Review: Smoke and Sacrifice

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Review copy provided by developer

Genre hybrids are always exciting to me because they have the potential to combine the best aspects of many games into one. This is something that survival games have been in dire need of, with too many falling prey to the drudgery of maintaining bars and managing inventory. Smoke and Sacrifice doesn’t avoid all those pitfalls, unfortunately, but it more than makes up for it in the adventure that unfolds. Turned loose in a strange, sinister world and forced to learn its ways and secrets hasn’t been this enthralling since Don’t Starve, and honestly the story and creativity on display gives it a leg up on that one.

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Sachi lives in a small village surrounded by freezing icefields, kept vibrant by the towering, mechanical Sun Tree. After losing her husband, she now must give up her only child in keeping with the traditions of the village. Years later a sudden disaster sees Sachi lost from her village in a strange underground realm permeated by a mystical, mind-sapping smoke. Somewhere in this cavernous domain her child might still be alive, but she’ll only find him if she can come to grips with the hostile and alien creatures that live there. Eventually her journey will reveal the truth strung between her village and the underworld, and reveal a faint hope for two worlds that are slowly fading away.

Smoke and Sacrifice bears certain similarities to Don’t Starve in its look and apparent mechanics, but this one is more adventure than anything. The underground is open to Sachi but is intensely dangerous, both in its wildlife and in the land itself. The many regions of this domain bear hazards like molten ground and poisonous vapors, and to explore those areas she’ll need to craft the right gear to keep her safe. She’ll also need light for when the smoke rolls in, lest she be consumed by it or the skeletal horrors that hide within its billows. Additionally there are weapons, tools, healing recipes, and more to help her survive her travels and uncover more of the secrets buried beneath the ground. There’s no building to be had, no camps or bases to establish, just a long and winding path to follow.

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The survival elements are really just the huge emphasis on crafting and the tools needed to progress. Proper footwear for each biome is the biggest factor in opening up the world and those items are revealed at certain plot points, as you gain the trust of the shadowy Drear that work the land or defeat the mysterious masters that claim dominion there. Further recipes are found by completing tasks for side characters or finding them etched on landmarks scattered about. You’ll need items to decipher the different signs, of course, and recipes for those items, and so on. Really the biggest challenge of the game is working out what all the many, many items you’ll find do, as this land is sure to be as strange to you as it is to Sachi. You’ll learn the uses for everything from sourfruit to hog snouts, spark bladders to brimstone. You’ll unlock an extensive fast-travel network, loot chests for more gear and stash your own stuff there, and uncover all kinds of forges and machinery to help you craft.

But it won’t be easy, and at times it won’t even be clear what you’re looking for. Smoke and Sacrifice does a good job of cordoning off areas to explore and giving you steps to progress, but not always where to go or what exactly to do. The hunt for recipe signs is the main reason to wander the world, as you generally don’t need to stock up on any one item or search for special landmarks. This wandering can feel pretty aimless at times, and it can be disappointing to brave a frozen wasteland of carnivorous birds and ancient land mines to learn how to cook a veggie burger. There were also a few points I was unclear on how to progress because the items or actions you need aren’t fully spelled out, and the obvious answer might be hidden in an enemy drop you’ve never seen or a land bridge you may have overlooked.

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Following the intro I struggled a bit to really get into the game, as I was never quite sure of where to go or what to collect. I always had something to do, but not always the clearest directions in doing it. That feels like it’s by design, mimicking Sachi’s own struggle to understand and master the world she’s stumbled upon, but it still makes the first act of the game drag. Once you get to the main towns and open up the world things pick up, and I became steadily more invested in the story and exploration until I finished the game in a 3-hour marathon. Yet even then there were design frustrations, like the absurd density of monsters in the fire regions and the obvious padding near the end to hunt all the biggest world monsters again for a McGuffin.

For some folks, I could see these issues being dealbreakers. I wouldn’t say Smoke and Sacrifice wastes your time but it expects some extra investment in learning its quirks. That was a tough sell at the beginning but no issue at all by the midpoint, because the game’s high points only climb higher the further in you get. The art is fantastic throughout, full of smooth details and rich colors that make each area of the world pop. The ecology is clever and unique, and learning how creatures and the land interact is actually pretty important in several places. And while the combat can be tricky to wrangle, the weapons and tools you get in the late game grant you the power to avenge old frustrations on your foes. It’s also worth mentioning there’s been at least one big patch since launch that addressed some common complaints about inventory management and item usage, rendering some old complaints I had moot.

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Despite a slow start, Smoke and Sacrifice proved to be a real gem of an adventure. The unique, living world you find yourself thrust into only becomes more engrossing as you delve further into it and start affecting elements like the towns and smoke cycle. The story is interesting and features more than a few twists, and there’s plenty of exploring and trapping and dress-up to do besides. Even the crafting ended up being more interesting than irritating, no mean feat and one clearly helped along by the creativity underpinning the game. It’s a unique experience, one that has its rough edges and questionable designs, but is absolutely worth exploring for yourself.

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