Game Music, Reviews

Soulcaster: An XBLA Indie Game With Heart (Game Review and MP3 Samples)

April 17, 2010 | | 1 Comment Share thison Facebook Soulcaster: An XBLA Indie Game With Heart (Game Review and MP3 Samples)on Twitter

This is one of those games that’s unfortunately way too easy to miss. A friend of mine shot me a message a few weeks ago asking if I wanted to check out some music he wrote for a game called Soulcaster, an indie game that was released on the XBLA Indie Games service in March. I checked out his music, and liked it a whole lot, and was determined to learn more about the game. Upon playing it, what I found was an amazingly well thought-out and awesomely retro gaming experience that I later learned was programmed, composed, and graphically rendered by this one friend, Ian Stocker.

So, what is Soulcaster? Think of it as a cross between Gauntlet and a tower defense game. Yes, this concept sound vaguely familiar to you, as we just ran a news item this week about Ancient Corp.’s Protect Me Knight which will feature the very same blending of genres along with music by Yuzo Koshiro. The graphics, music, and gameplay are all intensely retro and also incredibly addicting, and hey, the price is right as well!

But I’m getting ahead of myself, as usual, so hit the jump for our review of Soulcaster!

Let’s start with the game’s story. It’s exactly what you’d expect from this kind of game: an evil being known as Shadowcaster has brought death and destruction to the kingdom of Avericia, and it’s up to you, a nameless wanderer, to defeat the undead hordes that plague the land. And that’s about all there is to it. The final destination in this epic quest is the dreaded “citadel” where you must recover the legendary “chalice” to restore peace to the land.

So, how does one man accomplish this overwhelming task? As you progress through the game, you come across powerful spirits (three in all) who you can summon to do your bidding. Shaedu is an archer who can attack enemies at a distance and over certain obstacles like rivers, Aeox is a warrior with a great deal of health and attack power, and Bloodfire is a “bomber” who can lob fiery explosives over walls. You summon each by pressing different buttons on the controller, and the idea is to place them strategically around the stage in real time to fend off the waves of enemies that pour out of magical spheres that act as spawning points scattered throughout each area. Unfortunately, unlike it Gauntlet, you can’t destroy these spawning points, and instead must defeat a fixed number of enemies before they shatter. The strategic element of the game and the inclusion of three characters, each with their own specialty, reminded me a bit of Lost Vikings at times, which is also a good thing. I do have to complain, however, that the fact that Shaedu can’t shoot through your allies definitely limits his usefulness throughout most of the game, but there are a few situations where he’s helpful.

While you’re summoning these spirits to do your dirty work, you yourself must avoid being attacked by enemies, as it’s easy to get surrounded and die given that the hero cannot attack on his own. You do, however, have scrolls of ruin at your disposal that you pick up throughout the game that, with the tap of the right trigger, damages all of the enemies on the screen, and can save you when you’re in a bind. There are also stores scattered throughout the various areas where you can spend the money that you pick up along the way where you can buy health potions, additional scrolls, and additional spirit orbs to summon up to 5 spirits at once, in any combination of the three available characters. You can also purchase health, attack, and attack speed upgrades for each of the three spirits, allowing you to customize your characters based on the strategy that you prefer. You can also pause the game at any time and get your password if you want to take a break, although I’m much too lazy to jot down passwords, and played through both normal and hard modes (about 1-2 hours a piece) in one sitting each.

The enemies you face are pretty varied. There are skeletons, rats, bats, grim reapers, and other bad guys that come in a variety of different colors. Each have their own strengths and weakness for you to figure out. The gold skeletons, for example, are immune to Bloodfire attacks, which is quite frustrating. The toughest enemy of the bunch is the black grim reaper, who easily dispatches you and your spirits, including the powerful Aeox, and even goes as far as to let out a horrendous screeching laughter whenever it does, which was a nice touch.

As far as Soulcaster’s graphics are concerned, they’re appropriately retro, with vibrant greens and blues when outside, and murky browns and greens in the game’s caves and sewers. The jumbo-sized character portraits and images during the credits are a bit questionable, but I loved the oldschool look of the game, which adds a lot to the charm. The level design was also a lot of fun, with skeletons and debris strewn across the land, and a variety of textures for the dirt, grass, sewers, caves, and castles that you’ll explore.

The music is what brought me to the game, and again, we have some samples for you in this review. It’s a blend of epic fantasy and funky… well, fantasy, I suppose. The opening track, “Soulcaster” [Download Here] is somewhat serene, which effectively portrays the past beauty of the now-desolate kingdom of Avericia. “Quest” [Download Here], on the other hand, features choir pad and synth arpeggios before a funky slap bass comes in. The track works amazingly well in the context of the game, and is a treat to listen to outside of the game as well. The store theme is a metal track with electric guitar, which is quite a surprise. There’s also this melancholy piece that plays during the brief “resting” points between some of the areas where you’re able to converse with your spirit companions. It’s a great soundtrack that matches the visuals perfectly.

The Verdict
Soulcaster doesn’t set out to do anything big. It’s simple, with little to no story, and is easy to pick up and play. However, what little writing there is in the game is quite good, and I found the experience, including the game’s intentionally dated visual style, retro soundtrack, and combination of game genres to be incredibly enjoyable. I loved it so much that I had to play through the hard mode, which I never bother to do. The fact that the game is only an hour or two long probably factored in to my willingness to play it again, but I’d definitely recommend checking it out. It’s only 240 Microsoft points ($3.00), so there’s little to lose. If you’re a huge fan of the classic Gauntlet games like I am, you have to look into Soulcaster. For more information, check out the trailer above and the game’s official website.

Score: 8.5/10

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