Indie Wonderland: Titan Souls

A few hours in

Heya, readers. Welcome to the second page! I killed all the titans.

*All* the titans.

I’m happy to be able to report that my first assessment re: ‘massive, open overworld’ was actually more or less accurate! The larger world is not as big as it initially looked like, mainly consisting of four separate sub-areas connected to a central hub. And the paths in and through the areas are all defined by environmental guidance, with varying degrees of subtlety: more than one ‘path’ is just another walled-off walkway. But none of that breaks the sensation of an open world much: because of your character’s small size compared to everything else, the world manages to feel like a wide, expansive area that rewards exploration and attention to detail.

And reward exploration it does: unlike in the opening area, not all of Titan Souls’ later bosses are clearly marked for you to find. Most of them are, to be sure, but you won’t find all of them if you’re not willing to check the hidden nooks and crannies. The (rare) save point glyphs help, indicating visually how many titans there are in each are to begin with. But merely knowing that there should still be one titan left, for instance, will not suggest that you should check behind the lava waterfall for its cave.

Image unrelated. OR IS IT?

And so, I traveled the world in search of monsters to kill. I climbed the highest mountain to fight beasts of ice and snow, and I descended to the heart of the word to fight beasts of fire and rock. In the maze-like forest, I destroyed the titanic overgrowths, and in the secluded graveyard, two titans with a personal connection to death were brought even closer. And in the middle of it all, in the central hub, I slew an ancient knight not quite unlike myself.

Except *he* was kind of an asshole about things.

Killing seven of these titans unlocked the second giant eye door, all the way to the north. Through there, I did my final battles: behind a stone colossus at full power lay… well, let’s just say a pair of particularly trippy fights. I beat the game twice, this way: once after defeating the nominal final boss, and once after defeating the secret ‘you’ve killed everything else’ boss. The first victory unlocked three new gameplay modes; the second, an additional lore-based bonus.

And then I went back to do it all again. In ‘Hard Mode’.

‘Proof’.

‘Ah, so that settles it, then!’ I hear you think. ‘Jarenth played this game twice over, so that must mean he likes it!’ And…

… I mean, I do like Titan Souls. I had plenty of fun with it! But there’s also a lot about Titan Souls that I really dislike. So much of this game drove me into fits of impotent gaming rage. If I had to count the number of times my hands starting making involuntary controller-breaking motions… So, to say that I ‘like’ Titan Souls is basically valid, but it comes with a huge qualifier.

More to the point, though: I don’t know if a lot of other people would really enjoy Titan Souls. It’s a very particular game design, focused in equal parts on ‘skill gain and learning through repetition’ and ‘blind, stupid luck’. It requires a particular mindset, I think, to enjoy both the difficulty and the ‘difficulty’ Titan Souls poses. And I can honestly say I don’t know if I know many people who’d really be into this.

You need to hate eyeballs, for one.

To understand Titan Souls, we can start by looking at where it came from.

Titan Souls’ digital ancestry can be traced in two particular directions. And the first of these is relatively obvious: yes, Titan Souls very clearly gets half of its ludic DNA from Shadow of the Colossus. Both games are so closely tied in their core design and aesthetic that I suspect their elevator pitches would sound remarkably similar: ‘travel through a large open land dotted with the ruins of an ancient civilization, hunt down the giant monsters that roam this world, defeat them using only your athletic abilities and your simple weapon, and absorb their essence into yourself for vaguely-defined purposes’.

The two games are so similar, in fact, that comparing the two isn’t actually all that interesting. Their chief differences mainly come about as a result of implementation choices: Shadow of the Colossus was an over-the-shoulder 3D game, which meant more spatial awareness and less situational awareness and which lent itself well to frantic climb-fests and platforming. Titan Souls is (gorgeously) pixelated 2D action, which means more situational awareness at the cost of the ability to really portray a space: this, in turns, affords more complicated boss patterns and behaviours, because it’s unlikely anything will ever be outside of your field of vision. And even this division isn’t really strict: Titan Souls’ bosses often evoke some of Shadow of the Colossus’ smaller, more movement-focused boss fights, and obviously the hidden Elder Titan boss is as obvious a callback as you can get.

But Titan Souls does deviate from Shadow of the Colossus’ design in one crucial area: the instant, lethal nature of its combat. It is in this area that Titan Souls’ second ludic ancestor peeks around the corner…

…no, it’s not Dark Souls. I know, the name kinda implies that it would be that, but it really isn’t. There’s nothing Dark Souls-like in Titan Souls. I’m honestly confused people keep bringing that ‘connection’ up. The only (non-name) commonality Titan Souls and Dark Souls have is in ‘learning to beat boss fights through iteration’. Which is hardly a feature Dark Souls has unique claim to. And none of the other ‘Souls series’ elements — obtuse gameplay mechanics, leveling up over time, the meaningful threat of death, a narrow world that gradually opens up through gaining power and unlocking shortcuts, NPCs, equipment, different builds, coop, invasions — make so much as a cameo in Titan Souls. Titan Souls doesn’t even have magic roll invincibility: you roll into a projectile in this game, it’s going to kill you dead. There is almost zero overlap between the two titles, apart from the actual titles.

