Souldiers is the debut effort of Retro Forge Games and Dear Villagers has teamed with them to publish the game on all platforms. Somebody on one of those teams really knows how to market the game to players like myself, describing Souldiers as a Metroidvania with “crunchy Soulslike gameplay and precision platforming”. After watching a trailer of the game a few months ago I was intrigued by the fantastic pixel art, but that byline definitely sold me on the game. I’m not surprised to see more and more Soulslike games since the Souls series is one of the best franchises in existence, however, centering your gameplay around a Soulslike experience automatically sets the expectation bar high in my mind.
The game has a solid story that I think players will enjoy, although it has a somewhat odd start. A battle is about to commence and the famed wizard of the army suggests a new strategy that has many of the soldiers waiting in what looks like a ravine. Before they get to see any signs of battle there is an earthquake. In the aftermath, the soldiers are huddled in a small area surrounded by rocks when a Valkyrie appears, basically telling them that they have perished and to come with her through a portal. After a brief hesitation, everyone agrees.
At this point, you get to pick your character’s class from three options: Scout (soldier), Archer, and Caster (mage). You are then transported to a new land, Terragaya, which is somewhere between the living world and the dead. Since you never got to see the living world before the earthquake I can’t comment on how different this world looks. The Valkyrie then tells you to find the guardian of this world in order to gain immense power and find out your place. Since your whole unit was transported here there is still something of a hierarchy and the troops move ahead into each new area along with you. The game world has a fair amount of lore, and it seems to take a lot of inspiration from different real-world mythologies such as Viking and Egyptian, but there are plenty of original ideas mixed in as well.
As you explore the world you’ll meet many new races. These include some of the classic fantasy races like dwarfs, but there are also unique ones like an owl-hybrid race. I’ve met a few interesting characters that have left a mark due to the humorous writing, such as Balof, the vendor I rescued in the Spider lair, or Gruper and Mackerel, a pair of timid soldiers who make up for their cowardice with plenty of jokes. Overall I think they created a wonderful lore-rich world, which just begs you to explore thanks in part to the magnificent pixel art.
I said before that Souldiers has a lot of potential, and I really think it does. The game world is gigantic and the dungeons are enormous. I’ve played other Metroidvanias whose entire maps are smaller than some of these dungeons. The game has a nice variety of abilities to help you explore the world. These include many of the classics, such as double jump and wall jump as well as an assortment of other moves. You gain the power of six different elemental orbs throughout your journey that you can freely switch to during gameplay. These improve your attack power and defense with that element allowing you to do more damage to susceptible enemies. Each element also allows you to interact with something in the environment. The first one, for example, the igneous orb, lets you burn certain objects such as the spider web barriers in the Spider lair and allows you to light torches in dark areas so you can see (side note: the lighting in Souldiers is fantastic).
Another impressive aspect of Souldiers is the fact that they designed three separate classes, each of which has its own skill tree. The game features your standard experience and leveling system found in many Action-RPGs. You gain a few stat increases with each level, however I think the progression is a little too slow. With each level up you also gain a skill point and you can spend these points in the skill tree. Each class’s tree has multiple branches with many interesting sounding abilities and moves.
I’ve tried out all three classes, but I spent the most time playing the Scout class. I actually didn’t find many of its early abilities that useful. There is a parry and riposte, but it is very hard to time. The first offensive move you can learn is the thousand dagger attack, which triggers by pressing the light attack button repeatedly, however, I am unable to press the button fast enough with my thumb, so in order to use the move, I have to switch to my pointer finger which is not practical in the heat of battle. The Caster’s first skill seems extremely useful and strong. Once unlocked, you leave a shadow in your starting place when dodging and you can trigger it to explode by pressing RB. Unfortunately, you cannot change classes during your playthrough. If you want to play as a different class you have to start a new game on a separate save file. I think swapping between characters/classes works really well in Astalon: Tears of the Earth and I think instead of padding out the playtime by hoping people will play through the game three times (once with each character) they could have given the player a greater amount of freedom and choice and allowed them to swap at save points or when you die.
The movement in the game doesn’t quite feel right. The controls feel somewhat unresponsive, almost like there is input lag. Most actions can’t be canceled with another action. This makes matters worse as you have to let the animations play out leaving you open to attack. The dodge move doesn’t seem as useful as it should be because each time I use it it feels like I’m momentarily stuck in place at the end of the dodge and I’ve been hit countless times because of it. Your character can grab a hold of ledges and then climb up, which is useful in the first dungeon, but once you get the double jump the ledge grab becomes a huge nuisance as you unintentionally grab onto the ledges when you’re jumping around. One of the biggest issues I have with the controls is the degree at which up and down are registered on the joystick. Pressing up is the interaction button for doing things like going through doors, talking, and triggering the save statue. In its current state up is registered pretty much at any point in the upper 180 degrees of the joystick. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone in and out multiple times at a single door when I just wanted to go forward. I’ve heard other players have had a similar issue with ducking, where they unintentionally duck repeatedly during fights and end up getting hit a bunch and dying.
