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

Less than the sum of its parts

  • argh
  • 08/25/2016 08:02 PM
Warning: this review contains vague spoilers for some of the endings. I recommend completing the game at least once before reading.

Soma Spirits is an RPG about philosophy and choices. The premise is that, after the world erupted into war, the gods split the world into two spiritual planes: the World of Joy, where everyone is always happy, and the World of Sorrow, which lacks the unchecked emotion that led to the war. This worked pretty well for a while, but now the worlds are becoming unstable and There Can Be Only One. Each god obviously wants their own world to dominate, and you are led through five scenarios where you must solve a dilemma by either curbing unbridled joy or alleviating sorrow. Generally, this comes down to a choice between personal happiness and societal responsibility. I am all about that stuff.

My main interest here is in the writing, but in the interest of fairness, I'll go over the game part quickly. It's a pretty standard RPG: you have HP and MP, you burn MP on stronger attacks until the enemies are dead. Level up to get more stats and abilities. There are no random encounters, which is a big plus. The central mechanic is that your two party members switch roles depending on what world they're in: in their own world, they have access to offensive abilities, but otherwise they can only use support abilities such as healing and buffing. This is a cool idea, but the game doesn't do much with it. The two characters are virtually identical, and my strategy rarely changed depending on what world I was in. The main differences between the two are what magical elements they have access to... except not really, since they have support spells that enchant the others' weapon with their own elements, and very few enemies have elemental weaknesses to begin with. Towards the end, they also gain different buffs -- Heart can buff magic attack while Soul can buff physical attack and defense -- but because this game falls into the standard RPG trap of magic being outclassed by regular attacks, Soul's buffs are the only ones that are really useful. Their only abilities that have genuine strategic differences are their status effect spells (which bosses are immune to so eh) and their chain attack skills -- Heart can consume buffs for additional attacks, while Soul gets additional attacks for every debuff he suffers. These are actually pretty interesting, but they're often quite situational (especially Soul's), and they're quickly outclassed by ultimate attack skills that are automatically multi-hit.

The game is also brain-meltingly easy. I never got a game over and I ran out of MP exactly once, and that was against the true ultimate final boss purposefully designed to be a grueling gauntlet. Just spamming your strongest attacks and healing when necessary will get you through everything, up to and including the optional superboss, who I defeated before he exhausted even half of his time limit. I'm not saying every RPG has to be Last Scenario, but I would have liked to have to think a bit more. And, again, I'm really disappointed how useless the magic was. Both characters' attack was nearly twice that of their magic attack by the end, and even the strongest spells were just barely outdamaging regular attacks. There should have been more equipment that raised magic attack, at the very least.

Aesthetically, though, the game is wonderful. Everything is custom, which is of course necessary to characterize the unique atmosphere of the two worlds. Graphics use the SNES style so common to indie RPGs, with flat but detailed sprites. The monsters all have lovely designs that show a lot of personality in both their Joy and Sorrow incarnations. The music is even better, with each world getting its own soundtrack for battles, events, and areas, which again gives each world an amazing amount of personality. Generally, Sorrow tracks adhere more closely to shared themes and leitmotifs while using more traditional musical styles, while Joy tracks are more free and varied. I particularly enjoyed "Vs. Dissonance" and "Showdown" (because I love choral riffs and string instruments) as well as basically every Sorrow track.

So, as an RPG, this is a pretty solid experience, and you'll probably be well entertained. However, the main attraction of the game is clearly the story, and that's a more complicated affair.

The game's conclusion leaves a lot to be desired. The warning signs become obvious the moment you learn there is a "true" ending. Though the game's description claims that “you may find that the choices made in Soma Spirits are not so black and white. Every major choice made will have some impact on the story, and there are rarely any 'correct' solutions”, there is objectively one correct choice: make a perfectly even number of Joy and Sorrow decisions to create a fully balanced world. Deviate from this at all, and the game makes sure to inform you that you are crazy, stupid, and/or evil. As much as the game loves to tout that every individual decision has logical merit, it doesn't extend the same nuance to aggregate decisions.

For me, the fundamental dilemma is this: What is the value of the World of Sorrow? Happiness has intrinsic worth. It doesn't need to justify itself. But bizarrely, the game doesn't seem to think the sadness has to justify itself either. The characters argue until they're blue in the face that sadness is totally necessary and important, but, well… is it? Supposedly, the idea is that the Joy inhabitants can't deal with real problems and are blind to the suffering of others, so it's about awareness and responsibility. And, like, I'm a hardcore utilitarianist. I'm totally down with that. I really, really wanted that to be true. I wanted it so bad I took notes on literally every conversation with every character in both worlds, but what I found is that what we're shown doesn't match what we're told:

  • In the starting area, both worlds' inhabitants are distressed by the inciting event, but the Sorrow inhabitants show neither concern for the affected party nor a desire to fix it; they just pawn it off on the main character. So Sorrow inhabitants do not actually demonstrate awareness or a desire to help others.
  • One of these characters opens an item shop shortly after this… in both worlds, despite the Joy version showing no interest prior. So Joy inhabitants are totally capable of working hard and being industrious.
  • In the next area, when you encounter a blocked door, one character jokes that the employee responsible will be getting a pink slip. So Joy inhabitants are capable of dealing with real-world problems.
  • In the area after that, a Sorrow inhabitant informs you that there's a good treasure at the end of a long path – but they don't have the energy to get it themselves. So Sorrow inhabitants are just too depressed to even move most of the time?
  • Later, we learn one character has been scammed: his dream is to get a boat, but he got tricked into taking a truck instead. He is unable to notice the problem in either world, but in Joy, he learns to enjoy his truck anyway, while in Sorrow he's ambivalent.
  • In the same area, there's a deactivated elevator in a mine. When you fix it, the Joy miner is just grateful, but the Sorrow version just grouches that now he has no excuse to work. The greeters right next to him sing a happy song about the mines in Joy, but refuse to do anything in Sorrow. So Sorrow is not just a dreary place, it's flat-out not functional, if everyone refuses to work.

