One of the more frustrating games I’ve played.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this game to review. Normally I would do a video review of these things, but I’m not. As you will see, getting a game for free does not influence my opinion. Souldiers might just be the most frustrating game I play all year.
Souldiers is a side-scrolling Metroidvania where the player takes the role of a soldier battling through a mystical outworld of creatures to save your crew. You have the choice at the start between a melee, ranged, or magic focused character with several difficulty options. As you continue through the world, you unlock new powers and fast travel locations to more easily get around the landscape.
Given my conversations on Twitter, I’m sure everyone is wondering first; does this work on the Steam Deck? And the answer is yes. It’s not perfect, but it works. There’s a few brief frame hitches when saving or hitting checkpoints but otherwise the game runs smooth as butter. Melted butter on a steak. Mmm… It’s also a good looking pixel game with a fantastic soundtrack. That’s about the extent of my more positive comments.
Because I found this game really hard to continue playing. Souldiers makes itself an egregiously frustrating experience that seems to go out of its own way to make every aspect as punishing as possible. It seems like one of those games that hardcore players will pretend they’ve beaten on the hardest mode without dying ever and then condescendingly comment about how actually it’s a baby-difficulty game for babies and wasn’t actually that hard to begin with. Egos.
Enemies in this game feel built for maximum cheapness. The game loves throwing in cheap shots, be it an enemy falling from the ceiling, groups coming at you from both sides ensuring a hit, or just enemies placed at the end of jumping areas to conveniently knock you off and invalidate your last minute of jumping around. Enemies suddenly move around at a blistering pace, leap at you from off-screen, and later on start getting arbitrary invulnerability phases. Effectively the game gives everyone you encounter just about every tool in the box to play with while you’re left with a rather limited set of options.
Combat is equally frustrating and filled with a lot of moments of “that move should have worked” usually involving you trying to whittle down the health of just about every bog-standard encounter being a tank of a health bar while ranged foes spit at you from above. As someone who played and absolutely loved Blasphemous on Luna (yes, I played it on Luna with input lag), I found the combat to be a jumbled mess stuffed in cramped corridors for most areas. The game does an exceptionally poor job of signaling where an attack starts and ends, confusing even further thanks to the on-screen mess of visual effects, and nothing feels responsive or particularly impactful.
Parrying and dodging feels so poorly explained and visualized that much of the time you’d be forgiven for assuming it was just broken. I don’t think it’s a technical fault, just something badly conveyed to the user. And to top it off your attacks don’t even phase enemies for the most part. The number of times I’ve taken a hit because my soldier’s stabbing flurry doesn’t stop the enemy I’m stabbing from attacking me like nothing’s happening is incredibly frustrating.
I think the most important thing about games like Souldiers is the ability to explain why the player failed at something, and if you do an exceptionally poor job of it there’s no way to learn and do better and it just makes the game feel unfair. It also helps to put enemies on a somewhat equal footing to the player or give the player something to work with. But enemies in Souldier’s seem to know the layout perfectly. They know just the right spot to land or fly at at so your attacks can’t hit them, just the right angle to shoot at so they just hit you through your dodge, just the perfect moment to shoot a projectile to coordinate with some melee character. They can also fly through the map giving them the fun ability to hit you when they themselves are untouchable.
I also got really angry at how my character sticks to ledges and sometimes refuses to let go while other times consciously getting them to recognize that I’m jumping at a ledge to grab on is like pulling teeth.
The classes are barely representative of themselves. You have a soldier, an archer, and a mage as your three options. But the problem is that the archer and mage are barely ranged classes. The archer’s arrows are ineffective items that very quickly run out and take forever (in the heat of battle) to regenerate leaving you with a wholly ineffective spinning blade attack. The mage barely has any actual magic power, as well as an attack that is terribly explained to the user. The magician can fire homing projectiles with their basic attack, but only if you’re within a magical range of the enemy that’s never detailed and is often unreliable even when it seems like you’re close enough.
Souldiers seems terrified at the balancing prospect of creating ranged classes that it just wound up creating crappy melee classes with occasional ranged attacks.
Which leads to an issue with all three classes; you never feel powerful. The game starts you off at a disadvantage and makes the enemies progressively more dangerous while you yourself level at a snail’s pace and get left behind. The upgrades at least at early levels don’t justify the multiple level-ups required to obtain each one, and you do need three to four levels for a single upgrade, and I can’t comment on the late game upgrades as I never got that far. I don’t know if your character gets really powerful later on, but the first few hours had me deadlocked at certain bosses for so long that I never progressed far enough to find out.
One aspect I’m really not a fan of is the map and this is where I’m going to rant a little bit (haha). The Souldiers map is not that good. Yes, it’s detailed. It marks chests as well as ability-gated areas and just locked off doors. What it doesn’t mark are quest items, meaning I wound up probably adding at least an hour to my time running around to fill in the spider lair map trying to find the final piece. Where was it? In a room I had already cleared but conveniently passed by because it was dark. That’s kind of a design flaw if you ask me, as it wasn’t marked on the map either.
I’m also really not a fan of the game’s bomb/potion system. You gain fragments that charge how many bombs you have, or you can use money to buy fragments at the shops dotted around the map. Same goes for potions that can sometimes be found in chests. The problem I have is that fragments and coins are so slow to drop and you need 100 coins for a potion while fragments occasionally go long periods just never dropping from enemies.
One of the running memes with RPGs is the idea of players treating normal potions like they’re irreplaceable and hoarding them. Well Souldiers is basically that game in reality, and they’re just about useless to boot. My soldier has more than 75 health and potions do 25 healing, and I have a three potion limit. It literally takes my entire inventory of potions to heal my character, which runs to 300 gold, which costs far more time than I’m willing to spend farming that gold back and doesn’t even fully heal me to boot. Souldiers out here selling $60 hotdogs that aren’t even footlong and don’t even come with a Coke to drink.
It feels like bad balancing. I’ve played countless games that I’d consider more hardcore than Souldiers and those games recognize the value in not bringing the game to a screeching halt. It’s mostly a matter of the cost of acquisition and speed at which you obtain that money. Let me tell you there’s nothing quite like that brick wall when you hit a boss coming up and realize you’re going to be spending the next 20-30 minutes farming gold to afford to fill your three potion slots and get bomb fragments, contemplating the whole time how kinda useless all those items are anyway. It really gives you time to stew on how bad the mechanics feel.
Oh and the upgrades to your potion and shards cost three thousand gold each for the first upgrade. No thanks. I farmed experience for probably a good hour trying to get some levels and never came close to that 3000 gold, and I was wearing an amulet of greed that boosts gold find.
Souldiers asks a lot out of you and gives very little in return, and for that reason I can’t really recommend it in the state that it’s in. It’s not that the game is fundamentally broken, there are just so many little things that come together to create a frustrating experience that ultimately doesn’t pay off. And it feels like the game could be severely improved with some tweaked animations, an easy mode that actually reduces difficulty, and making it easier to acquire potions/bombs.