Labour of Death and Love: A Beautiful Journey Through Deaths and Really Cool Boss Fights
Let me preface this with a quote from the email sent by Stephanie Tinsley Fitzwilliam, PR Manager for Devolver Digital, the publisher of Titan Souls.
“You die a lot, get used to it.”
This really gets at the core of the game. Death is an integral part of the gameplay, but we’ll get back to that in a bit. Titan Souls will test your patience, and that’s a good thing (if you’re willing).
The world of Titan Souls is beautifully presented in an almost retro pixel art style, and I think this rings true to the game’s core of simplicity. I fell in love with the visual style as I tromped through the varying environments as I looked for the next encounter with a Titan. Your character is dwarfed by the gigantic stone monuments and passages that you wind your way through in the countless marches back to a Titan’s arena. When I say countless, I mean a LOT, because every time you die, you will respawn a fair bit away from the fight you perished in, so get used to those beautiful environments.
The titular Titans are scattered through the world, loosely separated by environment in groups attached to particular respawn points that you will see over and over. The designs of the Titans vary quite a bit but they all have something in common, a singular weak point. Like you, they have no health bar, and your well placed arrow will drop them in one shot. That being said, they will crush, burn and often quickly smash you into the ground as you seek out that weak point to exploit. Which finally gets to the crux of the game; simplicity. One arrow, one weak point, one hit. Fights (successful ones at least) are an exercise in knowledge, timing and the ability to manipulate your one arrow with skill. Upon firing your arrow, you can recall it towards you, reclaiming it, and building a single game mechanic into something that can be bent in some interesting combat situations. Most of the time, you won’t even get that chance as you die within seconds of firing and missing on a Titan.
Much like the olden days of gaming, you will die. A lot. Each death is a chance to learn something new about each Titan, a chance to practice timing your movements against their attack patterns and getting just a bit better. Because of this I’ve seen a lot of comparisons to FromSoftware’s Souls series of games, but I think it really hearkens back to before an era of auto saves and checkpoints. Every time you die you have to make the trek back from you closest respawn and start the fight over again. There is no character advancement, no leveling, no advantage to tackling the Titans in any particular order. You finish the game as you start it; with a single arrow and the ability to roll. This personally reminds me of (what you might call) archaic games like Adventure or even Super Mario Bros. Your advancement literally boils down to your familiarity with the game and your ability to master is very basic mechanics. If it weren’t for the ability to use an analog stick in any direction to aim, this game could be played on a NES or arcade control setup. In an era of hand holding, auto saves and pay shortcuts this both frustrates and delights me.
Needless to say, I died. A lot. And I think the developers were keen on death being such an integral part of the actual gameplay. There’s even a death counter on the save file loading screen. The game may equate to a bunch of spaced out boss fight rooms with huge empty (yet beautiful) spaces between them, but I think it comes out as more than the sum of its parts. This game is frustratingly hard, on purpose, and I foresee a lot of people throwing controllers. Even if you knew exactly how to beat a Titan, you could die within seconds of a fight because of the games dependency on skill and timing to execute defeating them. I really think this game is one that will stand the test of time because of its simplicity and design choices.
All that said, there was another thing I wanted to touch on; the sound. The music in Titan Souls is gorgeous and generally takes a the backseat with its subdued nature in light of the intensity of the gameplay. But it complements the feel of the game without feeling like an afterthought. Overworld music is haunting and makes the world feel even more empty and vast while you search for the next Titan to slay.
Speaking to that, there is one thing that may detract from the game. Having to run from respawn over and over, literally hundreds of times can be aggravating. If anything I might see that killing the experience for some players over the general difficulty of the game. I can understand the choice to push you back to a hub respawn instead of dropping you into the boss room again, but it definitely could prove a sore point.
I cannot recommend this game enough to anyone who appreciates a challenge. In the face of such grueling difficulty, every time I downed a Titan, I would find myself with that same “AHA” moment that Portal gave me when I solved a puzzle. An instant of elation at my sheer perseverance to solve the problem of that Titan, and managing to pull off planting my arrow in its weak spot. I would also find myself cursing the Titan under my breath as I pulled it back out and made my way towards the next. Not many games have given me that rush of finally climbing the summit of a challenge that Titan Souls delivers. Marrying old-school design choice and modern sensibilities, Titan Souls is definitely an experience hard to nail down with words.
I’d advise you pick up that bow yourself in the demo and experience the joy of the game’s difficulty yourself and understand why I can’t give you enough reasons to play the full game.
Final Verdict: 4.5 / 5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), Playstation 4, Vita; Publisher: Devolver Digital ; Developer: Acid Nerve ; Players: 1; Released: April 14, 2015 ; ESRB: Teen ; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a Playstation Vita review copy of Titan Souls provided by the game’s publisher, Devolver Digital.