Being close to one’s sibling is generally considered to be something positive, but sisters Lute and Briar takes things to an extreme level. Having undergone a transformation to turn them into a Chimera, Lute’s spirit is bound to Briar’s physical body. Bound to each other forever there are certain questions regarding practicality of such an arrangement. Those questions can be cast aside because Soulstice is an action game that’s heavy on platforming and combat, not a simulator where mundane day-to-day casts are required from the player. As such, this is an advantageous arrangement for the gameplay required of Soulstice, though the ethics of such a procedure should be questioned by anyone practicing medical alchemy or whatever discipline is required to pull off such a thing.
The Holy Kingdom of Keidas finds itself on the brink of annihilation. A massive Tear has appeared in the sky above the now ruined city of Ildren. The human inhabitants are powerless against the wraiths that have poured through the Tear, leaving many dead while others are turned into horrific monsters through possession. The only hope Ilden has against their spectral invaders are Chimera warriors. Briar and Lute are not the only Chimera that were sent to provide aid, but unfortunately for them none of the other knights are in proximity to them when they arrive.
Navigating this ruined city requires the use of both Briar and Lute. Briar is a skilled knight, trained in combat with a variety of weapons and has the physical strength to jump much higher than any human should. Lute assists with all matters of the noncorporeal. With the Tear opening up there are now elements scattered throughout Ilden where the physical body is completely useless, both in regards to environmental obstacles and combat situations. Learning how to use the abilities of the two sisters in tandem is an essential component to success in Soulstice and also an element that helps differentiate it from the games that influenced it.
Lute is able to summon two different ethereal fields around her and Briar. There’s the evocation field and banishment field. The fields are conveniently color coded, so it’s never too difficult to figure out which one is necessary. Certain areas are inaccessible without resorting to blue platforms that have no physical substance outside of Lute’s evocation field. There’s also an infestation of red crystals that has spread throughout the ruins. As powerful as Briar might be these growths are impervious to even her most devastating combos without Lute’s banishment field that makes shattering them a breeze. Without revealing too much, Lute’s fields can allow the two to see what transpired in an area before to give guidance to where they may need to travel.
This principle is true in battle as well. Most enemies can be taken out through Briar’s brute force, but there are situations when Lute’s different fields are required. As is the case with environmental obstacles, ethereal blue enemies are invulnerable unless they are within Lute’s evocation field. The same holds true for those possessed and protected by crystalline red armor. This sounds simple enough to deal with except the composition of enemy threats are mixed between the different types of enemies and Lute only has so much energy to keep her fields up and running before she needs to take a quick break from battle. Lute does return to things rather quickly, but a lot can go wrong in those few seconds when she’s out of commission.
Combat is one of the strengths of Soulstice. The stylized combo-heavy action is clearly influenced by games like God of War and Devil May Cry, with the medal ranking system after each encounter being a clear nod to one of those influences. Briar collects different weapons that she can effortlessly switch making impressive-looking combos easy to pull off. Different weapons have different advantages, such as the Ashen Enforcer being useful to launching enemies into the air while the Hand of Retribution is best for breaking down the defenses of armored foes. Outside of using her different fields for specific types of encounters, Lute also assists Briar in the old fashioned corporeal combat where she can execute a number of timed counteracts. As formidable as Briar may be, Lute’s assistance is practically necessary when she finds herself surrounded by a variety of threats, some of which may happen to be airborne.
There isn’t a traditional level up system, but the sisters collect color-coded orbs they can use as currency with Layton to acquire new skills or items. There are both red and blue orbs to be collected, one is used for Briar and the other for Lute. Briar can purchase different combos which end up being very good investments in some of the more crowded fights. Lute gets a bit more variety in her upgrades as they can power up her counterattacks or have effects on her different fields.
Soulstice does a decent job of copying elements of the action games that came before it but doesn’t hit the mark when it comes to emulating what made them great. Using Briar’s weapons and combos while occasionally calling in Lute for support works well for the most part, but it’s in the fine details where improvements could be made. There isn’t a good lock-on system so hitting the desired target can be difficult in intense battle situations due to technical design. It’s good, but further refinement is needed to consider the combat mechanics great. The mostly-fixed camera can make basic platforming situations much trickier than they really are. The story has some nice original ideas, but even those can’t prevent the dialogue from feeling cliché. Despite it needing more polish and lacking a wow factor, Soulstice is undeniably fun for fans of the genre, but also failed to pull me in the way some of the great ones have.
Soulstice’s graphics are uneven. The environments look good on a technical level, as do most of the enemies, but the character models seem last gen. The artistic direction of visuals clearly draws influence from the manga Berserk, which the developers made no secret of. The environment designs set the tone perfectly for a desolate, broken society that’s under assault from otherworldly invaders. The environments lose some of their effect for lack of variety, however, and while the design of Briar and Lute perfectly fit the aesthetic, they tend to blend in too well, especially in hectic combat situations. The music score is the perfect atmospheric complement to the visual side of things. Performance-wise there were no issues running Soulstice on PC with control inputs feeling intuitive and responsive. The Steam Deck didn’t fare as well, though. Initially playing Soulstice on max settings was a choppy disaster with horrible framerate drops. Once the setting were lowered, it ran just fine and became the preferred way to experience Soulstice during the review. On the small Deck screen the lower resolution and texture detail wasn’t that noticeable, but some may take issue with 30 FPS.
Soulstice makes no secret of what influenced it, both in aesthetics and in gameplay mechanics. The different influences come together nicely to create a unique action game. The unique mechanic of using the different abilities of the two sisters helps Soulstice stand out from the action games that inspired it. While there are good ideas in combat like the Lute’s counterattack system and Briar’s arsenal of different weapons, things didn’t always come together perfectly. The controls are too lose for as chaotic as some battles can get, turning into a situation where button mashing can win over finesse. The visuals are technically nothing to complain about, but the lack of variety in environments can dull the experience. It’s still an enjoyable action platformer, and while there are some unique elements to help make the game memorable, it still falls short of some of the great titles that inspired it.