By the end of my 15 hours with Eldest Souls, I was staring at the number 321. I had died 321 times across my entire playthrough. Suffice to say, it’s a tough game. A browse through user and other critics reviews tells a different story. Some are even calling it easy with one player claiming they beat it in just four hours. However, for me, it was one of the most challenging games I have completed since Hollow Knight. The thing is, I can’t tell whether that’s a good thing or not.
“If I wasn’t reviewing the game, I don’t know if I would have beaten it.”
I’ve never been a sucker for punishment or even particularly drawn to souls-likes. Sure, I’ll occasionally dip into difficult games for the bits in-between impossibly challenging boss battles. But outside of that, I tend to stay away. The thing is, with Eldest Souls, all you get is challenging boss battles. Nine to be precise. There are some scraps of lore remaining in its dying world, and the last vestiges of life asking you for this or that. But, if I wasn’t reviewing the game, I don’t know if I would have beaten it.
Eldest Souls is set in a post-apocalyptic dark fantasy world, you play as lone swordsmen wielding a legendary obsidian blade to slay the old gods once for all. After a failed attempt by humanity to kill the imprisoned gods they unleashed a terrible desolation upon the world leaving civilization in ruins with few humans remaining.
“This delicate dance of aggression is what makes the best bosses of Eldest Souls so compelling.”
Despite not being a true souls-like or a stand-out in the boss-rush genre, Eldest Souls succeeds in its core aspirations with a brutal difficulty and twitch risk versus reward combat. Here, the game’s central combat gimmick is a charge attack that gradually fills up your bloodlust meter. Should you then use that successfully, you’ll not only be able to inflict serious damage to your opponent but also gain back some health. Additionally, you’ll receive a range of passive abilities based on your skills.
This mechanic adds a nice element of risk and reward to the proceedings. To get stronger you must act aggressively, but should you risk mistiming a move you’ll end up dead. This delicate dance of aggression is what makes the best bosses of Eldest Souls so compelling. It gives you the feeling that you’ve not lost until you encounter the dreaded game over screen.
However, mastering this dance will take some serious trial and error on behalf of the player. Avoiding area of effect attacks and precision-based moves takes practise and memorization. Ultimately, this means that even the best of players will require a few attempts in order to take a boss down. To make matters that little bit harder, in order to successfully dodge incoming attacks you’ll need to utilise your stamina. This then requires you to carefully manage your stamina metre on top of everything else you’re juggling. At full capacity, the stamina metre provides you with three dashes, invincibility frames included. This meter refills with time, and due to disappointingly slow base movement, it will become your main tool to quickly navigate around the environment.
“By simply being slight percentage alterations, the additional upgrades lacked any real excitement and felt uninspired.”
Outside of the base combat, there are three skills trees. These are Windslide, Berserk, and Counter. Windslide provides you with a single dash attack when partially or completely filled. It not only deals high damage but also rockets you across the screen. Berserk works similarly, albeit with three fangs to fill up. Each one then activates a powerful slash attack. Finally, Counter allows you to block certain attacks with an exact button push. Most of the abilities in this skill tree tend to lean toward defensive skills.
The caveat is that you can only use one of these skill trees at a time. Fortunately, you can respec your skill points at any time, making it easy to try out all of what they offer. Unfortunately, aside from Counter, the other two skill trees feel virtually the same. Any additional upgrades offered were insignificant passive damage percentage upgrades that rarely changed how I played. By the end of the game, I did finally get a sense of how it all added up. But by simply being slight percentage alterations, they lacked any real excitement and felt uninspired.
On top of these skill trees, you’ll receive specialised shards from defeated bosses. These can be used to modify passive skills, add attacks and more. Your reward entirely depends on what shard you receive and where you place it on the respective skill tree. Unfortunately, most of these feel entirely useless or insignificant. The best you’ll receive from an active shard is a simple slash attack or be granted passive defence or attack bonuses.
“Outside of enjoying Eldest Souls stunning hi-bit visual style, exploration is additionally rewarded through side quests.”
When you’re not struggling through a difficult fight, Eldest Souls offers players a striking and unique world to gaze upon. You’ll encounter lush forests, deserted streets, and icy caverns all while exploring. Fortunately, outside of enjoying Eldest Souls stunning hi-bit visual style, exploration is additionally rewarded through side quests.
These are given to you by the assortment of humans left remaining in the post-apocalyptic world. There is a blacksmith waiting for payment from a long-dead lieutenant, a wandering bard full of esoteric ramblings and otherworldly creatures wanting your allegiance. Finding appropriate items reveals more lore and often rewards you with equipment to provide new passives.
“The incredibly enjoyable combat loop manages to maintain the constant tension regardless of the underwhelming soundtrack.”
Unfortunately, the same praise cannot be given to its soundtrack. Unlike other games in the genre, Eldest Souls lacks memorable musical scores for its many bosses. Instead, each fight tends to stick with several forgettable songs. These do their best to emulate the darkly epic songs of the Souls series, but, unfortunately, rarely succeed in matching them.
However, its incredibly enjoyable combat loop manages to maintain the constant tension regardless of the underwhelming soundtrack. Boss fights tended to keep me on my toes thanks to the variety of deadly attacks at their disposal. Due to the constant risk and reward nature of Eldest Souls’ central combat mechanic, combat never felt stale and the stakes were often high. Unfortunately, as with a lot of Eldest Souls’ elements, there are caveats to this.
Early on in my playthrough, some attacks felt unfair and difficult to avoid. A notable example of this is an early boss called Azikel, God of Light. He tosses spears around the arena and, once four are placed, he creates a grid of lasers with one spinning through the arena for you to dodge. Unfortunately, the grid was often uneven making it difficult to gauge where the lasers would appear. Occasionally this would leave me in a square too small to dodge through. With his rotating laser coming my way I was often forced to take damage in order to escape.
“While it’s not a perfect game, I walked away from Eldest Souls with a sense of accomplishment in the skill I gained during my time.”
While Eldest Souls has some stellar combat and exploration, its little issues are often its greatest faults. Glitches, hard-to-read hitboxes, confusing attacks, little to no dash lines to indicate the angle of attack, and more can make fights far more frustrating than they need to be. When some bosses took me over 50 tries to beat, these little issues become that much more apparent. More often than not, they lead to unfair deaths and frustration without the sense of learning anything.
But when looking at the death count at the end of my playthrough, I can’t help but feel proud of getting through it all. While it’s not a perfect game, I walked away from Eldest Souls with a sense of accomplishment in the skill I gained during my time. It is a game that makes you earn your victories but at the same time keeps that experience locked for some behind prohibitively difficult gameplay. It stumbles in some of its particularities but it did its job rewarding failures with the eventual relief of success. That’s something I’m not likely to forget.
*Disclaimer: Reviewed on PS4, code was provided by the publisher.