Plenty of video games are based around the player character becoming stronger to overcome challenges. Many fewer — even those ostensibly exploring themes of loss or adversity — are willing to take away the player’s stuff. Path of Sacrifice does just that, though, turning the basic premise of an action platformer on its head to create an experience that inspires difficult choices and impresses with its thought-out level design.
The concept is straightforward enough: you’re a magical knight questing through a cursed dungeon. You’re armed with a trusty sword and four abilities: a shield that makes you immune to damage, a teleport to cross short distances, a telekinetic grab to pull enemies and items closer to you, and a “death stare” which can kill any enemy from a distance given a little bit of time. Typically, you’d earn these abilities over time, but in Path of Sacrifice, you start with all four. And at the end of the first level, after you’re shown how useful they can all be, you’re asked to give one up to continue further into the dungeon. After completing the second level, you’re faced with the same decision. By the time you get to the end of the game (which takes about 15-20 minutes) you’re left with just your sword.
The concept of losing powers is one I’ve been interested in for a long time, but one that I’ve rarely seen executed. Games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Metroid Prime start you off with your full complement of powers before taking them away, but you’re ultimately able to regain them and use them to explore more of the world. The idea of a “reverse Metroidvania,” in which you have to sacrifice abilities to open up new areas, has been rattling around in my brain for years.
Of course, the design challenges involved in making a Metroidvania-style game that could be completed regardless of the order in which a player sacrificed their skills are immense. And Path of Sacrifice is, as a result, on a much smaller scale, with four short sequential levels rather than a vast open labyrinth. But even at its compact size, it’s impressive how well the game is designed around its four abilities, and how branching paths, keys, and gates enable the player to complete each level regardless of the order in which they give up their powers.
In fact, the best part of Path of Sacrifice is playing through the game a second, third, or fourth time, keeping a different ability until the last level each time. On my first playthrough, I gave up the telekinesis power in the first level, having found it not to be tremendously useful. On my second, I saved it for last, and found that it could be used to reach items, dispatch enemies, and even distract the end-of-level boss for some free hits.
Path of Sacrifice is a short, clever little piece of design by solo developer Mystery Six, and is worth checking out for anyone interested in games that play with genre conventions. It’s only four bucks on Steam, so give it a shot.