The start to Smoke and Sacrifice, a narrative driven survival game, is a powerful one. You’re introduced to the protagonist Sachi – a hard working inhabitant of an agricultural steam punk village that’s protected from deadly wildlife by contraptions called Sun Trees – and soon she’s asked to do the unimaginable. To keep the Sun Tree’s operating, she must sacrifice her first born son Lio. It’s the law of the village, set out by a sect of priests, and something every first time parent in the village must endure. In an emotional scene, Sachi fulfils her duty, offering up her beloved Lio for the greater good. To the parent in me, this was like a drop kick to the heart strings but thankfully, it’s not long before a glimmer of hope is offered to the regretful mother and player.
A mysterious travelling tinker arrives on the scene and suggests that not everything is as it seems, handing Sachi a necklace and asking her to keep hold of it. It’s not till years later though, that that glimmer of hope starts to grow into a full blown adventure. When the Sun Tree’s start to fail, the village is set upon by pug faced beasties. Urged on by the mysterious tinker (who always seems to show up at the most opportune times), eluding that her son might still be alive, Sachi investigates the sacrificial alter which took away her Lio and is then transported to a new, even more dangerous world. Here she sets out to find her son and uncover the dark ties that link her own land to the one she now finds herself in.
Without spoiling any more of the plot (the aforementioned events all happening in the first half an hour of the game), Sachi chases lead after lead, searching for her beloved Lio and along the way, helps a cast of characters that are in need of her help and faces off against some familiar yet unfamiliar foes. The plot itself is a strong one, featuring more twists and turns than a Curly Wurly but its most poignant moments are spaced far too far apart and are separated by a myriad of fetch quests, resource gathering and repetition.
When Sachi arrives in this new world, she arrives with nothing but the clothes on her back, the necklace from the Tinkerer and Lio’s favourite teddy bear. Some of these things will prove to be very useful on her journey but it’s no where near enough to survive the harsh realities that stand between her and her goal. She’ll need food, armour, weapons and light sources if she’s to survive – especially when you consider that for half of every day in this harsh new world, a thick smoke rolls in which saps her of her health unless she’s equipped with the right gear.
Smoke and Sacrifice has an intricate lattice of crafting and resources that are carefully laid out across its large map. To begin with, you’ll be crafting a light source from easily found resources to stave off the smoke which encompasses the map at night. This builds, layer upon layer, with everything you collect having a use eventually. Soon though, shopping list like layers of crafting starts to creep in. To get the right gear to enter a new area, some objectives require you to provide X amount of items to an NPC. To find these items however, you’ll need to provide Y items to another character. Unfortunately, to get the Y items, you’ll need to craft specific weapon Z that requires a specific crafting bench and the blueprint or recipe for which can be obtained by killing a group of monsters and reporting back to a different NPC . At times, the layers of requirements becomes dizzying and repetitive despite all of the important information being stored in a little notebook for you to refer too.
Visually, Smoke and Sacrifice is a real treat. Like a hand drawn, living and breathing painting, it’s intricate and sharp in design. The art style blends steampunk with agriculture, folksy mysticism with the technological giving it an original, unique aesthetic. It’s a shame then that for half of the game, this gorgeous art work is obscured by a blanket of smoke.
Combat is also conflicted. Attacks are mapped to a single button, the speed and arc of which depends on which weapon you’re wielding. Getting up close and person with a monster or foe (of which there is a large variety), while shallow and button mash-y, works well – if the weapon goes through the enemy, it damages their health. Throwing, which is damn near essential for some enemy types, is a whole other issue. Because of the visual style, it’s near impossible to know if you’re throwing on the same plane as the beasty you’re aiming to hit.
Lastly, Smoke and Sacrifice uses a manual save system. You can only save when you reach computer terminals dotted around the map or at key points during the story. This does two things. 1). It makes exploring gloriously tense. Head out into the unknown, not knowing what you’ll come across and whether you’re prepared for what you’ll encounter, knowing that dying will mean losing that progress, gives it a certain edge. 2). It will likely frustrate the life out of you when you forget to save after a few exploring trips and you get taken out by a crappy enemy and lose hours of resource gathering.
Smoke and Sacrifice is a visually splendid survival RPG that has a strong narrative and a well designed and implemented resource system. The PS4 version is also a great port of the PC version, the control system feeling natural and intuitive. The repetition and bland fetch quests, coupled with hit and miss combat (pun intended) however, mean that getting to the games best moments can occasionally feel like a slog.
Smoke and Sacrifice is available now on PC, PS4 (review version), Nintendo Switch and Xbox One.
Developer: Solar Sail Games
Publisher: Curve Digital
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we received a code from the publisher. For more information, please see our review policy.