Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption – Hands-on Preview
Sitting motionless and hunched beneath a cobweb-riddled tree, Adam the Knight casts a dreary silhouette, here, at the end of all things. With a shield on his back, and a sword by his side – head bowed – one could argue that he’s praying. Others, however, may suggest his head hangs in shame. While those who catch a glimpse of him in passing might find themselves whispering, certain he’s catching some much-needed shut-eye.
It feels like a little of each.
Whichever it may be, with a tap of the ‘Start’ button, the reluctant hero of Dark Star’s dreary boss battler awakens from his slumber, pulling himself to his feet with such bone-aching sadness that there’s a temptation, for those with half a heart, to shut the game off then and there. Why? Because for all the millions of times games have invited us to do so, pressing ‘Start’ has, fittingly, never felt so much like a sin as it does at the start of Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption.
The act of hitting ‘Start’ has always felt a little like unlocking a door to absurd, fantasy worlds. Take Nintendo’s Animal Crossing series, for example. Here, with a push of a button, you can live out the fantastical reality of paying off your debts – in full, no less – and owning your own home. How quaint! Let’s not overlook Skyrim, either, Bethesda’s grand, open-world RPG. Forget chasing Dragons, in what other reality can you eat this much cheese free from dietary repercussions? In recent times, it’s also become an act of catharsis: where else can you punch a Nazi without debate (Wolfenstein II)? Confront your inner demons (Senua’s Sacrifice)? Or experience the absurd escapist fantasy that there’s still something resembling a competent world leader at the helm of the most powerful nation in the world (Civilisation VI)?
Oh no, reality…
A few similarly sleepless nights later, and it’s clear the fantasy closest to Sinner’s heart is that of the hero’s tale. If videogames have spent an age selling themselves as escapist fantasies, they’ve often done so off the back of the idyllic hero’s journey. They’re the tales where quests aren’t just completed but conquered, where bosses aren’t defeated but vanquished, and where the world isn’t just saved but glued back together, piece by piece as if nothing, ever, had happened. The ones where, no matter how long the quest, the hero doesn’t just complete it but, rather, emerges on the other side richer, stronger, and more powerful than they could have ever imagined.
It’s always been a tantalising fantasy. But it is, in most every case, just that: a fantasy. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a game embracing the ragged, unkempt reality of a true journey, epic or otherwise. It just doesn’t sell. Or, to tell it more accurately, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that’s attempted to do so without a section of the audience swarming to the nearest forum because, heaven forbid, their cis white male hero has been shown to do anything other than fail up…
As derivative as it may appear in passing – your first sin is judging a book by its cover, or, in this case, a game by its familiar, foggy, nostalgia-drenched aesthetic – Sinner isn’t afraid to mess with the inner workings of the games that have clearly inspired its creation. Refreshingly so. Yet it’s the game’s willingness to embrace the idea that a journey, no matter how big or small, leaves a scar – or, in its own terms, every success requires a sacrifice – that may be its most surprising twist of all.
Having spurred Adam into life, you’re free to wander the self-contained hub world that the game calls home, dotted with graves turn standing stones. If you’re brave enough, you can step up to any one of these and accept the challenge that awaits on the other side, facing the literal manifestations of Adam’s sins which make up this game’s roster. There’s Gluttonous Camber Luce, for one, whose final resting place is the slippery ice of the Frozen Seas, where you’ll find him swinging massive dual blades overhead. Then there’s The Greed of Faiz Tilus, a violent explosion of feather on bone who teleports around the foggy arena, unleashing attacks that can transform the battlefield into a bullet-hell shooter and back again on a whim.
Fittingly for the genre, each one is as fascinating to look at as it is to challenge, certain to take their toll. You’ll be paying for these victories for an age, surely. Hear that creak in the joints? That was Envious Levin Undok’s fault. The encroaching arthritis? The price you pay for victory. Which is saying nothing of the wounds this tale’s Knight will suffer at your, at times, all too inexperienced hands.
Truth be told, he does suffer.
So far, so straightforward. But it’s in accepting these challenges where the true sacrifice is made, and where Sinner finds its voice among the static that is a burgeoning genre. You’ll find no artificial gatekeepers here. Far from it, in fact. Instead, every one of Sinner’s bosses are able to be fought from the get go, in any order, the only thing the game asks of you is that you pay a price for the twisted privilege. Oh no no, not in gold, or silver, or time but, rather, a sacrifice.
A third of your health bar, perhaps?
Or maybe most of your healing items?
Those sacrifices, right there, which differ from boss to boss, are the very beating, tortured heart of Sinner and, all things told, its greatest strength. The kicker, though? And the thing that makes this dilemma so tantalisingly sweet? Upon vanquishing these foes, what you’ve sacrificed isn’t returned to you, and so you’re left to face the next challenge weaker than the one that came before it.
Sorry, kid, but that’s life.
Sinner, then, is as much a methodical Action RPG as it is a puzzle game. It’s a perplexing conundrum. A morbid Rubik’s Cube. A bittersweet equation. It’s also a game that pressures the mind as much as it stresses the heart: there’s no question that to overcome Sinner’s challenges, you’ll need to break this poor hero. That much is true. (Sinner’s great paradox is that its hero starts the game where any other would end: with immeasurable power). The question then, and the heartbreaking puzzle at the core of this action RPG becomes…in what way?
In what order?
How, at your bidding, will you meticulously deconstruct this once great hero in order to achieve victory?
It’s one of the most honest representations of a hero’s journey, or any journey, for that matter, seen in a long, long time.
Adam’s sins may be countless, but Sinner’s are few and far between. In fact, the greatest sin of all may be that which the game inspires in the eye of the beholder or, in this case, the hands of the controller holder.
There’s Temptation, for one, upon seeing Sinner’s familiar presentation and measured combat to make countless comparisons to the sprawling, multi-million selling games that have come before it. You know the ones. There’s Greed, too, in the need for more: each of this game’s arenas are tantalising, self-contained vignettes made up of crevices, graveyards, and ice-capped oceans, with a slow, measured walk – journeys of their own – required to arrive at the boss that calls them home. The question of what lies beyond the bridge, or over the hill can be an incessant niggle, and it’s both Sinner’s blessing and curse that the small glimpses it provides of a larger world should be so convincing.
Those desires are nothing new. Dark Star themselves have discussed at length their desire to one day free Adam from his meagre existence and send him on a journey both sprawling and epic but they’re keenly aware that sacrifices, as in every hero’s tale, are required in videogame development. So long as you’re willing to repent for your sins upon pushing ‘Start’ and take Sinner for what it is – a captivating, heartbreaking, honest rendition of a hero’s journey – then you’ll find much to be excited for here, at the start of what may well be exciting things for Dark Star and Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption.
Jamie’s love of the Souls series is only bettered by his ability to refer to himself in the third person. When not found wasting away the hours on Twitter, you’ll find him vanquishing beasts in Lordran or watching a sunrise on the shores of Chernarus. The Dread Pirate Roberts of videogame journalists.