It really couldn't be a better time to be a Metroidvania fan. So many great examples have appeared recently with titles like Axiom Verge I&II, Bloodstained: RotN, Hollow Knight and the
Ori titles instantly becoming shining examples of the genre. Regularly topping "Best
Metroidvanias of all time" lists, they've shown just how addictive and fun this game type can be. And now those lists will be getting a whole new entry. Souldiers: The debut title from new studio Retro Forge Games, this latest addition to the Metroidvania genre is sure to become an instant gem, with almost every area of its gameplay being refined to near perfection. High praise, I know. But, in my opinion, well deserved.
So what is Souldiers?
Well, it's a Metroidvania as I've said. It features large interconnected areas, all with their own distinctive styles, that are completely packed with secrets, collectables and items to discover. Puzzles and acrobatic platforming are constant, and you'll find you can open shortcuts to make later journeys quicker and easier. There's also the backtracking you'd expect from a Metroidvania with newly acquired powers granting access to many hidden treasures, or even whole new areas for you to explore. It's all very pretty looking too, using a combination of bright colourful 16bit sprite work, great lighting and modern particle effects to create a gorgeous aesthetic. It looks amazing, especially when in motion, and they've added a ton of throw away animations that add to the whole experience. When you access the map for instance, your character actually stops and pulls out a little map before the actual screen appears. Little touches like this just elevates the whole thing to a different level. Each person or monster you come across is very well crafted with even background throw away characters have real charm and personality to their design. This cutesy look however is contrasted with a hardcore brutal "Soulslike" combat style where death can come quickly if you don't pay attention. Even the most basic of enemies are more than capable of killing you in a few hits, making learning patterns an essential skill. Luckily though, the controls are tight and responsive with jumps, blocks, dodges and attacks all feeling like they flow together perfectly. Honestly, it's a masterclass in how to make a great feeling game and there are AAA studios who could learn from these guys.
Story wise things are pretty good too.
In a faraway land, two great kingdoms are at war. As their mighty armies prepare to clash, your commander is tasked with setting up an ambush that may just help end the battle before it starts. Things don't go to plan however. While you and the rest of the commander's army hide out in the nearby caves, getting ready to launch their surprise attack, a mighty earthquake shakes the land. Tunnels collapse and entrances are sealed. The not inconsiderable force assigned to the ambush finds itself trapped, and with air rapidly running out, they don't have long to live…
But then the unimaginable happens. Suddenly the dark cave is filled with a bright and shining light. It surrounds a beautiful female warrior, armour clad and with giant white feathered wings, she identifies herself as a Valkyrie. She is responsible for collecting the souls of the recently deceased and, as the soldiers lives are soon to end, they must make a choice. Step into the light and come with her, or remain here and fade from existence. Your brave commander, who you've all followed for years, leads the way once again. He declares that he'll step into the light, that he'll use his skills and he'll fight, and hopefully he'll even find a way back to help his kingdom in the future. Following his example, and inspired by his bravery, you and the rest of the army charge through the portal too…And find yourselves somewhere new.
The land of Terragaya.
A mystical place on the fringes of the afterlife, it's populated with many strange and unusual peoples, from races you've only heard of in story and legend. While exploring this new world, you also discover the quest that is given to all who dwell within it.
To find the Guardian. It's a mission all who've died must undertake, they must prove themselves worthy to join the army of the Gods and fight in the battle between them for a chance at a new life. However there's just one small catch… You and your friends didn't actually die. The Valkyrie took you all too early, letting you through the portal before death actually claimed you all.
How will this affect the status quo? How will the situation change now that the living are in the afterlife?
The story is very interesting and has quite a few twists and turns that help thrill the player and keep them engaged. I don't want to go into spoiler territory but there's loads of elements that come together in a fun and interesting way. There's plenty of characters both good and evil, from your army and from the other races, that all contribute to the narrative in some way. Most are familiar stereotypes, the wise wizard, the noble leader, the loud and boisterous warrior, but all are well written and interesting to interact with. The plot isn't just a framing device either. The devs have done a real good job around the lore and world building, with invading aliens, body snatchers, interstellar war, genocide and more all making an appearance in the story. I'd love to see more tales from this world explored in some DLC, or even better a sequel, and I really hope this isn't our only visit to Terragaya.
