It has been over a decade since the souls-like genre was first introduced to the public. Even though early reactions to 2009’s Demon’s Souls were seen as negative, the game eventually led the way to a series of successful Souls games starting with Dark Souls two years later. Since then the genre has found its niche, and even got a taste of some mainstream praise when Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was elected 2019’s Game of the Year.
During the last decade many have tried to replicate the Souls formula in different ways, but only a few have succeeded. Challenging combat and addictive gameplay are some of the pillars of a souls-like game, and the boss battles combined with an interesting world lore are the fuel for its players to keep going even when facing death over and over again.
With that in mind, are Fallen Flag Studio’s efforts enough to set Eldest Souls apart from other games in the genre?
Prepare to die
Eldest Souls is essentially a boss-rush, souls-like hybrid. In short, the game focuses entirely on boss battles while adapting the infamous challenging combat from Souls games, with no minions or lesser-enemies in-between boss fights.
There are no gears nor healing items in the game. Throughout your whole journey you will have nothing but your greatsword at hands, with which you can use light and charged attacks. Unlike more traditional Souls games you cannot parry — instead, you should dash at the right time to avoid being damaged by the bosses’ attacks.
Another mechanic you should master to advance in Eldest Souls is Bloodthirst, a buff that gets activated once you hit a full charged attack, allowing you to deal more damage, move faster and heal yourself. You can also use Bloodburst, a powerful attack that completely depletes your Bloodthirst bar.
The bosses in the game are called Old Gods. When you defeat one of them you earn Skill Points which you can invest in a Talent Tree. There are three different trees, each one providing a different fighting style. You also earn unique shards, which can then be infused into your abilities to unlock additional effects.
And this is where Eldest Souls’ combat begins to set itself apart from other games. You can infuse your shards as an active ability or to improve the passive effect of your combat skills. Each shard’s ability is unique and provides a different effect depending on which slot you infuse it in, and multiple shards can be infused simutaneously in different slots, creating unique combinations.
The boss fights in Eldest Souls are truly brutal and challenging, and you will die a lot trying to beat each one of them. Experimenting with different shard combinations until you find a fitting one for each boss is the key to progress throughout the game.
The game also does a great job in respecting the player. While the fights are tough, they never seem unfair. At first you will die in seconds, but after some tries you will begin to reach further stages into the fight until finally killing that boss. And since loading times are borderline non-existant, you will find yourself retrying each boss fight over and over again. On top of all that, you do not lose anything when you die, lessening the burden of death.
The ultimate goal in Eldest Souls is to keep improving your skills until being able to easily beat the bosses. There are even achievements for beating each boss without taking any damage — yes, you can defeat that enemy you spent an hour trying to beat without getting hit.
Once you beat the game for the first time you unlock an Arena Mode where you can select a specific boss to fight while customizing your build beforehand. You also unlock a New Game+ mode in which you get to keep your shards and Talent Tree progress while facing the same bosses with an increased difficulty.
Praise the lore
When you are not being killed by the Old Gods you are able to freely travel between areas, and during those travels you can meet some non-player characters that hand out optional quests. Whilst not mandatory, completing these will reward the player some useful items as well as additional lore about the world.
Right next to boss fights, world lore is the trait that Souls games’ fans appreciate the most, and Eldest Souls follows this path by adopting minimalist storytelling to convey its plot. World events are often implicit and left to player interpretation, and most of the story is told through dialogue from the aforementioned NPCs and text logs found throughout the lands.
The problem is that there is no way for players to check on everything they learned during the game. A lot of work has been put into the game’s lore, but the developers sabotage themselves by not adding a journal or a log in the menus. By the end of the game, if you want to piece together the world’s events you learned via text logs or optional dialogues, you will have to backtrack and look for them all over again.
Eldest Souls reignites discussions surrounding two different hot topics as far as accessibility is concerned: difficulty options in a Souls game and the lack of budget for small studios to include features that target disabled players.
First of all, as in pretty much every Souls game out there, Eldest Souls does not have an option to lower difficulty. One can argue that the challenging combat is the essence of the genre and an “Easy mode” would ruin the experience — and while I can see reason in this, it still pushes away many people that would like to try the game while not being able to perfect the gameplay.
I will always mention Celeste in those discussions: one of the most challenging platformers available on Xbox while also being one of the best games released in 2018, Celeste has some assist options that allow everyone to enjoy the game while not losing its appeal.
Besides the lack of an Easy mode, Eldest Souls also lacks other accessibility options. The support for 12 different languages is a nice surprise, but the absence of features targeted at disabled players and the ability to remap the controls are disappointing.
It is understandable how a small indie studio does not always have the budget or the manpower to invest in more accessibility options, but that does not dismiss the fact that many players will still be left out.
Eldest Souls incorporates two of the best traits from a Souls game: challenging boss-fights and a minimalist storytelling approach. You will die a lot, but at the same time you will never feel cheated by the game — au contraire, you will find yourself on that “one more try” loop, unable to put the controller down until you find out a nice build combination to defeat a boss. And when you do, the satisfaction is near-instant.