In the shadow of Shadow of the Colossus
I’ve always clamored for the all-boss-fights game. Shadow of the Colossus, an inescapable inspiration here, did it right and others have done it wrong, like Prince of Persia (2008), but I love the idea of removing fluff encounters. A JRPG that was all boss fights and no grinding could actually make for strategic battle. Strategy RPGs that don’t allow for excessive grinding, like XCOM, are essentially “all boss fights.”
And here, with Titan Souls, despite the Shadow of the Colossus influence and Souls-stolen title, I’m finding the closest analog to be Super Meat Boy. It’ll grind you up.
Titan Souls (PC [reviewed], Mac, PS Vita, PS4)
Developer: Acid Nerve
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Release: April 14, 2015
Titan Souls is simple. Its art is in pixels and you wouldn’t need much more than an NES controller to accommodate its two-button layout. One button serves as a run (hold) and roll (tap), the other shoots and retrieves a lone arrow. That’s some pared down resource management: one.
The land is in ruin with pleasantly varied color palettes. The goal is to kill all the monsters guarding fragments of the Titan Soul so you can put it back together. Groups of titans are sequestered around checkpoints in various themed areas and you’ll have to walk around a bit to stumble on them. You might not even hit them all because you don’t need to kill every titan to beat the game. I am sitting at 16 slain and a nice credit sequence, but no unlock of the conspicuous “TRUTH” achievement that seems to hint at more story resolution than is otherwise present.
Mostly though it is a game about killing monsters — yetis and brains and treasure chests and cursed predecessors — with your one arrow, which you can retrieve by picking up or by holding down the shoot button and calling it back to you. Of course, you can’t move while doing this, which makes it a dangerous tactic, but it is also a necessary way to use the arrow sometimes.
Shadow of Colossus was about endurance, down to the grip gauge. Here, a fight can be over in two seconds, either in your favor or the AI’s. This is not about endurance as much as it is relentlessness. About trying again and again and again. Because when enemies are killed in one hit (some take work in exposing weak points), they need to hit hard to compensate. I killed a few titans on my second try. Seconds of effort. Others took a couple dozen tries. The last two made up the bulk of my 306 deaths and it was a thoughtlessly loosed arrow that brought me to the credit sequence.
Aside from the last two fights and maybe one other, I found it quickly obvious what to do — shoot it in the brain, shoot it in the butt. Winning was dependent more on execution than puzzle solving, though there are some inventive uses of your bow’s recall power. The one, two seconds of swelling music before somber death or quick success is almost farcical. The brief, but cumulative, walks back to the individual bosses, even from nearby checkpoints, kind of became a nuisance. What would’ve been nominal loading stacks in rapid succession (compared to the immediate “one more try” return of an Olli Olli or Super Meat Boy).
Titan Souls, with its arcane aesthetic and sweeping music, plays at being a moody and thoughtful piece, but it is a punishing, reflex-oriented affair and I’m not sure why boss fights couldn’t have just restarted in the boss lairs. It disincentives and punishes death, but in the most annoying way, and walking up the same seven seconds of path over and over after death lacks the tonal poignancy of, say, Shadow of the Colossus‘s treks between golems. Trying to realize boss patterns a couple seconds of life at a time takes patience.
Completion unlocks Hard mode, which is still kicking me around (no more smooth second try victories thus far) as well as Iron (one life) and No Rolls (or run). You can toggle any or all three of these settings on for a more brutal time, but hamstringing myself, leading to more deaths, just exacerbates the problems of unnecessary loads and walks back to bosses.
My normal difficulty run through, save for some exasperation at the final two titans, did make for good pacing. Death or victory come quickly because, for the most part, the titans are designed to leave you few opportunities to win. Running around and staying alive isn’t an impressive feat because you’re no closer to winning. The moments of opportunity are designed to put you in harms way — surely killing you should you miss the shot — doubling down on an intense thrill. The quickness with which these things kill you leaves you always feeling unsafe. That you often have to stare down these charging killers, like drawing an arrow against an oncoming train with a baseball-sized weak point, is exhilarating.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]