intent on creating full worlds, Quintet opted for an RPG completely devoid of life.

Starting up, the world is empty. There are no NPCs littering the overworld, there are no shops, and the only guiding point the player has directs them below the surface to slay monsters. Death has taken its toll on the land and left nothing but nature itself in return. Much of the game’s introduction is slowly spent showing the scope of death. Humans have died, animals have died, and plants have died. It is the onus of the player to reverse death and restore life to the land. For as morbid and twisted as the premise is, an easy to overlook opening actually shines light on the rest of the experience.

Soul Blazer’s frankly casual opening won’t elicit much emotion, but Quintet’s depiction of death and rebirth is not an emotional one. Rather, the introduction serves to showcase death as a natural part of existence. It isn’t so much that death is unavoidable— a fact the story does linger on quite frequently in passing— but that death often occurs without much fanfare. Truly, the opening cinematic grants no fanfare to how the world ends, instead stating it in a matter of fact manner, an approach Soul Blazer is quite fond of.

It can be easy to dismiss Soul Blazer’s casual approach to such a hefty subject as a sign of the times, an indication that developers weren’t quite treating their stories with as much respect as they should or could, but that would be a gross misunderstanding of the narrative’s style. Considering how matter of fact death is depicted, a more sensationalized or romanticized depiction would fly in the face of the core themes at play. The one major death that occurs on screen won’t strike up any tears, but that isn’t its purpose narratively. Soul Blazer is a title that takes the emotion out of death to show it in its purest form.

It’s fitting, then, that players take control of Blazer, a character who cannot die. Divine in nature, Blazer, too, is devoid of emotion, simply existing as an arbiter of life. In order to restore life to the world, Blazer must kill swarms of enemies in order to reclaim lost souls. Appropriately, enemies who breed new life do not respawn, instead remaining dead for the rest of the game. Death’s permanence isn’t shown through the player character, but through enemies.

Which, in turn, is a strange approach for an RPG. In a genre that often features grinding, said approach to game design effectively locks players from progressing further than they’re expected to. While not every enemy stays permanently dead, the ones that do respawn tend to offer the bare minimum in terms of EXP, hammering in the idea that death is omnipresent. If nothing else, the fact that only the loss of life can lead to the restoration of life makes for a powerful frequent concept in the context of Soul Blazer.

Although some NPCs return to life specifically to aid the player on their quest, most simply exist for flavor text. They don’t advance the plot, they don’t bestow the player with newfound power, and they don’t lead the way to a new area. They only exist for their dialogue. Where the majority of NPCs fail to linearly progress the game, they almost always expand the core theme of death. A character may lament about the finality of life. Another might take bliss in the idea that, despite their imminent death, they have no qualms as they live each day to its fullest. Some might just comment on the suffering that goes hand in hand with living.

What makes these moments powerful isn’t an emotional center or character attachment— in truth, even the most unique NPCs are as bland as they get— except in the candidness with which they discuss death. Death is a casual subject, one that almost feels inappropriate when compared to other games from the era. There is a distinctly mature approach to the script. Soul Blazer is comfortable in its subject matter in every respect and wants players to understand the sheer scope of death. Even though much of the game is spent reversing it, there is never a moment that shies away from reminding audiences that they will die.

With that in mind, what does it mean to die in Soul Blazer? As a game about death, it’s only fitting to break down how death is fully represented. Gods clearly exist in the world of Soul Blazer, but there does not seem to be a conventional heaven or hell. Reincarnation exists and is a natural course of life, but one’s memories don’t follow. Death is cyclical in a sense, coming and going like an ebb and a flow. When one’s life dies, another is born (or reborn.) Perhaps the most interesting approach to death comes through the Gnomes.

The wardens of the fourth area Blazer visits, the gnomes are born, live, and die within a single year. Spending time talking to said gnomes shines lights on their struggles, or lack thereof. The recurring thread tying the gnomes together is the fact that their culture openly embraces the idea that they will die within a year. With only one year to live and die, the gnomes choose to live their lives as blissfully as possible, taking comfort in their fate and pursuing their passions. It doesn’t matter that they’ll die in a single year. What does matter is that they choose to live as much as possible.

