Soulblight is a dark fantasy/sci-fi/steampunk hybrid rogue-lite game viewed from a top-down perspective. With permadeth, crisply drawn graphics, and unique skill and combat systems, Soulblight's demo reveals a lot of what we can look forward to when the game drops in the near future.
While the demo of Soulblight is relatively sparse on lore, sheets that can be found and decoded in a later town hub, as well as the art direction, are strong atmospheric cues that give players enough of a world to enjoy. There were also some incomplete "observation" cues in the randomly generated sections that suggest players may get some additional pieces of lore by sniffing around each area thoroughly.
Soulblight is best played with a controller, and while the keyboard prompts and control option is present and sensible enough, there's no question that it was a bit harder to survive when using KB/M versus a gamepad. We ended up sticking with a good ol' XBox 360 controller, and the prompts and controls worked like a charm.
Like many rogue-lites these days, the gameplay is relatively simple on the surface, but statistics and strategy based on your character's skills (called "Taints") and equipment is paramount to survival. Like Gauntlet, you'll need to keep a stock of food on hand to keep from losing health, and you'll want to be careful not to alert too many enemies to your presence until you can handle them. Unlike Gauntlet, the combat is slow and deliberate, and enemy swarms are much smaller, though no-less dangerous. Combat consists of an attack button and a block button, and learning the different speeds of each based on your equipment is crucial to success. So is learning to watch the green ring around your character that is your stamina gauge, as trying to block, flee, or attack without enough juice will leave your character standing and open to attack.
There's also a unique "grip" mechanic that allows you or enemies to latch onto opponents, and not release them until they're dead or knock you back. The grip mechanic is tricky, and we found it useful against weaker enemies, and a poor decision against those much stronger than you. Likewise, enemies can try to grip you, making it harder for you to run away, or attack other enemies.
The Taint system is what Soulblight's skills are built around, and each path of randomly generated areas grants you a Taint such as "Cowardice," which grants perks and hazards (in this case, bonuses for stealth kills, and debuffs for engaging in direct combat). These can presumably stack as you clear new paths, making the ultimate boss fights a little easier (depending on the traits you've garnered.) You'll also get status effects by taking various actions in game, such as suffering guilt when killing small critters for food.
In addition to the Taint system, there are grave wounds, of which you can suffer from four before expiring. These can have various effects like bleeding away life or gaining infections, and need special items to remedy (such as thread to suture wounds, or gauze to stop bleeding.) Your life and armor, like you stamina, appear as different colored bars around you character, and functions the same for enemies. Getting items to heal wounds and life, as well as money and new equipment, can be done by searching chests, strange objects, or using the transmogrification ovens (which look like tiny sun icons.) Putting "reality altering" items, as well as some food stuffs, into these devices can result in new items being forged. These forgings can also fail, however, so you'll never be sure of what you'll get. There are also small electronic store fronts to purchase items for money, and it's important to stock up before heading into the next randomly generated section.
Overall, every system in place in the Soulblight demo is fascinating and fun to play around with, but there are some improvements that could be made prior to launch. Namely, the pace of battle is too slow. This was likely deliberate in mimicking the Souls-style games, but it's too difficult to learn the timing of each round's equipment and skills before you're decimated because the combat is so long in playing out. Similarly, those points would be easier to work out if characters were allowed to swing and block outside of combat, but they're not; instead, no swing can be thrown unless an enemy actively spots you, which you don't want much of the time. Lastly, the auto-zoom could serve players better by getting closer to the action in combat moments. We tested the demo on both a 55" television and a 15" monitor, and found it a little tough to read enemy actions on both, as the camera spun too far away.
The great news is that Soulblight's coder/designer Kuba let us know that many of these fixes are currently, underway, including the combat balancing and a dummy that'll be present at a safe zone, allowing players to swing away at will and get the combat timing down pat.
graphics and sound
The sound is serviceable in Soulblight's demo, with ambient music and ominous environmental sounds being sparse but well-used. More noticeable and commendable is the excellent lighting and art direction, which make the game look like World of Warcraft as directed by Ridley Scott. Hard light permeates each area of a randomly generated section with harsh reds, greens, and yellows, while every weapon and armor swap changes your character's appearance distinctly. Despite only seeing yourself and creatures from above, every design is differentiated enough that you'll quickly know which enemies to dread before they even start swinging.
The top-down look itself will thrill fans of recently retro PC games in particular, and there's a distinct graphical flair that reminded me heavily of Monolith's 1998 cult fave Get Medieval, and also of Raven's 1997 underappreciated title Take No Prisoners. These are good things, and give Soulblight a unique vibe in the quickly inflating world of rogue-lites.
We're excited for Soulblight to hit Steam, as the unique atmosphere, combat, and Taint systems of the game earn the title a deserving spot in rogue-lite lover's digital libraries. Hopefully developer My Next Games will perfect the minor tweaks needed in combat speed and camera zoom that will catapult the title from great to absolute must-have. Since they seem intent on perfecting the package prior to launch, hence the TBD release date, we can expect that these improvements are exactly what the team is working on, In other words, save your pennies, and make sure your Steam wallet is ready and able to snag this fun die-fest as soon as it launches–you'll love each killing blow.