• Add Review
  • Subscribe
  • Nominate
  • Submit Media
  • RSS

Childhood's end.

  • nhubi
  • 10/29/2014 06:54 PM
NB. I chose to play this game in casual mode which does affect the opportunities made available.

Soul Sunder is the story of Zero, once known as Arya, a young woman with a dark moment in her past that changed the course of her life. She grew up in the small protected village of Orias, a normal childhood with all of its joys and pains, looking after and idolising her older but more irresponsible brother, Alex. But that all changed on the day she and Alex ventured into the forbidden ruins on the outskirts of their home. The consequences of that decision were far reaching and catastrophic. Her village was destroyed with the loss of many lives, her beloved brother died and her best friend was crippled. Arya remade herself at that moment, choosing her new name to reflect what she felt she had become, nothing, a void, an emptiness with the loss of all she had once held dear.

But whilst Arya was a child, Zero is a woman. Embittered by her experience and fuelled by guilt and revenge she is plum pickings when a mysterious letter arrives offering her a chance at redemption.

The game begins in the childhood arc as you play out the events that shaped the person Zero was to become. Even though you are given many instances where choices need to be made there is a sense of futility to this section, as you know there is no way to avoid the fate that lies in wait for Arya and those she cares for. Disaster awaits them, the form of that disaster is shaped by your choices, but it is disaster nonetheless. It matters little what items you scavenge or treasures you find, Arya is moving towards her ill-fated destiny with the momentum of a runaway train, and just as much thought. She's a child and makes the choices a child would make; the portrayal of Arya in this section is wonderful. She's in equal parts stubborn and frustrating, generous and caring, painfully honest and cautiously duplicitous, that dichotomy that so baffles people who have left childhood behind.

If only...

The story in this game is compelling, the characterisation well thought out and portrayed in a convincing manner. I liked these children, from Arya's almost too good to be true obedient child to Myra's tomboy except when it comes to Alex with whom she is obviously developing her first crush and Alex himself, the hero in the making; a boy on the cusp of adolescence who is sure of his future in the way that only children can be. That is of course what makes their impending doom so poignant. Red_Nova has aided in setting that bittersweet mood with his choice of music, the themes playing in the village are suitably bucolic but also carry just a hint of tension, an idea that there are things and forces unseen which will affect not just the here and now but also into the future. It's a delicate balance, but for this player at least that has been accomplished. The later themes also manage to strike an equilibrium between the various competing emotions that the scenes and situations present so I cannot fault them in any degree. The cloister bell tolling within the Forbidden Ruins is of particular and chilling note, and much later the theme in the Temple of Truth is perfect.

It's a shame the same cannot be said for some of the graphic elements. The sprites and portraits are actually quite good (for all that they are a little too cartoon like for my tastes), with a range of emotions shown via the face sets that fit the characters well, both the children and the adults some of them later become. Though Isaac's glasses flashing from transparent to opaque seemingly on a whim is a little disconcerting and does at time detract from the dialogue. I understand the blank-eyes look is an emotional indicator, but it should be his eyes that blank, not the glasses themselves. There were times I found myself humming an old Timbuk3 song, and that is not a good sign.

It's the mapping that leaves a little to be desired. I have no problem with it being mostly RTP. I'm more narrative that graphically driven, as long as the usage is serviceable it won't really arouse my notice. It's only when it is outstanding or lacking that I tend to pay attention so it is indeed that which is of concern. The rooms and open spaces are a little featureless and devoid of engaging detail, there are a few cases of what I've started to call road to nowhere; places on the edges of maps that show a clear ability to move beyond them but have no transition to anywhere else or a message stating why moving in that direction is problematic. Most unfortunately a number of the structures in Orias suffer from the inside doesn't match the outside issue. The Landale home is a prime example of this. One story on the outside it sports two inside, rectangular on the outside, it has a cut-out in the main room downstairs, but not in the corresponding space upstairs, the stairs are situated in the north-eastern corner of the room but lead to the south-eastern corner on the floor above as the rooms for the children and parents branch off the upstairs hallway to the north. If the stairs are correctly placed it would mean the outside shape should encompass a reverse overhang that runs into the terrace behind it, which is hardly practical.*

Nice in-joke, but fixing it would be better.

