Reviews

Souldiers Review – It Has The Heart And The Soul

Going through the cave was probably a mistake. War was declared and by the suggestion of the King’s right-hand sorcerer, the shining paragon of heroism, Brigard, took his forces through a cave system in a bid to surprise the enemy, but a cave-in leaves the army stranded underground with no hope of rescue. Salvation appears in the form of a Valkyrie who descends from the heavens to inform Brigard and his loyal soldiers that they are dying and that she is here to lead them to the promised land. Instead, you all get trapped in Terragaya, neither dead nor alive but somewhere in the middle. The solution is to find the Guardian, solve the mystery of your alleged death and maybe get the lyrics to I’ve Got Soul But I’m Not A Soldier by The Killers out of your head. Or is that just me?

While most religions typically tell us that Heaven is a place of peace and unimaginable splendour, a true reward for living a good and just life, Souldiers reckons the afterlife is actually a Metroidvania-lite made entirely of 16-bit pixel-art and packed full of creatures that want to kill you and boss fights. It’s certainly a unique view of what the afterlife could be, and if true then the Church’s brochures are going to need to be updated.

Available On: Xbox, Playstation, PC, Switch
Reviewed On: Switch, PC
Developed By: Retro Forge
Published By: Dear Villagers

Review code provided by the publisher

Souldiers continues a slightly annoying trend of games wanting to compare themselves to other games, especially From Software’s Dark Souls titles which have carved out their own place as difficult, punishing experiences. These days almost every Email in my inbox contains a line that says something like, “Dark Souls inspired combat!” There’s nothing wrong with using genres and games as descriptors, but Souldiers uses these comparisons without truly understanding the games it claims to emulate. Dark Souls typically gives players a lot of freedom in fights and in how they build their characters. But Souldier’s doesn’t do that – it’s quite rigid, meaning every player will have to tackle every big boss in exactly the same way; learning the patterns of jumps, dodges and blocks needed to win. Dark Souls is rich in atmosphere and lore, while Souldiers isn’t. Really, it only takes two Dark Souls-esque ideas; enemies that respawn when you save, and combat that demands precision. I say all this not to insult Souldiers, which as I’m going to explain is a great game in its own right, but rather so that you know what Souldiers ISN’T.

Souldiers really isn’t a story-heavy game either, instead often letting its visuals do the talking. And who can blame it, really? Souldiers is a really lovely looking game. Sure, it’s a pixel-style adventure so there’s nothing going on from a technical perspective to make you drool, like fancy-schmancy Ray Tracing or a billion-trillion polygons per model. However, the hand-drawn backgrounds and the lovingly crafted sprites are artistically wonderful. In every pixel in and every area, it’s clear that a lot of time and love when into crafting Souldier’s graphics, and all that effort paid off. The music is equally impressive at times, never really outright grabbing your attention but always creating a strong vibe.

Still, while it may not have a lot of plot to throw at you, what little Souldier’s does have is reasonably good, even if the extensive deaths and big dungeons mean you can go hours without advancing the plot. A couple of interesting characters, a fun story and plenty of hints toward a bigger, wider world – it all adds up to something enjoyable.

In a clever twist, the opening cutscene pushes the idea that you’ll be the fearless Brigard, seeking to lead your troops even in the afterlife. But in reality, you’ll be playing as a faceless, nameless soldier getting stuff done while all the named characters run around and generally make a nuisance of themselves. For the adventure, you choose between a soldier, ranger or mage. Unsurprisingly the soldier is probably the best class to choose in terms of simplicity, wielding a sword and shield and balanced stats. Meanwhile, the ranger’s long-ranged attacks can be tricky to aim in this 2D adventure. I opted for the mage who is low on health but high on damage, and the enemy-seeking magic attacks can be used to cheese certain fights, which is handy because as I’ll talk about Souldiers is a tough game at times. It was a poor choice, though, that led to numerous deaths as I was getting to grips with the combat because just one or two hits would leave my poor mage looking like a pizza that fell a few hundred feet onto concrete. My advice is that if you aren’t fairly skilled or don’t typically dabble in this kind of game, opt for the basic soldier.

Whichever goon you opt for, you get a skill tree that will slowly but surely help differentiate each class from the others. Decimating the local supplies of enemies will slowly fill up the XP bar, and you can even grind out some extra levels by saving the game, causing most of the enemies to respawn.

There are plenty of classic Metroidvania elements in Souldiers. New abilities like a double jump or being able to hit a trigger to create structures of sand open up new areas to explore and give you plenty of reasons to retrace your steps and find hidden chests. Those containers of joy may reward you with permanent health boosts or sub-weapons, the use of which is controlled by having to pick up ammo shards. But it’s also a little more streamlined than other examples of the genre, having less freedom and a more directed campaign that takes you from spider-infested caves to luscious green plains, and into a variety of sizable dungeons that can take hours to complete. It ain’t just the dungeons that are chunky, either – Souldiers is a 20+ hour title, plus even more if you want to 100% the thing. And replaying the whole thing with a different character adds a decent bit of value to the whole package, too.

