Titan Souls review: the loop

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform Win, Mac, Linux, PS Vita, PS4
Publisher Devolver Digital
Developer Acid Nerve
Release Date Q1 2015

I'm on the final boss of Titan Souls, and I'm ready to throw my controller across the room.

I've died what I estimate to be about 30 times in this particular fight in developer Acid Nerve's overhead, pixel-art action game, which is really just a small fraction of the total number of times I've died over the course of the game, but I just don't feel like I'm getting anywhere. I know what I need to do, where I should theoretically be aiming my single arrow. But that doesn't seem to matter, and here comes death number 31—

Except no. Not this time. This time, there's a bright flash of white on the screen, and my opponent is the one who fell. To be honest, I'm not quite sure what happened. And, again, in the interest of honesty, this fight neatly ties a bow on top of my Titan Souls experience, places it in a proverbial, one-word nutshell: anticlimax. Despite moments of real boss-fight brilliance, Titan Souls feels like waiting for a slot machine to pop just a little bit too often, and when it does, the reward is a chance to do it all again.

To be totally honest, it doesn't seem like the titans were hurting anybody

Titan Souls doesn't do any heavy lifting to explain its premise. You start alone in a world with just one arrow and a quickly apparent goal: to kill everything you meet. This is less sociopathic than it initially sounds, because the world of Titan Souls is mostly empty, a set of ruins that should feel very familiar in its top-down perspective to anyone with a history in eight- and 16-bit adventure games, especially the Zelda series.

As you explore the starting temple you'll find rooms with giant sleeping creatures — which, to be totally honest, don't seem like they were hurting anybody — and wake them up (by shooting them with your arrow) and then kill them (also by shooting them with your arrow).

Comparisons to games like Shadow of the Colossus and its giant bosses are unavoidable, which Titan Souls seems to be satisfied with, given the lack of any real info or context. Even the titans you come across are an opaque sort of mystery — some kind of text appears at the bottom of each encounter, but it's complete gibberish in all but two encounters I came across.

Titan Souls' limited vocabulary stretches to its basic mechanics as well. You have one arrow, which you fire by holding a button long enough to nock it; the longer you hold the button, the farther your arrow will fly. You can retrieve the arrow by walking over it, or you can hold the fire button to pull it back to you with force — which can kill as effectively as a direct attack. You can also roll, and holding the roll button down lets you run just a little faster than usual.

And ... that's about it, honestly. There's a world to explore, but it's mostly empty, absent a few rudimentary puzzle bits here and there — and, admittedly, a few neat secrets that reveal optional additional titans. But there's no progression, no growth outside your own skills. It's just you and your arrow. Instead, Titan Souls lives and dies in the fights with titans themselves, and, in turn, the emotional work you may need to perform to die over and over and over again while confronting them.

Each boss has an achingly video game-y weakpoint that will almost always be immediately apparent, whether it's the orange-ish brain in the center of a gelatinous mass or the pink butt of an abominable snowman. For most bosses, defeating them is a simple matter of hitting that weak spot, which is easier said than done. It takes time to aim an arrow, and while you're drawing down, you're stuck in place. Add to that the tendency of every titan to move rather actively in a way that will kill you instantly — in addition to whatever other attacks they're throwing out, which are also usually fatal — and it can be a real pain to put the pieces together.

titan souls tall 1

You'll notice here I'm not using the word "challenging," because I'm not really sure that challenge is the right word. For many bosses, I knew what I needed to do to beat them almost immediately. I'm not just talking about what spot to hit, either. Rather, I knew what their behavior patterns and attacks would be, and I knew what kind of position I needed to be in to kill them. The trick was getting in that position.

As it turns out, I almost always accomplished this by figuring out a specific part of the room to stand in when I woke the titan that would put me in a nearly immediate position to hit its weak point within seconds of the fight starting.

After a few bosses, this didn't feel like a challenge, it felt like a war with a random number generator, waiting for exactly the perfect attempt to make my shot, and it was far faster to die to the boss and start it over than try to avoid a few minutes of attacks to have another perfect shot.

It wasn't always this way, of course. On some titans, I never died at all, firing blind, miracle shots within seconds of the encounter's beginning. This bled out any real sense of achievement. Dying over and over again waiting for the right chance felt like a war of attrition; nailing a perfect, lucky shot felt like, well, luck.

Where's the fun in that?

titan souls screen 3

But there are some encounters in Titan Souls that present a sense of exploration and discovery that the rest of the game fails to deliver.

In one such fight, an enemy shoots off blobs of poison that turn to gas when they hit the walls of the combat area. While the blobs will kill you instantly, the gas poisons you more slowly, distorting the screen and making combat slightly more difficult — until you're poisoned a second time, which seemed to make my character faster and easier to control. A third dose killed me, because of course it did.

This was one of my favorite moments in the game, in part because I had to spend more time looking for an opening, which created an extended sense of tension. There are a few fights like this, which require not just pattern recognition but give and take. Solving these little mysteries provided me with a real sense of success. This feels especially ironic given how it violates the very strong core demands Titan Souls makes elsewhere regarding machine-like precision and trial and error.

Wrap Up:

Titan Souls finds its best moments when its willing to spare the rod

There's a kind of satisfaction to be had in beating Titan Souls' meat grinder, but I only found a feeling of triumph at those points where it stepped away from its die-hard tendencies. In a game that usually kills so quickly, Acid Nerve finds its best moments when its willing to spare the rod, even if it's just for a few minutes.

Titan Souls was reviewed using a pre-release Steam copy provided by Devolver Digital. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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