Life’s fullness isn’t tied to time, at least not in Soul Blazer. More time seems like a natural blessing, but the gnomes are proof that life can be fulfilling regardless of how much time is lived. This is a concept the final boss directly comments on, suggesting that Blazer’s eternal life is nothing short of misery. For as much time is spent reversing death, Soul Blazer wants its audiences to understand that death is by no means bad. It almost seems paradoxical, then, that the premise of the game is more or less a revenge story against death itself, but that’s fitting when taken into account the varied depictions of death.

It only makes sense to rebel against death, and who better to rebel than the person holding the controller? Soul Blazer is not a particularly difficult game, but players will still likely die at least a few times on their journey, another inevitability. When a player dies, loses, or gets a game over, the natural response is to overcome said failure. If the premature death of the world in Soul Blazer is a failure, it only makes sense that the core gameplay premise will resonate with anyone familiar enough with the medium. Soul Blazer’s story could be told in any medium, but only a video game medium showcases the weight and scope of such a premise.

Which more than makes up for the cold approach to storytelling at play. Regardless of how deliberate Soul Blazer’s presentation is, audiences naturally resonate more when they can directly relate to the characters and conflicts at play. Even other RPGs from the time were already playing up more traditionally gripping narratives. Just a year prior, Square released Final Fantasy IV, complete with full character arcs, an emotional center, and more than its fair share of plot twists. Soul Blazer, by comparison, doesn’t come off in the same league.

At the same time, it isn’t trying to and that in itself is important to recognize. Soul Blazer didn’t follow the trend of increasingly dramatic RPGs. Rather, Quintet saw an emphasis on narrative rising and chose to embrace the style and little else. At the end of the day, the plot is hardly the most important aspect of the narrative. What gives Soul Blazer pathos is the casual philosophies NPCs are more than happy to share. Life may be impermanent, but that hardly has to be a bad thing.

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and The Legend of Zelda, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

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PAX Online: ‘Unpacking’ and ‘Infernax’

Our PAX Online coverage continues with a game the calm and relaxing Unpacking and the not-so calm and relaxing Infernax.

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Unpacking and Infernax

Our PAX Online coverage continues with a game that takes a hated activity and somehow makes it relaxing and another game that will leave you clenching your buttocks.

Unpacking

Unpacking game

Platforms: PC
Release: 2021

As someone who is coming fresh off of moving just a little over a month ago, you couldn’t have blamed me for being a little skeptical going into what was dubbed a “zen puzzle” game based on the final stretch of the process. Unpacking is just that, though. It’s a calming, almost therapeutic exercise that happened to serve as a wonderful way for me to unwind at the end of a day.

Unpacking is exactly what it says on the tin. There are no scores, no timers, no leaderboards, just you, and a few boxes with various items in them that need to be placed somewhere. The demo starts with a single bedroom in 1997. There’s nothing in the game that tells you where something should go, only your own taste and intuition; a locked diary would probably go in a desk-drawer while a soccer trophy would probably be displayed on a shelf.

As I slowly unearthed items one-by-one, I gradually got a feel for what the room’s new inhabitant was most likely like. The endless supply of stuffed animals implied someone of younger age while the numerous art supplies indicated someone inclined to right brain thinking. It’s rather engaging to learn about this person’s life purely by their belongings.

Every item taken out was like a delightful surprise and would sometimes even make me feel a little sentimental such as when I took out a small device that was clearly a Tamagotchi. More importantly, Unpacking nails that sinking feeling of when you feel like you’ve used all your available space but still have boxes left. Reaching the point of just throwing stuff wherever it fits is such an immediately relatable feeling that I was almost offended. And that was only for a single bedroom!

