Souldiers PC Review
Souldiers, from the newly formed team at Retro Force, is the first game by the studio and is another indie game that takes the classic formulas of old and merges them with a modern concept. In this case, the developers have created a 2D platformer which blends elements of a Metroidvania and challenging combat, which the developers state is inspired by From Software’s Souls series, dubbed “soulslike combat”. Indie Metroidvanias are not exactly an original idea, since Steam is full of games like this. Checking out the “More like this” category on the Souldiers’ Steam page throws me some of the greats, such as Hollow Knight and Dead Cells. For fans of the genre, there is nothing wrong with another title wanting to join in on the fun, and Souldiers makes a compelling argument to be another good action-packed Metroidvania.
The story is thin regarding how it sits within the overall content within the game, giving the title a setup and tidbits of story delivered after key points in the adventure. There are small characters to interact with from time to time, jumping in to steal a bit of the show and do some amusing heroic moments, but they never stay for long. We are introduced to the world with a short opening that establishes the nation of Zarga, one of the three nations that rule the continent of Ascil. They are preparing for war against Dadelm, with the king clear on a proposal until the king’s sorcerer offers a new alternative to stick some of the soldiers in a cave for a surprise attack. As they wait, suddenly an earthquake causes the squad to be trapped within the mountain and the outcome seems certain death until a magical entity, a Valkyrie, appears before them to offer them a chance to escape if they go through this portal and arrive in another world, Terragaya, a strange land that seems to sit on the edge of the afterlife. This is the beginning of the adventure for your fellow soldier as they map out the world in traditional Metroidvania fashion over a journey that lasts around 20+ hours.
Before setting off into this new world, the player must pick a class type. The game has three classes available, Scout, Archer, and Caster, filling in typical archetypes for the fantasy genre. The Scout is the standard melee unit, having a good balance between offence and defence, using a sword for quick attacks and a shield to absorb damage. Archer is based on range attacks and agility, but also has an amusing ability to use their bow like a boomerang. The Caster is all about magic and mana, dealing the most damage with a well-timed spell. Classes are more than just forming base starting stats, as they play different and come with their bespoke skill tree, which gives encounters an alternative feel to them. Classes only change how the player will approach combat, as they do not come with any non-combat abilities to adjust the outcome of how the game progresses through its levels.
Souldiers follows the level design of a Metroidvania, but not as close as one might be expecting. This does mean everything is connected to create a single large area but split up by the environments. There are loading screens between each area, but amongst each major location are connected smaller areas to traverse with their own little secrets and enemies to overcome. Each major zone, which are based on themes such as a Spider Cave, under the ground of some Egyptian pyramids or a huge flying battle station, includes sealed-off areas that require finding keys or new abilities to unlock progression, often looping back on themselves to create shortcuts to the new areas that were unlocked.
One thing I like about the level design in Souldiers is that it is understandable where to go next. The map is incredibly handy are showing locked doors and sealed-off areas. There are also hidden map scrolls to find that reveal unexplored elements. I do wish the map could be kept on-screen during gameplay, as to access it requires pausing the game and looking at it in the map element of the menu. The design of the environments makes them more like dungeons in an RPG or action-adventure game, which is where my comment about its level design is referencing, as this feels less convoluted and random than some Metroidvania titles. Most inaccessible areas, due to the player lacking the required skill or power-up, are often accessible during the same time exploring, similar to getting a new power-up in The Legend of Zelda is often done within the same dungeon where you need to use it. The only truly hidden things are secrets that you can beat the game without, but if wanting that 100% then players will need to backtrack.
This does not take away a sense of discovery, because dungeons are large and embrace the feeling of going into the unknown. The player has entered a dungeon and must figure out a way to escape by exploring its secrets. Plenty of puzzles fill these areas, as each new zone applies new mechanics, such as invisible floors that appear when sand drips from the roof or hidden doors that lead to another version of the dungeon in the Egyptian level.
One thing that Souldiers does is not hide these secrets in areas that require ridiculous solutions. Most secrets are visible by seeing weaknesses in wall structures or fading into view when close to a wall, which removes any need to run around aimlessly hitting each wall to see if it holds some undiscovered rewards. There is backtracking, it would not be a Metroidvania without it, but this does not feature as a majority element of Souldiers’ gameplay, a less of a requirement to do this to beat the game. There are also plenty of dragon statues (save locations) that enable quick teleportation between all the game’s visited areas to get around much faster than having to run everywhere. This feels like a Metroidvania for people who do not want to go balls deep into the concept of backtracking, a sort of diet Metroidvania.
