Every game has its influences, but SolSeraph might as well have the subtitle: Tribute to ActRaiser. Everything from the god-saving-humanity story to the hybrid action/city-building gameplay mirrors the 1990 Super Nintendo gem I adored as a kid – Sega even enlisted ActRaiser composer Yuzo Koshiro to write the score for SolSeraph’s excellent title theme – but this spiritual successor isn’t as successful as the original. SolSeraph’s side-scrolling parts are a nostalgic fever dream, replicating the weighty, methodical feel of ActRaiser and other action games from its era, but its level design can be hit and miss. The city-building sections have nice modern touches, but they’re ultimately too simplistic, lacking any real depth or strategy. SolSeraph is at least partially saved by the fact that these dueling genres don’t overstay their welcome, but they never manage to live up to their inspiration either.
ActRaiser starred the god-like hero dubbed The Master. SolSeraph has its own all powerful protector named Helios, whose official title rivals Daenerys Targaryen in length. Dastardly gods wreaked havoc on humankind, producing natural disasters that separated people into remote areas across the world. Helios, being the good god that he is, wants to help rebuild civilization and defend it from Chaos, the evil seeking to destroy humankind for good. Besides the opening and final cutscenes, SolSeraph is all written dialogue. The writing is serviceable and lighthearted, but it doesn’t enhance the experience.
Your job is to rebuild civilization for five different tribes. Each scenario follows the same interesting loop: Opening side-scrolling level with a mini-boss, top-down city-building with four smaller scale action levels scattered throughout the map, and then a closing side-scrolling level with a boss battle at the end. The two diverging play styles work well together, but each feels a tad on the lean side.
There Are Rocks in My Boots
From the very first side-scrolling level, I was surprised and delighted at how early ‘90s it felt to control Helios on land. Remember how old school action games sometimes made it feel like the hero’s shoes were filled with rocks and their armor weighed more than their body? That’s Helios. I love the charming clunkiness of his move set, as you regularly have to be methodical with your attacks and defense. Even his swift horizontal dodge isn’t foolproof if you don’t think ahead. His mana attacks — ice, fire, lightning, etc., most of which unlock by defeating bosses — add range to his moveset. But I mostly neglected the unlockable moves for the starting bow because it’s the most effective and practical ranged weapon the whole way through.
Each region on the map has a unique set of five to ten enemies. In its best levels, SolSeraph’s challenge comes from both the number of enemies thrown at you at once and their placement. That ledge you need to jump over to? It’s guarded by a tricky archer. That platform you need to cross? Spikes are periodically emerging from the ground and a pair of enemies are appearing and disappearing around it, shooting magic homing orbs at you. The level may start with just a few bats chasing you down or a couple goblin-esque dudes trying to claw your face off, but they ramp up in difficulty quickly. Soon you’ll have mounted enemies racing towards you with long axes, frogs flying on the backs of giant bats swooping down towards you, and dragons spewing fire. For better and worse, SolSeraph captures the feeling of action games from the SNES era in that success is partially tied to memorization of both the level layout and enemy attack patterns. After picking up the patterns, I could often kill the same enemies that had given me fits without even letting them get a swing in on me.
But levels are often imbalanced. Some of the main levels can take upwards of ten minutes to get through, while others can be completed in just a couple of minutes. It’s jarring to feel like a level is not even halfway done only to stumble into the boss fight. In the lengthier levels, I had to be far more careful. I appreciated this because I actually had to employ some strategy and worry about taking damage. Health pickups are few and far between, and going into a boss fight with not much left was a recipe for disaster.
In addition to the main pair of levels in each region, there are four to five smaller lairs that must be cleared before taking on the final level in each area. Even more so than the strangely short levels, these lairs exemplify “going through the motions.” Most of these stages are more like arenas filled with enemies to clear out. I could often brute force my way through these two minute mini-levels, ignoring all defensive maneuvers. This was especially true later on because I had a ton of health and mana upgrades at that point.
Helios the Builder
When I started building my first village, I loved how simple and intuitive it felt to quickly place a new structure, watch it form in a matter of seconds, and move on to the next order of business. Real-time strategy games sometimes don’t translate well to gamepad controls, but SolSeraph keeps it clean with a wheel housing four action categories: Basic Buildings, Defense Buildings, weather, and a removal function to destroy existing buildings.
But as I moved from one village to the next, I started to see the process as a mirage that masked its critical lack of depth. On the one hand, it’s fun to spend only about thirty minutes building each region. By the end, I had thriving communities for five tribes across the world. Yet, I came to see that my building choices rarely mattered.
Each build starts at the fire pit and moves outward. First you add a house or two, which bring five new residents a piece. People need food, so you have to build farms and assign workers to tend to your crops. But before that, you have to call on rain with your god powers to make fertile land. You need wood to build, so you have to look for a cluster of trees, expand your territory, and set up a lumber mill. These three basic builds get you going.
While the goal is to establish a peaceful community, your upstart village has to defend itself regularly. A meter on the bottom of the screen shows when the next enemy wave begins, and the meter moves quicker the more waves that pass. Defending against enemies is where the city-building becomes quite shallow.
Enemies can only travel across narrow pre-constructed roads, so you also can only place your defensive structures alongside those roads. First, you place Barracks for ground enemies and Archer Towers that pluck baddies from the sky. Because of this restriction, you never have to prepare for any surprises. Sure, enemies eventually funnel in from four to five different lairs across the map, but they inevitably arrive in the center of town to try to extinguish your fire pit.
So the placement of your defenses doesn’t really matter. Even as I unlocked more defensive options, such as Magic Towers that strike multiple enemies and Forges that increase attack power, I never really had to worry about an overarching strategy. And if enemies do by chance get by your human soldiers and near your fire pit, you can use Helios’ powers to strike them with lightning or spawn a Sun Guardian to fight on the ground with the people. My fire pit only went out twice throughout the whole game and that was in the first region when I was still getting my bearings.
Compounding the city-building issues is the fact that there’s a finite number of trees in each region. It’s not that you don’t have enough resources for the incoming attacks, it’s that the spacious maps tend to feel extremely empty. The only real reason to expand your building territory is for lumber mills and temples, which are used to destroy the fog surrounding the lairs to gain entrance to side-scrolling stages. I felt no need to build structures like Windmills to increase farm and lumber mill productivity either because I had all of the lairs unlocked after a handful of waves or so. Plus, since the map design makes it challenging to fail, why even worry about efficiency?
To its credit, each region has its own quirks that keep building from becoming completely monotonous. The snowy Vale of Yeg doesn’t have fertile land, so you have to create livestock pens instead. Crops in the Sekh Desert need to either be constantly watered, or you need to place wells for irrigation. In the Arunan Isles, villagers travel by boats to a series of smaller islands. The Isles was the one region where I felt compelled to build in a wider variety of areas simply because of its layout.
There’s no right way to defend your city, but there’s really no wrong way to do it either. The absence of real strategy gameplay didn’t entirely ruin my enjoyment of the city-building sections, but it did make my choices seem inconsequential.
This article was originally published by IGN.COM