Unpacking game

The demo’s second stage was a little more involved with a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen in the year of 2004. The hilarious moments of finding a boot in your kitchenware box or a bra with your toiletries also felt like a call-out to my own hodge-podge packing methods. It’s something I can’t help but let out an exasperated chuckle at.

It was also neat to see how this person has grown since their earlier abode. Much fewer stuffed animals but more art supplies and a brand new computer imply this character is maybe entering the working adult world. I’ve never actually seen this character, but I can’t help but feel a connection to them already, and that was only after two moves. The full game will have eight total moves to follow them through and I am genuinely curious to see how our nameless and faceless protagonist grows throughout them.

Now if only unpacking in real life could be this soothing.

Infernax

Infernax

Platforms: PC
Release: TBA

Some players may recognize Berzerk Studio for their excellent 2018 bullet-hell, rhythm game Just Shapes & Beats. Coming hot of the heels of that hit they immediately pivoted in the new direction with Infernax, a delightfully edgy 8-bit adventure platformer that takes cues from old-school Castlevania titles.

Our hero returns to his land after a successful crusade only to find it overrun by horrible monstrosities in every which direction. With nothing but mace in hand, he sets out on a quest anew to rid the land of the undead filth. Immediately apparent upon starting is just how tightly the game controls; anyone fond of earlier NES titles will feel right at home with Infernax. I quickly got a handle on my exact attack reach down to the pixel and began mowing down the zombies in front of me. It emphasized how much joy a game is possible of eliciting from simply a jump and attack button.

Getting to that proficiency is important too because the game doesn’t waste any time in taking off the training wheels! Even the base enemies shaved off half my HP if I got careless and that difficulty ramped up at a rapid rate as new enemy types were introduced at a decent clip such as flying evil eyes and jumping rodents. Not only do these foes burst into tasty experience points and gold to be spent on upgrades, but also into extremely satisfying fountains of blood.

Infernax isn’t particularly shy about turning up the gore factor, but it’s still impressive by just how creative they get with it using simple pixel art. Nowhere is this more apparent than when you are killed. Every single enemy type has a unique kill animation when they deal the final blow to our hero. From the chump ass pillbugs to the big bad bosses, all of them mutilate you in a different way and it’s honestly morbidly mesmerizing to witness. It made me want to suicide against every enemy I came across just so I could see what creative way they took my life.

Infernax

Depending on your playstyle you might not want to do this, though, as Infernax features two different ways to respawn when you die. Hardcore respawn sends you all the way back to your last save point, just like in those classic NES titles. Casual respawn lets you restart right where you left off with no loss in progress, but choosing to do so locks you out from Hardcore the rest of the game. It’s a sort of mark of shame that I was glad to wear during the demo after I came up against the final boss and promptly got my ass handed to me. It sounds a little cheeky on paper but is actually very consistent with the game’s overtly edgy tone.

Infernax feels like a game that was lost to time during the NES era and is just now being rediscovered. Those looking for for a game that harkens back to the simplicity of the olden days need not look any further.

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Indie Games Spotlight – Going Full Circle

We’re featuring five exciting indie games in our latest spotlight, including the internship roguelike Going Under and the cozy puzzles of Lonesome Village.

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Journey of the Broken Circle

Indie Games Spotlight is Goomba Stomp’s biweekly column where we highlight some of the most exciting new and upcoming independent games. Summer may have come to a close, but that hasn’t stopped big announcements from rolling in. With events like PAX Online and the recent PlayStation 5 Showcase flooding the web with announcements, trailers, and gameplay footage, there’s been a constant deluge of news to keep up with. With so much coming on the horizon, we’re spotlighting five exciting indies that you’ll be able to play sooner rather than later. Whether you’re in the mood for a brutally addictive action game or a cozy adventure and social sim, there’s bound to be a game that speaks to you in this spotlight.

Moving Up Professionally in Going Under

Work is its own payment in Going Under. In this action game from developer Aggro Crab, you’re put in the shoes of an unpaid intern who must explore the endless ruins of failed tech startups while fighting off the monsters that spawn within them. It’s hard work to do without a single paycheck—but hey, at least you’re gaining valuable experience!

