Whether it was intentional or not, the latest Metroidvania from 6-man team Retro Forge, Souldiers, has a strong JRPG essence that permeates it. Despite being a self-described Souls-like Metroidvania, nearly everything about is begging to be presented in turn-based combat. Its aesthetic harkens back to the old-school JRPG games from the 90s. Its sense of high-fantasy adventure echoes that of Dragon Quest and the original Final Fantasy. And you might as well as slap JRPG veteran Nobu Uematsu’s name on Souldier’s music. All this isn’t to say that Souldiers is better off as a completely different game. It’s to recognize how much of a love-letter Souldiers is to adventure stories of yore.
You play as one of three unnamed soldiers who, along with the rest of their battalion, are suddenly transported into the afterlife by mysterious Valkyries. With the help of the surviving soldiers, your goal is to find out why you were transported into this unknown land between life and death in the first place and how to get back to your homeland. All this while traversing different biomes, solving puzzles, and fighting all kinds of creatures.
There are three soldiers to choose from. A scout, archer, and caster. Like any RPG, each soldier has their own set of attainable skills and comes with their own pros and cons. For example, the caster has low health but has a mid-ranged basic attack that homes in on enemies. The archer, on the other hand, has a full-ranged arrow attack that needs to be refilled when the arrows run out.
For better or worse, whichever character you pick will drastically alter your experience. Despite the game’s attempts to give each character equal footing, the punishing scenarios you are likely to find yourself in makes the experience feel unbalanced. You’re likely to run out of defensive and mobility options in a second when you run into a section where multiple enemies with unique attacks come at you at the same time. In the case of the caster, it’s a frequent scenario.
That sense of imbalance and difficulty make up the game’s Souls-like elements. Like any game of the same vein, the mechanics are designed to keep players constantly on their feet. You run out of stamina blocking and parrying. Anytime you use a save point respawns enemies in the area. But unlike most of the good Souls-likes, Souldiers’ progression system doesn’t feel rewarding. It takes a long while for your character to amass a good number of skills as some enemies just don’t drop enough experience points. On top of that, the currency items are scarce and basic healing items too expensive.
Souls-likes are hard by design but they’re also very rewarding. You want to be rewarded with cool items for overcoming a tough fight or a tricky platforming section. Souldiers’ doesn’t quite feel satisfying or gratifying in its moment-to-moment gameplay. Its difficulty oftentimes feels questionable, with no engaging reason behind it other than to make a game hard.
This gets in the way of the fun as it takes a while for Souldiers’ best systems to open up. You spend the first couple of hours with only basic skills and little maneuverability. The platforming starts off as generic and uninspired. It isn’t until you invest roughly 10 hours and get to the third biome that the combat and platforming elements get fun. Combined with its conservative sense of progression, players will really have to commit to get the most out of Souldiers.
Despite these issues, Souldiers offers a depth of engagement with the most prominent being its combat system. There’s a lot to experiment with in Souldiers. One of the early skills acquired by the caster is the ability to automatically create a reflection anytime to you dodge. This reflection can be detonated, damaging all enemies nearby which add a layer of strategy to all your encounters. As the story progresses, you acquire the ability to imbue an element to your attacks which you can switch on a whim. Occasionally, these elemental attacks also serve platforming purposes.
Like most RPGs, items and weapons can be upgraded at a price. Secondary weapons such as throwable bombs, axes, and spears can get a small damage buff. However, one missing component is the ability to sell items. In a game where it takes some time to save enough money, being able to sell useless items should be allowed. As a Metroidvania, Souldiers meets the usual requirements. Maps are vast and intricately connected and are sometimes gated by specific skills. Sadly, the exploration isn’t as intuitive or exciting as Hollow Knight as there’s some handholding on where to go to advance the story. Nonetheless, it fulfills its purpose.
Solely through its beautifully rendered pixel art and the polished animation that gives it life, Souldiers bypasses all its flaws and manages to be a truly impressive piece of work. Pixelated colors of endless hues that pop on screen make up the detailed sprites of characters and landscapes. Every inch feels lively; even something as insignificant as the leaves in the background moves with the wind. Character stances look graceful and attack animations are brimming with style. Souldiers perfectly captures the visual essence of iconic anime-inspired 16-bit games.
For all its problems, Souldiers has an ambition that is commendable. It successfully commits to being a decent Metroidvania with a steep Souls-like difficulty while paying homage to its JRPG influences. If you’re looking for a challenging game that rouses nostalgia, Souldiers can’t be missed.