There’s no smoke without fire, and there's no fire without the sacrifice of your first born; as openings go, it's a strong one. Solar Sail Games' debut title Smoke and Sacrifice is a narrative-driven, hand-drawn RPG cut from the same cloth as Don’t Starve - but with a clear thread of inspiration from Metroid running through its carefully constructed world.
It's not as odd a combination as it might sound, because survival mechanics and improving a character's abilities slot together nicely. Your progress is dependant on the items you gain: to traverse through snow you’ll need boots able to withstand the chill, and to catch bugs, which your life depends on, you need to find someone who can teach you how to make nets and craft lamps. Need to knock out some wasps to loot their nest? You'll need gas grenades. Such rules apply for swamps and any other unusual environments. If there is something impeding your way, then there's an item you don't have yet, or an NPC with a new recipe that you've missed. The world's designed to force exploration not just in the grand, sweeping sense - but in terms of checking every corner, and squeezing what you can out of a given location before moving on.
Smoke and Sacrifice’s similarities to Don’t Starve is most pronounced in the hostile world. While there is less emphasis on survival itself — with more focus on the adventure and story-driven aspects — most activities are still inherently dangerous, whether that's gathering resources or desperately dashing back to a save zone with a sliver of health. Trying to craft a weapon while avoiding the predators that sit atop this world's food chain evokes the same underdog feeling. All enemies pose a threat from the game's opening, and most of them are simply out of your league. For all that preparation is crucial, Smoke and Sacrifice also has a playstyle that's less circle-the-wagons and more full steam ahead; often, you just have to use what you've got and try to plough through.
In Smoke and Sacrifice you play as the bereft mother Sachi who travels to an alternative reality, Stranger Things-style, in a quest to find her son after she placed him at the village’s sacrificial laser altar. Her village is of the post-post-apocalypse ilk, where they worship a 'Sun God' machine for protection from some particularly hostile animals.
Your Wicker Man alarm bells will be ringing from the start as you pass shrine after ominous shrine, each decorated with a single child’s doll. It's been seven years since the sacrifice, and Sachi journeys to this hostile environment with nought but the clothes on her back. One of the first things you do is laboriously beat a jellyfish to death with her bare fists, which makes Sachi’s dire situation clear: you need to tool her up.
Smoke and Sacrifice is built around a crafting system. Create nets to capture fireflies, make sweets to trade for information, cook food to eat, build armour to stand toe-to-toe against much larger threats and fashion an ever-advancing array of weapons to progress forward on. There’s a perpetual loop: craft items to explore dangerous areas, where you'll find new ingredients which help build even more powerful equipment.
Upgrade a knife to kill a wasp so you can harvest it and create a couple of bombs, use the bombs to blow up that giant boar blocking your route to a new village, go there and find the item recipe for armour that lets you survive a literal minefield. Of course, the option is always there to forgo the bombs or any other items and try your hand Dark Souls-ing a giant pig with just a wooden club. It feels like a great mix of old-school progression design with the freedom to make risky choices.
Smoke and Sacrifice has a day and night cycle with transitions marked by a fog horn. The time of day changes the game world and thus your survival strategy: at night Sachi requires a constant light source, be that fire, a makeshift bug lantern, or a particularly luminous plant. The lanterns, while easy to make, have a limited lifespan and can be destroyed if Sachi takes too heavy a hit. You have to manage your inventory and tools diligently so you're never caught out in the dark.
It feels like there's a lot of depth to be uncovered here. A single animal can drop three or four specific items that may change depending on the in-game time of day, all with multiple uses. A bug that you caught and used as a light source at the game’s start later turns out to also be a key component for a bazooka, or the power supply to some robot armour. That tree branch you picked up does function as a basic weapon, but shove it into a machine and you've got an improvised lever. With all that in mind, it's sometimes tempting to go postal, but knowing when to pick your battles is crucial.
Smoke and Sacrifice is not a forgiving game. There’s no autosave feature so death sends you back to your last ‘manual’, location specific, save. Forgetting to save regularly can result in a harsh punishment and cost you a lot of game time, which may not sit too well with modern players coddled by constant checkpoints. The reality of this world was thoroughly beaten into me after I strolled up to what appeared to be a steampunk Grim Reaper and punched him in the face. That bastard slaughtered me in seconds, along with half an hour's progress.
As someone who loved Don’t Starve - which let's be honest, is the target market here - I can see myself losing a lot of time to Smoke and Sacrifice. I was enamoured by the exotic and colourful world, and the tale it had just begun to tell is promising. The developers say that, if you know what you're doing, Smoke and Sacrifice will have an oddly-specific 36-hour play time. It's out later this year on multiple platforms and, yes, that includes Switch.