He's back. Venture beyond the borders of Avericia into a new world of mystery and peril. Solve puzzles, discover secret treasure and destroy hordes of foes with the aid of your summoned Guardians.
Shaedu, Aoex, and Bloodfire invite players for another round with Soulcaster II, the sequel to the original critically acclaimed Soulcaster. Ian Stocker and MagicalTimeBean bring the Soulcaster back to Avericia for more "sort of tower defense but not really" action in a game which is sure to delight fans of the first title. Soulcaster II feels more like an update to the original game than a bona fide sequel, leaving the original formula intact but offering 30 plus new maps for players to dive into along with some other welcomed additions which make Soulcaster II the better game and one of Xbox Indies' best, even if its feature set won't blow existing fans away.
Soulcaster has received a noticeable facelift with its sequel, retaining the 16-bit look of the original but increasing the color depth which make for a far better looking game. Avericia is rich with detail right from the opener, The Forgotten Swamp, an introductory level full of shimmering streams, umber deadwood, and verdant fields to cut through. The water effects are beautiful, and Soulcaster II will vary the style and coloring depending upon the atmosphere, going from the casual flow from the swamp's streams and waterfalls to the stagnant waters seen surrounding The Merchant's Hut. While many Developers may turn toward a more retro style due to a lack of artistic skill or not having the time to craft a more current game, Stocker shows real passion and talent behind each and every level, imbuing his pixelated worlds with color and personality despite the familiar fantasy setting. The trip through Avericia takes the player through its mountains, dungeons, and beyond, and every step of the way is rendered beautifully. Allies and enemies are designed so that they are instantly recognizable on screen, with new enemy types such as the Mimic offering more challenges over the cast of the original game.
Even the merchant's shop has seen an overhaul with each new item getting unique artwork, but the gameplay remains basically the same. The player controls the Soulcaster, a wizard with the power to summon three heroes -- Shaedu, Aoex, and Bloodfire -- to fight for him. Soulcaster II introduces an ultimate weapon for each character, but it can only be obtained after maxing out all of the character's possible upgrades. The Soulcaster can still summon them however he pleases, using his available summoning soul orbs to call forth the fighters in a variety of formations and quantities. Shaedu the elven archer uses her bow to attack from afar but is weak to physical damage; Aoex the knight can take a beating but can only attack adjacent enemies and is vulnerable from the sides and rear; and Bloodfire is more or less Shaedu with fire bombs, able to target enemies over walls but can damage allies with his Molotov cocktails and resulting explosion when he self destructs. Each has a use just as before, and players are free to mix and match their strategies as each warrior remains well balanced, allowing players to forge their own path to the end.
Soulcaster II is more challenging than the first title, skipping the lengthy pleasantries in order to start throwing all manner of devious traps and tough battles at the player. As much as I loved the original game, I blew through it rather quickly, only dying on a particularly nasty gauntlet late in the game. I was surprised to find myself dying so much more in the sequel, my final completion time of 2 hours 10 minutes hiding several restarts as I worked out a puzzle or reconsidered my losing strategy. Buttons and switches tempt the player with secret paths to hidden riches, but more often than not they just flood the level with tons of rats, bats, skeletons, and wraiths to overwhelm the player. Scorpion rats will mob the Soulcaster and spit at him and his allies from a distance while blue skeletons will chase the player down, diving and exploding when close. Soulcaster II asks players to plan out their moves more strategically this time around as well as make the most of the current field, punishing those who choose not to heed the warnings and clumsily stroll through the level overconfident of their abilities. I found myself running for my life more this outing instead of setting up my formations and letting them take care of business as I did before, and the increased difficulty made victories that much more satisfying.
Potions will still automatically restore health, and scrolls can be used to destroy or damage surrounding enemies, but the new tougher creatures will test the limits of that crutch. The Soulcaster is just as fragile as ever, moreso on the game's available hard mode for experienced players looking for an additional challenge. Players can continue as often as needed, and a password system is in place to resume games at a later time. I am disappointed to see MagicalTimeBean stick to this archaic save system; while the game allows users to quick save a password for automatic entry, a more modern system would be appreciated. I'd love to revisit certain levels I enjoyed the most, and it's unfortunate that I have to store handwritten passwords and peck at some on-screen keyboard to do so in this day and age. Thankfully, Soulcaster II is strong enough for players to put up with that ill conceived nuisance, just as we tolerated it in the first game. I also wish Stocker would take advantage of the widescreen display, but I can only assume the 4:3 dimensions are used to compliment the old school graphics and make the game playable on older TVs.
Despite a couple of arguable design flaws, Soulcaster II is without exception, a great experience made better via all of its design and aesthetic improvements. The graphics look fantastic with excellent use of color and style; the soundtrack, composed by Ian Stocker himself, is a great mix of fantasy and metal themes, good enough to warrant a purchase from the MagicalTimeBean website; and the gameplay is as fun and addictive as ever. Soulcaster II is a marvelous update, a sequel which builds upon the exciting and original strategy formula and makes it something special.