Ace Team’s SolSeraph immediately grabbed our attention when it was surprise-announced at the end of last month. Here, finally, was a spiritual successor to SNES classic Actraiser that looked to head back to the roots of the franchise by reinstating the winning combination of platforming action and Populous-lite strategy that was foolishly axed in favour of straight-up hack and slash gameplay in the sequel; it even has a theme written by Yuzo Koshiro, composer of the music from the 1990 original. How could we not get excited?
If you’ve played Actraiser you’ll immediately recognise the rhythm of how SolSeraph plays out. Here you play as the God Helios, imbued with the ability to control weather and charged with providing a helping hand to various groups of hard-up denizens spread across a handful of locales as they attempt to construct villages while under attack from various evil nasties. Just as in the original game, you’ll need to expand your villages so that you come into contact with nearby enemy lairs which then need to be taken out; this is where you’ll drop down to ground level, switching to hack and slash platforming action to mop up bad guys and take out a boss or two.
Actraiser kept things pretty simple with regards to its strategy; you’d pick a direction to build in and let the villagers get to the heavy work as you patrolled the skies above shooting arrows at any pesky enemies in the vicinity in order to gain SP and keep construction moving on the ground. Your powers were, for the most part, used to take care of natural obstacles; wind could blow impeding sand dunes away in Kasandora, for example, or your lightning could remove trees and bushes that stood in the way of building progress in the forests of Fillmore. It was as basic as top-down strategy could get, but it struck the right tone and married well to the brilliant platforming action that took place once you dropped down to ground level.
SolSeraph attempts to add to this unique recipe by introducing more depth and immediate peril to the strategy side of things. It’s still no Civilization, nor would we want it to be, but things have been beefed up considerably here to make things more dynamic. Now, instead of just patrolling the skies and letting your subjects do all the hard work below, you are directly in charge of what types of buildings are being constructed, and that construction is taking place against a clock counting rapidly down to an incoming wave of enemy attacks.
You’ll start off by building simple homes to provide yourself with the beginnings of a population and as soon as you build your first house that old clock will start ticking down to an enemy onslaught. Before that happens you’ll need to build farms to provide food for your citizens, then a barracks for your defensive garrison, an archer’s tower will most likely come next, and you’ll certainly need to get yourself a lumber mill lest you run out of wood to build more fortifications. All these various constructions require a certain amount of people to run them and so you’ll need more houses to shelter more manpower, more food to feed them, more wood to build… you get the general idea. As enemy forces attack, your denizens on the ground will do their best to fend them off as you patrol the skies above, just as in the original - except this time, instead of a little arrow-shooting cherub, you’re a winged God, zipping around in the sky using your lightning attacks from above to zap monsters or summoning a warrior on the ground to help out as enemies march towards your village looking to breach your defences and reach the flame at its heart; let a designated number through to this sacred fire and it’s game over.
Enemy forces will always follow set attack paths which are highlighted by cobbled walkways snaking from their cloud-shrouded lairs right into the centre of your villages and, as you play, you’ll unlock more building types to set at strategic points along these paths in an attempt to block their advances. There are magic towers that shoot lasers in four different directions, perfect for setting where multiple enemy paths converge, spike traps, magic bombers and a handful of special constructions, totem poles and watch towers, that buff the attack abilities of your nearby offensive structures. The goal in all of this is to successfully defeat waves of enemies until you gain the required amount of souls to build and man a special temple as close to the nearest enemy lair as possible, clearing the clouds around it and enabling Helios to drop in and attack it in side-scrolling mode. Each lair that you successfully attack won’t shut down, as you might expect, enemies will still spew from it on the next attack, but it does shake away some of the outer protection of the level’s final boss lair, make your way through all of a level’s enemy encampments and you’ll then face off against that boss in order to bring total peace to the region.
It’s a pretty decent system that adds quite a bit to the original Actraiser’s attempts at strategy, and, if it were fused to the same high level of platforming action as we got in that game, Ace Team would really be on to a winner here. Unfortunately, it’s on the ground that SolSeraph almost completely loses the plot.
