With Soul Blazer and Actraiser, Quintet and Enix basically got 2x the mileage out of one concept. Both games cast you as some sort of demi-deity, who has been sealed away or asleep or something, and during that time evil monsters have infested the land and basically eradicated humanity. So you grab yourself a sword and fly down to earth to deliver the monster beatdown, and end up reviving and repopulating the planet as you go. Of course, you start out weakened after your long hiatus, and thus must acquire new powers and such along the journey before facing the big final demon.
Actraiser takes the "macro" perspective on this idea; the people are basically a faceless mass, exception of a few that go to your temple to supplicate you, and in order to maximize your power you actually have to slaughter the more impoverished ones periodically to make way for newer and more population-dense housing. Soul Blazer, on the other hand, takes more of a "micro" perspective - as you eradicate Monster Lairs, the spawn points for the unholy beasties, you revive individual living creatures (and sometimes talking furniture) which you then return to town to interact with.
Soul Blazer is the first of Quintet's "Heaven and Earth" trilogy, which were three Zelda-esque games that were never direct sequels to one another, yet all featured some variant on this theme of a human or demi-human going on a long journey to revive a troubled world and defeat some dark and demonic force. Aside from the plot themes and gameplay, another notable thread through all of these games is that they tend to have a darker tone than most Nintendo fare, and to also take a dip into philosophy and issues of social justice that other games gloss over or ignore entirely. Now, when I say "take a dip", be assured that Quintet always stays in the shallow end of the intellectual pool, especially in this game. However, it's interesting as these are themes that, at least in the mid-90s, you very rarely if ever saw explored in Japanese console games.
But first, the gameplay. Honestly, it's a bit on the boring and repetitive side, but it's solidly executed. Think Zelda 3 without the ability to move diagonally, and without the inventory of gadgets and not nearly as much background interactivity, and you pretty much have it. There are six areas that you need to revive before heading to the "Evil World" for the final showdown; each area starts bare of life, and you plow through an adjacent dungeon killing monsters in order to "release the souls" who then revive in the town and set up shop there. The structure of the game is interesting and a bit unique - you can bop in and out of the dungeons and the town areas as you please, and frequently have to do so in order to speak to someone whom you've just revived, who then gives you an item or flips some flag that allows you to proceed farther in the dungeon. The action is quite decent, with solid collision detection, but the monsters really aren't very bright, and simply hanging about hacking them to bits while you wait for them to stop spawning tends to get old pretty fast. There's a boss battle at the end of each area, but as the bosses have the same repetitive and predictable patterns that the regular enemies do, it's usually a bit anticlimactic.
Per usual for Quintet, the sprite art is mediocre at best, but there are some really phenomenal background graphics and settings (at least by early 90s SNES standards anyway). Most backgrounds feature some sort of colorful, animated parallax layer, like an aurora borealis in the ice mountain level. There's also a pretty wide variety of settings, from a ghost ship to some underground futuristic power plant.
The soundtrack to this game has really taken a beating from critics, but I personally feel it's getting less credit than it deserves. The criticism is mostly focused on a few dungeon themes that sound like crazy 1980s workout music, and I'll grant that those are quite irritating. However, the music in the town areas and the shrine is reminiscent of Yuzo Koshiro's Actraiser score and quite pleasant, and there's even a few dungeon themes later in the game that are pretty good (though I admit the majority of them are not so good). On the whole it's not a great soundtrack, but there's things to like in it (and a few Ipod-worthy tunes). The music was composed by Yukihide Takekawa, who seems to mostly work in anime and doesn't have any other video games to his credit that I could find.
As far as the good old "touch of Quintet", this game is a little more subdued and lighthearted than later games would be. Plot-wise it's the thinnest, as your character essentially has no character; he never speaks once, or has any body language at all. Other primary characters in the story are also kind of poorly developed, and there's a romance subplot that basically comes out of nowhere. The writers drop little nuggets of philosophy here and there throughout the story, but it's nothing particularly challenging. There's a very slight hint of the whole anti-industrialization/anti-hierarchical themes that would be much more noticeable in later games, but in this one you are mostly focused on resurrecting and serving Kings and such and doing other fairly cliche fantasy stuff. There's also a couple of major characters who die permanently and violently, but nothing on the level of the most dark and morbid moments in Illusion of Gaia or Terrangima really.
Quintet seems like they were still kind of finding their footing with this particular game, and sticking mostly to safe Zelda-style conventions. It's thus the least interesting of the trilogy, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth playing. Far from it, it's actually better than most adventure/RPGs of the period. It's fairly linear and only encompasses about 15 hours of play (with only one optional side-quest that really has a mostly pointless reward), but anyone interested in the genre or in Quintet's work would do well to give it a look anyway. There's enough that's good about it to make it worth at least one run.
* Gameplay Video (which unfortunately chooses the aforementioned crazy workout music for it's background)
* Quarter Circle Jab plays a rockin' medley from the game's soundtrack