It was really only a matter of time before someone took a look at the success of Elden Ring and thought “I’ll have a bit of that!”, producing a 2D version with retro visuals. Well, that game is here, kind of, and is called Unsouled. It comes from the developers at Megusta Game, billed as “a 2D action RPG requiring immense elaborate control”. The question is, does it do enough to turn it from a wannabe into a contender in its own right?
If you’ve read any of my previous ramblings, you’ll know that narrative is a vital part of any RPG, action or not. Unsouled does not disappoint. We play as the prince of a kingdom, a kingdom that has been overrun by the armies of the dead, raised through necromantic powers. The twist? The Queen of the Dead is none other than Ammu, our sister. And so a tale of revenge is set as various twists and turns follow, delivering an interesting way of revealing the story. You see, our hero has the ability to absorb souls from not only enemies that he jabs with his sword, but also from corpses lying around in the open. We can talk to these deceased individuals before taking their souls, and thus is the story fleshed out. Beating a boss and absorbing their soul will give us a cutscene, showing us more of the narrative as well, and so the hook to keep playing to the bitter end is very real.
As I mentioned in the introductory paragraph, the graphical style of Unsouled is very much on the retro end of whatever spectrum graphics come on, and has a really nice pixel art look. This extends to the cutscenes as well, and the stylisation is actually very attractive. The design of the enemies and our hero himself are full of personality, and for such small sprites, the way they move and project emotion is very impressive indeed. The game moves at a cracking pace as well, as you’d expect with not much heavy lifting to do, and so the action is always silky smooth. In fact, the way that the souls are depicted, and how you have to absorb them by holding a button down, sucking them in, reminds very much of one of my all time favourite games, Onimusha on the PS2. It’s helped that sounds are all good too – swishing swords and clanging parries, all intermixed with atmospheric music. It all just works.
Now, games like this are generally split into two halves, and so it is true with Unsouled. There is the combat section of the game, where the objective is to stay alive while making sure nothing else around you does, earning you souls in the process, and then there is the upgrading of various aspects of your character using said souls.
If we go about this backwards and look at character development first, we will see that there are various categories that we can upgrade using our hard won spoils. There are the standard skill trees, which can be levelled to give more health or stamina, and then there are particular attack skill trees; upgraded in order to do more damage. I obviously poured all my points into health, stamina and the basic combo attack, as it is this that you will be using 99% of the time, and so I had a hard hitting, healthy tank by the end of the game.
There is no new weaponry to be found, no new armour either, but what there is are special souls that can be tracked down, usually being held by one of the bosses. These new souls either have a passive effect and can unlock new moves, for instance, or can be active souls, in which case they directly affect the way that you fight. Getting battered by a boss? You’ll want the soul that gives you super armour for a while. There are others that are more offensive, such as a lightning magic attack. While these aren’t vital to progress (I honestly forgot about them quite soon after starting the game) they can make a difference on the harder difficulties.
The combat system on display in Unsouled is also very good. However, one thing I don’t particularly like is the way that Unsouled starts, with tutorials that are way too long. Trying out every single possible permutation of combat move gets old very quickly; not helped by the fact that you cannot advance until you’ve performed the attack correctly.
Getting into the game proper though and the combat system is remarkably robust and difficult to master. Parrying plays a big part in Unsouled, and while this is traditionally my Achilles heel in these types of games, in this one, the window for it is pretty broad – soon you will be able to chain things up and cut down whole swathes of enemies in the blink of an eye; blocking, parrying, using the environment (there is nothing quite as satisfying as dashing across an arena and slamming an enemy into a wall, or off the edge of a cliff).
Dealing with rooms full of small enemies soon becomes second nature, especially when you master the Ghost Move, which allows you to almost teleport after being hit. But you’ll want to be aware, the bosses are another kettle of fish. They are big, hit like trains, and above all else have mahoosive health bars that you have to gradually whittle down. Learning to block and parry at the right times is vital here, and – particularly on the higher difficulties – you’ll need the physical attributes of an octopus to come out on top. All in all, the combat is a highlight of Unsouled, and while the difficulty can be scaled back if you require it, beating a boss on Master Soul difficulty is a real challenge.
Unsouled is a bit more than a 2D Elden Ring. The combat is a highlight, the story is pretty compelling, and while the visual look means it won’t be for everyone, move beyond the graphics and there is a more than competent game lurking below the surface. It is challenging and highly satisfying; minor niggles aside.
Unsouled is available from the Xbox Store