You wait ages for a new top-down hack and slash game then two come along at once. The second half of July sees the release of Death’s Door and Eldest Souls, a couple of indies that have been showing promise since they were first unveiled. I’ve been alternating between preview builds of both for the last week, appreciating the base similarity of their measured dodge, slash rhythms – thankfully, they both share the same core controls – and also how they diverge from that foundation in highly different ways. By an accident of scheduling, they create a kind of yin-yang, light-dark complement to one another, which has only helped me like them even more.
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There’s an added twist to this quirk of fate, too. Fallen Flag Studio’s Eldest Souls feels like an expanded spiritual successor to 2015’s boss rush title Titan Souls, yet the developer of Titan Souls, Acid Nerve, is actually responsible for Death’s Door. In a way, then, it feels like we’re getting to see a fresh revival of that previous legacy and a new direction all at once. And it’s a mantle that Fallen Flag seem to have assumed intentionally, rekindling that word ‘Souls’ in their debut title almost as a statement and a self-challenge to meet standards set not only by Titan Souls but the majesty of Dark Souls itself.
Indeed, while Death’s Door takes a much less serious path, Eldest Souls’ decaying citadel of imprisoned gods and buried rituals at times feels like a project to redraw Dark Souls in sumptuous pixel-art. Yet as in Titan Souls this is a compact, empty land where the only things to kill are the gods themselves. Between epic confrontations, you’ll embark on brief stints of exploration around the ruins, absorb scraps of lore, collect the odd item and chat to a sprinkling of NPCs. Each of these characters – speaking in the vague riddles you’d expect from a Souls game – has their own optional questline, which can lead to rewards or different endings depending on how you interact with them, generally by choosing to hand over key items. But mostly Eldest Souls wants to ferry you from one god to the next, with a little sightseeing en route.
The boss battles will make or break the game, in other words, and judging from the first three that appear in the preview, it’s got the balance right. Dark Souls veterans will relish the tension and the little risk-reward gambits in these encounters. The main character’s laboured walking speed is offset by a speedy dodge roll, which is tied to a slowly recharging stamina bar, unless that is you successfully roll through an enemy attack, which partially refills it instantly. A charged attack thrusts you across the screen towards your foe, and fills a ‘bloodthirst’ bar if it connects, allowing you to move quicker and hit harder for a short time, ‘life steal’ lost health with further strikes, or trigger a damaging ‘bloodburst’ that exhausts the bar in one. The life steal mechanic is the obvious standout here, against foes that can take you out with a few strikes. With no means of instant healing, there’s something extra rewarding about building back from an early mistake to a full health bar with some patient offensive work.
The preview build also hints at much greater depth to these systems later in the game, providing the tools to shift between contrasting play styles. Dispatching gods earns upgrade points that can be placed in one of three skill trees, which favour speed, aggression or counterattacks, and sometimes crystals which bestow unique abilities – such as a hookshot type attack – or can be linked to specific moves, like your dash or bloodburst, to augment those. This last aspect feels a little like Hades, minus the random factor, in terms of how you might customise each run by adding elemental boons to your repertoire.
As for the bosses themselves, the first two – the watchdog and the guardian – are mercifully slow, plodding around their arenas with hefty blade swings and lumbering charges, although each pulls a few new tricks from their sleeves once you’ve carved off half their health bars. So far, so moderately challenging. But the real Eldest Souls starts with the preview’s third boss, Azikel, who suggests that the rest of the game will be a much tougher ride. This god of light teleports around the screen and assaults you with a whole suite of swift melee shots, spinning light beams and a spell that covers half the floor with an energy-sapping field. It only gets harder to pin down in its second phase, too, and took me perhaps a dozen attempts to beat. The good news is it definitely felt like a well-earned triumph of patience as much as skill. Timing is important, but learning is everything.
