April 23, 2015 7:00 AM | Joel Couture
Titan Souls is an excellent co-op game. It might not look like it, what with only one person being able to play it at once, but it is. With its tense battles filled with victories snatched and lost within a split-second, it is perfectly designed for passing the controller around a group of buddies during a late night game session. The frustrations and triumphs of this game are meant to be shared with an audience, and as you discuss tactics and ideas, hope grows within even the darkest moments. By watching and playing the game, you learn to appreciate and notice the deep thought that went into the boss design and attacks, the subtle touches in the music that lend each moment intensity, and the judicious cutting that carved away any fluff in the game, leaving only the lean, vicious battles that have made it very hard to stop playing. Acid Nerve, you have created something incredible here.
If you don't like boss fights, just close this review and walk away. There's nothing else for you here. Titan Souls is a game of clashing against colossal creatures. There are no small monsters and no easy fights. There are no goons to slow you down or mobs of trash to cut through. It's just you and the big creatures that inhabit this world. Many of them slumber peacefully as you enter, only turning violent when you wake them up with an arrow to the face. The one arrow that you have, that is. The protagonist isn't especially bright, not only because they're bringing a bow to fight against giants, but also because they couldn't be bothered to bring more than one arrow. You can summon it back by holding the attack button, but expect to get squashed while using your force powers to call it back. This kid needs to be better prepared.
The various bosses of the world have a single weak point, which they protect quite well most of the time. They cover them with their hands, immerse them in lava, or just keep their backs turned to you, leaving only the narrowest of windows with which to hit them. Not only that, but you have to pull your bowstring taut before your arrow will fly far enough or hit hard enough to deal damage, and you're frozen in place until you fire the arrow. You need to be ready with that shot, firing it the moment, down to the second (millisecond on hard mode), that the weakness is exposed. You do that, and you'll win, as each enemy only takes one solid hit to put down. If you're off, usually even a little, you'll often take the single hit that it takes to put you down, instead. You have a much larger weak spot than they do - your whole squishy body - so expect your poor, frail frame to get pulped dozens, maybe even hundreds of times as you fight for that single, perfect shot.
Can I take a moment to describe what pulling off that shot feels like? When it hits, the game goes silent save for the thud of the arrow. The world turns gray, and everything stops except you. I, often tense from expecting my character to be smeared on the stone floor, open my eyes to see the giant, lying still. The sense of triumph floods through you, and you throw you hands in the air (Because you DO care), and then you hold down the attack button, drawing in one of the souls from the game's title. Power floods into you, light bursting outward as a deafening flash and boom ripple through your speakers. I've said it feels good to overcome difficult enemies in hard games, but this is something else entirely. This is like the cheering you see at the end of an underdog sports movie. You expect confetti to rain down and your friends to lift you up on their shoulders and carry you through streets filled with your adoring fans. It feels good. So, so good.
This comes from some very tight boss design. As I said, there are few opportunities to actually kill these things, so victory comes from careful planning and taking that one single, stupidly courageous shot. Each boss has their own design and attack routines, so each boss is a new learning experience. This means dying and watching what it does, looking for when you should take your shot or how you should manipulate what the boss does. They all change up their behaviors based on your actions, so they can be manipulated into moving in certain ways or attacking in certain places. This back and forth feels like live chess in places, where you are goading your opponent into moving where you want them to, and all while carefully dodging their attacks. They may have great power, but they're following your lead.
You do have a few more tools to work with, though. When summoning your arrow, it will actually do damage on the way back, but only after it has built up a little momentum. You also have a combat roll and a little jog, so you can play around with mobility or purposely miss with an arrow in order to pull it back later. You freeze in place while pulling it back, just as you do when taking your shot, so it's just as crazy dangerous at times, often involving letting the boss chase you down while your arrow sneaks up behind it. It comes down to careful manipulation, and when all goes silent just before that last crushing blow was about to hit you, arrow quivering in the boss' weak point, it feels pretty dang good.
These enemies have been well-thought out, so don't expect an easy win. The developers at Acid Nerve have looked for chinks in their monsters' armor, anticipating strategies that you might use and counteracting them. For instance, one boss splits off and sends his weakness in another direction when you try to hit him. I'd planned to fire the arrow close, draw it back in, and then fire it off again before he could move his weakness someplace else, but that split caused homing beams to come out of him. The devs had guessed how I would fight that boss and specifically stopped me, forcing me to try other plans. Some early bosses might not push you all that hard, but most have been planned to counteract any easy way you might think of fighting them.
They've also done an excellent job of showing the player the way to beat the monster. Some of it was as simple as glowing weak points right out of my days playing Mega Man, but others require a few steps to expose a weak point. Using visual effects or small tells that indicate something is different, so as long as you pay close attention, it's usually simple to know what point you have to hit. How to hit them was another story, but the devs did an excellent job of creating tells and hints on what you should hit or what you need to do to beat any given titan.
