Whenever I see the word “Souls”, I know that I have to take certain steps. Wrapping the controller in bubble wrap, prepping the family for some expert level swearing and yells of either “Yes!” or “No!”, depending on how things are going. Well, I’ve had to take all these steps again with the arrival of Eldest Souls, the new title from Fallen Flag Studios. Regular readers might remember the preview I did previously, where I got to watch one of the main Fallen Flag Studios team playing the game. ”How hard can it be?” I may have thought, as he was repeatedly filled in by a boss. Well, it’s time to find out.
We’ll deal first of all with the story of Eldest Souls and this very much follows in the Dark Souls template for story telling, with absolutely zero hand holding and spoon feeding of the narrative. Nope, if you want to learn more about what is going on, you’ll need to seek out items in the environment to fill in the back story. What you need to know here and now though, and pretty much to get going, is that all the Elder Gods have been imprisoned in a Citadel, and now, for reasons, they have to be killed. And guess what your job is? That’s right, God Killer-in-Chief! Grabbing your trusty Obsydian sword, it’s your job to go and introduce the pointy end to the Gods, in a boss rush-style. In fact, Eldest Souls as a whole has no sort of cannon fodder enemies – if you are going to fight, it will be with massive bosses or nothing.
It’s the visual look that should be the next thing to comment on, and boy does Eldest Souls look good. It’s a sort of top-down, isometric-type view, and the sprites of your character and the bosses are drawn in a great pixel art style. It puts me in mind of some of the aspects of Dead Cells, another fantastic looking retro-styled game; the comparison is well-deserved. The animation of the character is bang on, yet with that of the bosses things have been kicked up a notch. You see, if you can tear a small fragment of your attention away from trying to stay alive, it’s possible to watch the bosses actions to see what attack they are going to use next, through subtle cues, like where a weapon is held, and some not so subtle ones, like what colour the crest behind them is.
Further to that, the sound is suitably geared to the action as well, with minimal sound effects and music when exploring, yet your ears are being treated to tunes ramping up as you fight the bosses, and ramping up again as you whittle down their giant health bars. Every boss has a second phase as well, and they usually get even more nasty and devious as they get closer to being defeated.
So, having discussed the story and the way that Eldest Souls is presented, it’s onto the meat of the issue: how does it play? Well, one answer would be “brutally”, and another would be “WHOA NO WAY, I WAS DODGING, OH COME ON!” as the last sliver of your health bar vanishes and you are left looking at the Retry screen for the umpteenth time in a row.
Now, it’s about here I should add in some lines about the unique mechanic that Eldest Souls brings to the table. You see, there are no healing items here, and certainly no Estus Flask to rely on. The only way to gain health is by whacking a boss and stealing its vitality, with a mechanic called Bloodthirst. If you charge up a dash attack, and it hits the boss, this will fill your Bloodthirst bar, and any subsequent hits on the boss will refill your health bar, pretty much until the bar empties, when you’ll have to begin the process again. In this way, you are forced to take the fight to the bosses rather than trying to play a waiting game and hoping they die of old age. You can also choose to expend your whole Bloodthirst bar in one attack, known as a Bloodburst, which can deal some heavy damage on its own. This is the sum total of basic combat – slide, whack, run, dodge, repeat. Thankfully the controls which allow these tactics are extremely tight and responsive, and when you get tagged or die, you can always put your finger on why; either getting cocky or pushing your luck, each of which are usually fatal. The only slight niggle I have is that it is sometimes hard to work out which way the charge attack will take you, and sliding away from the boss can be a little embarrassing.
It wouldn’t be much of a Souls-like game if there was no advancement, or chances to make yourself stronger, and luckily Eldest Souls has you covered here.
The first choice is which fighting style to choose. Windslash is a skill that focuses on mobility, getting in, hitting the boss and getting out again, while Berserk focuses more on damage and punishing the bosses. The final style, Counter, is a technical style that focuses on countering the attacks coming your way, dealing damage in return. This is the style that needs the most finesse, and so I left this one alone at first, as I am to finesse in fighting games what Eddie the Eagle is to ski jumping. Once you have chosen a style, every boss you take down will not only award you with a skill point to invest in your given skill tree, they will also give you a shard that can be invested in a number of different ways.
For instance, I chose to spend my first one in the charge attack, as it will allow you to do damage even after you have moved by leaving a pool of corruption behind. The shards can also be fitted to the dodge move and even to give you a grappling hook type attack, bringing you up to the boss in order to unleash some pointy weapon-based justice on them. These shards and points can be reinvested at any time, so if a style isn’t working for a particular boss, you can respec and try a different set of skills whenever you like. This flexibility of approach is very refreshing, as is the ability to tackle certain bosses in whichever order you like, first seen when you arrive at the Crossroads: go left to fight one boss, or right to fight a different one. You’ll have to beat them both of course, but the element of choice found in Eldest Souls is a welcome one.
In all, Eldest Souls does what it says on the tin. It’s brutally hard and unforgiving, but play by its rules and learn the cues, and you will make progress. It’ll take you some time to earn all the achievements for beating each boss without taking damage, but it won’t be long before Eldest Souls begins to talk to you, teaching you more as you play. With a promised NG+ and Arena mode in place for once the conclusion is met, there’s a lot of content to go at. In fact, the action and difficulty should keep you easily hooked to play Eldest Souls right through to the end.
Take on the brutal challenge Eldest Souls provides on Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One