The side-scrolling hack and slash sections of this game are pretty bad. Movement is clunky, levels are repetitive and generic, enemy designs are lazy and the platforming veers between boring and frustrating. There are also some bizarre design choices at work here. Sometimes you’ll have an on-foot level that plays out as you’d expect, with Helios traversing from left to right killing bad guys, in these levels the game is at its best, a tried and tested formula, pretty bland but it is what it is. More often, however, you’ll be dropped into an area that’s one or two screens long, you’ll kill all the enemies and then another bunch will appear on the screen. They won’t drop in from the sky or ride in from the right hand side of the screen, they’ll just instantly all materialise at once, sometimes right on top of you, most times completely surrounding you; it kills any sort of nuance or skill about these sections of gameplay stone dead.
Enemies also attack you in the most infuriating ways possible; archers shoot you before you can see them, knocking you off whatever perch you were on into some spikes or thorns (so many thorns!), foot soldiers jump at you in such a haphazard way that even using your shield doesn’t block the damage in any dependable way because they land just behind and on top of you. Enemies are also often grouped together in such a way that you can’t possibly avoid all damage because Helios isn’t nimble enough to avoid several projectiles at once. Get a bunch of wizards shooting orbs and regular grunts firing arrows at you from all sides as you try to negotiate more thorns or some lazily slapped together platforms and you'll soon learn the health benefits of a good old fashioned rage-quit.
Whilst on the ground you’re tasked with collecting various orbs that upgrade your mana pools, enabling you to use your weather powers for longer in top-down mode. You’ll also find health upgrades and, upon beating a boss, gain a new elemental power to use in side-scrolling action; these new elemental powers only go to highlight how badly designed the side-scrolling sections are, in that we didn’t feel the need to use them at all. They don’t add anything to the game or make things easier or introduce any sort of new offensive strategy for you to take advantage of, they’re just there; use them if you want, it won’t change the fact that you’re facing off against very dumb, repetitive AI that will hit you more often because you couldn’t get out of the way rather than out of any sort of skill on their part. In many ways it feels like an unfinished game; like Ace Team ran out of time, had to rush these sections out the door, and this is a feeling that’s added to no end by the graphics, resolution and overall performance on Switch.
We’re honestly not sure we’ve played a blurrier looking game than SolSeraph on Nintendo’s console, it’s admittedly not as bad in docked mode as it is in handheld, but it still absolutely falls short of a reasonable resolution and this problem is compounded by the fact there are seemingly no shadows in effect anywhere in the game, giving the whole thing a really washed out, undetailed look. It's not all bad; there's a good-looking game hiding in here somewhere, with some decent enough animations to how enemies move, the world map is very nice and the little vignettes that pop up on screen to explain your denizens struggles and stories as you build their villages have a lovely Banner Saga feel about them, but, overall it's a visual mess on Nintendo's platform. It also struggles at most times to maintain a steady framerate. Whether zipping around the overhead map constructing buildings and trying to stem the tide of enemy invaders or on the ground in the platforming sections, there are frequent dips that interfere with gameplay, and it’s especially noticeable when you’re trying to make your way across some of the less forgiving platforming areas of the game.
Having returned to the original Actraiser whilst reviewing this game it’s amazing just how much better the side-scrolling aspects of that twenty nine year old game feel compared to this modern reinvention. Levels are well-designed with considered enemy placement, they've got little puzzles here and there, challenging but fun platforming sections and memorable boss encounters; it all adds up to the kind of exacting, polished gameplay you’d expect from a SNES game and it’s unfortunate that what Ace Team has come up with here falls so far short. Over the course of the five or six hours it took us to complete SolSeraph we didn’t come across any more than a handful of sections of on-foot gameplay, those contained within the Mount Agnir region of the game, that were in any way fun to play; the rest were a chore from start to finish.
SolSeraph is a tale of two games; it manages to successfully add some depth to the strategy elements of its inspiration, creating a fun little top-down side to things whilst falling way short of that game in its platforming sections. Even if you're a diehard Actraiser fan and you've been chomping at the bit for this day to come and even if you're willing to put up with the shoddy action sections, there's the matter of the extremely blurry, odd-looking graphics and unstable framerate to contend with. It genuinely feels like an unfinished game in places, and it’s a real shame. If Ace Team had managed to put together any sort of decent side-scrolling action here it would have been on to a winner but, as it stands, this only goes to highlight what a miracle, what a classic for the ages Actraiser really is, whilst confirming itself as, unfortunately, one to avoid.