The popularity of run-based games seems to be as strong as ever, and a fair few have come my way recently. I always struggle to remember the technical term to describe them, but after some double checking I’m pretty confident that Shoulders of Giants falls into the roguelite category. This is because certain progression elements carry over between runs, with a view to develop the player’s character over time and help them journey deeper into the game. That’s the idea anyway.
So, the setup. The galaxy is being enveloped by entropy which is gradually corrupting planets and bringing the end of the universe closer and closer. This is causing all worlds to be overrun by a variety of monsters that are out to drain the life and soul out of the cosmos. It’s up to you to take control of a plucky robot and frog duo to take back control by blasting and slashing your way through each one, collecting all the artefacts needed to restore order and peace.
That’s all there is to it really. The story is pretty simple, and a straightforward device which attempts to tie up all the hacking, slashing and shooting. Each planet you travel to is treated as a run, and after each successful run you’ll earn heat. As you hit certain milestones (which go up in increments of thousands) you’ll be thrown into a boss battle which edges you a little closer to saving the universe. The flip side, however, is that if you fail a run you will lose heat and therefore need to earn even more to reach your next milestone.
In principle this system makes perfect sense. With you earning around 100 heat (give or take) for a successful run it means you’ll need to cleanse plenty of planets during your playthrough. The problem is that your run can end very quickly indeed, resulting in frustration as your progress moves backwards. Each planet gives you a vague indication of difficulty, as well as the rewards up for grabs, but it’s no exact science.
Froggie rides atop a robot walker, and together they aim to make a formidable pair. The mecha is all about melee, able to wield weapons such as swords and hammers. You can launch various attacks, and these vary by weapon type. The amphibian above prefers a firearm, and you can switch between them by hitting the left trigger. Each character can hold three skills too which can be crucial to survival, and these randomly drop throughout your run. It’s fun trying them out and finding your preferable combinations, and they range from the bog standard to the plain silly.
At this point I should say there are a couple of small things that would have instantly improved my time playing Shoulders of Giants. Firstly, an option to reload. Your frog has to holster his weapon for it to reload, and this doesn’t happen instantly either. Some weapons have such small clips too that a manual option to reload would have been very, very welcome. Secondly, I really wanted a level map or radar. It’s a small niggle, and each tower does fire a beam of light into the sky to help you navigate, but sometimes it would have been nice to avoid getting lost as enemies pile on to you, eventually killing you and removing that all-important heat.
There are a decent variety of enemies that you’ll come up against, but a few seem much more difficult to dispatch than others. There are some ninja types which zip around evading your projectiles, along with shielded snipers who very seldom miss their shot. On occasion there will be a certain combination of creatures that feel near impossible to fend off, and you’ll be dead before you know it, probably shouting all sorts of expletives. Or that could just be me.
Some planets will have different amounts of stages to them too, however the last will always feature a randomly generated boss to dispatch. Although random, there are a fair few different environments that you’ll be thrown into but after a few hours you’ll start to spot repeats.
The most common mode is “conquest”, where you need to destroy all the entropy spires before tearing down the monolith in that area. There is also a mode where you are tasked with taking out specific enemies, as well as one where you’ll need to navigate your way through the storm to the exit. You’re relentlessly plagued by randomly spawning creatures so legging it is often the preferable option.
By far the biggest drawback with Shoulders of Giants is just how darn repetitive it is to play. Each world is pretty empty apart from XP and skill drops and the occasional bonus battle for more loot. Fold the heat system into this, and it’s easy to become disillusioned with it all if you aren’t moving forward quickly. The gameplay is also really shallow, and very much falls into the button mashing category. I had to split my playtime into small chunks, because it began to feel like groundhog day.
You can also attempt to counter the constant threat of death with the XP you earn from each mission, whether you succeed or fail. This can be spent with your friendly wise owl in the hub world to progress and develop your skill tree. There are all sorts of stats you can upgrade, such as health, attack power, sprint speed and many more.
This idyllic floating rock is also where you can change up your cores and weapons. Cores are geared towards a certain set of attributes, for example if you are a player who prefers to heal, attack or have a strong defence. You can also view the ones you have collected during your runs, and this is the same at the weaponsmith. You can even create new ones by combining those you no longer need. This is something of a lottery however, but it’s worth a go if you are struggling to progress.
Shoulders of Giants looks pretty enough, and its cel shaded graphics burst into life every time you liberate a planet with a nifty animation. There are a few different themes in terms of how the planets look, but not enough to prevent you seeing the same styles repeatedly. At one point the game did crash during a boss battle which wiped my run, but otherwise it performed pretty solidly.
You can play solo and with friends both locally and online. Getting others involved is always fun, and the difficulty along with the amount of enemies is scaled up to match the extra pairs of hands. Sadly, no matter how you play, the core issues do persist. Shoulders of Giants ends up feeling like a merry go round which gives off a strong sense of deja vu after a while.
The saving grace could potentially be that the game has an interesting sounding roadmap that will hopefully make for a deeper, more rewarding experience. However, I’m a little concerned that by the time we get there, the heat will have died down with this one.
Shoulders of Giants is something of a grind, both in terms of gameplay and structure. Still, at its core there is fun to be had and hopefully potential to evolve in the near future.
Shoulders of Giants is on the Xbox Store
- Dual character control works well
- Attractive visuals
- Plenty of skills to experiment with
- Frustrating progression system
- Shallow, repetitive gameplay
- Massive thanks for the free copy of the game go to - Moving Pieces Interactive
- Formats - Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
- Version reviewed - Xbox Series X
- Release date - 26 January 2023
- Launch price from - £14.99