As a former unpaid intern myself, the writing in Going Under certainly resonates with me and it’s sure to strike a chord with anyone who’s ever felt underappreciated or overworked. Its vibrant and colorful 3D graphics, as well as its satirical story, only make it all the more enticing. It really should offer a great working experience when it hits all consoles and PC via Steam on September 24.

Animated GIF

Fill in the Gaps in Journey of the Broken Circle

Something’s missing in Journey of the Broken Circle. Like its name would suggest, this puzzle platformer follows a Pacman-like circle with a hole to fill. It wanders through a world that is whimsical and existential at once, searching for a companion to fill its gaps. As the circle rolls through ethereal environments, it encounters different shapes to use that allow for new gameplay mechanics.

Journey of the Broken Circle might be about an abstract shape, but in its quest to become whole, it strives to capture the human experience. It promises to be an intimate experience that clocks in at about five hours to complete. If you’re interested in getting this ball rolling, it’s already available now on Switch and Steam.

Prepare to Get GORSD

There’s a delicate balance between unsettling the player without being outright scary. GORSD treads the line here as a one-hit-kill shooter that stars humans encased in the skins of octopuses, dragons with human faces, and nightmarish environments. Something feels off about GORSD, but that’s exactly what makes it so interesting.

Brought to life with detailed pixel art, GORSD supports up to four players who can face off in chaotic matches in varied arenas. It also features a full-fledged single-player campaign with a vast overworld with dozens of unique stages. Its concept is inspired by its developers’ native Southeast Asian cultures, making for a unique gameplay and aesthetic experience. If you’re ready to dive in and see it for yourself, it’s available now on all consoles and PC via Steam.

Get Ready For a Foregone Conclusion

Saying Foregone is a 2D Dark Souls would be cliché, but accurate nonetheless. It’s a hardcore action game where you’ll fight against insurmountable odds to prevent monsters from overrunning the world. It has a brutally addictive gameplay loop—its difficulty may be excruciating, but because it offers a wide assortment of abilities to leverage, it’s immensely euphoric once you overcome the challenges before you.

This beautiful 3D/pixelated hybrid action game has been available on PC in early access since February, but at long last, it’s seeing its full console release in October. It’s been a promising title ever since its pre-release days, and now that it’s finally seeing its complete iteration, there’s never been a better time to dive in and give it a shot. It’s hitting all platforms on October 5, so there’s not long to wait!

Finding Good Company in a Lonesome Village

Mix Zelda with Animal Crossing and you might get something like Lonesome Village. This newly-revealed puzzle adventure game features Zelda-like adventure in a hand-drawn world populated by animal characters. Players control a wandering coyote who stumbles upon a strange village and decides to investigate its mysterious happenings by interacting with villagers, solving puzzles, and exploring its dungeons.

It’s more than a simple adventure game. In addition to puzzle-solving, you’ll interact with Lonesome Village’s eclectic cast of characters to forge relationships and unravel brooding mysteries. It’s showing plenty of potential with its cozy gameplay loop, and if you want to give it a shot, check out its official demo from its Kickstarter page! It’s already been fully funded in less than 24 hours, but if you want to help the developers out even further, consider contributing to their campaign.

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PAX Online: ‘Inkulinati’ and ‘Pumpkin Jack’

The PAX Online celebrations continue with the strategy game, Inkulinati, and spooky Halloween themed Pumpkin Jack.

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Inkulinati and Pumpkin Jack

The PAX Online celebrations continue with a strategy game whose tales are writ in ink and a game sure to put you in an early Halloween mood.

Inkulinati

Inkulinati

Platforms: Switch and Steam
Release: 2021

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Competitive strategy games stress me out. Chess? Stresses me out. Checkers? Stresses me out. Star Craft? Stresses me out. Managing that stress as a form of stimulation is what makes the best strategy games shine, though, and Inkulinati is so far demonstrating all the facets of such a game.

