Sunday, 1 April 2018

Soleil (Mega Drive)

A lot of the reviews of Soleil (also known as Ragnacenty or Crusader of Centy) compared it to A Link to the Past. At first glance, this seems pretty apt: they're both top-down action RPGs, they both star young boys with swords, they both have you cutting grass to find coins. The thing is, it's only at first glance that comparision holds up. If you really need to compare Soleil to a SNES game, the one to go for would be Earthbound (or Mother 2). (It should be noted, however, that Earthbound wasn't yet out when Soliel was released. But that doesn't make the Zelda comparision any less lazy.)

Though they don't have a lot in common mechanically, or even aesthetically, with Earthbound being a Dragon Quest-style turn-based RPG set in a strange version of mid-twentieth century America, and Soleil being an action RPG set in a pastel-hued fantasy realm, they're both games that have narrative ambitions well beyond what was expected of console games at the time of their release, and conversely, well beyond their peers.

There's plenty of people who have written about Earthbound's setting and writing and so on, and I'm not a particularly big fan of it, so I'm not going to reitierate much about it, but basically, the people who do love tend to take from it not only a strong sense of nostalgia, but a real emotional resonance, and it's often said that the game does a good job of replicated the world in which a child lives. Clearly, its ambitions were loftier than most RPGs that existed at that point, which were almost all sci-fi or fantasy stories (that's not to say that there weren't good stories among them, just that they weren't literarily ambitious).

Soleil, though starts with a typical fantasy setting in which boys from the village long to become heroic monster killers when they grow up ,and so on, it quickly subverts it in a number of ways. The first subversion is seen when the village boys go to see off an older boy, Amon, as he leaves the village to go and kill monsters and be a hero. You encounter Amon once or twice later in the game, too, and there's the implication that in a more traditional RPG story, he would be the player character with the lofty destiny.

Instead of the normal heroic quest, Soleil's protagonist is embroiled in a number of bizarre events, during which they gain the power to speak to animals, temporarily get turned into a monster, and ever go to heaven while still alive. Possibly the most important of these, and definitely the most interesting is the section of the game where you're turned into a monster. At the risk of spoiling an important part of the game's story, you basically find out that monsters largely live in mortal terror of human heroes, and just want to be left alone, and that the monsters you kill do have families that mourn their passing. It's something that could have been just a throwaway joke in the vein of the henchman's family scene in one of the Austin Powers movies, but it's played totally straight, and though you do go back to kiling monsters when you retain your human form, you are given a new purpose in life: to find out why humans and monsters fight, and to strive towards ending that conflict.

So, that's Soleil. I can't say if the writers of 1994 were genuinely lazy or stupid in their easy comparisions, or if the climate of the time simply made the idea of thematic criticism of a videogame totally unthinkable to them, but either way, they were wrong. Soleil is a game that's worth playing on its own merits, and should hold a place in history alongside the Mother games as an early attempt to subvert and experiment with what's possible in a videogame's narrative.

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