This game has real soul
Despite my general distaste for the term, I was close to calling Souldiers a hidden gem. I had never heard of the game before getting the review code, and I would wager most others hadn’t heard of it either. For those who don’t know, Souldiers is a souls-like 2-D Metroidvania, and is the first game by Retro Forge Games. There is truly so much in this game to love, from the gorgeous art to the painstakingly crafted world. However, because of the nature and overall type of game it is, Souldiers is held down by a few small issues in such a big way that it keeps the game from reaching its full potential. These issues mainly stem from the performance, including too many long loading screens, and frankly, baffling amounts of lag for a game that shouldn’t have it.
That said, I want to start with the good, and I want to be clear that there really is a lot of good. The most striking feature of this game has to be its art. Without a doubt, Souldiers has some of the best pixel art out of any game I have ever seen, hands down. Each and every pixel has been placed with the utmost care, from the large, sprawling backgrounds down to every brick. Souldiers also features a lovely lighting engine which adds to the already-impressive visual delight.
This level of attention to detail continues right into the world-building. Souldiers takes place in the land of Terragaya, an afterlife similar to Valhalla. Terragaya features many locations present in the fantasy genre, including spider caves, cursed pyramids, and monster-infested fields. Each section of the map features it’s own set of enemies, puzzles, and bosses, all intertwined in a series of tunnels and caves riddled with secret passages. At the heart of it all is the city of Hafin, home to many of the residents of Terragaya.
The city itself is a real joy to explore, featuring multiple buildings with interiors just as eye-catching as the exteriors. The city is home to a wide variety of residents, all from different regions and planets, creating a very diverse cast of characters. Some residents are simply that; residents meant to fill out the world and make it feel lived in. Others offer a variety of services ranging from upgrades to maps, all without feeling like simple menus. Each shopkeeper feels like they truly reside in this world, each with their own way of life.
Exploring this world is really quite fun, and it was hard to put down the game at times, which really speaks testament to just how engaging the world-building is. Unfortunately, problems start to arise when it comes to actual gameplay.
For the most part, movement and combat work well enough. Nothing feels particularly fluid or really fun to use, but no moves are outright bad or unusable. Another issue stems from unlocking movement options, which come about too slowly. It simply takes too long to get from one area to the next, making things quite a slog. At least each area is home to a new upgrade, which is makes for good spacing from a gameplay perspective.
Another problem crops up in the area of difficulty. There’s nothing wrong with games being difficult. In fact, I’m a big fan of difficult platformers, and Souldiers has a difficulty that could be compared to NES games. Sadly, while difficulty can make a game more fun and challenging, the design here feels more frustrating than anything else. First off, most enemies are either too strong or your character is too weak. While some enemies can take 2 or 3 hits to kill, many others will take well over 10, all the while being able to kill you in 3. The worst part is that many of these enemies have the ability to fly or otherwise avoid attacks. This can lead to encounters with a single enemy lasting minutes at a time, especially if you are playing as a character with little range.
Souldiers features 3 playable classes, including melee, ranged, and mage, and each has their own unique playstyle. For my playthrough, I focused on the mage class, which featured a combination of melee and ranged attacks. When attacking close to an enemy, a homing projectile would track the enemy, dealing damage on impact. This character worked well against most all enemies, but still faced trouble with flying, ranged enemies.
Far too often will you encounter groups of enemies that can kill in seconds. To be clear, encounters like this aren’t present throughout the entire game; just enough to be a problem. Pair this with save points that are few and far between, and this can lead to multiple repeats of the same area. To be completely honest, trying to get through a group of enemies can often be harder than any bosses in the game.
Speaking of bosses, there are some really fun, well-designed boss fights in Souldiers. There were a few times I felt as if a boss had a move that was unfair, and even then, after a certain amount of encounters, dodging the attack was no longer a problem. The only “issue” (and I struggle to call it that) is with the structuring of bosses. There is a re-occurring boss named Dark Lance who offered by far the hardest fights I encountered; much harder than each area’s final boss. Here’s the real kicker…Dark Lance is the first boss in the game. This sets an unrealistic expectation for just how difficult other bosses will be.
With the exception of some questionable enemy layout, the difficulty in this game is generally tough, but not too unfair. With full disclosure, I have not finished the game at the time of writing. I do plan to keep playing, as I think the game really is quite fun, but there is one major issue that has kept me from completion: technical issues.
These technical issues don’t keep the game from being playable by any means. For the most part, the game runs smoothly and isn’t particularly glitchy. However, the game does lag more than a 2D pixel-art side scroller should. Large groups of enemies seemed to be the biggest culprit, but the most common lag came after saving, which respawns all enemies. This didn’t serve to be a huge distraction, as lag present during fights was the big hiccup. That’s made even worse when that lag leads to you dying.
While the lag certainly was a problem, the biggest issue in Souldiers comes from load times. As you may have guessed, death comes frequently in this game, which is fine. When each death is met with a 20+ second loading screen, and you can be killed right after a respawn point, loading begins to grating on top of time-consuming.
With each death comes a retread of everything done up until that point, which can be upwards of 10 minutes. The enemies can’t really be dodged either, as all money and experience gained from kills doesn’t save after death. While running past enemies is an option, this would only serve to hurt you in the future, as you will be under-leveled for future encounters.
The time these loading screens tack on to the overall playtime cannot be understated, especially in boss fights. While there was a good chance respawns in the overworld would lead to a good amount of playtime before death, boss fights could, and would, kill you much quicker than any loading screen.
With a few updates to iron out the technical issues, I really do think Souldiers could be considered one of the best indie Metroidvania’s out there. Its art and worldbuilding truly are amazing, and while the gameplay isn’t without issue, it certainly is fun. Even with the technical issues present, Souldiers is worth a look for fans of the genre.