These days, it feels like you can hardly go a week without seeing another handful of games that are inspired by any combination of Metroidvanias, Soulslikes, or roguelikes. Souldiers—the first release from a new development studio called Retro Forge—is an interesting blend of those first two genres, pulling some of the best elements from both to make for a potent and memorable experience. Though Souldiers doesn’t quite manage to stick the landing perfectly, it does enough right that it certainly warrants a fair look.
Souldiers initially takes place in the kingdom of Zarga, which is at war with the neighboring country of Dadelm. Following the advice of the court magician, General Brigard leads his regiment through a cave to set up a counterattack, only for an earthquake to strike and trap all of them inside. Some time later, a mysterious Valkyrie appears and tells the warriors that they all unfortunately died, but they can come along with her if they’d like another shot at life. Left with little choice, Brigard chooses to go with the Valkyrie and is joined by some of his men, who soon find themselves in the land of Terragaya—a dangerous realm between life and death. Here, Brigard and his men hope to get to the bottom of what led to their demise, and perhaps even find some way to come back to life to save their kingdom.
The story largely takes the backseat to the gameplay after your initial introduction to the world, but we still appreciated the bits and pieces of it we found along the way. Supporting characters like a goofy pig shopkeeper named Balof or a mysterious ninja girl named Sinka pop up every now and then to help break up the long stretches of gameplay and inject a little more charm into the otherwise rote fantasy motifs present throughout.
You begin your adventure by choosing one of three classes—the Scout, Archer, or Caster—each of which plays notably different from the next. The Scout, for example, has a much stronger block, but is rather limited in how they can’t reach very far. The Caster, on the other hand, can fire off magic bolts that home in on enemies, but trades this for a much squishier defense. We felt that Souldiers felt a little more biased towards you picking either of the ranged classes, but it’s really tough to go wrong with whichever one you pick.
One aspect that felt a little odd about this class system, however, is that you’re permanently locked into choosing one at the beginning of your game. You’re not given an opportunity to really get a feel for each class before choosing, and if you later find you don’t want to stick with your choice, you either have to slog through or start over with a brand new save. The extra classes no doubt add to the replayability factor for those who want to run through Souldiers multiple times, but we would have appreciated a more fluid class system here, or at the very least the option to spend some time with each class before having to lock into one.
Whichever class you pick, your power grows over time by leveling up from defeating enemies and gaining Mastery Relics—basically skill points—to then spend in a class tree to build out your abilities. For example, we went with the caster for our run and one of the early abilities you unlock grants you a reflection that stays where you stood after you dodge. It can then be triggered to explode with a button press, dealing lots of damage to the enemy that just narrowly missed you.
We enjoyed seeing the new ways to play that came with this skill system, though we weren’t as much fans of how slow it is to get through. You don’t gain levels all that quickly in Souldiers and even some of the earliest abilities—like a slightly increased resistance to status effects—require multiple level-ups before you can activate them. It takes quite a while, then, before it feels like your class is finally shaping up into something with a decent amount of tools at your disposal.
Level designs follow the typical Metroidvania format of interconnected mazes that hide all kinds of goodies that require you to come back later with new abilities. That said, it feels less like the world is one gigantic interconnected labyrinth and more like a collection of extensive dungeons connected by smaller linear levels. This isn’t necessarily better or worse than traditional Metroidvania map design, it’s just a little different from the norm. Each portion of the world has its own gimmicks, puzzles, and enemy types to give Souldiers some variety, and we appreciated this focus on keeping the game from feeling stale.
Combat is built around patient, thoughtful play—even when not fighting any bosses—and encourages players to learn and capitalize on enemy tells for upcoming attacks. You have a dodge and a block that both operate on cooldown systems, and you’ll really need to make use of both if you want to get out of encounters in good shape. Health potions are expensive and hard to come by, and the measly health orb pickups from breakable objects only slightly take the edge off if you barely survived a hard battle.
This is all well and good but, unfortunately, Souldiers is let down quite a bit by performance problems, even after its day one patch. For example, loading times are especially lengthy; we clocked times of over a minute when loading into new areas and anywhere between 35-50 seconds after every death. Sure, individually these loads aren’t terrible, but it adds insult to injury when you’re struggling with a tough portion of a level and have to wait so long to try again after every failed attempt.
Beyond this, we noticed some rather egregious frame rate issues. For example, when fighting in an area that spawned a lot of enemies at once, not only did the action drop to sub-20 FPS regions, but our inputs were frequently being eaten and there were several notable moments where we took unnecessary hits because our character simply didn’t attack, block, or jump when we pressed the respective buttons. Somewhat connected to this, too, is a slight but noticeable amount of input lag. It’s not clear exactly what causes this or why, but some portions of levels would require us to account for an extra half-second or so before any of our inputs would be reflected on screen.
Lastly, and this was a really irksome bit, there’s a bug that deletes map progress at seemingly random intervals. Considering how labyrinthine some of these environments are, this makes navigation nothing short of a nightmare as we were faced with a map that sometimes decided to make it look like areas we’d thoroughly explored had gone untouched.
Now, that day one patch did mitigate some of these technical issues, but the load times were barely reduced at all and the controls still feel overly sluggish for what’s being demanded of the player. In its launch state, then, we would say that Souldiers is easily playable, but our enjoyment was affected by these issues. We’re not sure how performance fares on other platforms, but suffice to say the Switch version feels somewhat shaky.
Another issue we found with Souldiers is that the difficulty balancing borders on ridiculous. Borrowing from Soulslike game design, this is the kind of game where even common enemies can body you in a few hits if you aren’t careful. The difference here, however, is that it often feels like it’s not entirely the player’s fault when death comes. The issues we mentioned above with sluggish controls make fights feel that extra bit more difficult, while leaving it more ambiguous as to whether it was player error that led to a loss. Furthermore, we noticed many instances where we got ganked by offscreen enemies tossing projectiles or enemies springing on us out of nowhere and beating our character into a fine paste. We dialed down the difficulty level at one point, only to find that the challenge was seemingly no easier.
It’s difficult to pin down specifically what it is about Souldiers’ difficulty that feels noticeably lower quality than, say, any of the Mega Man Zero games, but we’d certainly caution you that this is a game solely for the most patient of players. Not only will you be facing death quite a few times over the course of your run here, but you’ll be spending quite a bit of time just staring at that loading screen as you wait for yet another go.
Performance problems aside, we absolutely loved the presentation. Each environment is realized in a stunningly detailed 32-bit art style that’s bursting with color and character. Animations are smooth and imbue characters and enemies with some lovely personality, while little details like legions of stickbugs marching their way up tree trunks gives each location a very lived-in feel. Couple this with some well-implemented parallax scrolling effects in the foreground and background and we were spending considerable time just taking in all the sights in each new area.
All this is matched by a fittingly retro chiptune soundtrack that helps to imbue Souldiers with a sense of playful wonderment. The music generally takes a rather relaxed tone, which helps somewhat to offset the anxiety brought on by the difficulty and performance problems and goes that extra bit toward immersing you in the world of Terragaya.