There is such a special sweetness in being able to participate in creation.
-Pamela S. Nadav
Not long after noting the presence of mothers and likewise the lack of maternal figures in video games, I had the opportunity to play Smoke and Sacrifice by publisher Curve Digital and developer Solar Sail Games. In fact, one of the first things to catch my eye about this game was the fact that you get to play as a mum. That’s a fairly rare sight!
What’s rarer, especially in the context of a game with such animated visuals, if not necessarily cartoonish ones, is subject matter as heavy as the stuff that makes up Smoke and Sacrifice’s premise. The story opens with a new mother named Sachi who dwells in a land of uninhabitable ice. More specifically, she lives in a village that is able to survive, grow crops, live in some measure of peace and safety thanks to the Sun Tree. This Sun Tree is the deity of this humble hamlet. It is the thing which allows the villagers to live, gives them warmth and light in the midst of this frozen wasteland.
However, in order to propitiate the Sun Tree and perpetuate its life-giving light, the priests of this town hold a ceremony: a newborn baby must regularly be sacrificed.
That alone is one of the most abhorrent ideas I can think of. It’s all the more repulsive to me now that I have children of my own. To think that real life cultures entertained religions that carried out child sacrifice is beyond disgusting. People can be truly evil.
Smoke and Sacrifice has this immediate potency by merely portraying this act alone, but the player is also forced to witness Sachi’s intense, unfathomable grief at having to sacrifice her child so that she and her village may live. Everything in me wanted to take the child and run away. That of course isn’t how the game works… but not everything is as it seems.
A mysterious man appears after the ritual to confirm Sachi’s profane doubts. Her child is still alive, somewhere. Smoke and mirrors? No, Smoke and Sacrifice.
The Sun Tree begins to fail. Sachi embarks upon a search that could only be fueled by the irresistible, unstoppable, immeasurable, ineffable love of a parent. She passes into the underworld beneath her village and the frozen wastes, through a land choked with deadly smoke where dreary apparitions toil in the gloom. A million dangers face her and Sachi must survive to tear in twain the veil and discover just what happened to her child.
Smoke and Sacrifice is an open-world survival adventure RPG heavily based on item acquisition and crafting. This last bit is what I least expected out of what initially resembled a Legend of Zelda game, at least to my eyes. Marketing for the game insists it is a narrative-driven experience but I really didn’t find that to be the case.
Through the underworld and beyond, Sachi will have to make use of her surroundings in order to survive. This means scavenging for simple materials like wood and fauna and monster parts early on, discovering new recipes from NPCs and environmental objects, then cooking or combining foraged items together to clad Sachi with armor and armaments. This is a constant must. Enemies seem to get tough rather quickly and though Smoke and Sacrifice is labeled as an open-world game, there really isn’t much progression without harvesting materials and completing tasks for nearby NPCs.
This chain of events in a fairly long cycle (scavenge items, make new gear, reach new area, meet new NPC, complete their chore, gain new recipe, return to scavenging items, etc.) forms a striking majority of the gameplay. It took me a while to get the gist that this is really what Smoke and Sacrifice is about: the crafting. Even upon reaching what I felt were going to be milestones in regards to the story, I came to realize that these were instead checkmarks for the next tier of upgrades I’d need to survive the smoke and baddies.
One implementation that makes this crafting obsession all the more demanding upon your time is the fact that harvested materials and crafted arms and armor come with ticking time bombs of durability. Nearly every item (barring things like recovery potions) has a green bar that will slowly run out. Once it does, the item breaks, spoils, or otherwise becomes unusable, causing it to disappear from your inventory. I’ve elsewhere praised the inclusion of survival elements like durability but this is a whole new level of natural entropy that affects even the unused items sitting in your inventory; it’s not merely about limited use but about shelf life.
When I first began the game, I stocked up on tons of items, everything I could find while I wandered around the sizable map (at least the area that I could access, that is). By the time I found any use for the items I’d hoarded in Sachi’s satchel, whether by meeting an NPC that wanted some ferns or discovering a recipe that required some meat, the items had already expired.