It's an easy fix, put a fireplace against the north wall instead of the wardrobe which will match the placement of the chimney outside and provide both a place for heating and cooking, and explain the cut out as the space for the chimney. Move the stairwell to the south-east corner and make the children's bedroom the first door upstairs so that the missing cut-out isn't relevant anymore. I suppose the errors in mapping are so jarring because so much else in the game works pretty seamlessly so when something does stand out it stands out like the proverbial sore thumb. Still that is a pedestal of my own making and perhaps I shouldn't be quite so disappointed when I've built it a little too high.

As the childhood days progress it's obvious there is something wrong with the villagers, and that as the village is so small someone you know has to be involved, but before you can start to work out just what is happening Arya and Alex get separated from Myra via one of those oft-mentioned mysterious earthquakes and have to fight their way back to the village. This event introduces us to the battle dynamic.

On the surface it's the standard turn based front view system with the addition of a few handy custom scripts like a turn order display, HP monitor and enemy scan attached. However there is a catch, Alex follows the simple weapon/skill system, Arya has to equip items to be able to use them in battle; that includes everything from projectile weapons such as rocks to healing items like raspberries and candies. If she hasn't equipped them pre-battle, she can't use them. This can make battles a bit of a balancing act since Arya only has three item slots so you have to choose your set-up well to avoid a gruesome death. Fortuitously all of these items are multi-charge, which does allow a little more leniency, through that is counterbalanced by the fact that every attack or skill cost SP to perform, in fact the only thing that doesn't drain the vitality of these children is hurling stones at your opponent or topping up your own health, but as those items are also a finite resource they have to be rationed as carefully as your SP.

The basic premise here is to avoid battles as much as possible, which is made easier by the fact that the monsters are all visible. It's a very realistic approach. Children alone in the forest trying to find their way back to the safety of their home would not be seeking to engage in combat with the mysterious and deadly beasts that roam beyond the pale torchlight of civilisation that their village represents. These children are frightened, or at least the more practical Arya is, and far from home. So this trek back becomes more a case of cat and mouse than hunt the jabberwocky. Add the restricted save to the mix and this section becomes quite difficult to accomplish without some sensible strategy and quite a bit of dodging around potential enemies. Grinding doesn't help you here, resource management does. In fact it's pretty safe to say if grinding is your play style this game in its entirety may not be the one for you. Whilst you can do it, it's probably not the safest strategy for success, and will deplete your always perilously low purse more than is advisable.

Once home, events begin to unfold rapidly and Arya is again faced with a choice, she of course chooses the selfless one, though it goes against her better judgement, and the die is cast. The Forbidden Ruins and an unforeseen destiny await. After dodging or fighting your way through the dungeon, Arya finds herself in an impossible situation, a Devil and the Deep moment, and she must make a decision that a no-one should ever have to make, let alone a child. I'm not going to reveal the various ways that things can and do go wrong but suffice to say that the disaster strikes and Arya's world collapses beyond the hope of reconstruction and she recreates herself. From this point you are catapulted nine years into the future to when Zero is 18 years old...and a redhead.

Your starting equipment in the adult arc depends on what you found and fought in the childhood arc, a small reward for exploration and innovation, everything else is removed from your inventory, then again as an adult Zero hardly needs rocks to throw when she's got acid vials. The intro lets you know what Zero has been doing in the half of her life since the incident at Orias, a futile attempt to find a way to make sense of the events and a slow decent into apathy. Until one day. Now after years of searching for answers and for the elusive stranger who she believes was the catalyst for the tragedy, she's finally found a direction, an enigmatic letter with a tempting and dangerous offer.

Well, after you asked so nicely mysteriously.

If the name Purgatory doesn't set off alarm bells, then Haven surely should, but Zero is a woman on a reinvigorated self-propelled mission and nothing will stop her. So to this town made famous only by its proximity to a place of death and destruction our wounded heroine goes. Whatever the town might have been before Purgatory rose like a newly woken behemoth from the flat empty plain on which it now resides it is not that now. Like an adventitious bud it has turned its economy over to the support and swindling of the explorers that must enter it on their way to Purgatory. Reminiscent of a gold town of the 1850's in California, Haven has become a place for adventurers to congregate and discuss taking on the dungeon, to swap horror stories and trade secrets, for world weary fortune-hunters to pass on some knowledge to wannabe heroes still wet behind the ears, for shopkeepers and hoteliers to make their fortunes and for lone travellers to find a companion to aid them in their endeavour, whether they want them to or not.

