Story-driven survival meets hand-drawn artwork in Smoke and Sacrifice. What a beautiful way to die.
Every parent I know would go to hell and back for their child. Smoke and Sacrifice makes you do just that. Released first on Steam and then later ported to the Big 3 consoles, this game is typically compared to Don’t Starve, its more famous survival genre cousin. According to their website, developer Solar Sail Games sought to “combine a meaningful narrative with the challenges of survival gameplay” in Smoke and Sacrifice. Did they succeed? Keep reading to find out.
Title: Smoke and Sacrifice
Genre: Adventure, Survival
Platform: PC, Switch, Xbox One, PS4 (reviewed)
Release Date: May 31, 2018 (PC), Jan. 15, 2019 (consoles)
Developer: Solar Sail Games
Publisher: Curve Digital
In a frozen, post-apocalyptic landscape, a tiny village lays nestled under the warmth and protection of the Sun Tree. As thanks for the blessings they enjoy, the villagers not only worship the tree, but every family must give up their firstborn child upon the Sun Tree’s altar. As Smoke and Sacrifice opens, it’s Sachi’s turn to make the heartbreaking penance. She says goodbye to little Lio and believes he is gone forever.
Seven years later, the unthinkable happens: the Sun Tree’s protection lapses, allowing monsters from the outside world to attack the village. During the confusion, Sachi learns that things are not as they seem, and Lio may yet be very much alive. To find him, she embarks on a quest that takes her through a dark, creepy world of muggy forests, frozen plains, lava fields, lethal factories, and crumbling villages populated with ghostly inhabitants.
When Smoke and Sacrifice drops you into its brutal open world, you had better hit the ground running. This is a land of survival of the fittest, and the game does not abide weaklings. Explore the map, forage for survival items, and kill (or flee from) monsters, and you just may live long enough to learn the truth–not only about Lio, but about everything.
For the first several hours of gameplay, I was struggling just to stay alive. It’s prudent to have a store of health items before going out to explore, right? But I would get so injured in the process of foraging for those health items that I would be forced to use them all right away, and my net progress for the day would be a complete wash. It takes a long time to build up your stores to the point where you can get comfortably ahead of the survival curve. Until then, prepare yourself to continually exist on the edge of death.
Sometimes–not always, but sometimes–your many deaths can even help progress you towards your goals. Case in point: once I saw a Recipe Stone completely surrounded by landmines. Having the right recipes for crafting can literally mean the difference between life and death, so I foolishly decided that I could sneak through the landmines (spoiler: I couldn’t). But even though my life ended in a fiery blaze of failure, when I went back to the Recipe Stone after restarting from my last save point, the landmines had not returned. I was able to waltz up to the stone and claim my prize as if getting blown to pieces had been my plan all along.
Smoke and Sacrifice has a day/night cycle that lasts approximately ten minutes (five minutes for each). This is no ordinary night, however. The entire world fills with a cloud of choking, disorienting smoke, and it will kill you if you are caught without a light to keep its fumes at bay. But since your light gradually diminishes the longer you use it, the smoke is a constant source of concern.
As if that’s not difficult enough, the same smoke that proves lethal to you gives strength to the world’s monsters. They are more powerful and more aggressive at night. It’s easy to find yourself overwhelmed by foes. But while the game’s risks increase in the smoke, the rewards do not, and the prudent soon realize that everything you need can be got more easily and more efficiently by simply finding a safe spot and hiding until morning. Unfortunately, this strategy means that fully half the game is spent standing around and waiting, but when the choices are boredom or death, it’s a lose-lose no matter which you pick.
Arts & Crafts
Crafting is an enormous part of Smoke and Sacrifice. Once you have a recipe (which can be got from sources like Recipe Stones or gifted to you by friendly NPC’s), you can craft it as many times as you like. You just have to forage for the ingredients. In this way, you can make healing items, traps, weapons, and armor, and eventually, it’s the skill of crafting that allows you to finally master this brutal world.
However, things can quickly get complicated when your gameplay is founded on the idea of crafting. Every single little task becomes a major ordeal with a multi-step to-do list. For example, at one point in the game, I needed to craft a special acid to progress the storyline. The acid recipe required raptor skulls, but before I could hunt raptors, I needed to repair my weapon. That required crafting fixitive powder, and for that recipe, I needed to farm treacle paper. Treacle paper can only be gotten from the hives of giant wasps, and the best way to dispatch them is to first stun them with gas bombs. But to craft gas bombs, I had to farm for the brains of smokey polyps. You get the idea.
Eventually all this endless running around and gathering of items does pay off in capable weapons and armor, but even when you do get to the point that you can easily kill run-of-the-mill enemies, you still mostly run from them because you don’t want the unnecessary wear and tear on your equipment that comes from killing them.
Areas for Improvement
There are a couple of simple additions that I feel would’ve enormously improved my experience with Smoke and Sacrifice. When you fast travel via teleport stations, there are no place names on the map, and this obviously makes it difficult to figure out where you need to go. Once I needed to go to Hog Fen to farm hog snouts, but it took me three teleports to incorrect forest areas before I finally narrowed down which was the one I was looking for.
Another source of frustration that I eventually just learned to live with was the combat. Sachi simply aims her weapon in the direction she is facing, and often this results in you attacking empty air because your enemy moved out of the way. I’d have given my left kidney for the ability to lock onto a target.
As I was playing, I did have one experience where the game crashed and cost me my progress since my last save (and turned me into a paranoid lunatic who saved every two minutes in case it happened again). I also had one odd occasion where I was dying of poison and saved my game just as the poison took the last of my health. The game didn’t seem to know what to do with these circumstances, and it left me in a state of neither death nor life, frozen in place and unable to move while gameplay continued on around me. I had to relaunch the game to remedy it.
Graphics & Sound
Smoke and Sacrifice boasts beautifully hand-drawn art that gives off a strong steampunk vibe. This is a tragic, immersive world with several different types of environments that you must prepare for. While I would’ve preferred a bit more individuality among the specific map areas (for example, the enemies you find in one forest are the essentially the same as in every other forest), the creatures and habitats are all interesting creations.
There is no voice acting in the game, but the sound effects seem to adequately do their job. The music is atmospheric but never draws attention to itself, and now that I’ve completed the game, I realize that I don’t remember any of it. It was never so good nor so bad that it could overcome the immediate stress of survival dominating my thoughts.
Once you complete the game and know how the story ends, you may return to it for trophy hunting purposes (I got 80% trophy completion without going much out of my way during the course of normal gameplay). But unless you simply can’t get enough of the anxiety that comes with having a piece of fruit be the difference between whether you live or die, there is no real replay value that I can see in Smoke and Sacrifice.
Smoke and Sacrifice is a beautiful game that wants very much to kill you. It’s got a dark, immersive world and an engaging story. For better or worse, your in-game success seems mostly dependent upon the hours you are willing to spend foraging rather than any inherent talent you may or may not possess as a gamer. While it’s not for everyone, if you enjoy a steep challenge and the never ending busywork of foraging, then this is the game for you.