But as we all know gameplay is where it's actually at and, as I already said, that's strong as hell too. The moment to moment action is great and will instantly be recognisable to fans of the genre. The first dungeon, the Spiders Lair, sets the scene perfectly providing a huge area to explore. Made up of loads of interconnected chambers, you'll be advancing through dark corridors to reach switches, collect a key or something similar that will allow you deeper into the cave system. Secrets abound everywhere with hidden walls, unreachable chests and other collectables secreted away in every corner. Many won't be reachable initially though and, as is a staple of the Metroidvania style, will require backtracking when you've earned new powers. Advancing along the paths in each dungeon, where you'll be fighting, platforming and solving puzzles, will many times bring you back to a previous area. Similar to Dark Souls you'll open shortcuts that means you can bypass certain difficult or long areas. You'll usually find checkpoints around here that act like bonfires, refilling your health but also respawning all the enemies you've dealt with. It really is a fusion of styles, Metroidvania and Soulslike, and it works flawlessly creating a fusion that entertains and engages.
As you progress through the campaign, you'll be given the usual upgrades to help you advance and they come in many different flavours. They're also really spread out, with new powers constantly dropping throughout the adventure. There are movement type abilities, like the double jump, wall climb or scuba suit, that help get around the vast levels and access previously unavailable areas. There are useable items, like bombs, knives, and hammers that are both useful in combat but also used to solve puzzles. Bombs for instance can destroy weak walls that bar your progress or hide secrets. "Pig bombs" can walk on any surface, go through small holes, and are used to press switches you can't reach otherwise. Last but definitely not least are the elemental cores, a power you'll probably be using the most often and has the greatest use when trying to access new areas. As you collect each core, you'll be granted a new elemental form. The Fire form will allow you to burn away spider webs or foliage blocking your path. The Earth form can be used to shoot crystals strategically placed around the levels and will create short lived platforms and walls of sand. The other forms, electric, water, wind all have their uses too but all allow environmental progress, meaning you can reach new areas and find new treasures to collect. They also play a significant role in combat too however.
Now obviously fighting is a huge part of the experience and it's also up there with the best of the best. First off is the fact you can choose from three different classes when starting your adventure. There's the Scout, the Archer and the Mage, all of which have their own unique focus and skill tree. The Scout is your melee class, armed with a sword and shield he has more stamina so can block much more than the others and can continually attack with his sword. He doesn't have the range of the others though so must get up close and personal. The Archer can fire arrows, but only has a few available before he must wait for them to recharge. Not as damaging as the others, he has medium stamina meaning he can only block a few hits before becoming exhausted. The Mage is the glass cannon, powerful and damaging magic blasts are at his command but they take time to recharge. He must hold back and wait for the perfect chance to attack or risk being left powerless. The choice you make is permanent, meaning you can actually finish the game with each character and have a very different experience each time. I took the Archer for my playthrough and spent most of my time with that character, though I did play a few hours with the other 2 as well. Like I said, they all play differently, having unique skill trees and attacks but, whatever one you pick, you'll be controlling a character that feels responsive and handles well. Dodging attacks will be a necessary skill to learn, so watching enemies for their telegraphed attacks needs to become second nature. Each enemy type, of which there is a huge variety, has very different move sets and you'll have to learn the pattern of each if you're to be successful. Those Soulslike mechanics shine through here too, as combat can be brutal if you just blunder in and attack willy-nilly. For instance dealing with a ton of wall crawling tiny spiders is simple with the mages homing magic bolts, but with the scout is a different matter altogether. You'll need to back off, waiting for a chance to slash as they come close. Using light and heavy attacks, blocks, dodges and those secondary weapons like bombs, hammers and throwing knives are all needed but you'll have no problem using them as everything just flows and feels perfect. Things get even more hectic as you go too though. Different types of enemy attacks get introduced and you need to counter them in the correct way. Enemy flashing yellow as they attack? You can't dodge through that, either run away or block. Are they glowing red? That's not blockable, dodge or jump if you want to survive.
And then there's elemental alignment to worry about.
