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SINNER: Sacrifice for Redemption Review

Edited by: Tiffany Lillie

Soulsborne’s Greatest Hits

I am a big fan of the Soulsborne games. Dark Souls II and III are some of the only games I’ve ever pre-ordered. I also bought a PlayStation 4 simply so I could play Bloodborne, and have run through the original game a fair handful of times. They’re some of my favorite games, as trite as that opinion may be in critical circles. In spite of this, I have found many of the offerings in the Souls-like genre to be lacking, with only a handful of them actually staying with me. For example, I almost enjoyed The Surge, despite sticking with it to the end, but it’s not a game I would ever go back to.

Sadly, SINNER: Sacrifice for Redemption is not one of those that will stick with me. Developed by Dark Star and published by Another Indie, it’s less Souls-like and more like a direct copy of it. Every design decision feels like it has been lifted whole cloth from other, better games, with the exception of the “level-down” mechanic.

Die. Die. Repeat.

SINNER frames itself as the main character’s journey through some kind of purgatory. There are two main draws interwoven here: the bosses and the level-down mechanic. The game is all bosses (eight in total) and each but the last requires you to sacrifice something about your character in order to progress and face them. Each but the last is modeled after one of the seven deadly sins. Once you have beaten one of the bosses, your sacrifice is permanently removed from your character in exchange for a health increase, forcing you to deal with diminished abilities, health, or consumables. At any point between fights, you can retrieve a sacrifice you have completed at the cost of having to fight that boss again.

Already, cracks in this design begin to form. SINNER is not the first game to rely on boss fights as the sole draw of a game. Famously, Shadow of the Colossus pulled this concept off quite well, but it had a sprawling, explorable world with secrets and upgrades to uncover. SINNER has none of this. The overworld is a single basin with seven small rivulets leading up to the seven stones that represent the boss fights.

In other games, levels create a cadence to gameplay. Ever wonder why every MegaMan game has an empty room before each boss fight, or why few Soulsborne bosses have checkpoints immediately outside their arena, or why Shadow of the Colossus had that open world despite having no enemies between levels? It’s to support that cadence. Each of these allows the player to cool off between high points in tension. Even if the player has nothing else to do but move through an area, it allows the player to clear their mind and refocus on the mechanical challenge ahead of them.

SINNER attempts this by not spawning you right into the arena after you elect to retry a fight after a death. The walk, however, is short, and the lead-in may as well be immediate for all it does to calm the mood. I frequently found myself more annoyed, usually with how quickly each of the bosses was able to kill my character. You will die frequently, occasionally out of nowhere, and sometimes due to hitching in the geometry.

Same Old Song and Dance

If you’ve played a Dark Souls game before, you’ll know what to expect here. You will dodge, block, and manage health, items, and stamina on your way to victory over each of the seven bosses. This is taken to the extreme in the mechanical design of the bosses. As I fought them, I felt like I had seen each of these fights before. It felt like the designers had taken two of all of the bosses in the Soulsborne series and mashed them together. For example, we have Pinwheel plus Nito, Gaping Dragon plus The Rotten plus The Capra Demon, Looking Glass Knight plus Iron Golem, etc. Worse, each of these bosses even looks like the enemies they are aping from the other series.

NO CHOICE

RPG elements and character customization are also integral to the Soulsborne experience but are strangely lacking in SINNER. You have a set loadout that you can’t change aside from sacrificing parts of it and can only choose between two weapons: your standard sword-and-board and a greatsword. There’s no meticulous balancing of equipment load versus armor rating. There’s no experimenting with different weapons. There’s no sussing out the weaknesses of any given boss to give yourself an advantage against them. There’s no leveling system beyond the level-down mechanic and the health boost you get after killing a boss.

Of all the design decisions they took from the Soulsborne series, the exclusion of these cornerstone mechanics baffles me. One design decision they decided to emphasize, despite it being almost deliberately decided against in most Souls-likes, is instant-death kills. The Dark Souls games are no strangers to bottomless pits, fall damage from extreme heights, or traps that stun-lock you to death, but very rarely are these present within boss fights. Thinking back on my long journey through the Dark Souls series, I can think of only four bosses that have instant-death pits. The Dragonrider, the most egregious of these, has levers throughout the area preceding the fight to fill in the pits entirely. All of the bosses in SINNER have a bottomless pit somewhere in their arena. While some are easier to fall into than others, there is no worse feeling than losing a promising run at a boss due to being knocked back into a pit trap and dying.

Webs We Weave

Let’s change gears and talk about how the Soulsborne games portray their stories. In general, they start with an introductory cutscene which sets the tone for the game to come, followed by an introductory area, before opening up into an explorable world. Lore is handed out in fits and starts through item descriptions and boss encounters, relying on atmosphere and item placement to convey meaning. Other games, like The Surge and Lords of the Fallen, take a more direct approach to their storytelling, but the core tenets are the same.

SINNER takes a more direct approach. Since there is no inventory system, there are no item descriptions to supplement the story that the pre-boss cutscenes deliver. As such, these bosses fall flat. The narrator seems to imply that our character, the Nameless Wanderer, is somehow responsible for these people’s sins, with hints of them falling into their sinful ways in the wake of our character’s travels. Why he’s traveling, or to where, or what he did to bring about these sins is never explained. These bosses have no context and there are no stakes to motivate the player to keep going.

Now, it would be a fair criticism to say that the Soulsborne games’ stories are so obtuse that many players will just be throwing their head against a boss with no incentive anyway, but the bloodstain mechanic in Dark Souls filled in for this. Against a hard boss or difficult area, if you want to go back, retrieve your currency, and preserve some of your progress in some way, you could. There is no such mechanic in SINNER. After each death, there is no feeling of progress reclaimed, no permanence achieved. Each boss defeated just means the next one is going to be harder for want of whatever you lost for the victory.

Phyrric Victories

Thus, we circle back around to the level-down mechanic SINNER seems so proud of. While a novel idea, this leads to one of two conclusions when coupled with the fact that all bosses can be taken on at any time. Either the bosses are all of the same difficulty and geared to be a hard fight at full strength, given the trappings of the genre, or there is a specific order in which to properly beat the bosses. The latter seems to be the case. It’s not that any of the particular bosses are weak to a given strategy, but rather that the DPS race each fight devolves into becomes much more difficult the farther in you go.

Unfortunately, by the time I figured this out, I had already beaten six of the seven bosses on my own terms and was wholly unwilling to restore any of the previous bosses in order to adequately power back up to beat the game the “right” way. I never actually beat SINNER, and had I not been playing it for a review, I would have stopped after my first two-hour play session. The only thing I can say that is positive about the game is that the art direction is really good. Every character, as distorted and stylized as they are, feels like they come from the same world. The boss arenas are very nice to look at, too, and at least attempt to build upon the theming that the initial narration provides about each boss.

5

The Verdict: Fair

SINNER: Sacrifice for Redemption feels like a Souls-like made by people who only had the original games described to them. I felt the devs were laughing at me as I earned achievements for the various ways the game can kill you. Sadly, there was no achievement for death from being trapped in a boss’ geometry. I might have had a laugh at that myself.

John Gerritzen
Written by
November 14, 2018
Published in Action

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John Gerritzen is a programmer by education, author by hobby, and game critic by occupation. While he usually favors RPGs, he will play anything that engages him narratively or mechanically. When he's not playing games for fun or profit, he's usually reading or watching anime.

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