If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who should you call?
No, not the Ghostbusters, because the abnormal creatures that are lurking in the streets are well out of their capabilities. According to the RPG deck-builder SOULVARS, it’s the Soulbearers who are needed for battling these invaders in this action-packed offering. In a world full of turn-based affairs inspired by classic JRPGs though, one has to wonder what modern twists have been implemented to ensure SOULVARS will be able to stand out amongst the pack.
In SOULVARS, creatures known as Dominators have breached into the human world, causing all kinds of havoc as they devour people’s souls. Fortunately there’s a task force for such situations, the Dominator Disposal Organization (DDO), a private military company hiring Soulbearers who are born with an innate ability to take on the Dominators.
The main protagonist, Yakumo, is a freelance Soulbearer ready to do the bidding of the DDO and eliminate any creatures daring to appear before him. With multiple gates suddenly opening up all across Suzaku City, there’s a lot of work to be done and you’ll have to seek them out before things get even more out of hand.
There’s a foundation in SOULVARS for what could be a fascinating and dark tale, but the ball is dropped almost immediately. Without reading the blurb or delving deep into the menus in search of lore scraps, you’d be left clueless about this world. The storytelling in-game instead settles for being shallow, occasionally witty, retorts and pieces of dialogue that do absolutely nothing to explore what’s actually going on. It’s a mistake which ultimately restricts the overall experience from becoming an encapsulating one.
Nevertheless, the gameplay will have you navigating dungeon-like environments in search of Dominator signals as part of the main missions. Roaming the streets section by section is the idea, on the lookout for enemy encounters, vending machines to take in-game currency, allies to chat with and more. There are occasional side quests, but they’re nothing exciting and usually completed unknowingly.
Each area you’ll end up in often branches out into different routes, which is quite a nuisance to be honest. Sure, the exploration factor and potential to find useful items off the beaten track is a positive, but when you just want to locate the next breach or head for an exit, it’s a chore. It’s easy to lose track of where you’re meant to be going too, so you can imagine the excessive traversal back and forth that occurs. Given the random nature of enemies appearing in a section, wanting to fight, making progress through an area is laborious.
The actual fighting though, is where SOULVARS comes into its own. Upon meeting an enemy, or a mob of the swines, you’ll transition into the battle mode, where everyone takes turns to try to deplete the other’s health bar. Given just a single Action Point each turn, it must be spent on pieces of data called Soulbits, which let you perform attacking and defensive actions. Punching, kicking, slashing, guarding, and various elemental attacks are all possible choices.
Straight off the bat you must play it smart, by assessing and exploiting the opposition’s weaknesses to earn additional APs – or figuring out one of the other ways to gain more. Only then are you able to cause real damage to the most dangerous enemies, and that’s by using the all-important Arts. These Arts use two or more Soulbits combined to unleash devastating moves that provide lethal attacks and stat-boosts alike. The more a particular Art is used, the better it becomes, which is very handy.
The cavalcade of Arts you can acquire is impressive, however they may use Soulbits that aren’t within your arsenal. The types possessed are largely dictated by equipment and gear, so there’s a lot of depth here. I guess this is where you could apply the deckbuilder tag, albeit very loosely. Anyway, you must play to your strengths and even share gear with allies who frequently join the battle party to mould a well-rounded team ready for anything. With so much to factor in, it’ll take time to get a handle on everything.
Once it clicks though, there’s seldom a dull moment during the turn-based action. You’re constantly finding new ways to make the most of the Soulbits and thinking up tactics to overcome specific enemies. Creating combos and unleashing special attacks feels rewarding too.
On the design front, the pixel art is perfectly fine and the humanoid characters look pretty good. Likewise, the animations for regular attacks and special Arts manoeuvres are done to a decent standard. The same can’t be said for the enemies, with evil hands, serpents, worms, and the like, lacking visual clarity. It doesn’t help matters much when the enemies are soon copy and pasted as different elemental iterations of themselves. You get tired of seeing them rather swiftly.
SOULVARS tries its best to create a unique world and theme, yet falters, and has to rely heavily on the turn-based action instead. The Soulbits and corresponding Arts make for a very intriguing combat system that’s incredibly fun to experiment with. Overcoming the toughest battles poses a great tactical challenge too. Unfortunately, the narrative failings, steep learning curve, and exploration drawbacks really hamper the rest of proceedings.
At the end of the day, SOULVARS is a soulless turn-based RPG that should be considered if action is your only criteria.