Titan Souls isn’t Shadow of the Colossus meets Dark Souls. Titan Souls is Shadow of the Colossus meets NES-era bullet-hell action games.

In some cases more directly than others.

What sets Titan Souls apart from Shadow of the Colossus and Dark Souls both is the incredible lethality of its combat. There is zero room for error in the fights in this game: you get hit by a dangerous thing once, once, and you’re dead. Spikes, fireballs, giant ice cubes, big arrows, small arrows, poison spores, giant gold coins, it doesn’t matter. You get hit, you die. And you die, you respawn at the last save point you triggered, with all your ‘progress’ on this particular fight erased.

Yes, Dark Souls is also known for its brutal, unforgiving combat. But not like this. Not like this. Dark Souls has all kinds of room for mistakes; Titan Souls does not. The level of danger in Titan Souls is less ‘getting mobbed by those assholes in Undead Burg’ and more ‘Megaman jumping across spike pits on those awful disappearing blocks’. You mess up once, even once, and you die immediately…

…but the same holds for your enemies.

It opened its mouth in front of my arrow. It shouldn’t have.

While the many different bosses of Titan Souls all have their own unique skills, environment, and pattern, they all play by one common, unbreakable rule: if you hit them in the weak point, they die. This is the contract between game and player that Titan Souls stipulates. No hit points, no ‘phases’, no frustrating gotchas. Just a bright flash of light and a dulling of colour and music to let you know that, yes, you’ve done it. Another ancient enormous monster lies dead at your hand.

Bosses wouldn’t be bosses, of course, if they made the process easy. Some bosses, like Eyecube, have their weakness on full display, but rely on timing and direction to make it difficult for you to hit. Other bosses, like Gol-Iath, shield their weak point temporarily, forcing you to figure out how to make them drop their guard. And other bosses still, like Brainfreeze, have layers of ‘armor’ that need to be taken off first. But the core rule still holds: once you’ve identified the boss’ weak point — often indicated by a pink object or glow, for added consistency — and once you get your arrow in the right place at the right time, you win.

Example: Avarice’s weakness is its tongue, which is pink. From the earlier screenshot, you can see it sometimes exposes that tongue to you. And then…

Titan Souls is very much a game of climaxes. There is nothing to be gained from the battles themselves, from losing them and trying again: there is no incremental progress. Every battle is just a struggle to hit that one magical moment, where your shaft penetrates your opponent’s soft pink target and white globs of light stream forth. Man, I didn’t even have to try with this description. A brief moment of ecstasy is followed by an equally-brief anticlimactic recovery period… and then you go back out in the world, to hunt for the same experience again. That’s Titan Souls in a nutshell.

This main gameplay loop works both great and horribly.

It all depends on the bosses, really. The core loop of ‘engage, learn, die, repeat as necessary until you win’ works great with bosses that actually support this behaviour. Which is to say, bosses that rely more on pattern detection and understanding than on randomness. The four starter bosses are actually good examples of this: Eyecube, Brainfreeze, Sludgeheart and Gol-Iath all follow very simple rules that you figure out in one or two iterations, and once you have these rules, beating them is just a manner of accuracy in applying them. And many other bosses, like this Yeti, work in a similar way.

Guess what its weak point is.

Fighting bosses like these is usually a lot of fun! Every one of them represents a new puzzle to solve. And beating them, consequently, combines the best feelings from puzzle-solving with the best feelings from overcoming an high-intensity challenge: the adrenaline rush that comes from ‘yes, I finally did it!’ combines with the self-knowledge of ‘…because I studied it well and I knew how to beat it’. It feels good to throw your wits and your manual dexterity into the fight and know that you won because of that.

Other bosses are… less good.

“Hey. It’s me again.”

Too many of Titan Souls’ bosses throw too many random elements into the mix. Moving parts, unpredictable reactions, environmental obstacles you can barely predict. You can only beat the sea serpent Onyxia if it doesn’t shatter the island you’re on. You can only defeat Gol-Qayin by lucking out on the timing of its spin attack, or (like me) by throwing yourself at its initial opening over and over again until it sticks. Drawing Mol-Qayin to her own bomb rocks requires a particular combination of luck, luck, and more luck. And Knight Elhanan… Oh, Knight Elhanan. I could write a whole article just on why I hate you. And none of these are even the worst ones.

Bosses that rely on random attributes overmuch are no fun to kill. For exactly the reason predictable bosses are fun to take down, unpredictable bosses aren’t fun: it’s because you haven’t earned your victory. You didn’t beat this or that boss because you figured out its patterns and understood how to attack its weak spot. You beat the boss because you figured out the patterns, understood how to attack the weak spot, and had the cosmic dice of fate come up in your favour.

The Titan Souls experience is a mixed one, because its bosses are a mixed bag. Good boss fights incur a sense of triumph and personal skill. Bad boss fights incur rage.

