Even though playing Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption can sometimes feel as awkward as its lengthy title is to say, the upcoming boss-rush action-RPG has potential thanks to an unforgiving “level down” system, which has you constantly juggling different strengths and weaknesses with each new battle. Pretty much everything you need to know about the look, tone, and themes of Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption is right there in the title too. It’s dark. It has religious undertones. Sacrifices will be made, and you will be redeemed for them. But despite a cool core idea, the execution of its early stages feels flat.
Sinner starts out in a gray, dreary hub world lined with rune-encrusted stones. With its almost cartoonishly-proportioned hero decked out in plate armor and a stub-horned helmet, the first impression I got in my hands-on demo was Demon’s Souls for Kids — a gloomy, Gothic take on medieval Europe with slightly more rounded edges. But no matter how cute its stylized little knight might be, Sinner is certainly not playing around.
Each time you fight a boss, accessible via the stones in the hub world, it asks you to make a sacrifice, but the choice of what to sacrifice isn’t up to you. Taking on The Greed of Faiz Tilus, a teleporting, scythe-wielding crow demon, slashes a chunk off your health and stamina meters. Gluttonous Camber Luce, who dominates the Frozen Sea with two massive dual machetes, nerfs your healing rate and reduces health potions. The head-swapping, razor-skirted Envious Levin Undok limits your consumable items, like long-range electric spears, fire pots, and elemental buffs, which otherwise refill between battles.
With each boss I slayed, I received a boost in health, and its “essence” oozed out from the stone and into a dark pool in the middle of the hub world. My debuff was, it seems, permanent. For my demo, I opted to fight Levin Undok first, since I knew I’d have the best chance of learning the ropes and actually surviving with my character at his most functional. By the time I fought the third and final boss in my demo build (though there is supposedly a fourth I was mysteriously unable to access, even after completing all three in a row), my character was weaker than when I first started, but my own improved skills rewardingly offset the disadvantages.
Since Sinner doesn’t have minor enemies to fight between its major battles, you’re forced to learn the ins and outs of its combat during these exacting boss fights. Its similarity to Dark Souls-style combat will make this simple enough for some players, but it’s straightforward enough for everyone else too. You have a light attack, a heavy attack, a charged version of the heavy attack, and variations on each if you execute them mid-sprint. In the build I played, I started out with a standard longsword and shield pairing and a wave-bladed greatsword that can only be used two-handed — according to its Steam page, you will unlock more as the game goes on. Blocking or parrying with the shield and taking advantage of your dodge roll’s invincibility frames are the best defense you have other than sprinting for dear life away from its projectile-loving early bosses.
Where Sinner falls flattest is in the actual feel of its combat. Unlike its obvious inspirations, Sinner feels awkwardly floaty and light. There’s a noticeable weight missing from your attacks, blocks, and parries, which makes adapting to the rhythm or flow of the fight less satisfying. Minimal and sometimes non-existent visual or audial feedback for taking damage makes fights even harder to adequately process. It might be unfair to hold Sinner up to the standards set by its influences, but what it feels like now is a stripped down take on Dark Souls-style melee with none of the spirit or force that makes that combat so dynamic.
Some of that bad game feel is compounded by your inability to adjust the camera, a frustration that feels even worse in boss arenas where environmental obstacles play a major role. Navigating around the pillared egg sacs of Faiz Tilus’ swampy lair while trying to outrun several types of homing projectiles at the same time can be a pain, especially so thanks to Tilus’ spontaneous teleportation, which can snap the camera around a full 180 degrees without warning. Camber Luce does something similar, with the addition of deadly ice pits that only multiply as the fight goes on. In my fight against Envious Levin Undok, it proved equally frustrating, especially once she manifested her second form and had me frantically circling both opponents looking for an in. In a way, the camera quirk is almost fitting. Sinner is, after all, a game about achieving success in the face of great constraints. But not being able to control the camera seems like an unnecessary one.
What Sinner lacks in technical appeal, it makes up for with its visuals: dark, but charmingly cartoonish. Spawning at the top of a crumbled staircase in the Red Hall with the knife-wielding Levin Undok out of focus in the distance is proof of Sinner’s ability to craft a tense, moody atmosphere, even if the other boss arenas I fought in felt less impressive. Lightly animated “cutscenes” preceding each boss offer some brief backstory in a sharp, woodcut-inspired style that look like mash-ups between Gustave Doré’s engraved illustrations of The Divine Comedy and comic books. While the look is cool, the stories so far aren’t enough to get me to care enough about the journey my character is on. If I’m going to commit time to overcoming Sinner’s formidable challenges, I want to feel invested in its world, and so far I don’t.
That conflict between the bland and the occasionally riveting is the perfect encapsulation of my time with Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption so far. There are neat ideas at play, but they are at odds with its less vibrant elements.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to correct a minor inaccuracy regarding the “level down” mechanic.
Chloi Rad is an Associate Editor for IGN. Follow her on Twitter at @_chloi.