The Soulslike description of the combat is mostly in reference to the game’s difficulty. The combat system shouldn’t be viewed as a 2D version of Dark Souls, it is very much its own thing. I think at its core it is well made and offers a lot of variety to the player, especially since each class has its own combat design. However, the combat system is marred by the unresponsive controls and the difficulty, which seems to be difficult for no reason other than because it wants to be a “Soulslike”. The health system is one of the main reasons for this difficulty. The Archer and Caster classes start with laughably low health and you only gain one hit point with each level increase (you can also gain ten HP with each set of four Lacrima fragments you collect). The cost-benefit ratio for the health potions is also extremely flawed. Each potion only heals twenty health, but they cost 100 gold. You can easily take twenty damage against certain enemies, but you get nowhere close to 100 gold for killing them. Because of this, I found myself rarely using the health potions unless I was far into a zone and didn’t want to have to replay it all if I died.
I think they should have implemented a refillable health potion system like the Estus flasks in Dark Souls, alternatively they could do one of the following: increase the amount the potions heal, lower the cost of the potions, or increase the number of health potions you find in the game world. The Archer and Caster classes also feel much weaker than the Scout class offensively. They do have ranged attacks which should balance it out, but the Archer’s arrows barely go halfway across the screen. The Caster class has a powerful magic blast as the heavy attack, but it’s on a timer, unlike the Scout’s heavy attack which can be used repeatedly if you wish. The Caster’s regular attack does home in on enemies if they are very close but each attack only does two damage compared to the Scout’s regular attack which starts out around seven. I think the Archer and Caster could use some buffs.
I don’t mind a difficult game, but I think the biggest issue here is that it feels as if the developers do not respect the players’ time. According to my save files I have a little over twenty hours in the game, but an achievement tracking site I use lists my playtime close to thirty-five hours. That’s over ten hours spent staring at loading screens and having to replay sections where I died. Most players die a lot in Soulslike style games, but in the Souls series, you can usually just run through sections avoiding enemies. This is difficult to do in Souldiers since it is a 2D game, and many of the enemies teleport to you once they detect you. There are also a lot of flying enemies that shoot projectiles. Another element of the Souls series that isn’t replicated here is the option to retrieve lost experience after you die. In those games, if you can reach the spot where you died you regain everything you lost. Souldiers uses a regular save system where you reload to your last save or checkpoint when you die, and you lose out on all the XP, items, and gold you picked up after that point. To make matters worse there is a bug that locks you out of regaining certain items if you pick them up and then die before reaching a save point.
There is a large assortment of enemies all of which are expertly animated. The bosses have no problem standing out from the pack and come in all different shapes and sizes. Some are humanoid while others are pretty large, many of these are inspired by animals or mythological creatures. The first boss you fight, Iktala, is a large laser-shooting spider that guards the exit to the Spider Lair, a little after that you fight a minotaur, and later in the game, you even confront a scientifically-enhanced shark whose bottom jaw is metal. All of these bosses will test your patience. I found myself getting better and better on each attempt as I memorized more and more of their movesets. Souldiers is a single-player game, but one thing I really like is how in some of the boss fights you will be aided by one of the NPCs. The first time this happens is against the aforementioned minotaur. Brigard, the leader of your regiment of troops steps in to give you a hand. In some cases, they are just an extra source of damage, but in other cases, they are integral to the fight – blocking normally unblockable attacks or triggering the next stage in the fight so you can defeat the boss.
I’ve encountered numerous bugs while playing, the most common is the one that erases my bestiary progress every time I load my game. I’ve also had issues unlocking achievements. The load times on Xbox One are atrocious. Part of the reason I enjoy playing indie games is that I can’t stand the long load times of the AAA games, but this game looks like it would have been released on the PS1 so the load times should not be this bad. Users have reported many other bugs and issues as well. I think Retro Forge bit off more than they could chew when they decided to release on four platforms simultaneously. They’ve made a huge game with a ton of mechanics and plenty of little details so it’s no wonder that things went wrong. I just wish they could have ironed out all the kinks properly before launch, but I know they’re working on patches because they addressed it this morning (June 8th) in a post saying that they are working on fixing many of the issues I have pointed out as well as others including a change to the game’s difficulty.
After playing Souldiers for a few dozen hours I can say that it has a ton of potential, despite its issues I continue to want to play the game when I sit down and turn on my Xbox. The Metroidvania side of the gameplay really shines – the abilities, exploration, and world-building – but the game is marred by bugs and problematic design decisions that make the difficult souls-inspired combat feel less rewarding and much more frustrating. If the game was released without many of these issues I could see myself scoring it much higher but as it is, Souldiers needs to head back to basic training before anyone else enlists in their army.Become a Patron!
This game was reviewed based on Xbox One review code, using an Xbox One console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.