Souldiers Review: Postmortem Platforming Perfection
Generally speaking, I, as a reviewer, enjoy playing most of the video games that I review. I mean, that’s kind of the point, right? Why review video games at all if you’re not going to enjoy the actual “playing the video games” part? However, as fun as playing games are, every once in a while, I’ll come across games that I find myself so enamored with that I don’t actually want to review it… because I’d rather just spend my time playing more—and it just so happens that a little game called Souldiers managed to land squarely in that category.
I’ve played a lot of platformers in my life (mostly because I enjoy them), and I’ve had the pleasure of playing a lot of good platformers—platformers that are genuinely fun and manage to do at least one or two things exceptionally well. But Souldiers doesn’t do one or two things exceptionally well—it does everything exceptionally well. It’s got gorgeous graphics, some amazing level designs, super-smooth and addicting combat, and a lot more—but, enough of me just sitting here swooning over this game. Let’s actually take a closer look at just what makes Souldiers tick and why, at least in my opinion, it’s a strong contender for being one of the best—if not the best—side-scrolling platformers of 2022.
Omae Wa Mou Shindeiru
Souldiers begins with a tale that I’m sure many of us have heard before. In a distant land, a kingdom by the name of Zarga has found itself preparing for an upcoming war. Initially, the preparation’s made by the king’s court—led by General Brigard—went off without a hitch. Curiously enough, however, just before setting off, a change of plans is suggested by Court Sorcerer Arkzel. This suggestion is very strange and the location doesn’t exactly sound like the best defensive position, but Brigard trusts his ally to see him through safely—just like always. That doesn’t happen, though. While Brigard and his men are laying in wait for their enemies to arrive, a brilliant flash of light comes out of nowhere, heralding the arrival of a Valkyrie. Her message? Everyone here in this cave has supposedly died, and they can either follow her to the afterlife or remain stuck in this location forever. Not wanting to become spiritually shackled to a damp and dreary prison for all eternity, Brigard & co. follow the Valkyrie and enter the land of Terragaya. But they’ll soon find out that this new realm is no Heaven on earth—in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Souldiers is not, in any way, a narrative-heavy game—but what is there is genuinely enjoyable. A lot of this has to do with the fact that, following the intro, the game immediately betrays the player’s expectations of who its protagonist is. The entire time, the plot centers around General Brigard. He sets up the war plan, he leads his men into battle, and he’s the first to step into Terragaya in order to show his men that it’s okay to move on. It indirectly tells you that you’re going to be playing as General Brigard… only to immediately have the player select one of three nameless, faceless underlings to play as for the rest of the game. No, Souldiers does not have a lot of dialogue in it. But the intro alone is enough to show players that it’s dedicated to making what it does have memorable.
Of Caves and Castles
In terms of gameplay, Souldiers is something that I’d call a “Metroidvania-lite.” Don’t get it twisted—this game does not skimp on the content. All I mean by “lite” is that the game is a little more railroad-y than what you might expect from other games within the same genre. Like a typical Metroidvania, every area is interconnected with each other, and the game does allow free travel between them (well, most of the time), but certain areas don’t meld into one another as seamlessly as they would in a Castlevania or Metroid game. Sure, there are plains, forests, and even a town—all of which are absolutely gorgeously designed, I have to say—but Souldiers has proper dungeons (which are equally gorgeous, to be fair) and even goes so far as to lock you in once you set foot into them, making the game feel slightly more like a traditional action/platformer than other Metroidvanias.
So, I might’ve lost some of you there just now—and that’s totally okay. Metroidvanias are, generally speaking, about player exploration and player autonomy, and trapping a player kind of works against that. But—and hear me out on this—Souldiers actually makes it work! The fact that each of these areas are initially self-contained (you can come back to each of them later to grab anything you missed the first time around, naturally), means that there’s room for the devs to actually give the players a run for their money in terms of the challenge factor.
There’s no two ways around it. Metroidvania or not, Souldiers has dungeons. These dungeons are massive, time-consuming, and are, most likely, where you’ll be spending most of your time within the game. But that’s okay, because the dungeons are also really cool. Think of it from a developer’s perspective for a minute. Generally speaking, there are certain things that Metroidvanias can’t do because they need to account for player autonomy of movement. By temporarily removing this ability to roam around, however, you suddenly gain the ability to do a lot of things that you weren’t able to do before. It’s the perfect recipe for setting up puzzles, properly pacing the rate at which the player fights bosses and obtains rewards, and helps ensure that things stay at least a little bit challenging—all of which this game does very well.