I took it as a word from the developers to keep pressing onward and not to worry about hoarding, but this also meant that I had to occasionally backtrack for the right items. Backtracking is facilitated by convenient transportation tubes, for a fee, but that’s better than hoofing it back across dangerous territory, especially when the smoke time arrives. The poisonous smog can only be safely navigated if Sachi is carrying some sort of light emitting object, which is easier said than done because of the aforementioned durability. It’s something you at the very least have to always remain vigilant of.
That’s really what Smoke and Sacrifice is about, isn’t it?
And crafting. Lots of crafting.
The 8-bit Review
The lush visuals will inevitably remind you of the hand-painted animation of yesteryear, with a dash of the transparency of simpler flash animation with its individually moving parts. Smoke and Sacrifice looks great in screenshots and just fine in motion, with only a few detractions such as awkward angles while traversing in multiple directions across a flat surface, the protagonist’s clearly two-dimensional shape looking somewhat out of place because of it. Perspective isn’t a forefront thought in Sacrifice’s visual philosophy, coming off as it does like a Where’s Waldo? book without a sense of distance and intimacy. This makes the world seem flat and, at least for me, unappealing.
Some of the elements I liked best include newly crafted armor and weapons appearing on Sachi. Being able to see equipped weapons and armor is something I’ve always enjoyed, and this is a good opportunity to show off Smoke and Sacrifice’s range of colorful and fantastical armaments.
Also, the designs of the larger monsters in the game are detailed and imposing; they immediately made me feel like I had to avoid them in order to survive, which is true virtually all of the time. It’s tough to think purely in terms of survival rather than domination/destruction in a video game but the monster designs are here to remind you to pick your fights wisely.
The soundtrack seemed to me to be almost entirely composed of ambient music and sound effects. It’s a very somber, muted soundtrack with riffs of Asian motifs, choral moans, naturalistic effects of wind and rustling leaves, and the rare touch of tenderness. The music crafts the atmosphere of the game, a moody one at that, which fits the unknown territory of this under-plane that Sachi must explore at risk. The downside is the music isn’t very memorable because most of its tracks sound similar and it’s all relegated to the level of background sound effects. Further, the sense of impenetrable tension the music creates is so unending that I began craving some kind of reprieve in visiting a friendly town or an inn or something not that long into the game.
Both the drive to find Sachi’s child and the desire to pierce the secrets of Sachi’s religion form the nucleus of Smoke and Sacrifice’s story. Together with these and the heart-wrenching pain of Sachi’s sacrifice at the very forefront of the game, I found myself wishing that this title was as narrative-driven and focused as it purported to be. The issue, at least to my mind, stems not from an inept storyteller sitting behind the curtain of this digital world or from clumsy, inexperienced artists, but more so from the structure of the game itself.
This premise and the story that unfolds out of it would have, in my opinion, been much more emotionally suited to more traditional RPG architecture. They might’ve landed with greater impact. As it stands, and I’ve mentioned this before in my writings, the open-world trend deflates and defuses a tremendous amount of the game’s pacing and tension, two elements which I’m convinced are absolutely essential for storytelling. Video games are a unique art form, capable of telling stories in new ways, but they unfortunately wrestle with new difficulties.
Moby Dick. Melville’s classic is like many classic novels: in grave need of its abridged counterpart. I recall wading through the story, enjoying the characters and the eloquence, the sense of foreboding that was ahead, and so on until boarding the Nantucket Pequod on Ahab’s doomed journey only to find myself confronted not with high adventure or dangerous waters or even more character development, but instead with chapter after chapter of facts about whales: their biology, the application of their parts and pieces, even the Cetus itself in the sky. This might be fascinating reading in itself if it didn’t come smack dab in the middle of the story just when the whole sea was open for exploration!