While the game’s own description of having “crunchy” Dark Souls combat is probably stretching things a bit, not least because I have no idea what “crunchy” is supposed to mean in this context, there’s no doubt in my mind that Souldiers can be a tough game, at least for myself. Of course, I’ve always had a weird weakness when it comes to 2D games; they tend to kick my arse far more than their 3D counterparts. Even on the easiest setting, I died a lot in Souldiers due to mistiming my dodges or jumps, failing to remember attack patterns or just being an overconfident idiot. These, though, were my own failings.

Here’s the basic rundown of how to slay the local inhabitants of this strange land. There’s a light attack, which in the case of the mage unleashes a short-range auto-seeking magic attack, plus a heavy attack. There’s also a dodge and a block, and finally, there are unlockable skills. For example, the soldier’s first unlock is a counterattack, whereas the mage can summon up a spellbook that attacks nearby foes like those annoying little asshole dogs that think they need to savage everyone’s ankles. It’s very basic stuff, hence my confusion over the term “crunchy.” It does, however, reward being precise and memorising how all the different enemies behave. In other words, caution tends to equal success, especially during boss fights where the difference between victory and defeat can be about 2 pixels during a double-jump.

I could never quite shake the feeling that something was off about the combat, though. It wasn’t something specific that I could place my finger on – it was more like a lot of tiny things. That hitbox isn’t quite right, the teleport is just a wee bit short, that enemy’s attack is just a smidgen too wide, the timing on the block is a tiny bit off and so on and so on. Individually these things are small, but taken together it meant I never 100% clicked with the combat, and never managed to shake the feeling that it was stiff. While I admire the clear goal of emphasising precision in the combat, I do think loosening things up could have done a lot for Souldiers.

And my God, dealing with flying enemies as the soldier is comically dumb. As the mage, I can bounce around like a kangaroo on a pogo stick to get my magic missiles into range. As the soldier? I just have to hope the little bastards come close enough.

Another small element Souldiers has pulled a Dark Souls are the occasional moments that feel unfair, such as a trap that suddenly shoots you in the face as you land on a platform. or it may be an enemy attack coming from off-screen in the middle of a jump, leaving you helpless. I can imagine many people will be okay with these things, but at least a few people might get pissed off by dying because of them.

If you aren’t fighting you’re probably exploring and doing some light platforming. Aside from a few times where the controls didn’t quite feel like they were doing what I wanted, especially during wall-jumps, the platforming is generally solid.

The Switch version that I primarily tested on suffered from quite a few issues that I need to talk about. The first is that I had had nearly a dozen cases of the game crashing, typically when loading into a cutscene but occasionally elsewhere. Luckily these occurred shortly after checkpoints or auto-saves so I didn’t lose a lot of progress, but Souldiers is a tough game where the time between save points can be lengthy. It can make you feel uneasy knowing a slog through a tricky section could be wiped out. And there were plenty of moments where Souldiers chugged, be it because of the ageing Switch hardware or because of more work being needed to get the game running well. This would happen when there were a few enemies on the screen, and while it never caused a death it was still disappointing. Finally, the load times on the Switch are abysmal. Restarting after a failure typically took around a minute, a long time when death is common. It makes the many boss battles a slog that I dreaded.

This problem also shows up when you save the game at a checkpoint because Souldiers loads in most of the enemies you killed and all the boxes/vases etc that you wrecked. The whole game drops to single-digit frames as Souldiers tries to reload everything it needs, and this can last up to a minute as well.

Perhaps the weirdest and most worrying issue came when Souldiers didn’t save my data. Venturing through a flying alien ship, I stumbled across a few save points that I made use of, but when I came back a day later I discovered that it had either never saved at all, or had deleted those saves, sending me back an hour or two. It never happened again, but much like the crashes, it can cause constant worry that it might occur again leaving a sour taste in the mouth.

Unsurprisingly the performance problems were largely solved on the PC version. The faster load times were the biggest change because death didn’t feel like quite such a slap in the face, although in fairness I was running it on an NVME. But the game also didn’t chug along like a drunken Thomas the Tank Engine whenever I saved or when the action got busier. In other words, the PC version is undoubtedly the best way to play Souldiers if it’s an option for you, unless you really want to play it on the go.

According to the developers, some issues will be fixed by launch. However, I can only review and talk about the game I have in my hands and cannot confirm these fixes to be accurate. And other reviews have mentioned long loading times even on the PS5 and Xbox Series S/X where the SSDs should be letting the game load in seconds.

Souldiers doesn’t innovate much in the combat and platforming space, mostly hitting all the mechanics and beats you’ve seen dozens of times in other pixel-art games. But it does execute them all to a high level, then wraps it all in a gorgeous package that provides a bunch of playtime. If this is your kind of game, I reckon you’re going to have a good time and feel like your money was well-spent. However, do your research when it comes to the performance on various platforms, and if you only have a Switch I’d advise waiting for a while until Retro Forge releases a few updates.

Now can we please stop with the Dark Souls name-dropping?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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