SOULVARS - PlayStation Review

SOULVARS by developer ginolabo and publisher Shueisha GamesSony PlayStation 5 review written by Nick with a copy provided by the publisher.

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

SOULVARS is an interesting game. I had heard about it some time ago when it released to widespread acclaim in Japan as a mobile title. A lot of those elements translated well to the console release, but it’s not always a seamless transition and despite some deep systems that kept me interested in progression, there were some other aspects of SOULVARS I found somewhat lacking as well.

To start, SOULVARS just drops you into the fray. Now, some games do that rather well, working in some lore and / or character building during these encounters. Sometimes you get some flavor of the big bad bosses to come, or some unlocked future power but there’s really none of that world building in the beginning. You’re just tossed into a battle that does an adequate enough job teaching you combat basics before moving you along into the story.

In some ways, this is the most frustrating aspect of SOULVARS for me. There’s this promise of a bigger world, some interesting narratives of how technology has ruined the world teased out and never fully realized. Character interactions generally feel shallow. Most interactions are a line or so. There’s plenty of background information that can be found in the menus, and I read through it and liked the gist of what was there, but to have it optionally presented in such a way really creates a strange disconnect from the actual gameplay.

With this being a mobile port, I didn’t have particularly high expectations of the overall presentation, but SOULVARS actually held up better than I expected here. The sound and music were pedestrian and never particularly memorable to me, but I enjoyed the pixelized style of the visuals. That’s probably one of the aspects of SOULVARS that translates best to console. It was likely a sharp design choice for smaller screens such as mobile phones, but it still works well on the big screen. The environments simply ooze sci-fi style, dripping with water, neon colors splashed against darker backdrops that actually do far more to set up the atmosphere than the story or dialog ever did. You can tell some interesting, terrible things happened by the bodies and ruined technology found all over the place, it’s just never really explained in-game in an interesting way.

There is a continually running clock as you navigate maps and partake in different quests that hangs over your head as you play the game, but most of the time my focus was on the combat. Here is where SOULVARS was both most interesting to me, and somewhat disappointing. Maybe ‘disappointing’ isn’t quite the right word, but when I think of a game that advertises itself as a ‘deckbuilder’ I think of actual cards. Maybe it’s just my years of playing Magic: The Gathering and other card games that have my expectations slanted in such a way, but SOULVARS has a different take on that term. So while it was not what I expected, it was still a pretty deep system once I got into it.

That however, was another of the challenges – ‘getting into it’. The tutorials explain the basics, but they are not the most easily digestible introductions to gameplay I have ever seen. SOULVARS doesn’t feel terribly welcoming to new players (though there are a plethora of options to help tweak the experience to your liking at least). But with some time coupled with trial and error, I definitely got into the combat more and found it pretty rewarding once I knew what I was doing. I'm okay with how the combat system wasn't quite what I was expecting going into it, but it probably did make it a smidge more challenging for me to wrap my head around as well.

The ’deckbuilding’ is more of a concept that revolves around action ‘types’. Different skills or pieces of equipment have action types assigned to them. These then get put into a pool of actions that you draw at random and then get to choose which to leverage. There’s an action point system that lets you build up more attacks that can be strung together into combos. So for example, if you equip a sword on your character, it can boost that character’s stats, but it may also add a couple of sword slash actions, a self-boosting action and a guard action, all of which may be drawn on your turn. If you have a fire spell as a learned ability, casting it doesn’t hit the enemy with that spell – it puts a fire ‘action’ into your pool that can be drawn.

Technically all of this is explained at the start (and thankfully there is a nice glossary built into the menu system that can help you go over these types of systems in some detail), but I found it a bit unwieldy at the start. It didn’t really sink in for me fully until I started moving pieces of gear around on my characters and customizing them with special nodes that can add abilities or additional action types to the gear.

Combinations and character progression were pretty fun. I wonder though, if this worked better as a mobile game in part due to people playing it in smaller, bite-sized chinks for time. My console experience usually went like this: Fire up the game, enjoy exploring a new dungeon for a bit, get some gear, tweak my characters – lather rinse and repeat. I think if I was playing for ten or twenty minutes and then putting it down for several hours, that would work better than sitting down and playing for nearly three straight hours, followed by four later in the afternoon. A sense of repetition and sameness started to set in during those longer sessions that I simply couldn’t fully shake. I suspect a lot of this comes back to my feelings of narrative shallowness during gameplay.

In the end, SOULVARS is an above-average turn-based JRPG with some interesting ideas both narratively and in the gameplay. However, none of it is overly approachable. The worldbuilding is there in the fringes, but never fully surfaced during the game in a way that I enjoyed. Character development was sort of lacking from me from a story standpoint – I actually enjoyed customizing their gear and abilities more. However, areas and combat begin to feel repetitive when played for long stretches, and in the end I felt as though SOULVARS was fun enough, but could have been so much more as well.

Score: 6 / 10