Experiencing a story as a parent is one of the most difficult yet emotionally rewarding thematic elements in gaming. God of War started as struggle of a man looking for meaning of life after the loss of his wife and daughter. The Last of Us gained critical acclaim, largely due to the pseudo-father/daughter relationship between Joel and Ellie. However, when misused the trope can be disastrous, such as when Metroid: Other M gave Samus a motherly side that was not in congress with the rest of her character. Looking to make stand out, Smoke and Sacrifice uses a mixture of this story beat and its gameplay to try to add itself to the winning side of the genre.
Playing as Sachi, the game starts off quick yet powerful, introducing us to a world that is initially small, confined and knowingly vague. It allows you to quickly empathize with Sachi’s view of the world. You feel for her as she arrives home to her son, Lio, and carries him tearfully to the nearby temple. There, a heart-wrenched scene unfolds as she follows tradition and sacrifices her first born child to a strange machine, which makes him disappear in a flash of lightning.
The game cuts to seven years later when special lamps that previously protected the town fade and let it under siege by behemoth-sized monsters. Sachi is sent to the temple to gain assistance from the priests, but they’re nowhere to be found. Stepping on the platform she sacrificed her son to seven years earlier, Sachi is struck by the same strange lighting. Instead of being killed, she's teleported into a hostile, gloomy looking underworld. Strange mask-clad beings slowly offer her information and she realizes that her son may still be alive here, in this hostile environment.
Smoke and Sacrifice takes place in this underworld, and it’s a brilliant bit of design. The entire game has a very murky and blurry aesthetic and the introduction area sets it up well. The swamp you find yourself awakening is lush with greens and browns that feels soupy due to a light fog, while the pieces of scenery and local creatures all appear dulled. Later areas are distinct in turns, biomes transitioning from one extreme to another, but the mystery surrounding this seedy world makes these changes never feel out of place. It’s a hostile world full of dangers and the build of the map conveys it at every turn.
The game is very much about survival, with crafting needed to protect you from the elements designed to take you out. The icy wastes will freeze you if you don't wear fur boots and a mucky bog borders the world. Other dangers, such as electrified floors, require more types of protective gear. Weapons are another thing you’ll need to protect you from the aggressive wildlife. These monsters are no joke, and will get the best of you without some careful dodging and well-timed attacks.
The combat system is the biggest failure of Smoke and Sacrifice. The art style is beautiful, and the models highly detailed, but Sachi never feels distinct in her placement. She moves around the map comfortably enough, but her position in comparison to objects and enemies often feels ill-defined, and the dodging mechanic becomes unwieldy. Add to that difficult to read monsters with attacks that aren’t well telegraphed, and you have a recipe for disaster. With a poorly executed save system, it means progress can quickly be lost, with all your work suddenly equating to a wasted time. Getting into the flow as the game progresses does ease this feeling up slightly, but the system never feels like something you can master.
Making things more challenging is the smoky fog that infects the world. Standing in it will drain your health and slow you down. To avoid the fog, you’ll need to stay in special lights that fight off the negative black gas. Certain bugs create the light, but you can also craft lanterns that produce the same lifesaving source. Add to that a special light pendant and the fog will only kill you when you’re not prepared, at least from standing in it. The smoke brings more than just the need to keep the lights on as some powerful and deadly monsters only appear during the smog infestation. Certain monsters also drop different gear upon their death, making the risk necessary to collect items you’ll need later on.
All the gear you’ll need to stay alive with is crafted through recipes, but you don’t have access to all of them at the start. Some are learned from allies you’ll meet on Sachi’s quest to find her son and others can be collected around the world. The recipes are the key to both progression and survivability. There’s a nice inward flow of recipes as the game moves forward, but the item grinding can become a chore quickly.
This focus of collecting items, combined with a noticeable lack of power increases, creates a very slow-paced game. In juxtaposition to the captivating mystery at hand, the gameplay actively punishes you for trying to rush forward. Monsters become stronger and more frequent as Sachi continues on, and failing to stock up healing items and resources for recipes will cause you to die fairly quickly. What makes this worse is the poorly crafted save system that’s just not built for the slow burn. Being able to save only at particular locations, while death erases all progress after the last save, forces you to save between grinds and furthers breaks the flow of the game.
All these pitfalls are a shame, because the story is highly captivating. It’s rare to see a female lead get a motherly role that’s written so well, and the world is fascinating. The characters you meet are entertaining and visually gorgeous, with each having distinct personalities and all feel like a cohesive part of the world. The slow pace and vague directions to progress, however, make the story hard to experience in a satisfying manner. If you’re willing to overlook some tough gameplay elements, Smoke and Sacrifice’s heart beats strong with a gripping and enthralling story. Be warned, though, the barrier to entry could be a potential turnoff.