Eldest Souls is so far fulfilling its brief, then, with neatly balanced systems, flexible combat options and complex bosses. The main question mark that remains is whether there’s going to be enough of it, with Fallen Flag saying there will be nine or ten bosses in a full run. They promise replay value, with multiple endings, an unlockable arena mode, and an NG+ mode that adds new twists to familiar fights, but to me it still sounds a little light. Then again, that’s as much a testament to the beauty of this scarred world and its deities that I don’t want to see it exhausted too soon.
Besides, it might be the kind of game that’s best taken slowly, and perhaps then Death’s Door will work as a calming respite along the way. Death’s Door does have its own bosses – including an opening encounter that bears some resemblance to a botanical foe in Titan Souls – but they shouldn’t be as punishing as those in Eldest Souls, and certainly not as frequent. From its preview build, it seems that Acid Nerve has been more inspired this time by elements of 2D Zelda titles, at least when it comes to substantial dungeon-like excursions – fighting off monsters, hitting switches and lighting torches to progress. There are also locked routes that presumably require powers accessible later in the game.
It’s not the only way that Death’s Door separates off from Titan Souls and Eldest Souls, however, which is clear as soon as you realise the protagonist isn’t some lone warrior but a crow. An immortal crow armed with a sword and bow, sure, but a crow nonetheless. Your job – and it is a job – sees you working for the Reaping Commission, collecting the souls of mortals when their times are up. Shuffling (not flying) into commission HQ, an abstract series of drab office spaces, you’re given your assignment by a bureaucratic admin crow and a door opens to reality so you can track down your target.
Quirky humour rules in Death’s Door, then, and as your first job goes awry, leading you into various adventures and conspiracies, it mostly hits the mark. There’s something endearing about sardonic crows complaining about paperwork and a friendly NPC whose head has been transformed into a cauldron of soup, as well as various little touches, like the way you can slice a signpost in two and when you go back to read it, only half the message is displayed. Or swapping your sword for an umbrella – not very effective but a stylish way to beat up monsters.
It’s all part of a slick production, polished and presented with deliberate class, about as far from the grimy pixel art and organic litter of Eldest Souls as you could expect. This is a world set up for neatly gridded puzzles, whether in the grey, uniform lines of the office, well-groomed gardens or a grand mansion decorated with carefully arranged vases and polished floors. There’s an ease of navigation through the spaces, routes and doors laid out with proud clarity, detailed but swept of excess debris. Although there are plenty of secrets to unveil, so it’s always worth poking into obscured corners.
As for combat, like everything else in Death’s Door it’s clean and unfussy. Enemies roam corridors or materialise in waves through portals of their own. You can shoot from safe distance, but only four times before you have to replenish ammo with closeup attacks, so you’ll have to mix it up. With swordplay, it’s mostly a matter of timing your dodges and getting in short combos where you can, although with some enemies you have to find ways to expose the weak points first. You may also rely on contextual opportunities like deflecting enemy projectiles or destroying explosive urns to turn the tide.
If anything, the controls feel a little too intricate for this simplicity. I couldn’t understand, for example, why firing an arrow requires holding down a trigger then pressing another button, or why a charged sword attack needs its own button, especially since it doesn’t seem that the move set will expand at all. Variety instead comes from different weapons – in the preview I could eventually switched between the bow and a fireball attack – while upgrades take the form of simple stat boosts. Still, it’s hardly a deal-breaker, with the focus on entertainingly eclectic enemies over bottomless, fine-tuned systems. As with something like Zelda, expect Death’s Door to be playfully taxing rather than seriously challenging. And that perhaps sums up the difference between it and Eldest Souls as well as anything – the sombre knight against the corvid trickster. Many will have an instant preference for one over the other, depending on their penchant for exploration or deep combat, irreverence or sobriety, pristine polygons or painstaking pixels. But both feel expertly crafted, and I’m beginning to think they may just well make a great team.
Death’s Door is out on 20th July for PC and Xbox X|S. Eldest Souls is out on 29th July for PC, PS4/5, Switch and Xbox X|S.