Everyone needs a *cough* point man.

So our embittered but determined loner becomes part of a duo, for reasons of practicality on the surface, but there is something in the exchange between Zero and Isaac that smacks of a deeper reason, on both sides. After he joins he makes a suggestion that you continue to pool your money and spend what little spare cash you have on upgraded equipment or supplies, which introduces another layer to the combat system. In addition to the skills that are linked to certain weapons and armour and can only be activated if they are equipped, there are items known as relics. These grant the wearer both a spell in battle and a resistance or affinity to a particular element, but they take up one of your few item spots which reduce your available battle choices even as it expands them. So after haggling between items or armour (they can't afford both) and a brief stop at Isaac's lodgings to rest up for the night they head to the place that has brought them both here, the dreaded Purgatory and the secrets it may hold.

Purgatory itself is a classic dungeon crawl, with descending levels, each of which present puzzles and challenges above and beyond those already imposed by the game and battle dynamics. The miasma beasts you face drop occasional items of immediate value, though most of what you get is miasma samples that can be cashed in to allow the purchase of much needed supplies and upgraded armour and weapons. But it is still as it was in the childhood arc a balancing act between defeating enemies and therefore advancing in stats and the occasional dropped item and preserving the limited resources you have available. Important note, make sure you stock up on everything you need before you enter Purgatory. Spend everything you have, you get trapped each time you enter, and won't be getting out before you run a gauntlet, so be prepared.

Luckily there are quite a few items secreted around the levels of Purgatory or at least as I'm playing in casual mode there are, but they are not easy to find. No handy chests or conveniently dropped pouches await your voracious fingers and bottomless backpack. It's not quite a case of banging into walls, but checking out that odd discolouration on the floor, that fluttering shadow on the wall, and scavenging amongst the bones of those unfortunates who never made it back into the light can net you vital supplies; and that can mean the difference between adding your bones to theirs or surviving long enough to feel the sun on your face once more.

How marvellous, another disturbing layer to add to the tenebrous halls and baleful music.

Second important note, don't believe everything you see, hear or read. This place isn't Limbo, it's Purgatory, where through suffering and trials transgressions will be burnt and torn away, and the psyche thus purified can be saved. That of course that isn't the initial reason our protagonists entered this inhospitable realm, but people rarely do anything for a single reason, even if they believe they have. Eventually after a agonising obstacle course with what I can only describe as the most haphephobic personification I have ever encountered in a game you are transported back out of Purgatory, although you know you still have many more miles to walk in that place of perdition. Once back in Haven a living embodiment of Zero's past comes back to ostensibly trouble her, but as with many things in this game, appearances are deceptive and a layer of the guilt and pain that Zero has carried with her for almost a decade dissipates effortlessly. The fire of Purgatory it seems extends beyond its physical borders and gives light to the first tentative seedlings of hope...though some stray too close and are incinerated.

So when next Purgatory's gates are breached, it is with two stalwart if not exactly knowing companions that Zero makes her descent, but not all the secrets are contained within its confines and Purgatory will call the companions back time and again as it forces them to confront their own demons and those of those they travel with. Which brings me to a third important note, check the stores after every trip to and from Purgatory, the equipment set and available options expand each time, and some of the items that would make progression through the next strata easier will be available before you enter, so make sure you get them.

I was seriously expecting demonic lava-tunnelling fire moles.

The grown and wheelchair bound Myra brings a number of unexpected advantages to the group, her reflexes and skill with the bow are a welcome addition, but it is her ability to craft items whilst in-dungeon that can make the greatest contribution to their survival. This only comes into play when you camp and as you can only do that once at each available save point yet again the resource management of the game comes to the fore. It is unfortunate that the crafting script seems to have some conflict with the one that Red_Nova used to incorporate multiple charged items, so the menu can be a trifle clunky and the crafting of items in particular less straightforward than it might otherwise have been.

However for very different reasons than the ability to craft and heal it is imperative that you take the opportunity to camp whenever you can. Important dialogue and growth can only be had in fireside, err..lantern-side chats between your party members, which lead to the most important advantage of Myra's presence. It offers a plethora of character exploration opportunities for both Zero and Isaac, which are exploited with a fair degree of finesse and very few descriptive stumbles, though plenty of in-story awkward moments. Subtle clues that have been foreshadowed are given more substance and glimpses of the gossamer threads on which these fragile people balance are revealed in sometimes harsh and stunning clarity.

