What do you get when you mix classic dungeon crawlers such as ‘Eye of the Beholder’, Japanese flavoured visual novels, social gaming and choose your own adventure game-books in the likeness of ‘Fighting Fantasy’? The answer is Soul Unleashed, a game that appeared on the app store with relatively little fanfare and exceeds all expectations.
Soul Unleased is a game by Qualiasoft, a Japanese company that lends its own very distinct Manga art style to the title. Don’t be fooled by the cute graphics however because underneath lies a distinctly pen and paper RPG affair that pushes choices on the player and rewards additional content based on what passive skills a party has at any given moment. It describes itself as ‘icon driven’ in terms of gameplay and for the more part this is entirely true, streamlining choices presented to the player into a number of easily recognised icons on screen to choose from. ‘Simple but deep’ seems to be the key element of design here.
Graphically the game is played in portrait mode with the top half of the screen displaying the current location from a selection of pre-rendered backgrounds and the lower half always representing the current player party. The art is 2D illustration in a distinctly Manga style and the player character can be customised just enough at the games outset that meeting anybody with a similar overall look will be rare. Equipment is also displayed on a character to add further distinction. Background renders are nicely drawn but there are very few of them overall, with Icons representing movement through a location over a change in the imagery on display. This will bother some and make others think of other titles they played ‘back in the day’ with a similar approach. Icons themselves are clear and precise as to their function and all attacks in battle are accompanied by specific battle animations covering their effects. Monsters are well drawn and there appears to be a wide range to encounter based on each mission. The world is typical anime fantasy, with a mock European feel with shades of ‘Record of Lodoss War’.
Music and sound are original and whilst the same tracks are used over and over again (presumably in order to keep the games file size down to a respectably low total) they do have some merit. The title screen sets the stage with a piece that seems relaxed and has a classical edge before swelling into a more anime-traditional opening. Selection screens feature a nice mystical piece that loops cleanly and indefinably, and combat projects the right amount of urgency. Some tracks reminded me a little of Chrono Trigger, which isn’t a bad thing in of itself. Sound Effects are less awesome, but get the job done. Menu clicking is kept to a minimum and battle sounds represent their attacks nicely.
The story woven into this title initially puts you into the shoes of a young noble-born woman who serves as a Valkyrie in her nations military. When tasked with wiping out a village of ‘infidels’ she flips and defends them before vanishing. The prologue serves as a tutorial and a taste of the heavier themes to come before introducing the player character, created from scratch with a backstory of your own writing, into a town with no money to his/her name and a thirst for adventure. This leads you to taking on a number of quests through the local tavern and interacting with the people around you, including the church and nobility. All the time a building sense of something going on in the background continues to build. It’s a simple, often clichéd fantasy adventure and occasionally the text isn’t as well translated as it could be, but overall it’s a satisfying game to play, especially when player build and party alter each mission’s text in subtle ways.
Gameplay sees the player tapping icons on-screen to progress or characters in the party to bring up menus. It’s very simple but enables some huge dungeons to be formed from simply patching together groupings of icons and a little background art. Where the game shines is in the character skills and classes, with a selection of active and passive skills available to purchase from a random draw each time the character levels up. Some are obvious in their function, adding attacking or healing options whilst others seem useless but go to great lengths to come in handy. Cooking, Lore and other basic passive skills all feed into each adventure. Entering any room might spark an inter-character conversation concerning the history of the location or an observant party member may see a hidden door to a new area. Its these random touches that lend a sense of world and involvement to a simplistic play style and add weight to every decision. You can only leave town with a pre-set selection of skills and party members are randomly selected from other player’s characters (or if your offline a stable of pre-made ones) so you never know what you’ll be getting. Battles take place in a turn based combat system where each party member will select an action from a ‘hand’ of 6 options randomly presented from their abilities each round. You can go with the suggested action or micro-manage as best you can for better control. It’s fast and fun, especially when on the go. A random party also means you explore more options than players normally would because you can’t rely on a go-to cast of classes. You own character’s class is decided by the player, with additional ones being unlocked through which skills you own. These each have their own special ability and stat boost attached to them and every single one is viable when playing. Whilst damage is healed after combat and dead characters revive a party wipe-out causes the mission to fail and sends you back to the hub-town. It’s not too hard to avoid but some negative status effects linger after battles and too many of these can make it impossible to go on. The game features no ‘game over’ screen but does offer up a premium currency (earned at level up) to refresh everyone and continue. This currency, called ‘Stars’, is also used to unlock additional character slots for new playthroughs. The game doesn’t force you into buying any, is generous with the ones it gives you and doesn’t pressure you to spend them. It’s the least pushy in-game currency I have ever encountered.
Overall, Soul Unleashed is a great game that makes use of limited assets to create a huge and sprawling world to explore. It takes the heart of pen and paper roleplaying to the mobile dimension in a casual format and even manages to throw in some player avatar interaction in a single player title. It’s well worth a purchase and is available on the iStore now. A free and lengthy demo is also available that can be trial-ran for those still unsure about wanting to shell out the money for the full game.