From the opening moments of Young Souls, you get the sense that its twin main characters – Jenn and Tristan – are restless souls itching for a fight. They’re cooped up in the attic room of their adopted father’s house and they’re bored. They don’t have money for new sneakers, they’ve run out of disorderly things to do, and they can’t get much out of their dad, who is more interested in professorly studies than them.
So, when things go south and their father is kidnapped, taken through a Moon Gate portal and into the Goblin Realm, you can almost hear the snap of pieces clicking into place. Jenn and Tristan were born for the moment, and the donning of armour and swords – something that would have felt crazy to anyone else – feels almost natural to them. So, off they hop, through the portal, and on a mission to recover their father, saving humanity on the way (or the high street of their local town, at the very least).
As a story, it’s not particularly new (there’s an echo of Jim Henson’s The Labyrinth, with a goblin king stealing away a family member for nefarious purposes). But, as they say, it’s the way you tell ‘em: Young Souls has real colour and character, and the result is a cartoon come to life. From the moment we dropped into Young Souls’ neighbourhood, all 2D drawings on 3D dioramas, we wanted to spend more time in it. The dialogue is snarky and insightful; the characters would make Mr. Henson proud; and at its heart is the juxtaposition between the corporate overworld and the fantasy underworld. It’s a mismatch that works wonders.
There’s a satisfying loop on display here. Each morning, you wake up and drop into the basement, where the Moon Gate is housed. With a quick tap at a terminal, the Moon Gate can be configured to take you to any node within a dungeon. Think of a series of branching paths, with many of the paths locked behind keys you don’t have yet, and you have Young Souls’ dungeon network. Nine times out of ten, you’re hopping to where you last left off, the branch that’s still waiting for you to clear it.
So, you get to clearing. This is a one-player or two-player experience, as you can take control of either Jenn and Tristan. In co-op, things are simpler: you’ve both got to conserve your life as you bash away at the life of your enemies’. In single player, there’s a tag-team at play, as you tap LB to swap in your team-mate should things get hairy. That often means dragging them out of combat when their life is low, hoping you can keep them out for long enough that they regen.
If you’ve played Castle Crashers, you will have a handle on what combat feels like. This is a belt-action game, as you move left-to-right, clearing enemies and getting some thumbs-up to confirm that you can press onward once they are gone. Combat starts simple with a single attack button, which can be held for a charge, plus a block (time it right and you can parry, allowing for counter attack) and roll. The roll, along with a few other elements, is on a cooldown, so you can’t necessarily get all ‘Tarnished’ and constantly avoid your enemy.
As the game develops, so does your skillset. Secondary items get unlocked, which you can use on the left-trigger. These are things like arrows and bombs, and they can be upgraded at a goblin town that you unlock in the first hour of the game. A bit like the hub in Bastion, you can find characters in the dungeons who come back to populate your stores, allowing you to buy and upgrade your weapons, armours and trinkets, all at the cost of resources you gain from the goblin world.
Waltz through the enemies, defeating the boss at the end of a branch, and you’ll get to the goblin grotto, a treasure hall where you can smash urns for coins, as well as open a treasure chest for the holy trinity of rewards: new gear, new keys, and rune stones.
New gear gets swapped out on your choice of Jenn and Tristan, and there’s a constant feeling of progression within Young Souls. Even when you’re hitting a roadblock, you will be making headway on resources for item upgrades, getting new item drops, or generally increasing XP, which leads to new levels and new base stats for your character. Leveling only happens when you’re back at home, taking a nap in your bed, so there’s a gentle nudge to return to the human world.
The new keys were our highlight. Young Souls has an eye for a sprawling map: it loves to let you bypass doors that you can’t open, annotated on your world map with an exclamation mark and a note of which key it needs. That key might open dozens of doors across Young Souls’ four different worlds. Getting one is a moment of pure exhilaration, as you’re parking your current progress to backtrack and unlock all of the stuff that you’ve missed.
And then there are the rune stones. By defeating the big bosses of Young Souls, you’ll unlock them, and they are to be taken to the Mayor (handily au fait with the goblin world), who uses their magical power to boost the town’s power grid. With that power you can fuel the Moon Gate and travel to greater depths of the goblin world. These are effectively new levels to be explored.
Much like its closest cousin, Castle Crashers, Young Souls’ main aim is to generate carnage and have fun doing it. Young Souls is not quite as bawdy as Castle Crashers, but it’s just as rude, with curses tumbling out of the characters’ mouths. Be warned if you have attracted a young’un by the colourful goings-on. But it’s in the combat where there’s a great deal of fun to be had. You can wade in with a wide assortment of weapons, and generally take down an entire room if you time your attacks well.
There is a fair whack of challenge here. There are different difficulties, but on the default difficulty, it’s very possible to bash like a bee against a window. But – as you would hope – it’s always just, and rarely is it anyone’s fault other than your own. Young Souls is brilliant at empowering you and then putting up an equal amount of challenge, much like another series with Souls in the title. We found ourselves persisting and being thankful for trying, as the gentle nudge up of character improvements, as well as the shallow difficulty curve, meant victory was well within our reach.
Young Souls also has a hell of a ride to offer. Unlike Castle Crashers, which could feel like a sequence of disjointed levels, Young Souls is a continuing story, and the constant push-pull of the human and goblin worlds means that you are often balancing your time between the two. We wanted to continue to watch the story evolve, which is something of a rarity of the scrolling beat ’em-up. You don’t play Streets of Rage or Double Dragon for its story-weaving.
If there are potholes it’s in the repetition. While there’s a constant tug to progress, thanks to the various overlapping progression tracks and that characterful story, it can often feel like you’re facing the same enemies but with different hats. The gameplay becomes a tad translucent and you can see the production spreadsheet behind it. We fought multiple versions of the same goblins, bats and frogs, all with different colours and effects. The bosses weren’t immune, either: there’s a category of ‘large, grunt-like goblin with helmet’ that gets rolled out dozens of times over the course, and Young Souls can’t find a way to make that interesting.
The human world also can’t keep up its end of the bargain. There’s just not enough to make the human side of the loop engaging. When you level up, there’s a chance you will get a ticket that gives you access to the gym, which gives you stat boosts in exchange for some minigames. But the minigames are routinely terrible: track-and-field button-bashers that we’d have happily done without. And there’s just not enough reward coming out of the Young Souls pinata to make a trip to the pawn shops and sneaker stores exciting.
But don’t necessarily let these flaws put you off, because Young Souls is just about the best side-scrolling beat ’em-up this side of Streets of Rage 4. The cooperative combat is deft, doing a lot with only a few buttons to make you feel completely in control. The dodges, parries and counter-attacks are absolutely what you’d want from a modern combat game, particularly in the era of Elden Ring.
What surprises most is, while it’s an extremely solid fighter, Young Souls might be better as a dungeon crawler. By layering on multiple ways of progressing your two characters, and giving you a map that begs to be explored, it silently attaches a chain to you and reveals that – ta-dah – it has you now. This is an exquisitely moreish little adventure, and we’re going to be clearing its dungeons long after the credits have rolled.
You can buy Young Souls from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S