The titular Inkulinati are masters of a craft that brings their inked creatures to life on parchment, including a caricature of themselves. The two Inkulinati do written battle with each other until only one is left standing. The battles are carried out in a charming medieval art style that looks like it was taken straight out of a manuscript you’d find carefully stored in a library. These aren’t the masterpieces of Da Vinci or Van Gogh, but the kinds of scribbles you’d find the layman making on the edges of pages either out of boredom or mischievousness. The playful art makes for a playful tone and jolly times.

The core thrust of the gameplay is that each Inkulinati utilizes ink points to conjure units, or “creatures”, onto the parchment in a turn-based manner and sends them into the fray. There were a fair amount of creatures available in the demo — ranging from a simple swordsdog with well-rounded stats to a donkey capable of stunning foes with its trusty butt trumpet. Many many more creature types are promised in the full game, but I found even with the limited selection of the demo the gameplay was still able to be showcased well.

Your primary Inkulinati also has some tricks up its depending on the type you’ve chosen to take into battle. Instant damage to or healing a unit were the two shown off in the demo, as well as being able to shove units. Shoving is particularly useful as you can push enemies into the hellfires that encroach the battlefield as the battle wages on, instantly defeating them.

Doing battle with an opponent it all well and good, but what’s the point if it’s not immortalized for generations to experience down the line? Inkulimati understands this need and will record every single action of the battlefield in written word. It’s infinitely charming, and the amount of variations in how to say what amounts to just “X unit attacked Y enemy” is astonishing. How can you not chuckle at, “Powerful Morpheus killed the enemy and may those who failed to witness this live in constant pain and regret”?

Pumpkin Jack

Pumpkin Jack

Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and Steam
Release: Q4 2020

Halloween may be a little over a month away but that didn’t stop the 3D action platformer Pumpkin Jack getting me in the spookyween mood. The human realm is suffering from the Devil’s curse and have elected the aid of a wizarding champion to save them from it. Not to be outdone, the Devil also chooses his own champion to stop the wizard, choosing the despicable spirit Jack. With the tasty reward of being able to pass on from hell, Jack dons his pumpkin head and a wooden & straw body on his quest to keep the world ruined. The premise sounds slightly grim but make no mistake that this is a goofy game through and through, a fact only emphasized by a brilliant opening narration dripping with sarcasm and morbid glee.

The demo took us through Pumpkin Jack‘s first stage, a dilapidated farmland full of ambient lanterns abandoned storehouses. The visuals are compliments by a wonderfully corny soundtrack full of all the tubas, xylophones, and ghost whistles one would expect a title that is eternally in the Halloween mood.

We got the basics of traversal, like dodge rolling and double jumps, before coming upon a terrified murder of crows. Turns out their favorite field has been occupied by a dastardly living scarecrow and they want Jack to take care of it. One crow joins Jack on his quest, taking the form of a projectile attack that he can sic on enemies. Jack also obtains a shovel he can use to whack on the animated skeletons with a simple three-hit combo. There’s nothing particularly standout about the combat, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be this early on. More weapons such as a rifle and scythe are promised in the full game and should go a way towards developing the combat along with more enemy variety.

Pumpkin Jack

Collectible crow skulls also dot the map and seem to be cleverly hidden as even when I felt like I was carefully searching the whole stage I had only found 12 out of 20 by the end. Their purpose is unknown in the demo, so here’s hopping they amount to something making me want to find those last eight in the full version.

After accidentally lighting a barn ablaze and escaping in a dramatic sequence we came across the scarecrow in question. Defeating it was a rather simple affair that was just a matter of shooting it out of the air with the crow then wailing on it with Jack’s shovel. We were awarded a new glaive-type weapon as a reward but unable to give it a whirl in the demo, unfortunately. All-in-all, Pumpkin Jack shows promise as a follow-up to action 3D platformers of yore like Jak & Daxter, so here’s hoping to a solid haunting when it releases later this year.

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