Reviews

One tough mother — Smoke and Sacrifice review

What’s the point of survival when you have nothing else to live for? Survival games like Don’t Starve are great at letting players choose their own path and rewarding moment-to-moment decisions, but they can feel empty in the long run. At a certain point, all you can do is keep climbing the progression ladder or fall off. Smoke and Sacrifice aims to remedy that by building a linear RPG story — a real quest — into the shell of a survival game. You have all the tree punching, monster slaying, and gear crafting that you expect from the genre, but it’s all in the interest of finding your stolen child and, just maybe, overturning a corrupt theocracy.

Smoke and Sacrifice immediately establishes a compelling world in its affecting opening scene. Playing as Sachi, you start in a strange, quasi-feudal village forced by a terrifying cabal of masked priests to worship a towering lighting fixture called the Sun Tree. As the game opens, a meeting is underway by the Sun Tree, one that Sachi has a central part in. She’s told to bring her infant son from her home to the Sun Tree for reasons yet to be revealed to the player. If the game’s name didn’t tip you off, the subtle menace of the meeting will. Sachi is being made to sacrifice her firstborn child to keep the Sun Tree running, and you’re in control of fetching the baby and placing it on a horrible iron altar yourself. The upsetting scene makes both Sachi and the player complicit in the sacrifice. In just a few minutes, the game made me empathize with its protagonist in a way that most don’t manage to do even after dozens of hours.

After the ritual, Sachi meets a strange travelling merchant and overhears a conversation between the priests that gives her reason to suspect that the ritual is not all it’s made out to be. The game then skips forward seven years, as the Sun Tree’s light inexplicably falters and a horde of monsters attacks the village. The distraction gives Sachi a chance to investigate the altar unsupervised and perhaps learn the true fate of her son. In doing so, she is transported to a mysterious underground world where she learns that the “sacrifices” are still alive but forced into ceaseless toil, and at this point the game really begins.

The world that developer Solar Sail built is magical. It’s a dim, hostile environment full of dangers and oddities. You’ll fight quill-shooting hogs and giant wasps, and trade favors with gas-masked slave laborers. There’s an air of smothering gloom over the world, both in its dingy art design and the desperation of its characters, but I was always eager to delve deeper into it. Everything feels distinctly alien, keeping you just slightly on edge and signaling that you could come across absolutely anything down here. The art style does a lot of the heavy lifting in selling the game’s vibe. It’s creepy and dark without veering into the drab, “gritty” style that sometimes plagues games that want to set a similarly melancholy mood. The priests’ vestments alone, both in the overworld and underground, do an incredible job of establishing the world’s tone and imbuing it with its own sense of reality.

Smoke and Sacrifice’s gameplay doesn’t stand out quite as much. It’s not bad, it just doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before. If you’re familiar with games like Don’t Starve, you know the drill. You fight enemies to gather materials, and use them to craft gear that lets you progress further into the game. Combat feels at least as good as in any other game of the genre. You only have one basic attack, a block, and a dodge, but they feel pretty satisfying to use, despite enemies displaying little to no strategy beyond rushing you. You can craft a wide array of weapons, including a variety of melee weapons, guns, and bombs, which at least gives you some choices in how you want to take on foes. At a few points in the game, you’ll take on bosses that seem intimidating but are easy to take down in practice. They share nearly identical attack patterns that are simple enough to memorize and counter in the space of a single encounter. You’ll spend a lot of the game in combat, but it’s clearly not where the developer’s attention was focused.

One interesting aspect of the game is its day/night cycle. Officially, the “night” part of that cycle is “smoke time,” when the world is covered in a thick smog that draws out dangerous monsters. To travel through the smoke, you’ll need a lantern or another light source, or you’ll immediately start taking damage. It’s interesting in theory, but in practice it just slows things down. The environment can get so crowded with high-level monsters when the smoke is out that it’s impossible to do anything but run. Since the game’s stripped down survival mechanics don’t require you to sleep or eat, the best strategy at these points is sometimes just to find a safe spot and wait until the smoke clears. It’s not very satisfying, but it at least gave me a chance to take a break from the game and make a cup of tea or do some dishes while I waited.

Though you don’t have to worry about basic necessities, crafting is a huge component of the game, as you start out with little more than the clothes on your back. To make weapons, armor, healing items, and anything else you need to survive, you’ll have to collect raw materials from the strange flora and fauna you find around you. With dozens of recipes requiring different reagents, your bags tend to fill up quickly. I spent a lot of time trying to decide whether I could safely drop a stack of mushrooms to make space for glowing rocks, which is not exactly my favorite thing to do in a game. Inventory management can be a drag, but the crafting process itself is smooth. If you have the materials you need in your inventory, you can simply craft with a button-press in a menu screen. The biggest complication you’ll run into is when you need to use a particular crafting station, which are unlocked through short quests.

