It's so close.

So, okay. Soulblight's whole idea is that it's a top-down roguelike action game, with a dark and spooky weird-sci-fi aesthetic. Kind of Dark Souls by way of Zelda with a stop in an H.R. Gieger painting.

The central mechanical concepts are pretty clean and simple. You have a few types of weapons that get swung in different ways, a grapple mechanic to hold enemies to you or force them away, a dash to escape, and a sneaking system to creep up on high-level enemies and snap their necks. It's a decent little set of tools, and give you some good options.

And then the chief trick that the game claims as its own, are Taints and Conditions. The basic idea behind these are also simple. Conditions are obvious enough, but tend to be rather more potent, for good or ill. Taints are semi-permanent things that give you bonuses for certain actions, and are your chief path to more power...But sometimes those things are themselves detrimental to your survival. Maybe you get something like Cowardly, that actively saps your power if you get into open combat. Or Reckless, that gives you power for taking on injuries.

There's an interesting loop to the core of this, where Taints and temporary Conditions force you to play in different ways. Situations that you actively want to avoid in one playthrough, become the very thing you're seeking out in the next one.

All of this helps to lend a greater sense of variety, in a genre that can end up with starting points feeling a bit samey. You don't even pick your Taints from a full list; rather, at the start of a run and at various points throughout, you hit a pseudo-checkpoint where the game rolls up two, and makes you pick one or go without.

In terms of core conception, there's honestly a lot to like here.

...But here's where I have to tell you all the ways it zigs where it should have zagged.

My troubles with Soulblight start as soon as the game boots up. See, the story, or at least setting, is described in a lovingly crafted animated cutscene...with...no subtitles. And poor audio mixing. And no way to add subtitles. Until I was able to squirrel away in a quiet room with a pair of headphones in handheld mode, I literally had no idea what the speaking character was saying.

And this sound problem is consistent throughout the game's core. While the characters you talk to in-game are all text-only, with no voice acting to be muffled and fuddled, there's a lot of sound design that's, to be honest, too small and slight and subtle to actually get noticed if you're playing on anything but a pair of well-sealed headphones. Room noise overtakes a lot of what this game's trying to do very quickly.

Then there's the visuals. I'm...I'm not sure how to put this or phrase it, because it's not that any of the individual elements are bad. Rather, it's that almost nothing has been designed around the true-top-down view. Without more of a 3/4 design like an actual 2D Zelda, or the angled and controllable view of a 3D semi-top-down game, there's hardly any readability in a lot of the assets.

Not only is it hard to tell what's a wall or an aesthetic element and what's an actual walkable path, but figuring out what you're looking at is incredibly difficult at times. Chests are just kind of yellow squares, enemies are abstract masses that often look more like crabs or spiders despite clearly wielding weapons, and your hero themself looks more like just a placeholder shape than an actual representation of a human being.

All of this just plain hurts the gameplay, which has some problems of its own. Enemies being difficult to read makes it incredibly hard to tell how big of a challenge you're facing, made worse by the way everyone has their weapons entirely put away until the fight starts. I can't tell whether I'm facing a low-level guy with a sloppy dagger and just a few hitpoints, or a shield-and-sword monster that's going to be hell to put to the ground. Which might be a valid design element, if it felt like that was what the game wanted to be.

The fighting itself is...I mean, it feels sloppy, is what it does. Because there's so little animation, the windup on a heavy weapon instead just feels like lag. What it ends up being is that, nine times out of ten, the best way to fight is to just hold down the grapple button, grab the other guy, and then thump him with your weapon doing minimal-windup jabs while just hoping you don't get outnumbered.

Oh, and they also bring in some light survival game elements. Would you like a Hunger penalty to start cropping up on you all of a sudden? Too bad, it's happening, and of course food is rare and hard to get without using up resources.

So...here's the thing. I like a lot of the ideas here. This is obviously too messy to just patch its problems away, but I like a lot of what they're trying to do. A quick lookup of the developer, My Next Games, confirms that this is their first published title.

I'm going to be honest, that doesn't surprise me. These feel like the errors of a rookie team, the kind of thing you only learn to deal with from the experience of making something as large as a whole game. I can't speak to game development in specific, obviously, but in my own creative endeavors, I know I've made those kinds of mistakes plenty of times.

And so what I'm left with is this. I can't recommend Soulblight, not with all the troubles stacked against it. But if the devs are paying attention and see what to fix the next time, I am really eager to see what their second game is. I feel like that's where the real diamond in the rough is going to be.