The optional Hard Mode, ‘the real challenge’, that you unlock after beating the penultimate boss for the first time, very neatly demonstrates this problem by exacerbating it. In Hard Mode, all bosses are amplified in some way. Eyecube rolls faster, Sludgeheart splits more often, Brainfreeze changes direction more quickly, and Gol-Iath’s hands chase you farther and faster than they otherwise would. You get the idea.

For skill-based bosses, these changes make the fight harder on the reflexes, but not otherwise significantly difficult. Just requiring better timing and some more tries, is all. But for random-based bosses…

Actually, let’s talk about Knight Elhanan some more. Knight Elhanan’s gimmick is that he shoots a bouncing giant arrow at you, then flies around the room pelting you with smaller arrows. Your goal is to hit his arrow with your arrow, which stuns both of you briefly and fades his armor away for a little while, before recovering your arrow and shooting him straight in the skeleton.

Easy enough in theory.

On Normal Mode, this fight is pretty frustrating. Elhanan’s bouncing arrow is unpredictable by nature, and you have to keep tracking and avoiding both that, and the Knight’s regular (insta-kill) arrows. And even if you do manage to hit the small moving target, you only get a window of like five or six seconds before he recovers.

On Hard Mode, Elhanan’s window of vulnerability is more like two seconds. Which means that, unless you manage to hit his arrow with your arrow very close to the boss himself — not a trivial thing, because he moves around a lot and shoots at you — you’ll never be able to charge up your arrow fast enough.

Hard Mode Knight Elhanan is a mess of random chance and moving elements. The Knight moves, the arrow moves, the landscape changes. And even if you know exactly what to do, it’s still up to the ineffable whiles of Nuffle whether or not you’ll actually be allowed to win.

And Hard Mode Elhanan is still not even the most bullshit boss fight this game has to offer.

That dubious honour goes to *this* motherfucker.

I enjoyed playing Titan Souls quite a bit, both on Normal and Hard, but there’s no denying I came close to rage-quitting forever on multiple occasions. And I’m me. I have a resistance to rage and tedium that’s almost legendary. As for people who actually value their free time and their sense of mental tranquility…

I don’t know if I’d recommend Titan Souls to these people.

Final thoughts

I don’t particularly like Titan Souls’ secret final boss. I don’t like this boss because it breaks the one-hit-kill contract I mentioned earlier: this boss actually goes through three phases, each more random-focused and bullshit-feeling than the last, and any death at any point kicks you all the way back to the beginning.

And even if you beat it, ‘all’ you get for your efforts is the unlockable ‘Truth’ gameplay mode, which translates the enigmatic glyphs of each boss name into regular English. Which would have been a neat reward, if I hadn’t spent a significant portion of my play time up to that point working out the Titan alphabet cipher for myself.

I am not joking here.

And I still went back in to beat that boss again on Hard Mode. God as my witness, I took that sucker down.

I know this image looks like the previous one, but trust me when I say *this* one was the *Hard Mode* one.

For all my negativity in the last couple paragraphs, I want you to understand that I, personally, enjoyed Titan Souls. I like the no-frills approach to boss challenge gameplay, the bosses were visually well-designed and interesting, and what tiny little ambient world-building there was to be found from exploring left me hungry for more. And, guys: if you roll down the stairs, your little dude keeps rolling down the stairs. It’s amazing attention to detail, that, if probably super nauseating for them.

But simultaneously, these are all not the important things to talk about when discussing Titan Souls. What is important to bring up when discussing Titan Souls is this: it’s a difficult game, hard and unforgiving, and a not-insignificant subset of its challenges relies on random luck in order to beat. Almost all bosses have some degree of randomization inherent in their patterns. And even the bosses that are mostly skill-based still require an incredibly degree of manual dexterity and timing: I’ve lost count of the number of times I lost a won fight because my arrow was off by just a few degrees.

If you do dig challenge for challenge’s sake, Titan Souls can be yours for fifteen Steam dollars. It’s not a long game, but it offers its particular gameplay style pretty much uncut. It scratches an itch I hadn’t noticed Shadow of the Colossus had left; for me, that alone was pretty much worth it.

Just be sure to put the controller down between boss attempts.

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Jarenth will never *ever* try to beat Titan Souls in Iron Mode. Never ever. Ever. Probably. Talk him into making bad decisions on Twitter or Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

2 comments

  1. Wow, this is even more similar to Shadow of the Colossus than I thought. And wow, is it pretty. It’s not often you see pixel art manage to evoke that sheer sense of *scale*.

    I don’t think you mentioned that there’s a demo? On Steam, actually. (I didn’t know Steam HAD demos) But there is! I believe it covers the first four bosses… I haven’t tried it myself (yet), seeing that I lack a gamepad for my PC.

    Kind of disappointing that several of the bosses are so rage-inducing – I can totally see why they might be from your description, although I almost have a nagging suspicion that maybe you didn’t /really/ figure out their patterns. I’ll definitely try it for myself at some point, at least the demo.

    1. I totally missed there’s a demo. Good catch!

      Tell you what: get back to me once you’ve tried the giant bouncing mushroom boss on Hard, and we’ll see if my endless anger there was a pattern issue.

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