In the end it is all about the choices Zero makes, as it has been throughout the game, she has to choose which path she will walk, but for the first time it is made with knowledge and acceptance. Not the blind faith of childhood, or the instinctual desire for survival, or the temerarious decision fuelled by remorse, or even the self-destructive urge made admirable when disillusionment has replaced hope. This choice is made by someone who has been broken and remade through adversity and recognises she has not just the right but the obligation to seek a new path. This is no simplistic good or bad ending, but an opening up of vistas, and an acknowledgement that for every path walked there is one on which we will never travel. Both options available to her are bittersweet, but effective in their way. The fact that the choice itself is not a singular one, but an organic outgrowth of numerous decisions made through the game is a wonderful revelation, each branching points builds or weakens the likelihood of a particular outcome and when the ending does arrive it feel more natural because of it, a moment of understanding the rightness of this outcome. This is the destination to which she has been moving, carried endlessly forward not with the aimlessness of flotsam, but with a hand, albeit at times tentative and unsteady, on the tiller.

Though if I could have one wish, it would be that the redemption ending didn't have the easy acceptance that is given, the rebirth gives an out for the reactions portrayed by the other player in the coda, but the redemption one seems to slide into sentimentality just a little too much, and would have been stronger without it.

Yes I went back and replayed to experience both endings, there are 20 save slots available in this game, and I used them all.

It's not so much jumping, as falling into place.

I'm not going to hint at too much more, and not just because I've completely obliterated the 3,000 word mark in this review, but because the unravelling of the interwoven threads of this story, the interaction between the characters and the final dénouement is simply something that should be experienced firsthand, not through the lens of someone else's perspective.

Soul Sunder is a wonderful game; it has its faults, and the occasional bugs, though Red_Nova is furiously wiping them out with a giant digital shoe. The mapping could definitely do with some work, both in the purely aesthetic sense and in the application of logic, though the later town of Haven was better than Orias in that regard. Additionally the battles whilst challenging sometimes become a case of finding the one thing that works and spamming that until you run out of resources. But it nails the story. I cared about these people, both as children and adults, they irritated me and engaged me, they frustrated me and made me smile. There is a natural flow to their interactions that is very honest, even if the content of their character sometime made me question their motivation. This game is imaginative and vibrant and the few miscalculations in it are far outweighed by its merits. Go and play it.

Now it's time to strap myself in, I'm off to play in survivor mode.

*Please note between the time of writing this original review and the updated version that Red_Nova has released the problems with the mapping have been addressed and amended. Rather than remove the original paragraph from this review I believed it would be better to highlight the work that has been done by the developer in response to constructive criticism and feedback, which is a great thing to see in a game.


Pages: 1
Circumstance penalty for being the bard.
Okay, maybe you have more reviews than me!

B-but, you still don't have as many games, or five digit makerscore! or..or...one of those things!

You're magical to me.
Thank you for this marvelous review, nhubi. You've captured the essence of this game most magnificently, and this is the review I feel the game truly deserves.

This game shows what a talented and skillful storyteller Red_Nova is, and was my first glimpse into his game-making style, which is very strong on connecting the gameplay to the story-narrative in compelling ways. Having worked with him since, I've seen more and more of that spark for that inner-connectivity, and it's been very inspiring.

I think this is just the beginning of what we'll see from this developer, and who knows what kinds of stories he will craft from here. ^_^
You are my hero nhubi, your reviews always express what my lack of english fluidity doesn't.
All in all, great review for a great game.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité
Don't stress Soli, you'll ALWAYS be the Captain. I think I may take a little break from this reviewing lark and just play for a while. So, you could regain the top of the leaderboard, easily enough.

I'm never going to makes games, but a 5 figure MS, I can aim for that :).

Unity, thank you! I'm glad you liked it, yes the natural connections he portrays are very appealing, and make the game a joy to play. I am very much looking forward to the next production, and the next etc.

Thank you urano, I blame my verbosity on a voracious intake of literature as a child that has not diminished over time, and indeed has actually increased. Read enough works outside of your own frame of reference and trust me, your vocabulary grows exponentially. Though it seems I have at least remained approachable.
Sir Redd of Novus: He who made Prayer of the Faithless that one time, and that was pretty dang rad! :D
Wow... That was a beautiful read. Thank you so much for the review! This practically made my day, week, month, etc. I'm not gonna lie: words failed me for about thirty minutes while I read this. This was something I poured my heart and soul (no pun intended. Honestly!) into making, so I can't tell you how happy I am that it resonated with you as well as everyone else that enjoyed it.

