In case I haven’t said it before, I’ve long considered the SNES-PSX years the Golden Age of gaming. Super Nintendo carried so many classic titles and superb RPG’s, and PlayStation probably wasn’t too far behind.
One of my all-time favorite action-RPG’s is an oft-overlooked little gem called Soul Blazer (Soul Blader in Japanese).
Soul Blazer was developed by Quintet, the same company that brought us ActRaiser, which may perhaps be a little more well-known. The two games share a few commonalities. Both are set in universes ruled by an almost Judeo-Christian-like god known only as the Master. In these titles, the Master creates and nurtures life and works to save humanity from the forces of evil. The games also share similar music (from Gothic-sounding town tracks to electronicy battle tunes) and a lot of the same sound effects. The quality is such that it’s not a detractor.
In ActRasier, you play as the Master himself; alternating between stages in which you control an angel that you use to kill overworld monsters and build towns, and side-scrolling battle stages that lead to boss fights. In the the battle stages, you control jacked up warrior statues.
In Soul Blazer, you take the role of one of the Master’s servants; perhaps an angel or avatar of some kind. The world has been sold out to an evil entity called Deathtoll by a greedy king, who exchanged the lives of everything on the earth for a gold piece each before being betrayed and taken himself by Deathtoll. The Master, in his mercy, decides to give the king and the world a second chance, sending you to undo the evil that has been done.
Gameplay and story are simple but fun. The core mechanic of game advancement revolves around the fact that Deathtoll has locked away all the souls he bought from the king. In order to free them, you must defeat monsters that emerge from evil-looking red portals. Once you’ve killed all the monsters inside, the portal will break and reveal a green buttony thing. These green buttons free captive souls.
Basically each section of the world map has a town section (that starts off empty) and a dungeon section. As you progress through a dungeon, you’ll release villagers, plants, animals, and buildings. Often the captive you release will aid you in some way – with items, hints, or sometimes spells.
Although the plot itself isn’t that deep, it’s competently written, well-paced, and enjoyable. At times, comboed with the music, I’ve found it to be quite feelz-inducing. That may be partly nostalgia and partly me being weaksauce, but.
I have great memories of this title, and every so often I go back and give it another playthrough.
In addition to its link to ActRaiser, Soul Blazer is technically the first part of a trilogy, preceding the Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma (the later of which never received a US release but has been unofficially translated in ROM form). Here I’m going to part ways with a lot of my fellow nerds, for I may be the only gamer I know of to prefer Soul Blazer to its sequels. It’s been a long time since I played Illusion of Gaia, but I seem to remember it being a little more story-focused. I also remember the dungeons and combat in general to have been more difficult and less straightforward. Your mileage may vary on that. The story didn’t resonate with me as much, and I don’t remember a Master or any direct links to Soul Blazer (though there is a hidden boss that appeared in the first game and makes a reference to it).
Interestingly, the Japanese version of the game had a number of Christian references that were removed for the American release. I always find it curious that Japan, a non-Christian nation, is so much less squeamish about including Christian/religious references and iconography in its entertainment than a lot of Western media.
Terranigma has received much fanfare over the years since its unofficial translation, and I must confess I only made it about halfway through the game. I did find it enjoyable and I think it combined some of the best elements of the earlier two games. I guess I just wasn’t in love with the story, however. A lot of modern JRPGs tend to get overly complicated with all sorts of concepts cobbled together from various mythologies/philosophies/theologies. When you start getting into Dark Gaias and Light Gaias and reincarnation and locked away worlds…I’m not saying it’s a game-breaker for me, but if it doesn’t feel well-crafted, I’m probably out. That may be where the Xenosaga series lost me, as well, incidentally. Had I been older and had more alternatives, I imagine I may not have made it through the Illusion of Gaia either for this reason.
At any rate, if you’ve never played this one and are the least bit interested, I’d definitely recommend giving Soul Blazer a shot. It’s not an exceedingly long game, and it’s got a soundtrack that’ll stay with you, solid gameplay, and a nice little story that satiates without getting overly complicated.