Why do I bring up the tale of the white whale? Because Smoke and Sacrifice reminded me. The emotional lead up to the actual gameplay is strong but then you’re dropped into the middle of a wasteland and the concern with finding Sachi’s child and resolving the mystery of the Sun Tree is discarded in favor of the more immediate busy-ness of stuffing all of Sachi’s pockets with items you don’t have any use for yet and scraping together whatever equipment you can. The story grinds to an anti-dramatic halt.
From there, even encounters with significant NPCs such as the early Priest of Bone turn into miniature fetch quests for even more materials, rather than revelatory moments where dialogue or exposition could come to the fore to flesh out what’s behind and what’s ahead. The emphasis on crafting and collecting increases the difficulty of telling this compelling story that was already set in place by the open-world format. In a nutshell, you have to show NPCs key items in order to advance the story. Items take primacy.
Is there a possible solution within gaming that’s analogous to the abridged classic novel? This moment is a powerful one but it’s quickly forgotten for inventory management, durability bars, multiple game overs, and so much crafting.
Setting aside for a moment how much I actually liked the crafting and survival gameplay and what these did to the narrative, I think we can discuss in isolation the merits of these systems themselves.
Regarding crafting, the game begins with the basics, a few monster parts and some fauna, before quickly spiraling into a detailed and intricate set of collectible recipes requiring cooking pots and workstations. The number of possible things to craft grows exponentially in a short amount of time. The living ecosystem with its monsters that occasionally battle one another and its shifting item placement makes for the perfect backdrop for exploration and discovery, giving the player a rich landscape from which to construct their survival stores.
If a game is going to be primarily about crafting, then let the crafting system be as in-depth as this one!
Survival is something else entirely and I think it must be an acquired taste. You’ll be dying quite a bit because it turns out that scraping together few fruits for your health and some animal skin armor is poor protection against the underworld wilds. Saving often is crucial, therefore. I lost many-much progress because I wandered too far from a save point, opened a treasure chest, and got smashed by a hideous miscreant. Still, the appeal of learning from ones mistakes and facing a powerful challenge is sturdy. For those who are able to take their time with it, I’ve no doubt that Smoke and Sacrifice is capable of furnishing some robust gameplay.
There is so much to see and so much to explore in Smoke and Sacrifice that there’s a lot of replay value to be found. Additionally, dying and respawning so much will either frustrate you or render you addicted to pushing onward, getting stronger, and overcoming. I’ll still be chewing away at Smoke and Sacrifice thanks to the pick-up-and-play attitude of the Nintendo Switch.
Smoke and Sacrifice can be brutally hard by design, which again stresses the need to save and save often. The majority of my time spent with the game saw my life bar at about a third full, especially early on, with the danger of a bee sting or an errant quill standing between Sachi and oblivion as I scrouged for edibles and consumables. The time-based durability for items really makes the game tougher, in my opinion.
This game has been favorably compared to Don’t Starve (albeit with much less randomness) and though I don’t frequently play survival games, I immediately felt that I was in the presence of familiar surroundings. The story and Sachi herself are unique and welcome elements in the vast realm of video game stories, and I could just wish the game focused more on its narrative over its gameplay.
My Personal Grade: 4/10
I admire a lot of what Smoke and Sacrifice sets out to do but in the end I found it a little more tedious and frustrating than I would have liked. That may be in large part due to my expectations heading in, so it’s my earnest desire that anyone reading this who is on the fence takes what I’ve said here to heart. I mean that in terms of knowing just what Smoke and Sacrifice is and what it’s about before you take a blind plunge into it. You’ve got to know that it’s a gameplay-driven survival RPG. Now that’s something which you may appreciate, and the complex crafting system and deep development for arms and armor is a testatement to that. If you want a game to chew on, this is it, especially if you’re a fan of Don’t Starve.
I want to thank Curve Digital and Solar Sail Games for supplying us with a copy of Smoke and Sacrifice for review. I hope this critique informs potential players and encourages those who are into survival RPGs to delve into Sachi’s quest!
Aggregated Score: 6.0
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Categories: Game Review