With optional lore in between the boss rush.
As a hardened veteran of Dark Souls, playing a new Souls-like tends to fill me with dread, though it’s less fear of death and more whether or not this up-and-coming swaggering contender has got the chops to reach the bar FromSoft set. That said, after a stressful 20 minutes and repeated deaths with Eldest Souls’ opening, it’s fair to say that Fallen Flag Studio might have something up its sleeve.
With ‘Souls’ in the title, there’s no mistaking that Dark Souls is a major influence here, though there are also some notable indie titles in the mix. Certainly, the top-down perspective and pixel art recall Hyper Light Drifter while the boss rush structure is influenced by Titan Souls and Furi. I would also add Below to the list, purely for how Eldest Souls mimics the intro of a lone adventurer arriving by a humble rowing boat, though it fortunately eschews the survival elements of Capys’ bleak dungeon crawler.
The combat basics include light and heavy attacks as well as a dodge button – so far, so familiar. With that in mind, I figured I’d be able to handle myself against the game’s first boss, the Watchdog. But oh boy, did I underestimate it. This quickly became a brutal training ground for learning just how Eldest Souls’ mechanics differentiates itself.
Swing the sword with a quick light attack and it’s soon apparent what a piffle of difference it makes, barely chipping the Watchdog’s HP by more than single digits. At least it turns out attacking doesn’t cost any stamina, though the animation is costly enough – in true Dark Souls fashion, once you’ve committed to an action, the animation must play out before you can continue your next move.
Instead, stamina management is reserved for dodging. You only start with three green bars, each one depleting with one dodge, and they take a while to refill, making panicky manoeuvres all too common on my first few stumbling attempts. There’s also no button for blocking an attack so it really is all about using dodges sparingly, though timing a perfect dodge can also refill the stamina gauge faster.
But back to the offense: once it was clear that the quick and nimble method wasn’t going to work, I went in for the slow but heavy attacks, which were only marginally better. Hold the button, however, and you get a charge attack, which is where Eldest Souls comes into its own. To actually stand a chance against the bosses, you have to rely on charge attacks, which build up a third gauge below your health and stamina – the rage meter.
It’s a temporary buff that delivers a much more powerful attack, though you have only a few seconds to make use of it before the meter drops and a successful hit is followed by the need to charge it up once again. Conversely, you can also opt not to discharge immediately as the rage buff also increases your speed, so you can take the opportunity to manoeuvre out of a hairy position. But be warned, if you’ve taken a bit of a pasting, there isn’t a way to heal yourself.
For what is essentially a tutorial boss, the Watchdog proved to be a baptism of fire but I got there in the end through singular methodical grit. Speaking to one of the developers afterwards, I learned that a talent tree does expand your playstyle a bit more later on, whether it’s increasing your mobility or being able to parry attacks.
Despite the focus on being an action-based boss rush, the team nonetheless wants to have a similar sense of Dark Souls’ world-building so players who want to take a bit more time have the option to explore what little they can. Even between my trip from the boat to the first boss, there are a couple of items you can pick up that contain descriptions, while you will also encounter NPCs who can provide more lore. While the game is meant to be quite linear, I’m also told that it opens up later so not all bosses are along a straight path and you don’t necessarily fight them in one specific order.
Ultimately, it’s the combat’s emphasis on building and discharging rage that makes Eldest Souls stand out from the usual Souls-like trappings. After being humbled from my first attempt, I’m pretty keen on mastering it.