Review: 'Smoke and Sacrifice' (Switch)

Screenshot from 'Smoke and Sacrifice'. Screenshot from 'Smoke and Sacrifice'. CURVE DIGITAL

On paper, Smoke and Sacrifice seems like it should be a fantastic combination. You are forced to scrounge to survive in an unfamiliar world, tracking down your long-lost son while uncovering a massive conspiracy that controls your entire world. Unfortunately, the various aspects of this game are not done the way they should be, and the end result is a game that is less than the sum of its parts.

You play as Sachi, a young mother who is forced to ritualistically sacrifice her son Lio in order to maintain the way of life that she and the other villagers enjoy, under the protective light of the Sun Tree. Seven years later, when the Sun Tree fails and places the entire village at risk, Sachi stumbles across another world, far more dangerous than her own, and she starts exploring in order to uncover the conspiracy behind the Sun Tree, and to hopefully find her long-lost son.

At its core, Smoke and Sacrifice is a survival game with heavy crafting elements. You start out with basically nothing, and if you want to get anywhere you need to gather materials from nearby plants and animals. As you go, you'll gather new recipes from NPCs or out in the wild, and you'll obtain more powerful weapons and armor to help with combat, or certain upgrades that let you traverse new terrain. It's a neat idea, and you get somewhat of a Metroidvania-esque sense from it, in that you can see the borders all around you, but you can't traverse them for some time. Really, there isn't much more to the gameplay than this.

The game controls well enough, for the most part. It makes good use of the various Switch buttons, assigning important functions (map, inventory, crafting and journal) to the directional pad buttons so they're within easy reach. It's also impossible to forget what you're supposed to be doing, since your journal keeps track of all your quests, and the map marks off any areas of interest for you to explore. On occasions where your goal is not marked on your map, however, it can be pretty tricky to find; if you have to find some wild animals, for example, they could be in any number of places, and you have few landmarks to gude you.

The game's main twist is the titular smoke. Instead of a typical day/night cycle, the game has a smoke/no smoke cycle, and as you probably expected, the smoke part is bad. During a smoke phase, the entire world gets covered by a thick layer of debilitating, poisonous smoke, and when you're in it, you move slower and take steady damage. You can ward this off by creating lanterns, which thankfully are pretty easy to craft. They degrade with time, though, like all of your weapons and several of your items, so make a huge amount of them and keep them on you. Later on you'll acquire an item that lets you automatically ward off smoke, but its use is limited, and I still found myself relying on lanterns for safety's sake.

The big problem with Smoke and Sacrifice is, well... it's not fun. The game is not particularly compelling, or interesting, or fun. Finding and collecting ingredients is not fun, partly because each individual one needs to be picked up in its own animation, making it feel slow (especially compared to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild). Crafting things is somewhat satisfying, especially if you've been trying hard to get all the ingredients for the recipe, but the game's internal feedback loop of gather-craft-gather-craft is not very compelling.

Combat is particularly not enjoyable. You have one button for attacking with whatever weapon you have equipped, and one for dodging quickly. You can only move in eight directions, and you can effectively only face two, so combat consists of mashing the attack button in the general direction of your enemy, while recognizing their patterns so you can know when to occasionally dodge. Dodging is fine, but actually attacking is totally uninteresting. It's also pretty easy to die unexpectedly, and in a game with no autosave, that can set you back substantially, as it did to me several times.

That basic complaint applies to all of the major gameplay elements: they aren't very fun, and they never get better. Improving combat and exploration so either of those were more satisfying would have made for a more engaging game, but as it stands, I feel like I'm completing a list of chores over and over for the entire course of the game, and my reward for it is more chores. It's not like the game is a technical mess or anything, and it's not immediately clear why I didn't enjoy it, but it is what it is. From what I've seen, this is not a universal opinion, and other people seem to get a lot of enjoyment out of this one, so your mileage may vary.

The game looks quite nice, honestly. It uses entirely hand-drawn graphics, as far as I can tell, and the graphics and UI are both pretty well-done. Unfortunately, the environment is uninteresting and uninspired; it's mostly just different kinds of ground that you walk on, with no interesting terrain to explore. The sound is pretty forgettable; I could not tell you, off the top of my head, if this game actually has music.

It's unfortunate that Smoke and Sacrifice turned out the way it did, because it should have been great, on paper. There wasn't any one major bug or decision that leads this game to not be compelling; it's a handful of very small decisions. With so many incredible indie games on the Switch right now (Golf Story, Hollow Knight, and the absolutely perfect Celeste), I can't really recommend that you add this one to your library.

Final score: 6 out of 10

A copy of this game was provided for review by the publisher.

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