When I was a kid, my favorite part of Cracker Jacks were the sweet little glazed peanuts hidden in the popcorn. What a thrill, then, when many years later the company decided to read my mind and package a product that was just the peanuts. Well, no surprise, it was a letdown. It turns out that without the handfuls of ordinary, sticky sweet, tooth-destroying popcorn, the peanuts just didn’t seem special.
I thought of this when I played Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption, which is essentially a knock off of Dark Souls, minus the story, low-level enemies, elegant level design and character progression. It’s just the bosses, just the peanuts. I was initially pretty excited about Sinner, too, because the boss design — based on the seven deadly sins — is interesting and often disturbingly grotesque, creatures with gaping, wet maws or the ability to vomit poison sacs.
Unlike Dark Souls, which hides an intricate, myth-heavy backstory deep in its gameplay, item descriptions and NPCs, Sinner just has a premise: destroy the bosses and be redeemed. The player character has no personality and while each boss stage is visually and tactically interesting, the environments also seem arbitrary. Because there is no gradual ramp up to each boss, there is no way to create a sense of foreboding or use environmental elements to hint at what is to come. And because the bosses can be tackled in any order, neither is there a feeling of progression from weakness to strength.
What there is is a series of eight bosses, each with patterns to be memorized and very specific strategies that will work to defeat them. They are punishingly difficult and Sinner’s wrinkle on the Dark Souls mechanic is that the player will start each boss run with a handicap — less health, or slower stamina regeneration or fewer consumables, for example — though I’m not sure if there is a logic behind the gimmick, other than artificially increasing the already challenging encounters.
Although the bosses aren’t unfair, the difficulty of Sinner’s combat is made annoying by inconsistent hit detection and a lack of the kind of nimble movement that turns boss battles into ballets of back and forth. Parrying is nearly impossible, large weapons are boringly slow, and in the end, there is little satisfaction at having defeated the boss, other than being successful at a very specific type of math. Because the main character is a faceless cipher without any real history or input from the player, there is little or no consequence to dying, other than the frustration of having wasted time or the failure to perform movements with the correct timing.
Having played Dark Souls and its sequels dozens of times, I have memorized each level, enemy placement and boss weakness, yet no two playthroughs have ever been the same. Because there are so many ways to build a character and thus so many ways of approaching even the easiest of foes, it’s impossible to get bored. What Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption ultimately lacks is the kind of flexibility and variety that makes the Souls games so engaging. I actually think that Sinner’s bosses are interesting, well-designed and sort of terrifying, and in the context of a game with a fleshed out story, character-defining progression and better pacing, those bosses could be memorable level-ending encounters. In its present form, Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption feels like a proof of concept tech demo that badly needs to have a real game built around it.