Duck Souls+ is, to the naked eye, an astute platformer with a cute hat-wearing duck starring in 100 brutal, demanding levels. You will curse for each of the 25 times you die for overestimating your wall jump, yet your bellow of joy will sound all the greater for your eventual owning of the level. That being said, I’ve done all this before. Not in Dark Souls, which the game’s title draws attention to, but in Celeste, this game’s clear… inspiration?
Duck Souls+ is a title which will make you ask yourself where the line is drawn between inspiration and sheer copycat, between using the same ideas for a new experience and outright stealing a game’s mechanics and rebranding the core experience. These are questions that were posed to me the moment I started the game and opened the menu screen. That being said, let’s start with that naked eye and look at the game to see whether it stands on its own.
Duck Souls+ has two modes: Casual and Hardcore. Hardcore is, in my mind, the ideal way to play the game. If the title didn’t give it away, you’re meant to die in this game. A lot. The intense feeling of accomplishment through victory after punishing, not frustrating, levels is the loop that brings players to these games. The unacquainted see people that must be sadistic on their third playthrough of Dark Souls, Celeste or other die-and-repeat titles but players that have gone through the experience understand that the feeling of winning is a catharsis unlike any other. That being said, there’s next to no difference between these modes other than slightly faster objects trying to kill you. Victory in Casual mode is still a great feeling.
In either mode you control a duck that must use precision platforming to reach the egg at the end of the level. Almost every level can be viewed in the single, unmoving frame you start the level in, so it’s fun to plan the different input commands you’ll use to reach that egg. There’s only two buttons, jump and boost, so that’s the most strategy you’ll need to end the level. It’s all about skill, with you needing to move fast and accurately to avoid falling into spikes, rockets and other traps that will kill you instantly and send you straight back to the start of the level, or the few checkpoints found throughout.
There’s next to no story to be found here. There are a few lines of text at the game’s opening that are forgotten as soon as they leave the screen. Something about saving the souls of ducks? There is some text to be found in each level, from signposts with phrases from popular games and movies. Reading a signpost that says “Arrow to the knee” or something similar is just cringe-inducing. This referential ‘humour’ should have been left in 2013. If you jumped out of your seat when you saw a Deadpool skin coming to Fortnite, or you think Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is the greatest film of all time then this is your cup of tea. But really, this referential humour was hip in 2013 and is just awkward now. This glaring omission of plot or story is particularly obvious when compared to Celeste’s journey through her faltering mental health and her budding relationship with a new rock climber.
What’s most obvious, if you weren’t already gobsmacked by it, is that the game can be finished in over an hour with every achievement unlocked. With little to no difference between difficulties and the unlockable hats providing no visual flair (you have to squint to see the few pixels they make) there’s no incentive to continue playing after you’re done. Having played through the game twice for review I can honestly say you’ll be occupied longer with a good magazine.
This game is inferior to Celeste in every way. Even the level design is worse, having decided to copy only a few of the mechanics introduced in Celeste’s later levels and do nothing with them to distinguish itself or add something interesting. The game exists to lie in Celeste’s shadow. However, it’s the game’s menu that really had me picking up a scent. It’s ripped straight from Sonic Mania, a title it has no business with. It’s exactly the same bar a more pixelated look that’s less ‘throwback’ and more ugly. This is less of a homage and more of a robbery, which then frames its poor similarities to Celeste in an even more sinister light. Ripping off games from triple-A developers is sucky, but from small passionate teams?
Duck Souls+ on Xbox One has fun gameplay, brisk as it may be. There are just so many better platformers with original voices that you should play first.