Titan Souls Review
Titan Souls is a game of contradictions. It's difficult until it isn't. It's compelling until it isn't. And it's fun until it isn't, which fortunately the game understands, drawing to a close after four hours or so when the triumphs no longer outweigh the aggravations. It is the subject of difficulty that makes Titan Souls so unusual, however. This is a game about--and only about--boss battles. Your first step into an arena is likely to lead to death in a matter of seconds, but your moment of triumph, which might come after five, 10, or 20 attempts, may end the boss in a similarly brief span. And suddenly, a challenge that seemed insurmountable minutes before is now over before you can take a single breath. And you must wonder: How can something so hard also be so...easy?
The answer lies within Titan Souls' very structure. You are a tiny archer who takes up very little space on screen, a pixelized adventurer with a single arrow providing your only protection from the monstrosities you face. The 2D world you explore may try to calm you with curlicues of wind, gently swaying brush, and light snowfall, but the dark forests and stone temples offer no hope to those that seek it. This place has no healing springs, no wildlife to tame, and no wolves to slay with a few well-aimed shots. It only hides bizarre deviants made of flesh and metal, each monstrosity designed to tower above your miniature frame moments before before destroying it.
Each boss fight, in turn, presents itself first as a puzzle to solve, and then as a challenge to be overcome. Entering an arena may lead to death in a mere second or two before you're able to even get your bearings. With each attempt comes more understanding, however. That tumbling yeti will likely squash you the first time you ever see him, and probably the tenth time too. A giant coal-powered skeleton head propels itself around the arena with spiked orbs, killing you not just by crushing you, but by driving you to cross the flames that rise from the arena's floor vents. So you process the relevant information. What is the creature's weak point? How does it move through the arena? Do you defeat it by using the arena in any way? Where one enemy is concerned, avoiding death means noting where shadows appear on the ground before you can be crushed by the objects that caused them. For another boss, counting the number of times it rotates before resting for a moment can prove helpful.
Now you know what must be done, and it's time to execute on your plan. Charging up your shot leaves your tiny archer unable to move--and retrieving your arrow means either picking it up where it last fell, or holding a button to summon it to you, a process that also stills you for as long as the button is held. The behemoth might be vulnerable to your single arrow for a fraction of a second, so you exploit the boss fight's rhythms as best you can, trying and trying until the moment comes, your arrow finds its mark, and the beast falls without a single cry of pain or declaration of future vengeance. It is simply stilled, accompanied by a dramatic drum cue, and the screen turns a sepia hue, reflecting the loss of the soul that once existed here. When you summon your arrow back to your bow, you also pull points of light representing the boss's soul to you, and they swirl about you as the music swells; it's a beautiful moment of triumph, and one of many examples of how Titan Souls' excellent audio design instills excitement and eases mounting frustration.
Victorious sound effects aside, Titan Souls' very design can lead to a disappointing anticlimax. Just as a swimming leviathan can murder you in a single stroke, so too can you murder it in a blink of an eye. A well-timed arrow shot just seconds after the battle begins can bring the baddie down, and leave you wondering why you stressed over such a simple endeavor. It was so hard--until it was easy. It's naturally fulfilling when you put this game's lessons to good use, but after eight or nine different boss battles, you know how each fight will end: you will make many attempts to fell the boss--and on a few frustrating occasions, many many attempts--before one last go, upon which you will deliver a precise shot that ends the action before it begins.
And that is why Titan Souls is compelling--until it isn't. What starts as an interesting idea loses its shine as it nears its conclusion, and along with it, the sense of reward. Success can be its own reward in video games, but in Titan Souls' distilled formula, the only mystery to uncover is the behavior of the titan you have next to face. Some of these encounters are cleverly designed, but the cleverness is not so great as to mask the game's intrinsic austerity. Titan Souls also provides structural rewards that, frankly, aren't very interesting. Hard mode; a mode in which you cannot run or dodge; a mode in which you only have one life to live: these don't provide much reason to return unless you thrive on speedruns and ultimate mastery, nor does the final reveal, which you are privy to only if you defeat every boss, which is not required for you to officially beat the game.
Not that austerity must be a bad thing, only that Titan Souls stretches its single idea as far as it can go--and then a few battles beyond the limit. It's fitting that the world surrounding those battle is similarly simple. Unlike Shadow of the Colossus, the game I would say it most recalls, Titan Souls doesn't tell much of a story with its world, but it's at least a lovely place to be. You access boss fights from themed hubs, so you walk a short distance from a nearby save point to each nearby boss arena--and moving from one hub to another is a few minutes' journey. Those journeys have you crossing stone pathways, swimming across shallow pools, and riding mechanical platforms; giant eyeballs adorning nearby doorways follow you as you travel past, instilling unease.
It is the soundtrack and general audio that deserves the most credit for making this world enjoyable to pass through. (I wouldn't say "explore" is the right word, since there are no treasures to unearth or truly commanding sights to drink in.) One of the first bosses is a disembodied brain encased in ice, and the resounding clank it makes as it collides with walls gives the entire battle a tremendous sense of pressure and weight, while vivacious bongos exacerbate the battle's percussive feel. When you leave sunshine behind for snowy fields, the open strings of a fiddle recall similar tunes from the film Fargo, which also takes place in a frigid land. When green grass returns, a flute and guitar engage in a leisurely minuet, making your stroll feel particularly pleasant.
Don't let the soothing songs lull you, however: stress is always just a minute away, and once you have internalized Titan Souls' lessons, so is relief. In time, those lessons become exhausting; you keep studying the exam, yet fail it over and over again until, suddenly, you pass with little fanfare, and a new class begins. Luckily, before work comes joy, and in the few hours that Titan Souls maintains your interest, you prove that you--and the diminutive hero that you play--can change the world with incredible patience, and a single arrow.