The urge to protect children is a powerful one. Whether you're related or not, we're hardwired to keep children safe in dangerous situations. In recent (and not-so-recent) times, many major video games have turned to this urge for narrative inspiration. God of War, The Last of Us, BioShock Infinite...biological or surrogate, the stoic protagonists of these games see protecting their offspring as their ultimate goal and raison d'etre. Very often, these protagonists are male; it's quite rare to see a mother at the center of these kinds of stories since the mother figure is usually either the driving motivation for the main character or absent in some way. Enter Smoke and Sacrifice, the inaugural project of London-based developer Solar Sail Games, which aims to change this by casting players in the role of Sachi, a mother seeking her son in an apocalyptic underworld.
In Sachi's world, the sun has failed. Replacing it is the blazing, oddly mechanical Sun Tree, which provides light to Sachi's village. There's a darker side to the Sun Tree's protection, though. Each mother of the village must sacrifice her firstborn to the Sun Tree in order to ensure its continued vigilance. At the (rather stark) opening of Smoke and Sacrifice, Sachi dutifully offers up her child to the Sun Tree, only to accidentally overhear a conversation which suggests the child might be alive. Sachi's village is attacked by monsters, which gives her the perfect opportunity to sneak into the temple of the Sun Tree's priests and discover what's happened to her son.
The opening moments of Smoke and Sacrifice are pretty powerful. Gameplay starts pretty much immediately; there's very little in the way of an opening cutscene to prime us for what's coming. We simply join Sachi, on the day of her firstborn son's sacrifice, picking crops one by one from the ground. The locals around her tell her how grateful she should feel that she is contributing to the Sun Tree's benevolence, and Sachi doesn't disagree, although it's clear she's not particularly enamored with this custom.
When the sacrifice is complete, we see tears falling from her eyes as she apologizes to her son, Lio. Sachi's firstborn isn't supposed to have a name; firstborns are merely tools here, not people. A priest commiserates with her, telling her that he, too, named his firstborn. It comforted his wife, he explains. The first ten to fifteen minutes of Smoke and Sacrifice are human, endearing and compelling; through dialogue and character action, we learn the customs of this village, how many of its inhabitants feel about them, and how they cope with what seems to us to be a monstrous practice.
It's a shame, then, that the game (at least narratively) squanders this promise almost immediately after this. When Sachi learns her son might still be alive, she doesn't exactly behave like a bereaved mother given a last glimmer of hope; she barely behaves like a human being. There's just a sort of barely-registered "oh, really?" before she sets out to explore the underworld to find Lio. One could pass this off as Sachi knowing that she's going to rescue her son, or at least find out what happened to him, so her determination has supplanted her grief. The problem is, once Sachi's in the underworld, it's very clear that Solar Sail pretty much loses interest in the human implications of the story, preferring instead to tutorialize systems and show off the shiny survival engine Smoke and Sacrifice is running on.
As survival games go, that engine is fairly slick. Smoke and Sacrifice features a living, breathing ecosystem; creatures interact with one another in unique ways, monsters will fight each other, resources might become available as a result of organic world interaction, et cetera. Broadly speaking, Smoke and Sacrifice is a survival game cut from the same cloth as Klei's Don't Starve; the world is similarly modular, with biomes of different climates bordering each other, and there's a similar focus on crafting and combat, with both systems symbiotically feeding each other (combat gives resources which allow crafting of better weapons to survive combat more easily). In addition, players must craft lanterns and other light sources to survive "smoketime", a fancy word for night. When the smoke comes, so do creatures of the smoke, and they're much harder to kill, so you'll want to be prepared.
Solar Sail's boast of a more organic system does feel like the evidence bears it out. Thought has been put into making sure the world feels like it's real; people, creatures, and objects affect each other in real, tangible ways. This organic feeling gives rise to some great eureka moments. Early on, I was wondering how I was going to get treacle from a wasps' nest, when a massive pig-like creature stomped through the clearing and knocked it down for me, taking a huge amount of damage in the process (which made the subsequent quest to kill it all the easier for me). This sort of interaction between independent elements helps the world to feel alive and real, so it's welcome.