Though simple, these quests are complicated by the failings of the game’s journal. Like in many games, your journal tracks your quests, but it doesn’t do it with much detail. You’ll often get a short description of what you’re supposed to do with no hint as to how to do it. This led to one instance where I had to activate four pylons to turn on a new crafting station. When I approached a pylon, I was told that I needed a capacitor to activate it. Nowhere in the game was I told that I could get capacitors by defeating dangerous robot guards. I eventually found out through sheer desperation, as I lashed out at everything around me in hopes of finding the items I needed, but only after I spent more than an hour searching fruitlessly, convinced that I’d missed a recipe somewhere.

As soon as I activated the crafting station, I ran face first into Smoke and Sacrifice’s second method of gating progression. There are several types of hazardous terrain in the game, all requiring different footwear to traverse safely. You need snow boots to cross frozen ground, smelter’s shoes to walk across fire, and so on. To make each set and progress to the next area, you need to gather rare materials. It makes perfect sense in a survival game, but becomes a time-consuming bore in a story-driven RPG. To make matters worse, late game areas are packed nearly shoulder to shoulder with monsters, making it nearly impossible to corner the one you need without drawing attention from its pals. Gathering materials turns into a drawn-out dance, where you’re dodging hordes of enemies and getting a quick jab or two in once every few seconds and hoping this monster will drop the component you need at the end.

What’s more, pausing for long stretches to gather materials completely robs the story of its momentum. Need to cross an electrified floor? Well, you’ll need rubber boots. But in order to get rubber, which you can only gather from a cactus in one small area, you need ice bombs. To make those, you’ll have to harvest freezing slime from ghosts, so first you have to craft flash bombs to stun them and a milker to extract the slime. Of course, you’ll need to gather the materials to make those, and you should also cook some food to restore your health since this is a pretty dangerous undertaking. When you’re just trying to survive and setting your own goals, this can be a lot of fun. When you’re trying to rescue your son from slavers, it just feels like a distraction.

A lot has been made of the recent “dadification” of games, with titles like God of War and The Last of Us grappling with parental guilt and the struggle of violent men trying to raise children kinder and better than themselves. What often gets left out, or unceremoniously murdered, is mothers. While I wouldn’t call Smoke and Sacrifice a reaction to that trend, it’s certainly another take on it. It is absolutely a game about, if not motherhood, then at least a mother. Sachi’s motivation is to find the child that was taken from her, to give him back the life that he was denied, and eventually to punish the people who tore them apart. It sidesteps the apparent paradox in sad dad games, of men teaching their children to be good people while themselves being unrepentant murderers, by making most of Sachi’s enemies monsters and positioning her not as a teacher but as a savior. When she does fight other people, it’s in self defense, and they really, really deserve it.

Smoke and Sacrifice is light on plot, but its theme looms large. The story is essentially that Sachi seeks out people who can help her find her son, follows their leads, and learns disturbing secrets about her village along the way. It’s a completely linear path, with a few small, optional detours along the way. But embedded in the story are questions about the cost of security and whether one person’s survival is worth another’s pain. Due to the game’s progression gating, the story and its attendant themes come in fits and starts. It was hard for me to keep my focus on Sachi’s quest to save her son and fight back against her oppressors when I was spending 45 minutes at a time hunting jellyfish to make new boots, but every time I reached the next milestone in the narrative, I was engrossed. Where the story really fails is where it doesn’t fully commit. The game builds a fascinating world and hints at some wonderfully complex struggles between workers and their exploiters, individuals and their rulers, but stops just short of really making its point. Even Sachi’s desire to find her son feels strangely flat and unemotional for most of the game. At its climax, Smoke and Sacrifice comes within inches of asking you to make a huge decision about the fate of the people you’ve met so far, but backs off just minutes later by offering a way to sidestep the decision entirely.

At the end of my time with Smoke and Sacrifice, I can say that I didn’t enjoy most of it, as captivated as I was with its world. Dashing through crowds of monsters to gather rats’ internal organs was a huge drag, and I spent more time wandering than progressing thanks to the game’s disjointed pacing and obtuse journal. In the end, it’s the game’s artistic and thematic strength that save it. Despite its refusal to fully commit to its own narrative, Smoke and Sacrifice tells an emotional story of a mother fighting to save her child and discovering that she may have the power to save the world in the process. If you approach the game expecting its slow pace and barebones storytelling, you’ll probably have a better time with it than I did. My journey with Sachi was a frustrating one overall, but I’m glad I took it.

70

Good

Smoke and Sacrifice

Review Guidelines

Smoke and Sacrifice tells a compelling tale of a mother searching for answers after being forced to give up her son. While the game’s gorgeous art brings its grim world to life, its story is ultimately undercut by poor pacing and vague objectives. Smoke and Sacrifice shines in concept, but falters in execution.

A committed indoor kid, Bryan moved from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles for a prettier landscape to ignore. He can be lured outside with promises of taco trucks and film festivals, and enjoys trawling through used book stores for works on the occult. Bryan has been gaming since the SNES era and is a sucker for good pixel art.
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