Sunday, January 29, 2017

Titan Souls - Thoughts

[contains minor spoilers]

A game like Acid Nerve's Titan Souls sounds like something that's right up my alley: a pixelated boss rush hugely influenced by Shadow of the Colossus, but with a Dark Souls approach to difficulty. So what's not to like about all of that? Well, as ironic as it sounds, it's that the game lacks a bit of an identity. Taking its laurels so directly from Team Ico's laconic masterpiece has the game feeling like a love letter more than its own ambitious attempt at the formula. And while the bosses play significantly faster than Shadow's slow and ominous encounters, they come with their own set of problems due to the game's most unique mechanic—one arrow, one hit, one kill.

To clarify, I really do like the design choice that Acid Nerve took with their combat: your diminutive archer can only fire a single purple-tipped arrow at his gargantuan foes, and if he misses he has to either pick it up or mystically recall it (by holding the attack button). One direct hit to the weak point of your foe is all it takes to slay them, but likewise the same applies to you, and its a task you'll find is far easier for your enemies than you. At first I felt indifferent on the archery mechanic (the thing I disliked the most was how disorienting the camera zoom-in/zoom-out was whenever you aimed or recalled the arrow), but in time I learned to appreciate the dynamism it added to battles, especially since summoning the arrow back to you doubles as a surprise attack. One moment I'd be clenching my fist in victory as I line up the killing blow, the next I'd be anxiously scrambling towards my arrow, rolling past projectiles like a tumbleweed caught in a tornado.

Though the combat system intrigues me plenty, answering whether or not it works well can be... difficult. Seeing as an Ironman mode is included in the game (and that people have no doubt completed it), I admit there's a lot more nuance to the Titan Souls than I'm likely to give it credit for. With that said, my first playthrough was littered with plenty of lopsided victories and losses. As per the "one hit, one kill" rules, encounters will play out pretty quickly, with either you or your enemy subdued in a dozen seconds or less. Most of the encounters will thankfully take longer than that as you die, run back to the boss arena, and then die again, but herein this cycle you'll learn that it's best to immediately strike as soon as you spot an opening. Since many of the battles open with the same gambit of attacks, you'll slowly grow wise to the shortest route to victory, firing your arrow in the face of oncoming danger in the hope of ending the battle before it ends you. On a couple of occasions the risk is absolutely worth it too, as waiting patiently for a "safe" opening doesn't bode well for your survivability—the mimic, yeti, and stone skull bosses in particular are best killed as soon as possible.

What's even more unfortunate than the encounters feeling so sharp and brief is that many of your victories may be aided massively by luck. In order to keep the bosses from falling prey to your first arrow, most of them hide their weak points or require you to do some fancy maneuvering so they'll reveal it to you. While the bosses that feel more like "puzzles" end up playing more fair, the ones that flash their weak point for only a fraction of a second are those that'll require such insane dexterity and precision that luck will inevitably play a role. Nowhere is this more evident than in the last boss, whom I could not figure out how to hit for the life of me—after a score of deaths the battle ended abruptly, with no discernible tactic employed other than "I hope he doesn't dodge my arrow this time." This particular fight is made especially disappointing in comparison to the secret final boss—which is by far the best and coolest fight in the game—but doesn't detract from the fact that Titan Souls opts to close on the most frustrating battle it can.

As you run to encounters over and over, there's a sinking feeling that will set in that this is all the game has to offer. Granted, you have some great pixel scenery to gaze upon as you trek back to a boss arena (with some cool music too), but there's something about the world that doesn't make it as mysterious or forlorn as the forbidden lands of Shadow of the Colossus. With such a simple control scheme and such itty-bitty animations its not really that fun to travel from setting to setting, and the story is so sparse and subtle that you don't really have anything to ponder during boss interludes. None of this is bad or boring, mind you—Titan Souls does its job admirably well—its just that it fails to stir emotions or demand any attention out of you other than "GO KILL BOSS". If the gameplay pleases you then this will only come across as a minor quibble, but if the combat isn't your cup of tea then it's best if you order another beverage.

Ultimately, I can't help but feel Titan Souls is somewhat unremarkable. There's undoubtedly talent behind its code and I don't regret the time I spent with it, but part of me feels really confounded by the whole experience. Outside of the secret final boss I'm not sure which encounters I thought were well designed or which ones I really enjoyed—some monstrosities looked more interesting than others (and the 3D models fit with the 2D aesthetic) but they by and large felt like an indecipherable mixed bag by the end. I wasn't turned off by the game, but I'm clearly not enthusiastic about it; Titan Souls is a solid effort by Acid Nerve that, like me controlling the small archer boy, arguably missed its mark.

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