Unfortunately, this feeling doesn't quite persist through the game's overall structure. The quest system is rote, offering little more than a series of "go here, talk to X" distractions which never feel like concrete objectives to further the narrative or even to help Sachi survive. This being a narrative-driven game, some effort has been made to dial down the traditional survival difficulty; players don't need to keep an eye on Sachi's water intake, her hunger or her sleep meter, as with many other games of this genre.
The "smoketime" mechanic doesn't really work, either; Smoke and Sacrifice doesn't impose the smoke's menace on players like, say, Don't Starve does, as light sources can easily be found and just stood next to until smoketime is over. In theory, this could be a nice way to streamline a genre occasionally laden down with busywork; in practice, it just means more focus is placed on the game's narrative, which it doesn't want, and combat, which it wants even less.
Combat in Smoke and Sacrifice is sticky, awkward and difficult. Perhaps it should be this way; after all, Sachi is not a fighter (or at least there's nothing in her initial backstory to suggest she has combat experience), so it makes sense to have her react to the dangers of her new world with panic and fear. The problem is that the feeling of stickiness doesn't feel deliberate. Aiming attacks with melee weapons feels like a crapshoot, so it's never exactly clear whether an attack will land or not. Smoke and Sacrifice also falls into the same trap as many other "difficult" games of its ilk. Its combat is frustrating, overly punishing, and just kind of boring.
Fighting enemies in Smoke and Sacrifice never feels rewarding, nor does it feel like the player is capable of pressing the advantage. Instead, there are simply moments when enemies cannot be attacked, so fights become a tedious affair wherein players are simply hanging around for their opportunity rather than weighing up a satisfying risk/reward relationship. I spent a lot of my time with Smoke and Sacrifice desperate to avoid combat, not because I was terrified of what enemies would do to me but because it just never felt like the scant potential rewards (enemies do drop loot, but it's a dice roll as to whether it's what you need) matched the boredom of the combat process and the heavy damage risk.
It's a real shame, but "tedium" really is the word of the day with Smoke and Sacrifice. Exploring the world never feels particularly fun, because the environment design is quite flat and uninteresting; Smoke and Sacrifice doesn't have a procedurally-generated map, but it may as well do considering how mechanical and computer-generated the biomes feel. The core gameplay loop is rote and uninteresting, consisting of "collect X items" quests interspersed with "go to X and talk to Y" tasks. Solar Sail describes Smoke and Sacrifice as a "narrative-driven survival RPG", but the narrative never engages, the survival elements don't feel interesting and the RPG elements are barely there at all. There's no leveling, no character customization, nothing. That's not necessarily a negative; a game can easily survive on a fun central mechanic, but as much as it pains me to say it, Smoke and Sacrifice simply doesn't feel fun.
Every moment of promise here feels undercut by lackluster execution. The art style has a painterly quality which could have been beautiful, but the human characters look really off-putting; Sachi and compatriots look more like they're adventuring through the uncanny valley than a hostile underworld. The narrative starts so well but quickly becomes hamstrung by a ham-fisted attempt to quickly introduce and tutorialize mechanics. The concept of a survival game where everything's out to get everything else has a lot of potentials, but the central systems are so uninteresting that getting to know this world feels like a waste of time.
In short, Smoke and Sacrifice isn't worth your time. Glimpses of real potential are frequently buried in a generic, mediocre survival RPG which doesn't exhibit any of the best characteristics of its genre. The ecosystem in Sachi's world works well, the art style is OK and a few moments of wonder briefly engage, but the game is too underwhelming to keep this momentum up.
Rote, uninteresting and devoid of narrative pathos, Smoke and Sacrifice never compels or engages enough to offer more than a few moments of potential.
- Painterly Art Style
- Intriguing Story Opening
- Well-Implemented Ecosystem
- Unsatisfying, Bland Combat
- Undercooked Survival Mechanics
- Boring Quest System
- Poorly Developed Narrative