Repetition and gruelling difficulty aside, Titan Souls [official site] has little in common with the From Software series that the second part of that title nods toward. It's slightly closer, in form and feel, to Shadow of the Colossus, the beautifully crafted boss battle bonanza from Team Ico. While I was scrapping my way through this often-splendid game, I was also reminded of Towerfall, Zelda and Smash TV, and yet the whole package is not quite like anything else. Here's wot I think.
It's the respawning that kills you.
Titan Souls isn't entirely like any of the games mentioned above and the central conceit – that one hit in the right spot can kill anything – makes every encounter as tense as a tightly strung bowstring. Dying teaches lessons, as in Dark Souls, but you'll understand most of the Titans long before you manage to kill them. “Long” is a relative term – Titan Souls can make five minutes seem like an hour, or an hour feel like a fleeting moment. It's a game all ABOUT timing and your reaction to it will, as with most things, depend on whether you feel its use of your time is justified.
This is a game about finding an enemy's weak spot and then shooting it. That's pretty much all there is to it. Everything that happens around the fights is window dressing – the decals on the arcade cabinet. Soemtimes it's very attractive window dressing, mostly due to the fine details, such as the trails left in the snow as you trek, skid and roll through white drifts. There are things to discover in the world, sometimes hidden by puzzling interactive elements, but it's mostly a series of hubs to link the boss battles, and a way to provide freedom of choice.
You're free to explore, you see, which means you'll never have to beat boss A in order to tackle boss B. That is a good thing because sometimes you'll see the first pattern of a Titan's attack and immediately declare it to be bullshit. It happened to me several times, as enormous barely attached limbs flailed in my direction and projectiles clattered across the screen.
“No,” I'd say quietly to myself. “No. This is bullshit.”
And then I'd toddle across to the other side of the world to fire my single arrow at somebody else's weakspot. As years of gaming have taught me, weakspots are usually located on a monster's bum (always go for the bum first), in a monster's heart, or in a monster's eyes. This is true of the Titans, for the most part, but some of them don't even have bums, hears or eyes. That can be problematic because you're only goal in your many short lives is to fire your single arrow into their most vulnerable bits.
If you've read the late great Terry Pratchett's Guards! Guards!, you may remember a scene in which members of the Night Watch discuss their good fortune in having one last desperate trick up their sleeves - “it's a good job we've got a last desperate million-to-one chance to rely on, or we'd really be in trouble” - and in Titan Souls, you're in that position every time you enter battle. You can't possibly win but you will, eventually, because with an infinite number of lives, the successful version of that million-to-one shot is inevitable. Executed efficiently, each Titan only has a few seconds of life in it from the moment you wake it up (by firing your arrow into its sleeping form). The combat doesn't swing back and forth – it begins and ends almost instantaneously. A perfect speedrun of the entire game would be startlingly quick.
And that's where the game's unique qualities lie. It doesn't have the lumbering beasts of Shadow of the Colossus, which are entire geographies in and of themselves, and it doesn't have the twisted interlocking tunnels of Dark Souls – it's a boss rush mode stretched into an entire game. Or compacted into an entire game, given that each fight seems like the last seconds of a longer fight.
Every time you kill a Titan there's a big lightshow. Beams of purest white criss-cross the screen and your little hero floats into the air and seems to be COMPLETED by the light. It's the kind of claptrap that happens when somebody levels up and the first time it happened, I thought I'd have a second arrow in my quiver or I'd be able to roll faster.
No no no no no no. Titan Souls isn't a game about levelling up. It's a game about using that single arrow and that stumpy little roll to perform miraculous million-to-one shots. Throughout your many lives (327 to complete the game for me – didn't find and kill every secret Titan), you'll achieve the seemingly impossible, pulling off those last ditch efforts that shouldn't work but somehow do. But of those 327 lives, more than 300 ended in failure.
Here's the thing: I often say that I don't like boss fights. They're too often a weirdly prescribed passage of play that doesn't fit with the rest of a game's grammar. From bullet sponges to seemingly endless QTEs, bosses in games have treated me worse than that one uptight line manager at the call centre who thought I should be more passionate about the brand, and never seemed to realise that I was a teenager and, by god, I wasn't going to be motivated by promises of career progression.
Titan Souls gets boss fights right by reducing them to the final moment. You've chipped away the armour and you're facing the final form. You're on your last legs but so is the enemy. The entire game is about the number one – one weak spot, one hit, one arrow.
Thankfully, every action feels just right. The drawing of the bow, the length of your rolls as you dodge and the way that the arrow lodges into the weakspot when it hits. And then you yank it out and there's a real sense of weight and effort, and it's all extremely satisfying in a way that feels triumphant and exhausting. Nothing else about the game would matter if the enemies and hero didn't feel just right, but they do. Every enemy is exquisite and whatever you do, you shouldn't look at pictures of them all before you meet them. They're wonderful discoveries.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the world, how I wished there were more to do in between the battles. As soon as I finished, I accepted that I was wrong. Even the small journeys between Titans feel like extraneous fat and my only real complaint is that I can't restart in a Titan's chamber as soon as I die.
You will fail over and over again. Sometimes you'll spend ten seconds walking to a battle and then die within two seconds of triggering the enemy's first attack. My tolerance for tortuous learning experiences is high and I'd recommend Titan Souls to anyone who craves these kind of tightly designed one-on-one arena battles, but all of those seconds walking from the respawn point to a Titan feel wasted. I regret them and that's why, in the end, the respawning might kill you – it might drive you away from the game in the first minute or the fifth hour.
Whatever time was wasted traipsing across the same screens repeatedly, I sure as hell don't regret the twenty-odd perfect shots that happened along the way. The beauty of Titan Souls is that if you enjoy the demo, you'll find more of the same in the full game, with consistently inventive enemy designs. I could have told you that a few hundred words ago but then you might not have learned about my obsession with shooting monsters in the bum.