Sachi lives in a perfect, pastoral village. The inhabitants worship a mechanical Sun Tree that powers the community with its benevolent light. Everything’s hunky dory except for one thing: prosperity depends on firstborn children being sacrificed to the Sun God via a big laser. Sachi accepted this when she surrendered her own son seven years ago, but over time she’s come to question the strange mechanics of their existence and the odd behaviour of the priests who orchestrate the ceremony.
Obviously, all is not as it seems. Smoke and Sacrifice soon casts you into a netherworld of vicious creatures where those same priests venture wearing masks and cloaks. This bleak place is home to a smoke-addled, down-trodden underclass – the Drear – who perform the menial tasks required to power the paradise above. Sachi is convinced her son is living among these dronelike people and is determined to discover the truth.
Developer Solar Sail Games drops you into a painterly landscape with no menu screen. Movement is in three dimensions, but every asset is hand-drawn 2D. The art style, animation and writing are reminiscent of the Steamworld Dig series and help to prevent the cheerless underworld from overwhelming you.
That said, it’s grim down here. Survival is the name of the game and you must explore the mire to harvest resources from plants and marauding beasts for weapons, armour, health items, upgrades and repair materials. You’ll also encounter characters and signposts bearing recipes to try out. When night comes, a purple smog billows in heralding nastier foes. Sachi wears a necklace that charges from light sources and provides nominal protection but – as with everything in Smoke and Sacrifice – it won’t last long, so crafting a lantern is priority one. You attack enemies with ‘Y’ and perform a dodge/jump with ‘X’. Hitboxes are generous, but keeping mobile is key, especially against more powerful adversaries.
Items deteriorate quickly with use, and edible goods like fruit and meat will perish. Small green bars indicate their current state and they pulse red before breaking or spoiling. Survival against slime/jellyfish hybrids and giant spinehogs depends on monitoring your inventory closely and repairing gear on-the-fly. Nobody wants their fur-lined boots disintegrating in the middle of the frozen tundra. Nightmare!
Six different biomes rub shoulders on the map, including grim woodlands, ice fields and industrial zones, each containing specific beasts and fauna. Certain workbenches and forges enable you to craft specific gear and traverse into neighbouring areas. The environments are rich with detail, although they get a touch repetitive. A map and a task screen keep you up-to-date with objectives should you get lost, and exploring the encroaching fog uncovers save terminals and a network of fast-travel tubes, plus chests to store your loot. Saves are manual and it’s vital to save often. You’ll receive a smidge of health if you’re close to death, although take care when enemies are nearby – they’ll be loitering when your save loads and we would often hear the blighters attacking us before we could defend ourselves.
Keeping your kit in ship-shape is essential and more difficult than it need be. Inexplicably, your 4x14 inventory grid occupies less than half of the available screen space when it’s open. That’s 56 slots and, when fully laden with goodies, it can be tough to spot what you’re looking for, especially in handheld mode. As you hold ‘R’ to drag highlighted items across the grid, others shift to occupy the space you’ve just vacated, so ordering equipment is a tedious process. You can ‘favourite’ up to eight weapons and cycle through them with the shoulder buttons while fighting, but some basic sorting options would have been useful.
In a welcome move, the touchscreen is fully supported, and it’s possible to play without Joy-Cons, to an extent. Sachi moves and attacks where you tap, although dodging is unavailable, so it’s not a viable option for a complete playthrough. Inventory management is theoretically easier, although adult fingers will have trouble with the small icons. We also experienced two crashes to the Switch’s main menu during our 15-or-so hours with the game, both triggered by touch input. Not ideal, but you’ll be in the habit of compulsively saving at terminals so you’re unlikely to lose significant progress. Performance is generally steady, with some isolated slowdown occurring in later fiery areas when large groups of enemies begin attacking each other.
Smoke and Sacrifice is an attractive take on the survival genre with a diverting story examining our reliance on fossil fuels and class-dependent economies. Juggling your gear is more finicky than it should be, which is disappointing when inventory management is such a fundamental part of the game. However, if you’re prepared to keep on top of things, and you have the fortitude to brave the oppressive smoke, there’s plenty to enjoy in Sachi’s quest and the core crafting loop.