I 100% agree with you regarding the issues you pointed out, especially about mapping. It's certainly my weakest point in developing, and I will definitely work on that. Your suggestions will certainly make it better.

Again, thanks for the wonderful review.


And unity's and urano's responses... I don't think I'll stop smiling for the next two or three days ^_^
Got any Dexreth amulets?
Brilliant review! I'm glad to see your reaction to Soul Sunder was even more positive than my own, and put into much more literary language than I could ever do. You have my respect, Lieutenant Reviewer.
(By the way, if you really think using 20 savefiles is much... I used 85. Copied into seperate folders, of course.)

Other than that, all I can do is repeat your conclusion: Everyone, go play this game!
Liberté, égalité, fraternité
Thanks NS, 85 saves? Seriously, that's excessive, but then again you were bug testing as well as playing. Also, Yay, got my rank, though of course it isn't official until the monthly stats come out, and there probably should be some sort of investiture ceremony...nah, I'll just know I have it.

Red, glad to see you enjoyed, and that you still think I'm fair. However that being said, now I have finished this, I've got a something I wanted to share.

Ok I have a theory, it may be wrong, but it enabled me to apply a little logic to the place. This is SERIOUSLY spoilerific, so don't read it until you have played the game. Really. This is a big hairy disclaimer. Play the game first.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.

Haven isn't real. Not real in the sense that Orias is, I believe it is a collective construct. A place brought into being both by Purgatory and the energy created by the emotions of the people that Purgatory called to it. I believe that at the base of Purgatory there is a terminus gate, though we never see it and that it is linked as they all are to the one in the forbidden ruins. I believe that the events in Orias caused a rupture in the fabric of that network and Purgatory arose as a result. An extension of miasma from out of a gate given solid form like a soap bubble on the water's surface, based in water but extending into the realm of air. I believe it is shaped by the emotions of those that are called to it, and that it through the trials inside separates the individual from those emotions, or at least the destructive part thereof which allows them to finally leave and is the reason it seals behind them, once the place has removed those negative emotions there is no more reason to enter.

I believe the four individuals inside Purgatory are the manifestations of the emotions drained from the people in the town, which is why they are still there. Haven is actually still part of Purgatory, it's just the edge, or as I put it an adventitious bud, those four individuals haven't completed their journey. The bar owner still refers to herself, or allows herself to be referred to as married, when her alter ego inside Purgatory give a lie to that statement, the armour/weapons shopkeepers snipe at each other because though they have left the major damage behind in Purgatory they still haven't dealt with all the baggage and realised the most healthy thing from them is to move on from each other. Purgatory keeps them there and uses their emotions and its own power of miasma to create the illusion of a place, and their collective belief is enough to give it form, and it will continue to do so until they are healed. It's the reason it was made, that moment in the forbidden ruins when the voice spoke to Arya it was talking about salvation, a chosen one to rid the world of all evil through its eradication in the form of death but Arya rejects that interpretation, so Purgatory takes that impetus as its raison d'être and seeks to rid people of evil or as it interprets it negative destructive emotions. It wouldn't seek to destroy miasma monsters, because miasma is what it is made out of so it can't see that as evil to be removed, it's looking for what Arya sought, the good masked by the evil, the light she was trying to free within the thing that her brother had become.

Yeah I know, wacky, but I like the idea of Purgatory being in some ways sentient, not in a fully cognisant way, but like some form of plant life, seeking the nutrients it needs to survive and propagating environments in which its food source can live, if not exactly prosper.

Sir Redd of Novus: He who made Prayer of the Faithless that one time, and that was pretty dang rad! :D
I love your theory, nhubi! I don't want to say too much, since coming up with theories is the job of the player, but...

Your conclusions are actually almost exactly what I had in mind when I designed Purgatory and Haven! Congrats!
Liberté, égalité, fraternité
Well I am pleased.

You do realise the ability to portray the underlying unstated motivation is a sign of a great story, right?

Now I'm going to stop posting on my own review, it feels a little egotistical.
Congrats, nhubi. You finally topped Captain Reviewer. And possibly your longest review yet.
Pages: 1