We’ve always been big fans of a metroidvania here in the VGamingNews offices, and we’ve been seriously stoked about Souldiers after since we got our hands on a demo at this year’s W.A.S.D. event. The demo version showed off some beautiful pixel art graphics and some rather spiky combat, and we were keen to see what the folks at Retro Forge Studios and Dear Villagers had up their sleeves with the full game.
At A Glance
|Positives||+ Fantastic pixel art graphics & throwback soundtrack|
+ Challenging but rewarding combat
+ Well paced story with fun characters
|Negatives||– Too many sub-weapons that go unused|
– Some of the controls are finickity
– Long levels perhaps overstay their welcome
|Price (When Reviewed)||£15.49|
|Our Playtime||44 hours|
|Available On||PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC|
Needless to say, the finished article absolutely built on my positive preview of Souldiers, with the full game simply expanding the experience in every direction. (I was also very glad to see that my preview save file carried over to the full game and saved me a good few hours of replay!)
The story of Souldiers revolves around a group of warriors from the land of Varga, who are transported by a Valkyrie to the land of Terragaya when it seems that they’re in mortal danger. As your nameless protagonist explores this new world that exists between the realms of the living and the dead, you become embroiled in a larger plot and are forced to face an otherworldly foe that threatens the whole of Terragaya. The story takes some enjoyable twists and turns and introduces you to a fantastic cast of characters; I was particularly fond of the Vargan heroes Brigard and Euder – a stoic and serious general and a cocky but loveable soldier respectively, who together demonstrate the themes of Souldiers wonderfully.
You’re offered the choice of three warrior types to use (spell caster, scout and archer) and can select one of three difficulty levels to tailor your experience to your play style. The game plays as a side-scrolling platformer with some seriously tricky combat; this earns you experience points that can be spent to unlock new abilities. Like all good metroidvania games, Souldiers asks you to collect items in order to retrace your steps and unlock new routes, and these take the form of elemental orbs. These orbs not only grant you new ways to traverse the Terragaya, but alter your elemental strengths and weaknesses too, adding a fun wrinkle to the combat without being overly complicated.
First and foremost, Souldiers looks spectacular. Whether you’re a pixel art aficionado or just a passing fan, you will immediately fall in love with the crisp visual style, detailed backgrounds and expansive colour palettes that makes the world leap off the screen. And that world has been oh so wonderfully designed, with each area carrying an individual style that makes it stand out as unique whilst also contributing to the overall vision of an eclectic universe.
The diversity of races, characters and enemies shown off throughout the game is fantastic, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in the hubbub of Hafin City. Despite being a side-scrolling affair on a 2D plane, there’s an incredible amount of depth displayed in the busy city scape, with masses of buildings fading out into the distance and the hustle and bustle of passing folks in the foreground. I often find ‘busy city’ scenes in retro-styled games a little eye-rolling; there’s rarely more than a handful of NPCs to talk to and buildings to explore which makes it all feel very fake, but the visuals here do a wonderful job of underlining the idea that Hafin is the heaving hub of the world and masks the in-game limitations really well.
One slight critique I have with the world design is that perhaps the dungeons/levels were a little too long, and by the point you were finished, you were entirely ready to get out and explore somewhere else. I think Souldiers would have benefitted from making the levels maybe 75% of their final size, and adding a couple more playable areas with the hours saved, but that’s just my opinion.
The biggest feature in Souldiers is the combat, which stands out from similar looking arcade slash ‘em ups by being at a much higher difficulty. More akin to something by the infamous From Software, even the standard minions in Souldiers can cause you real problems if you don’t take them seriously. The enemies are well designed and all boast a variety of attacks that can inflict high damage values and negative status effects. Players who neglect to learn how to effectively block, dodge and show patience in their attacks will quickly be swallowed up in battle, especially when dealing with multiple enemies at once. But whilst it’s difficult, the combat is mostly fair, and my frustrations never reached rage-quit inducing levels – though there were a few enemies who did severely test my patience!
I loved the technical approach to the combat in Souldiers, and this is no better highlighted in the multitude of boss battles that push your skills to the very limit. Designed with an inordinate amount of health, the bosses in Souldiers start with just a couple of easy to read attacks but expand their effectiveness and their arsenal as the fight progresses, until you need absolute precision and timing to overcome them. These battles are consumable-eaters and can be a suicide mission if you walk into them unprepared, and even when you are fully stocked, it doesn’t take more than a couple of mistimed attacks or dodges to entirely derail a good run.
Check out my run-in with the awesome Egyptian-styled boss, Babylon in the video below… and don’t let the tape fool you – I died about 10-15 times before succeeding with this attempt! Warning – spoilers ahead.
While I thought the combat was handled nicely, some of the traversal mechanics could be a little more problematic. I found the wall jumping frustratingly less responsive than in similar games and the automatic ledge-grab function both overzealous and infuriating when trying to evade enemy attacks. I can’t tell you how many times I died as a result of being unwantedly affixed to a nearby ledge that meant I couldn’t defend myself, or from the pull-up response that clambored me onto a ledge lined with spikes by even brushing ‘up’ on the controller. In a game where standard enemies are more than capable of killing you, I didn’t appreciate the mechanics giving them a tag team partner!
Despite the combat being very well put together, the precision required in battle highlights some of Souldiers peripheral flaws and adds a layer of difficulty that I don’t think is by design. Firstly, I found that scrolling between potions to find my healables in the midst of battle was entirely too fiddly. You can only scroll through the items in one direction, so if you panicked and pressed the D-pad one too many times, you’d have to cycle through all of the items again to find the one you wanted – dodging and blocking relentless enemy attacks all the while. And yes, you can bring up your menu and equip the correct potion there, but this breaks your flow and can ruin your timing with upcoming attacks, especially in boss battles.
Additionally, despite there being an enormous arsenal of sub-weapons in the game, very few of them see any action due to their limited ammunition and/or low damage. Aside from the bombs which you regularly use to unblock hidden routes, I hardly found any use for the other 15 or so items and found that they just got in the way as I scrolled through a huge list to find the one or two weapons that I actually wanted. Sadly, the special attacks suffer from a similar problem in that they take a huge amount of mana to employ, to the point that you don’t really get the chance to use them enough to master their usage. I understand that Retro Forge introduced both elements to try and add some variety to the combat, but they haven’t quite hit the mark and I found myself playing through most of the game without them and enjoying it just fine.
It would be remiss of me to finish my review without highlighting how great the Souldiers soundtrack is, and how wonderfully it adds to the atmosphere of Terragaya. The score has an awesome old school feel that brings fantastic layer of tension to the combat and immersion to the world; I especially liked the Floating Module’s theme, which has a technological and militaristic air, and the music for the Swamp of Hel that reeks of spooky happenings in the mulch and mists of a bayou. The entire soundtrack is top notch and puts Souldiers right at home among the legendary SNES-era games it’s inspired by.
A wonderful blend of top tier pixel art, retro-inspired music and seriously gritty combat makes Souldiers an enjoyable, though sometimes prickly, experience. It’s a title that boasts some engaging (if not lengthy) levels that are underpinned by some inspired metroidvania mechanics and filled with a myriad of well designed enemies. While perhaps overfilled with unnecessary items and burdened by a few mechanics that can’t help getting in their own way, Souldiers offers a fantastic challenge throughout, and the vibrant world of Terragaya is an absolute joy to discover.
In the interest of full disclosure, VGamingNews was provided with a copy of the game in order to conduct this review.