And, of course, we can’t forget all of the action that goes down on the regular! Souldiers officially describes itself as having “crunchy, soulslike combat.” I’m going to be honest—I have absolutely no idea what “crunchy” is supposed to mean in this context. Hopefully, it’s something along the lines of “smooth, responsive, and surprisingly deep,” though, because that’s exactly what it ended up being. Regarding the “soulslike” part, well, it’s not quite up there with the likes of Salt and Sacrifice in terms of difficulty (it’s also much too fast-paced), but things do get dicey pretty regularly—especially if you’re playing on the harder difficulty. Fortunately, the game is fairly liberal in terms of character maneuverability, allowing players to adapt to enemies in ways that suit their playstyles. On top of that, the game heavily rewards player exploration and progress by expanding their arsenal with a bevvy of unique sub-weapons, passive ability-bestowing items, equipment, and orbs that change the elemental typing of the player’s attacks. And, if things ever get too easy or too hard for you, the game does sport three different levels of difficulty that can be changed on the fly, ensuring comfortable conformity for players of all skill levels.
Of course, “comfortable conformity” doesn’t guarantee you a win in a game like this—especially when it comes to bosses. Generally speaking, this game has two kinds of bosses. And I’m really not sure which one of them is more difficult to deal with. On one hand, you’ve got what I like to call your ” standard dungeon bosses.” These are typically pretty big in size, come with some kind of gimmick—like jumping into the background or periodically creating armor for itself—and are usually weak to the latest elemental orb that you just found. Then, you’ve got the “Dark Soldier bosses” These guys’ names are literally just the word “Dark” followed by whatever weapon they’re using, and as with every humanoid boss the same size as the protagonist, they will hardcore rough you up if you don’t learn their attack patterns. Unlike the more standard flair dungeon bosses, the dark soldiers don’t have any kind of weakness and are almost always moving in some capacity or another, meaning that brute-forcing your way through them just isn’t going to happen. On the plus side, beating these guys up will always net you a new skill for your character—so that’s cool! Souldiers is one of the few games that manages to make me very nervous whenever I know I’m getting close to a boss—but it’s a good kind of nervous. I know that I’m going to be challenged, but never challenged in a way that never seems entirely unfair. Yes, these bosses are definitely on the harder side of things, but it always feels great emerging victorious from each and every confrontation.
To round things out, I’d like to talk about the playable characters themselves. As I mentioned early in the review it isn’t the mighty General Brigard that you play as, but, rather, one of the many privates within his platoon. Fortunately, his platoon is rather varied, meaning that you have a selection of characters—and oh what a selection it is! Despite being a Metroidvania, Souliders boasts three playable classes: the Scout—a balanced, close-range fighter whose shield grants him the ability to parry and counter attacks; the Archer—a mid-long range combatant with a more agile build; and the Caster—a spell-slinging powerhouse suited for those who enjoy a more “risk-and-reward” playstyle.” Not only do all of these characters have a unique playstyle to them, but they also each come with their own unique skill trees which, as your chosen class grows stronger, even further separates them from the others. Seriously, how cool is that?
In all honesty, I would have still considered this game a major success had they balanced it for one of the three playable classes. As far as Metroidvanias go, Souldiers is impressively content-heavy. However, the fact that they managed to balance this game for three classes—all of which play differently, mind you—is truly impressive. While I am partial to the Archer, myself, it doesn’t feel like it was made for him. It doesn’t feel like it was “made” for any of the characters. Each character fits into the game’s ecosystem as nicely as the others. Do some have advantages in certain situations? Well, yeah—but if they didn’t then there would literally be no point in making multiple classes. Really, playing through the game once is enough fun—but getting to experience multiple unique playthroughs in a game like this is truly a treat.
‘Til Death do Us Part
Just in case I haven’t made it clear enough, Souldiers is absolutely a modern-day classic. It’s also in the running for my favorite game of 2022—it’s really just that good. Between its engaging level design, gorgeous visual appearance, addictive combat mechanics, and its class-based system giving it three times the replaybility… you really owe it to yourself to get this game if you consider yourself a Metroidvania fan.
Available on: Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC Publisher: Plug In Digital; Developer: Game Forge; Players: 1 ; Released: June 2, 2022; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Souldiers given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.