Many enemies have a "type" and will be vulnerable to the opposite alignment. Remember the elemental cores we talked about earlier? Well this is where they come into the combat. Fire enemies will heal if hit with fire attacks for instance, but will receive extra damage from water attacks. Other enemies will be weak to wind. Or electric. Gaining a new core type can make a whole area or enemy type much easier so you'll welcome these discoveries. Taking an enemies type into account, and switching yours to be most effective, quickly becomes second nature and is so easy to do being assigned to the R stick. With a simple flick of the required direction you'll have a new element. Alignment affects your character too so you want to make sure you aren't weak to your opponents type, while also making sure you can do as much damage as possible.
And you'll need this for boss fights especially.
Boss fights are definitely a highlight in Souldiers. Much more difficult than normal battles, all require you to learn patterns and to effectively avoid damage while attacking but at a much higher level than normal opponents. They can take many hits to finish off and many are immune to certain elements or worse, they'll get healed by them. They'll change move sets as you advance through the battle, throwing in new attacks or powers and you'll need to learn to avoid these too. Each move will require perfect reactions, using a certain move at an exact time or to be in the right place at the right time to avoid damage. There's even bosses, like the giant scorpions, that become a masterclass in platforming for certain classes requiring perfect shots and a ton of quick platforming just to get near. Souls veterans will be very familiar with dying repeatedly to take out a boss and they'll need those skills here too. The feeling of finally overcoming the adversity, of beating the challenge, is second to none and Souldiers has plenty of moments like this in its boss fights.
So by now you've probably realized that I can't sing high enough praises for Souldiers. In fact, I'm actually struggling to say anything bad about it. But I do suppose there are a couple of niggles I could bring up if really pushed. Firstly is some minor performance issues. In the beginning of my playthrough, I did experience a little bit of slowdown and stuttering. Even a certain area where it got so bad that it would freeze up completely, requiring a total "quit to desktop" and reload of my save. Luckily, save points are quite frequent, especially at the beginning, so I didn't lose any progress. These stutters and freezes also seemed to disappear once I left the starting area and actually completely vanished after a patch so I'm confident that these SHOULD be no longer a problem by launch. A slightly more annoying thing, which was probably a conscious choice by the devs, involves the map. I've always found this an extremely important part of a Metroidvania game. When you discover treasures or secrets you can't access yet, a defining element of the genre, it really helps when these are recorded on the map in some way. Whether it's automatically, or by allowing you to add markers, it really makes backtracking easier if you know where to go back too. Which Souldiers only kind of does. It does record interactive objects you can use your elemental abilities on, sand crystals, electric generators and the like, as well as doors that need a certain item to open. What it doesn't record though is chests or collectables you can't reach yet but can see on screen. In the first area alone I can remember thinking "I'll need to come back here later" but by the time I actually got the correct ability, I could no longer remember where it was. It's the large dungeon areas that this is really a problem but it's ultimately a small thing. Maps of the collectables will show up online quickly after launch I'm sure and the in-game map does record the chests you've already picked up. This is more of a preference thing ultimately but I'd love to see either automatic map markers or manual ones be added in a future update.
But that's about it as far as criticism goes.
Nothing particularly large, as far as I'm concerned Retro Forge Games have hit it out the park on their first attempt with this, their debut title. Everything about it is just SO well done. The bright colourful artstyle is gorgeous, using a blend of 16bit sprite work and modern effects to create something that looks beautiful when still and even better in motion.
The essential elements of a Metroidvania are all here and perfectly balanced. New abilities are slowly dropped throughout the whole adventure, gradually allowing you access to more of its already huge areas.
And such lovely areas they are! Each feels unique, with a different theme, and exploring them is a joy. The dungeons you encounter are superbly designed, with backtracking, secrets and shortcuts being used constantly to guide the player through the maze like environments. Combat too is perfect. Coming from the Soulslike "brutal but fair" school of game design you'll always feel it was your fault when you die and will strive to do better. The amount of moves and abilities never overwhelms, instead each new addition to the moveset feels like a useful new tool in your arsenal, adding to your options. Boss fights double down on this feeling, creating huge battles that require both thought and reflexes to get through. Basically fans of the Metroidvania genre should definitely take note, Souldiers is one to watch for. It's not an easy game, but it's sheer perfection makes it an essential purchase to fans of the genre. Well done Retro Forge Games!
*Note: A copy of the title was provided for the purposes of the review
Final Score: 9/10
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