And the single most baffling choice has to be this: in the True End, the main characters draw strength by remembering a flashback to when they were kids and learned to accept each others' different ways of life – except we only see Soul being forced to visit the World of Joy, as if it's somehow joy that needed more time to justify itself. And though I doubt it's the intention, it's very easy to interpret the scene as "Soul is just an antisocial grump who has to learn how to get along with Heart, who is a perfect put-upon saint".

So it seems like if anything, Sorrow is the world where people choose personal happiness over their responsibility to others. But they're not even happy in a different way like I initially assumed, they are genuinely miserable and do nothing but wallow in that misery. Meanwhile, the Joy inhabitants can take care of themselves just fine, and always make the best of a bad situation. Why, then, do we need the World of Sorrow? Why is a world of pure happiness so bad?

(Oh, because it is bad, it is very very bad and you are a badwrong doubleplusungood person if you don't agree. If you choose to alleviate sorrow in every single choice, the Joy representative becomes an arrogant, insane monster who takes peoples' sorrow by force and cares only for the destruction of the World of Sorrow. Even though the game is willing to acknowledge there are logical arguments for each choice individually, it does not seem to think there are logical arguments for accepting the same flavor of logical argument five times in a row, and the only reason you could possibly have for doing that is if you're motivated by arrogance and emotion.)

Perhaps this would make more sense if we had a clearer idea of how the split worked – the versions in each world seem to be literally the same person, as they remember conversations from the other world, but what does that mean? Are all the Joy inhabitants secretly miserable and using their Sorrow counterparts as an outlet? If that's the case, then what's so bad about destroying the World of Sorrow? In the Bad End where that happens everyone sobs about how they're going to die, but if they're the same person shouldn't they just get folded into their Joy counterparts? I don't understand.

Even on an artistic level, the World of Sorrow gets the shaft. This is what the World of Joy looks like:

Here is the same area in the World of Sorrow:

So the World of Joy looks like the real world plus a layer of saturation, while the World of Sorrow looks like a circle of Hell. I get that the monochrome aesthetic is supposed to represent the World of Sorrow being more emotionally subdued, but in my experience with video games and other media, that aesthetic doesn't just represent difference, it represents incompleteness. There is supposed to be color in the world, and here it has been drained out. The World of Joy looks like a complete existence, but I felt a constant emptiness from the World of Sorrow, like it was missing something. (Further nails in the coffin include the World of Joy being treated as the default – the stages are automatically set to Joy when you enter from the hub world, and you enter the World of Joy in both the “Sorrow in jeopardy” and balanced paths just before the climax – and, of course, the balanced world in the true ending looking way more like the World of Joy, simply because Joy is the only one with color.) I really think the World of Sorrow could have used a different color palette instead of no palette at all; perhaps darker, cooler colors to contrast with Joy's brightness, or a “real is brown” aesthetic to emphasize its focus on gritty reality.

I think part of this may also be that the choices aren't very well executed. They're all pretty simple, and were over and done with too quickly for me to gain a full grasp of the situation or an emotional attachment to the participants. The characters are very obviously just props in a morality play that disappear as soon as they've served their purpose – and that's a big problem, because the worth of sorrow is supposed to be based on consequence, and if the game isn't willing to commit to those consequences, there's no reason to take joy instead of sorrow. If the forest really can survive without Acre and everything's going to be fine, there's no reason not to let him go. If organic life isn't going to die from the eternal winter, there's no reason to force the snowpeople to melt. If the tragic widower's wedding ring is right there and he'll stop overworking people once he gets it… well, there are theoretical reasons to make him move on anyway, but in practical terms, the damage has already been done.

It actually makes me think of OFF – that game had a similarly episodic structure and high-minded plot, yet each zone managed to establish a distinct atmosphere, and I felt like I had a good understanding of the characters and their problems. If there were fewer choices but we had more time to explore each one, the story might have been stronger.

Or perhaps the game shouldn't have been an RPG at all. The fact that everything has to be resolved with violence and battling greatly restricts the narrative, particularly in that it necessitates overt villains and an endgame scenario that leads to a climactic final boss fight. The way the entire narrative is framed as an ideological war between the gods with the player characters as unwitting dupes really strips the player of agency. A visual novel would have had less filler, better detail for each scenario, and potential for more nuanced endings.

And on an unrelated note, despite most characters being cartoony non-humanoids, they are all male. Why do sentient rocks and trees even have a concept of gender? The only female characters are one of the gods and an artificial golem created by a lonely wizard (not to be his wife, thankfully). Oh, and one of the characters also had a wife who was killed in a painfully textbook fridging, right down to her dying because of a stupid mistake she advised him away from.

So, ultimately Soma Spirits is disappointing. It's ambitious, but it doesn't have anything new, brave, or particularly interesting to say. It's just the same “the answer lies in the middle” fallacy we've all seen dozens of times before. Despite its preaching of tolerance and nuance, it refuses to engage with extremism fairly and logically, instead branding it as complete lunacy that only monsters would ever agree with.