There is a lot of variety in enemy design as well. The bosses often look drastically different from each other, although there are a handful of different stone idol titans that bear similarities. It's fun seeing the different creatures as you wander the world, and only having a handful to create allowed the devs to make some really great creature designs. The yeti, the fallen knight, and the mimic are just some of the towering, pixelated creatures you come across, and they all look really smooth in motion. It was fun to watch these things stomp me, to be honest. Also, seeing their size in comparison to your character really helped me visualize the danger I was in before the gameplay demonstrated it. I already knew I was screwed just from seeing them in perspective to little old me.
The rest of the game's environments and visuals look great as well. Ruined temples give way to lush jungles and icy fields, each filled with huge caverns to house the denizens of this world. Again, seeing your tiny character wandering through this place helps put things into perspective, and left me feeling like a very tiny invader in a larger land. It felt like I had entered a peaceful, dreamy world of sleeping giants, and that my presence, and the violence I brought with me, didn't belong. This world was just so serene as I wandered through its elemental-themed lands and huge monoliths, and it drove home this strange guilt that only intensified as I fought the monsters. I still felt these swelling feelings of victory when I beat a titan, but also this sense that I was steadily ruining a beautiful world that I didn't belong in. These giants were so old and powerful that the world itself crumbled without ruining their sleep, and yet, here I was, bringing death to creatures that were set to outlive the civilization and world that birthed them.
Well, maybe the titans shouldn't have kept interrupting the game's wonderful soundtrack, then. There are some incredible boss music in this game (one for each titan!!!!), but it's hard to know that given how fast the fights go down. Most tracks haven't even really begun by the time you or the titan are dead, so it was really hard for me to experience these tracks in the game. Luckily, I got the premium edition and listened to the tracks outside of the game, savoring some of the varied songs that were created for it. If you somehow last for a bit against the bosses, you'll hear some strong tracks filled with panflutes and bongos alongside piano and guitar. These evoked a sense of ancient power in foreign lands as I played, and would have strengthened the gameplay significantly had I lived long enough to hear them most of the time. It's a good soundtrack that's unfortunately hindered a bit by how the game plays.
They make for very nice listening on their own, and enhance the game well when you can actually hear them for a bit. Overworld tracks like "Winterbound" and "Forest Songs", which you do hear often, create a lovely sense of loneliness and scope to the world. Songs like "Between Our World & the World Beyond" give this feeling of deep sadness, as if some tragedy is about to befall you or is following you as you take your first steps into this place. There is no sense of adventure with it, seeming strange as an opening track, but set the tone for the unspoken narrative of the game. That changes when "The First Guardian" plays as you fight one of the first major bosses, carrying your action along with the strength of a sweeping, menacing orchestral score. Other excellent boss tracks like "Stratus", "The Last Guardian", and "Yeti Butts" fuel your determination as you clash against the huge beasts that rule this world. Still, it's songs like "The Elder" that soothe you afterwards, tempering that bloodthirstiness with a saddened calm. The music of this game tells the story and guides the emotion in ways I hadn't expected, and is a beautiful accompaniment to the game. When you can hear it for more than five seconds, that is.
The overworld itself is one of the game's few tripping points. I liked that the overworld was so large, and that it gave the game this sense of scope, but when you're just looking for a boss to fight, it can get tedious finding one. It loops around itself well, but without an in-game map, it can be easy to get lost at times. It's not that complicated, but since you're so small, at times you can wander a good long distance before finding something to fight with. Also, make sure you find the save points around the map before you go entering any nearby caves. If you don't you may find it a long walk back for another round.
Thankfully, save points are close to the bosses, although even that short walk back indoors can feel like a bit of a punishment for failing. You come back quickly after you die against a boss, but it's not quite as fast as something like Super Meat Boy. You don't have to perform as well for as long as you would in that game since you can usually win in seconds if you play correctly, but having to take a five to ten second walk to die so quickly against some bosses got on my nerves in places. I wanted to jump right back into the action, but that walk did give me time to mull over my strategies again, so it's not so bad.
When the last arrow flies and you're alone in the world again, you can always go back and try a harder mode. Beating the game unlocks modes where you only have one life, where the bosses are harder, or where you can't run or roll. The harder mode makes the bosses faster and use their attacks more frequently, which ups the challenge significantly by itself. Instead of setting these up as individual playthrough modes, you can select them at will when you start up a new game. That means you can try for a single life, no roll hard mode, or any combination of those three 'enhancements' that you'd like. If you hate yourself. If you're still looking for a challenge after going through all this, this game has it.
That feeling of victory, and the hint of guilt that comes with fighting these creatures, makes Titan Souls a grand experience. The careful planning that goes into the perfect shot - that comes from watching and manipulating clever bosses - is not one many games can match. That the game refuses to waste your time on garbage enemies, only coming to you with top-shelf monsters, makes each fight a battle of will, reflexes, and the mind. Sharing those moments with a group of pals makes them all the sweeter, turning it into a must-play party game as well as a powerful, subtly emotional single-player experience.