REVIEWS

SOULDIERS

Japanese-style metroidvania

It's been two months since we had a preview of Souldiers, the metroidvania title from Spanish Retro Forge Games. Back then I wrote that there were subliminal comparisons to the excellent Celeste but also an expectation that it would be one of the best indie titles of the year. The truth is that the inevitable comparisons were made and we're able to show you why Souldiers is an honest proposition despite some of its typical shortcomings.

Greetings to you too, horny.

As we have already written the scenario begins quite simply with the battalion we belong to being cut off from the main regiment and trapped in a cave after an earthquake. Suddenly, a Valkyrie comes to the rescue as a machine goddess, transporting us to her world of Terragaya the world/dimension that lies between the world of the Living and the Dead. As the game progresses we realize that the main cause of the events in Terragaya is because some experiment/study went somewhat wrong. As expected, it is our responsibility to bring everything back to normal. The plot finds several simplifications and follows the same patterns as the sweet chibi-art that permeates the game. Characters that can be perceived as one-dimensional (and some marginally as caricatures) make up the game and show the contrast between them. However, I have to admit that the game's writing isn't bad, but it's also not shallow.  

A brief moment of respite.

As we've already mentioned, Souldiers' mechanics draw inspiration from Dark Souls. Dragon Sword shrines are points where we can save our progress, with several emblematic unofficial checkpoints located in between. This means that if we die before we find the next Dragon Sword Shrine, we won't necessarily go back to the last one we found, but will start at the last checkpoint. This design choice leads to an admittedly tedious grind - because deaths are not rare, and each progression must be repeated until the next checkpoint or save. Importantly, checkpoints only function as such for the gaming session in question. (Rage)Quit and restarting the game will result in you being at the last savepoint therefore any progress is lost.

Fallen enemies drop gold which in turn is exchanged for upgrades to our equipment and new items.

But it would be unfair to limit the comparison of the game to Dark Souls. The core of Souldiers is, after all, metroidvania and as such the game was designed with great care and attention. Each environment-habitat-area of the game has its own identity, a result of the excellent art that renders every corner of the map with exquisite detail (sic). And the game's scope is satisfyingly large with a plethora of different areas. Thankfully, despite the size of the map, backtracking isn't too problematic once you've unlocked the necessary Dragon Sword Shrines. The latter prove to be extremely useful should we choose to complete the side quests-bounty hunts that are usually unlocked with the scenario completion of each area. These quests, although completely optional, give no small amount of equipment making life considerably easier along the way. In addition to the optional missions there are several secrets waiting to be discovered via cleverly placed hints that contribute to the game's liveliness and lore world-building.

The first of these missions and highly recommended for the reward it offers!

An important differentiation of Souldiers is the existence of three different classes covering the typical archetypes: Scout (melee), Archer (ranged), Caster (self-explanatory). The different properties of each class lead to a different approach to each playthrough thus increasing the replayability of the title. In the context of our playthrough we tested Caster, which initially adopts a glass-cannon approach. Given the high difficulty, a recent patch has greatly strengthened him to better cope with the risks (of which there are many) and bring him roughly on par with the other classes - since his resources were relatively limited. Beyond the classes, however, the game provides an extensive skill tree, tailored to each class of course, and perhaps its most important element: the different types of damage. The latter in a nutshell is a system where each enemy can be invulnerable and/or sensitive to a damage type while integrated into the main plot, with each damage type being unlocked gradually. This rock-paper-scissors type of thing also applies to the bosses, which are varied and have interesting and accurate fights.

It seems much more difficult than it really is.

Since Souldiers is not the typical "free-flow metroidvania" with traditional platforming elements like the recent Ori and the Will of the Wisps or even Guacamelee, its approach and requirements are far from the aforementioned. There has been a strong emphasis on a more conservative approach both during combat (with dodge taking pride of place) and during exploration. Chibi-art contributes significantly in this area but at the same time is perhaps a limiting element. One of the negative aspects of the title I count the reduced responsiveness to handling and the rather cramped platforming points as a negative. Personally I would have liked some animations (especially in the jumps) to contain 1-2 more frames so that the game doesn't give such a slow feeling to the character's movement, a feeling that doesn't improve over the course of the game. In an ironic twist some movements were extremely sensitive to any movement of the controller stick. This combined with the fact that one wrong move could result in death often resulted in several repetitions of certain passes, which can only cause frustration.

The conversion from one type of damage to another is very fast and seamless.

Another dark spot in the otherwise excellent title is the decision to lock the player up for a significant period of time in a separate habitat. This happens fairly early in the game's plot: close to 12% and around 9+ hours. Aside from the scale of the size that "betrays" the above element (Souldiers is expansive in duration), a very big issue arises because we're literally talking about one of the early areas with the character not being strong enough if you haven't chosen to do anything optional up to that point. Even if you're thorough, this "lockdown" can easily run at 6+ hours, including all the backtracking/deaths etc. This happens without any warning and is in one of the most labyrinthine areas of the game which as you can understand can lead to major obstacles to progress very early on.

The menu where we look at the quests, the inventory and the map. It's fresh and functional.

These two negative elements of the game were enough to dampen my initial enthusiasm and discourage me from calling it the ultimate metroidvania title of the year right from its release. All of the work that has been poured into Souldiers screams of long-standing passion and a lot of appetite - from its chibi aesthetic that conveys a fairytale feel, to its core mechanics that seem to have been extensively studied, to its writing that emulates representatives of the genre from decades past. The game continues to be supported with patches with the developers being very proactive in balancing the game where it needs and should be. In the end, it's an honest proposition that promises to compensate you with dozens of hours as long as you adapt to its pet-peeves.

RATING - 82%

82%

Plenty of soul

Souldiers manages to marry the chibi aesthetic with challenging gameplay and an interesting combat system. Some minor mishaps in handling and pacing detract from the overall experience, but it's still an honest solution.

Northlander

A native of Hyperborea, Pavlos has long since experienced interaction with the screen. The first games he remembers playing were Gran Prix, Test Drive, Digger and Flight for DOS at a time when most people now had Windows... This didn't deter him and he loved the Mother Platform from the very first moment. He also dabbled in the barren fringe of consoles (always at friends' houses, never his own), but it was the PC that kept him going. A lover of quality titles from all genres, he believes how the story and what the game as a medium wants to say is the main thing, not the label. There are always the exceptions of course...

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