Any game that adds the word Souls to the end of its name is taking quite a gamble, the Souls series after all is the modern benchmark for the challenging but fair videogame with a rather niche appeal. So Titan Souls, the debut game from UK developer Acid Nerve, is already setting a pretty high bar for itself before it’s even out the gate. And with its focus solely on boss fights against - what at first seem like - far superior foes, it’s not surprising that many have looked at the game pre-release and compared it to from Software’s critically acclaimed series. In truth however, Titan Souls has far more in common with Fumito Ueda’s melancholic adventure Shadow of the Colossus.
And there is more than some truth in this comparison, whether it be intentional or accidental. Both games see players traversing a beautifully detailed, yet utterly empty landscapes free from the possibility of ambush or surprise encounters of any kind. Both games lead protagonist is a young boy with a limited skillset and steely determination to continue onward, regardless of the dangers ahead. And both games convey that feeling of an ancient world, of a hallowed land that a young upstart such as this has no place within. The only major difference one can point to straight off the bat is that Titan Souls is a top-down 2D affair, at first glance more in aesthetically line with classic Zelda games.
It’s not surprising considering Titan Souls indie-game status that it’s a rather low-fi affair when compared to Shadow of the Colossus. What is surprising however, is that sense of despair, melancholy, and grief is as firmly embedded in the player’s senses as it was back in 2006 for anyone who played Team Ico’s Sony exclusive. The art-style within Titan Souls is at the heart of how this emotional response is conveyed. Reminiscent of Studio Ghibli classic Laputa Castle in the Sky, its beautiful stone architecture, partially obscured by foliage and weathering, suggests a once beautiful world that’s slowly being swallowed by nature and that - as the payer - we may well be the last person to see such majesty before it’s lost in time. That in itself is an impressive feat for any game to achieve, the fact that Acid Nerve have managed it, not only on an indie budget, but with their very first game is something of a miracle.
Wandering through these vast areas of Titan Souls’ world, as the terrain is kicked up by the player character, and the weather effects ripple across the screen is a truly wonderful experience, and so it’s all the more jarring when this serenity is sharply punctuated with a relentlessly fearsome boss encounter. Entering specific chambers armed with nothing more than a bow and single arrow and being faced with such bosses is a tense and frantic experience, and is one that will - nine times out of ten - end up in your death. Thankfully however you’ll only ever respawn a short distance away from where you last died.
In this sort of combat, where you only have one offensive move (your single arrow) and the ability to quickly roll out of harm’s way, and knowing that one hit will kill you, can make it seem as if the odds are stacked firmly against you. However these oversized enemies lack the manoeuvrability of your character, and are just as susceptible to death as you are. There’s no health bar to whittle down, no tricks to rely upon, it’s instead a game of cat and mouse as you frantically try to dodge the oncoming attacks and stay alive just long enough to find a brief window within which to strike. There is a fair bit of trial and error in this approach, and for some players this might be something of a turn-off, but the simplicity of the design (and the variety of each boss) helps to create a combat experience unlike any other game I can think of.
When you do overcome each adversary you may also find a mixed sense of achievement, relief, and sadness that was the key to what made Shadow of the Colossus so memorable. Yes some bosses are easier than others, and sometimes you’ll be so relieved you finally overcame an opponent that had been impeding your progress for what felt like an eternity that you’ll just be glad it’s over. But on occasion, as your defeated foe lies motionless after the battle, and you stop and think about the context of the situation, you might begin to feel, as you did when playing Shadow of the Colossus, that you are in-fact playing as the villain, and not the hero as you might have at first assumed.
To have managed to deliver all of this within the confines of an indie game is a truly excellent achievement, and if it’s this standard Acid Nerve aim to meet in their future work then we can expect some truly exceptional games from them in years to come. The only drawback Titan Souls faces is that its minimalist design and singular vision, like the series it’s takes its name from, is something of a niche market. Although it may not sell as well as other acclaimed indie titles, such as the original Hotline Miami, it’s no less impressive an effort. All we can do for now it seems is enjoy Titan Souls and hope that Acid Nerve are able to deliver games of a similar calibre in future.