Smoke and Sacrifice is a narrative-driven role-playing game where you must explore, fight and craft in a dark but beautiful world to survive.
The intro immediately sets the tone for this gritty tale. When starting the game, we are introduced to Sachi - a young mother who lives in a small settlement deep in an icy wasteland. After the Sun disappeared, the villagers now rely solely on the Sun Tree to provide them with the light and warmth needed for bountiful harvests. However, nothing comes for free: in order to keep the Sun Tree illuminating their village, priests sacrifice first-born children to appease their Sun Tree. Sachi reluctantly gives up her firstborn son to be sacrificed. Even though the priests reassure her it is for the greater good, Sachi struggles to truly accept the ritual.
Years later, monsters attack the village. Sachi flees to the temple only to find out that the altar where children are sacrificed is actually a portal to a mysterious and dangerous underworld that powers the Sun Tree. Now hopeful that her long-lost son might still be alive, Sachi ventures out on a quest to rescue him from this new dark underground world.
Despite being entirely underground, this underworld has light, trees, and wildlife galore. There is a day and night cycle of some sort: in the light, players can move Sachi around freely and clearly see the land around her. When hearing a haunting buzzing sound, players are warned the titular smoke will fill the underworld. The smoke makes the wildlife more aggressive as well as unleashing a variety of new deadly monsters. The smoke also limits your vision and slows Sachi down significantly, eventually even resulting in death. Needless to say, it is important to get into crafting straight away if you want to protect Sachi.
The first few quests in the game are basically a crafting tutorial. First off you will need to make a lantern which allows Sachi to fend off the smoke. Of course, you need weapons to fight the unfriendly wildlife or kill creatures for materials in order to craft other items. For health restoration, you must gather food and cook it. However, materials lose their viability over time and food will rot. It is therefore of utmost importance to be prepared before you find yourself struggling under a thick blanket of smoke.
As the game progresses, you can make better items and weapons - whereas at the start of the game you'll be beating opponents down with nothing more but a spikey stick, later on, in the game you'll be wielding a sword of sorts. Sachi can only craft materials that you have the recipe for. This means you can't experiment by putting random materials together which is often seen in other games. We did not, however, miss this feature; there are enough interesting items to make and you can kit your character out in a variety of clothes.
Specific areas need specific items - for example, when facing icy plains, you better have some warm fur ready. You can't face a new area without the required materials, and due to the fact some items expire, you may find yourself travelling back to other areas a lot. No matter how beautiful the handpainted world in Smoke and Sacrifice is, the constant backtracking did become more of a hurdle over time.
The crafting menu is very easy to manage and understand. This also applies to combat too, and attacks are performed with a single button. That isn't to say all creatures are overpowered that easily; sometimes certain weapons or items are needed before you'll be victorious. The developers have described the world of Smoke and Sacrifice as a "living world", which is definitely noticeable as the wildlife interacts with each other. This means that you can also plan out traps to defeat monsters. For example, we lured away stronger hog into a wasp nest - the wasps effectively killed the overpowered hog before we took the wasps down with a simple stink bomb.
As for moving around, you can choose to either use your mouse and click where you want your character to go, or use your keyboard. The latter is proven to be much more accurate - when using your mouse, Sachi may not end up where you want her to be. This may be due to the isometric camera/fixed camera angle, which makes it sometimes difficult to move. We also found ourselves accidentally attacking creatures when instead we wanted to pick up a flower behind it, and you better hope your loot never falls behind a tree or rock of some sort as it becomes near impossible to then pick it up. The isometric camera also makes it hard to 'read' enemies - they can even attack from off-screen.
Apart from slashing your way through aggressive wildlife, you will of course also encounter many NPC characters. These may have quests for you or share information which will slowly reveal more about this mysterious underworld. Apart from searching for Sachi's son, you will also learn more about the truth and conspiracies around the Sun Tree. Players are also presented with puzzles (activate point A and point B to get to point C), but none of these are huge brain teasers, making the story flow at a good pace.
As with most survival games, dying is inevitable: Sachi will perish on your watch, and if so, she will respawn at your latest save point. This also means that any materials gathered or items crafted after that particular save point are lost. Whilst this enhances the challenge, it can also be slightly disheartening if you've missed a save point (or two).
Smoke and Sacrifice certainly has the key genre elements (exploring, collecting, crafting), but perhaps it's the art that stands out most of all and a beautiful hand-painted world with detailed characters awaits. The style befits the dark gritty tale perfectly. The only downside is that despite being promoted as an open world, there actually isn't much freedom. You can do some side quests but you are constantly forced to follow the main quest. With a pre-designed, fixed world the replay value of Smoke and Sacrifice may therefore not be as high as other survival games. Still, the distinctive visual style and the heartwrenching story of a mother looking for her son make this a unique title in the survival genre.