Combat offers a challenge through enemies that feel on the same level as yourself, which is probably why the developers are using the term “souls combat.” There is the whole component in which when using a save point all non-boss enemies return to the game world, very Souls-inspired, but I do not mind that because it keeps exploring the dungeons active with strong enemy encounters. This is a game that is not for people who do not like a challenge, as it requires players to invest in learning combat, react to specific attacks and fight out of situations where the enemies easily outnumber the player.
Fighting enemies requires being patient, looking out for their patterns and striking them when open. There is an element system in place that works by switching crystals on the fly through the right stick, which changes the attacks, such as adding fire or sand to the base attack to deal more damage across light or heavy attack buttons. If the enemy is strong against it, then this can heal them, and some foes can switch elements, so later it becomes part of learning the enemies again before rushing in.
Deep combat mechanics are not always a big thing in Metroidvanias, but there are heaps of them here. Stamina plays a huge part in blocking, dodging and parrying, although I’m not fond of how stamina works when successfully parrying an enemy, as while you can reply with critical damage, the stamina bar is depleted and must charge up again. It means the game punishes the player for doing something good, which is not a great thing to do in my opinion. Magic has its own metre to perform special moves that can quickly drain it, so having potions to restore it is handy, along with many other items that can help buff or heal the player.
To help the player, Souldiers happily wants its players to fight, as each defeated enemy will drop health and money, and of course experience. This includes all the respawning enemies that reappear from saving the game. Drops are usually a couple of health points, but it can be nice to gain health back without using a potion bought from the shop. This can help get out of scenarios where players might find themselves dying in one hit due to only having a couple of health points left. There are offensive items available as well, charged up from earning ammo shards that can also spawn from dead enemies. These are things like bombs, cannons and flying hammers, which can help with fighting foes or discovering hidden locations blocked by breakable walls. And not to forget the Bosses. Those dudes bring epic challenges and some rather imaginative ways to fight within the two-dimensional space. They are always exciting to fight when they appear, with each area often having a couple of sub-bosses before the main attraction shows up at the end of the dungeon.
Just as I was finishing up with the game, a patch was announced to be releasing in a couple of days later that was promised to change the game quite a bit. This major patch makes the game version 1.1.1 and with it comes some great quality of life improvements and changes to the difficulty – this might upset a few that were enjoying the challenge. There is always the hardest difficulty to start the game on, as the standard difficulty does lose some of that danger to its combat due to the nerfs to enemies.
The patch adds new checkpoints, so less progress is lost on death. Health is regenerated to 50% when respawning if health was lower than that when the checkpoint hit; all great to stop frustration when stuck in a bad place with no health. Combat was given tweaks, some I really like, such as the reduced roll cooldown, so it can be performed more often. Actions cost less mana, and some enemies and bosses have had their stats changed, such as dealing less damage and having less health, which does reduce the difficulty, as now from the few hours I spent playing this new version, I died less often, but that could be down to experience from already playing that part of the game, but it sure felt I could take more damage before needing to drink a potion. This patch comes across as if the developers wanted to stop some of the repetitive grinds that can happen when people become stuck. I do quite like the changes, but I can see some of the hardcore players are already complaining about them on the Steam forums. There is a fine line to balance between challenge and fair, and challenging but annoyingly unbalanced. Maybe they can patch in a pre-patch difficulty as a fourth option.
The amazing use of pixel art gives Souldiers such a beautiful look. High standards have been applied across the board, from character art, animation and the environment, it all gels well together in a coherent style. Animation adds so much personality to everything, even if it is a simple NPC doing their short routine or enemies patrolling their area, it helps get the player engrossed in what is happening on screen. This is shown from the beginning with the Spider Lair location and its heavy use of fire for light sources. Seeing a moth swoop down to the light source and attack the player, spiders dashing out of the darkness to check out the light, or the small spiders bursting out of nests and scattering around when stood on, are details that create a brilliant atmosphere. The developers have gone to incredible lengths to capture small touches, which add to the wonderful presentation.
Souldiers is a wonderfully looking sprite game with a fun take on the Metroidvania; a diet version of the subgenre that brings well-designed and long dungeons packed with smart platforming and puzzle-solving. The action is mostly solid, with some slight issues with some skills on the controls getting in the way of what is mostly a great combat system, with three completely different ways of playing thanks to the classes. Combat did offer plenty of challenge until the v1.1.1 patch, so for post-patch playthroughs to get that sense of challenge does require jumping to hard difficulty. When it comes to the core game, Souldiers brings all its terrific mechanics and clever level design together for a lengthy experience that gets you engaged in its gameplay and platforming rather than its story.