Perhaps no modern game is more blunt about its influences than Eldest Souls. Despite having a name that would make a copyright lawyer sweat, this overtly FromSoftware-inspired action game manages to establish its own blend of addictive, brutal combat and gorgeous art direction that rivals its 2D and 3D peers. It doesn’t mirror their same sense of exploration, but if a souls-like focused almost exclusively on boss battles sounds great to you, look no further.
Eldest Souls’ artistic and narrative influences aren’t so much worn on its sleeve as they are written on a signboard draped around its body. Borrowing heavily from Dark Souls’ infamous intro, it establishes a world where men and gods came into being at the same time, but mortals eventually found themselves subjugated thanks to the machinations of a god named Eksyll. Humanity revolted, caging the gods inside of a massive Citadel, bringing peace to the land…until Eksyll showed up again, committed some heinous experiments on his fellow gods, and brought about the near-extinction of humanity. Now it’s up to one final hero with an oversized obsidian sword to kill every remaining god still dwelling inside the Citadel and sort out the world’s fate. It doesn’t even get close to the lofty heights of Gwyn or Artorias’ fates, and it’s fairly average stuff for dark fantasy lovers, but it’s still entirely serviceable for what we’re here for: big, beefy boss battles.
Praise the fun
Switching influences, Eldest Souls’ combat takes more inspiration from Bloodborne than it does Dark Souls, with a quicker pace and emphasis on aggression. With your giant obsidian sword, you can use a basic swing, a dash, a charge attack, and a powerful “bloodburst” attack that drains your charge. There are no enemies to fight outside of its 10 bosses, so you’re never more than a few hits from death. To that end, Eldest Souls very much encourages an in-your-face play style, with charged and bloodburst attacks replenishing small fragments of health, much like Bloodborne. What results is a nearly nonstop dance of dodging and exchanging desperate blows.
A skill tree lets you specialize your combat style between three branching options as you progress: Windslide, which focuses on movement and speed, Berserk, which improves your damage output, and Counter, which buffs your defensive options. Equippable “shards” gained from defeated bosses can also give you extra abilities or buffs depending on how you slot them for further customization. Mercifully, you can completely respec your character any time between fights. I loved this freedom because it consistently surprised me with what combinations were viable.
Going up against Hyem, a frostbitten armored warrior with the power to slow my dashing, I found myself suiting up with a defensive ability that spawned swords of light with each bloodburst attack. Those swords later shattered upon a successful counter, briefly tripling damage and providing me a moment of solace in the chaos. While fighting the feral Deer God, who attacks with lightning-fast swipes and poisonous roots, I instead respec’d to give myself increased speed to keep up with his great strides across the arena, while flaming leaves I spawned chased him down for guaranteed chipdamage. Infusing boss shards into different slots can prove to be an interesting game of risk vs. reward too, like a special attack that deals extra damage but also hurts you if you’re over 50% health, but heals if you’re under 50%.
With such interesting tricks to try, it’s a bit of a shame that Eldest Souls can be stingy with its skill points at first. The story is designed to be played through multiple times, with a New Game Plus and Arena mode for those who want it. But on a first playthrough, which took me about 15 hours overall, that focus on replayability means fighting some of the early bosses were slightly less enthralling without a wide array of abilities at my disposal.
Top 10 Soulslikes
That said, these fights are all impeccably balanced, threading a fine line between frustrating and devilishly tantalizing. The number of times I came within a millimeter of death, only to climb my way back with careful strikes, desperate healing, and mashing the square button made the victories even sweeter. I died 519 times to Eldest Souls’ bosses, but even when it spurred me to yell obscenities across the living room, I immediately wanted to hop back in for another try. And thankfully it makes doing so a painless process, with quick respawn load times, and even choosing the “give up” option to take a breather only requiring a short walk back to the boss’ arena.
Pixel-Perfect Punching Bag
With only 10 bosses, I was worried Eldest Souls would be a light meal, but each one and their accompanying arenas are imbued with enough creativity to make every fight feel like the spectacle it needs to be. The excellent pixel art style results in some fascinating animations, selling the corruption of a massive knight as dozens of tendrils spring from his arms, or when an ancient god of light wearily stands up from his throne of massive electrical cables. Its art is equally important in battle, where an emphasis is placed on learning a boss’ tells in order to better dodge and exploit openings.
If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that the isometric 2D format and pixel art style can sometimes result in boss attacks being a little less clear than they would be in a 3D action game. An early example is while fighting the Guardian, a corrupted god who very much evokes Demon’s Souls’ Tower Knight. His hulking frame shambles beautifully, but he turns on a dime so quickly, with nary an in-between animation frame, that it often resulted in me eating an unexpected face full of spear.
But the generally fantastic art direction extends throughout the Citadel itself too, which contains a number of beautifully diverse biomes to briefly venture through before the next boss. Embers float through shattered battlefields and down dusty streets, while crystal-clear lakes slowly churn the bodies of long-dead soldiers. A path guarded with laser-shooting stones is littered with the charred remains of more soldiers, stuck in mangled poses that betray how horribly they perished. It’s easily some of the best pixel art ever committed to a video game, rivaled only by the likes of Hyper Light Drifter or Dead Cells.
Just don’t go in expecting a very long journey through these environments. While undoubtedly beautiful, each area is pretty small, and will really only take you a minute or so to get around. The emphasis is absolutely on the bosses here, but the world is filled with enough detail worth stopping to admire from time to time. The small number of NPCs – like a melancholic bard, a traumatized blacksmith, or a vengeful skull made of ice – all provide some fun flavor, even if Eldest Souls doesn’t reach anywhere near the admittedly high bar of world-building that its FromSoft inspirations are known for. What I did appreciate, however, was the fragmented storytelling that often came with defeating a boss, when some aspect of its true nature was revealed. Some are quietly tragic, while others are flat out gross in the best way possible.