‘Eldest Souls’ review: a stripped-down and finely crafted 2D Soulslike

Showing the gods who’s boss

I’ve always appreciated the purity of a good boss fight. No minions, no QTEs, just the power and intricate patterns of a formidable opponent against my skills and learning capacity. Even better when their life bar stretches ominously across the bottom of the screen, increasing the hope of victory as it reduces chip by chip, and the sense of pressure as the goal draws close.

Eldest Souls understands. As a boss rush game, it’s laser-focused on the intimidating presence of the long red line, and the Herculean effort to destroy gods who throw everything at you to stop it depleting. It feels traditional and old, but in a good way. A gladiatorial challenge made mythical by operatic crescendos and the ancient craft of serrated pixel art.

Eldest Souls
Eldest Souls. Credit: Fallen Flag Studios

And it is a challenge. Initially it doesn’t sound too daunting, with just nine imprisoned elder beings to take down in its crumbling Citadel, the first of which is part-tutorial. But by the fourth I was questioning whether developer Fallen Flag had provided a protagonist who was really up to the job. A combination of things began to seem unreasonable – plodding movement speed, a dodge move restricted by a stingy stamina quota and a painful recharge rate, plus the relentless brutality of the gods themselves.

My nemesis at this stage was Eos, an elemental orb of water and fire gliding around a cramped arena, which scorched and battered me for some 90 minutes, killing me 30 times. Eos has multiple phases, blanching the ground with flame and washing you aside with waves, then splitting in half to double its points of attack. Learning its vulnerabilities, along with the timings and tells of its assaults, down to its last desperate gambit, took much of that time. Nailing the performance was another thing entirely.

But the test of a game like this comes once you win, in how you feel in the afterglow. Relief or elation? I threw a fist in the air, which indicates the latter. For all the torment, I’d been enjoying my attempts to wrestle with the foibles of Eldest Souls’ combat.

Eldest Souls
Eldest Souls. Credit: Fallen Flag Studios

The key to its success is in a satisfying mini-loop of charge, dodge, unleash. Regular sword slashes are ineffectual, so you need to hold the attack button for a second, triggering a running slice that shifts you into ‘bloodthirst’ mode if it connects. Now for a short window you’re a little stronger and more nimble, plus your strikes drain life, refilling damage you’ve taken. You can also break out a hefty ‘bloodburst’ blow, with the caveat that it ends bloodthirst immediately.

It’s all about finding the moment, the gap, to make room for the charge, rolling through your foe’s response before delivering a few swipes and a bloodburst while there’s time. Fallen Flag are unashamed disciples of Dark Souls, and where it really shows is how these mechanics emphasise the real secret to getting through From’s series – patience. Once you know what’s coming in Eldest Souls, nothing is more fatal than indulging your own desperation, squeezing in an extra hit when there isn’t time, especially when you’re wounded and trying to heal by going on the offensive.

You know by now if this game is for you. That feeling when you enter a new boss room and realise you may be there for the next hour or so. Absorbing death after crushing death until you finally crystallise a two- or three-minute nugget of inspired play. Landing the final blow, no different to the dozens before, and feeling the frustration and self-doubt evaporate. Until the next one.

Eldest Souls
Eldest Souls. Credit: Fallen Flag Studios

Although, as it transpired, only three of the gods required me to invest anything like that much time. The last four were 15-20 minute travails. Partly because the rhythm becomes more natural, but partly because choices made outside of battle become more influential, as skills and powers gained from earlier victories enable more efficient damage dealing and health regain. While the later stages are taxing, the feeble warrior becomes that bit more resilient, and the task feels a touch more forgiving.

Indeed, there’s a generosity underneath the muted atmosphere of Eldest Souls’ design that even From could study. Life drain means it’s always possible to rally from a poor start, while failure results in a ‘retry’ option that instantly resets the contest. Fights aren’t as tiresomely drawn out as the multi-bar marathons in Sekiro and Dark Souls 3 either. Eldest Souls does pull the old double life bar trick at one point. But, thoughtfully, if you then die in the second half of that battle, on subsequent attempts the first part is shortened, so you don’t have to repeat it in full again every time.

Even with such clever design, however, it’s another matter whether a string of epic encounters is enough to carry this kind of experience. On one hand, Eldest Souls avoids the perennial problem with tough bosses that they can feel like roadblocks to the meat of the game (Sekiro again). Because here the gods are the game. But the reverse of that coin is that there’s not much to vary the pace. Each time I bested one or two gods, the thought of quickly starting another was exhausting. Like swimming in the sea when it’s a bit too cold, it’s fine once you’re fully immersed, but you feel reticent to take the plunge.

Eldest Souls
Eldest Souls. Credit: Fallen Flag Studios

Still, there is some in-game downtime, as you explore chunks of the Citadel between battles, meeting a scattering of NPCs with cryptic motivations and affiliations. Once the game opens up, there’s almost a point and click adventure feel to these parts, as you collect discarded items and relics and match them up with these mysterious loiterers, occasionally earning a bonus passive ability for your troubles. A weapon or armour boost from the blacksmith, for instance.

Late on, there are also a couple of sequences where you have to navigate deadly traps, but overall the in-between bits are merely the relish in the sandwich. I was hoping for more, like some additional context behind each god. Like when, after spending all that time destroying Eos, and feeling very pleased with myself, I was told that Eos was actually a rather peaceful soul (although in my defence, it threw the first punch). A meaningful touch, but there’s not enough like it in a game that wants to bury its plot like Dark Souls without the space to generate a deep nexus of lore.

I also found the RPG elements of the game uninspiring. God kills earn a skill point which can be spent on one of three build types – mobile, aggressive and counterattacking – each with its own special skill metre that fills as you land regular blows. You also get a shard that can be assigned to your dodge, charge or bloodburst to add passive effects, or used as a unique extra attack. It’s a flexible system, but a lot of options amount to variations on slightly increased damage output for a few seconds whenever you fulfil a certain condition. They don’t suggest excitingly different play styles so much as mathematical exercises to decide which provide the best bang for your buck.

No doubt the finer potentials of various combinations will reveal themselves to those who venture into Eldest Souls’ NG+ and beyond. I dabbled a little after finishing the game (as well as in the time attack arena mode), and was impressed how even the tutorial boss put up a solid fight with killer new moves and patterns. Although the campaign is fairly short, it feels right that effort has been put into replay value rather than risk diluting the experience with extra length.

I may well tap out at this point, however, and leave the real mastery to others. I don’t have much hunger for more, but I look forward to watching the inevitable no damage run videos when they appear online. Until then, what counts is that each of Eldest Souls’ battles is unique and memorable, and grasps the pure thrill of expert boss design. Fallen Flag has set a high bar, and I’ve had a good time chopping it down.

Eldest Souls releases on 29 July for Nintendo Switch, PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S. We reviewed the PS5 version.

The Verdict

Eldest Souls sets out to do one thing very well and achieves its goal. The imaginative design of its bosses is underpinned with some finely balanced additions to Soulslike combat that make for tense, undulating battles. It can feel overly punishing, even exhausting, at times, but rising to its challenge is highly satisfying.

Pros

  • Superbly intricate boss design
  • Tough but fair risk-reward combat
  • Beautifully detailed pixel art
  • Replay value for those who like a real challenge

Cons

  • There’s not much to it between the bosses
  • The RPG upgrades aren’t very inspiring
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