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Hands On: The Man-Versus-Monster Battles Of Titan Souls

Boss Hog

Presumably calling the game The Legend of Colossus Souls was considered just that little bit too direct. To be fair, naming the obvious inspirations here doesn’t do justice to Titan Souls’ own invention - a combat system which is so simple and taut, yet from which the game conjures a series of elaborate and ever-inventive boss battles.

Originally made for a Ludum Dare competition (you can read Nathan’s impressions of that early version here), Titan Souls has now blossomed into a full game due out early next year. A sprawling, derelict world of overgrown temples, icy rivers and fiery caverns now awaits, and within lurk around two dozen gargantuan foes. It takes the mournful feel and monstrous populace of Shadow of the Colossus, and presents it from the pixellated perspective of the Zelda games of yore. And, as with Dark Souls, you consume the primeval soul of each megabeast you slay. The combat shares that series’ lack of compromise, too: you will die and die again facing each of these monsters, every time getting a bit wiser to their weaknesses, a shade more adept at avoiding their attacks.

The first attempt at any boss-run is typically over in less than a second, with your character smeared to a paste. You have to laugh, so instantly are you trounced. But then you learn where to roll, when to attack and how. This is where Titan Souls departs from its forebears and establishes its own character. You only have one arrow and you need to stand still to aim and draw the string. The more time you spend doing this the further your shot - but that’s not an easy trade to make when a fist the size of an SUV is hurtling down upon you. Once fired, you can either run over and pick it up from where it has bounced, or otherwise call it back to you magically, holding down the button you used to fire. You’re fixed in place when this happens, however - again, not an easy call, when instant death is typically a fraction of a second away.

This movement set, and the challenge it is pitched against, is just so extraordinarily tight. Survival comes down to the tiniest slivers of time, but your movement set provides you with just enough agility to exploit that window. One minor gripe Nathan mentioned about the game’s earlier incarnation as a Ludum Dare entry, was its grid-based rolling and shooting. That’s out - you now have full analogue control.

As for the monsters you fight - I’m reluctant to outline too many of them in detail, as discovering their patterns of attack and figuring out how to conquer them is the fun of the game. Suffice to say that once you’ve figured out the enemy’s weakness, and delivered the killing blow, the game doesn’t faff around with a further three stages of glowing weak spots and modified attack patterns. Nor does it offer you a giant health bar to slowly chip down - the battle’s simply over. It gives fights a sort of vibrant digital quality that makes them feel desperately tense, like they could go either way at any moment. It also makes them astonishingly brief - if you get it right. The number of retries it’ll take to get it right? Not so brief. But with your respawn point only a short trek away, this repetition rarely feels overly arduous.

I’ll describe the first two bosses I fought just to give you a sense of their variety and invention - skip the next five paragraphs if you want to remain unspoiled.

The game’s opening sees you venturing up the pale stone steps of an ancient temple. Four doors are open to you, each leading to a different boss, and each boss representing some part of a dismantled whole. The first is a heart, suspended in a giant glob of green goop. As with all of the bosses, you must attack it first to initiate combat. My arrow slices the glob in two - one of these containing the heart, the other, splotching towards me at great speed. And then I, too, am splotched. A second attempt, and I manage to roll away from my splotchy fate. Rolling gives you a speed buff you can maintain by holding the button, and I use this to Benny Hill my way around the arena, occasionally diving out of the way of one or the other blob, until I get enough distance to use my arrow recall power.

In truth, this may have taken more than one attempt, but eventually I find myself in a position to attack. However, it quickly becomes apparent that the blobs simply divide again when shot, and now I have six of them after me. Duly, I am splotched. I’ve noticed by this point that the blob with the heart in it tends to hang back, while the empty blobs go for the kill. I focus my efforts on hitting only the heart-blob. It divides. I fire again at the half that contains the heart, and eventually the blob pops, revealing its grisly prize - which, though now defenceless, nonetheless succeeds in squishing me. Some attempts later, and I manage to plug it, and upon extracting my arrow, absorb its soul in a flurry of white light. Delicious!

Next up: a brain in a block of ice sits in the centre of a room. The room has four panels embedded into the floor, each engraved with a flame symbol. But standing on them does nothing. Curious! Well, no point dallying, I think, and fire off an arrow at the brain. Barely has the arrow spanged off into a distant corner, than the giant ice cube lurches from the centre of the room and skids straight over me. Attempts two and three go similarly well, although now I’m angling my attack so that the arrow ricochets back at me, making collection easier.

The ice-cube-brain is carried under its own momentum, bouncing off walls before initiating another lurch in my direction. Periodically, the brain glows pink and the entire cube lifts from the ground and flies at me, landing with a heavy thud - or a splat, depending on where I was standing. I realise, perhaps a little later than most other sentient mammals might, that the cube is heavy enough to depress the stone panels I spotted earlier, and that every time it does, a flame erupts from the centre of the room. Flame. Melts ice. But how to get the flame to the ice cube when it is necessarily elsewhere in the room, depressing a pressure plate? Of course - the arrow.

It’s a tricky bit of positioning, even when you know what to do. That cube is after you, and so there’s only a small window of time for you to pelt over to the other side of the room, position the flame between you and it, and loose an arrow. But, some number of attempts later, and I manage it. Twang! Fzz! The cube melts. But the brain ain’t done for yet. It bounds towards me, and though I roll away, I find myself impaired by the trail of sticky goop it leaves in its wake. It does not spare me. Another attempt, and my poorly timed arrows zip beneath the brain as it bounces. Its sticky trail does for me on another few occasions before I land a shot in its frontal lobe. The moment of hard-won victory is pure ecstasy, and it feels all the more epic for the fact it was forged out of such simple inputs: roll, fire, collect.

Spoilers over. Service resumes as normal.

Once the first four bosses are down, the game’s environment opens up. Some of it seems incomplete in the build I am playing, but there’s clearly a lot to explore, and some navigational puzzles too. An illusory forest maze - the kind where taking the wrong path magically leads you back into the glen you just left - is a slightly tired bit of puzzle design, but it does suggest that there’s a larger plan for its world. You’ll need to investigate every corner, uncovering information in one area to make traversal of another possible. Even so, from the start, it’s very open - almost bewilderingly so. One downside of this is that spawn points seem further from boss-encounters, making their repetition more of a slog. But the sense of possibility is extremely enticing. If its bosses manage to be as varied and thrilling to fight as those I’ve encountered so far, Titan Souls could end up being every bit of the cult hit that the games its name recalls.

Watch its most recent trailer thither:

Titan Souls is developed by Acid Nerve, and will be available on Steam early next year.

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Titan Souls

PS4, PlayStation Vita, PC

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Marsh Davies