Asia has produced some amazing things over the years; Nokia phones, every decent game console other than the Xbox 360, and even a fork which cancels out the slurping noises made when eating noodles. Yet perhaps its most distinctive export is the world of manga, anime and visual novels.
The market for JRPGs is already rather swollen; at this point, there may be more of them than bumblebees on the Earth. But why not take some time out of your Final Fantasies, Disgaeas and Tales of…whatever, and have a look at Visualnoveler's latest offering? Don't worry, there's no rats or omnipotent pest exterminators involved.
Chaos Souls is available on Steam for £6.49
Unusually, Eris returns from her jolly japes hunting demons and gathering flowers (seriously) in time to witness the capture; instead of leaving a hand-written note, the succubus rubs it in your face and tells you where she is taking her (this is probably why villains tend to fail in their plans, taking them to really obvious places like castles).
Naturally, you're not about to abandon your sister, so you set off to rescue her. This entails fighting your way through hordes of enemies in different environments; initially the castle, before moving on to a forest, and subsequently other environments. I'd list them, but that would spoil a significant part of the fun, as you discover the new scenery and set of creatures waiting to kill you. Either that or I died so many times that I gave up and never got past that point. I'll let you decide which one of those is true.
Given the game's title, you would be forgiven for drawing immediate comparisons to Dark Souls, which, much like this, is a rather low-key RPG that absolutely nobody has heard of, and definitely hasn't spawned two sequels and a made-to-order board game. There are certainly similarities- there's a heavy focus on combat and boss fights, and both games involve the slaying of demons; however, the most striking similarity is that it's F**KING HARD!
I will confess, I am not an amazingly talented, eSports-worthy gamer; yes, I can play EA Sports games on high difficulty and completed Death March on Witcher 3 while wondering what the fuss was all about, but I'm no expert. When it comes to fighting games like Tekken, Street Fighter and even Fatal Fury, I am the button masher that everybody wants to mash in the face, as they attempt 17-button combos and super moves while I'm repeatedly spin-kicking them with Yoshimitsu.
Within the first five minutes, Chaos Souls quickly devolved into button-mashing territory. You have your quick and strong attacks (though, with no stamina bar or perceptible difference in speed, they're rather similar in all but animation and damage), a shield to temporarily defend yourself from hits or obstacles, potions to heal yourself (which regenerate every 30 seconds), a dash which zips you forward in a burst of light, and the ability to fire magic orbs from your body- this is essentially the game's only ranged attack. The game slowly introduces you to these mechanics as you progress, though I believe you are free to use them all from the outset- I can't be sure, however, as the game allows only one save, and I don't want to sit through several more hours of button mashing to recover my progress.
It's reasonable to assume that each mode of attack has its own advantages against certain enemies; demons made of energy, for instance, resisting the attacks of your own magic. However, if this is the case, the game doesn't do a very good job of telling you so. The amount of damage you inflict seems to remain consistent, no matter which enemy you are facing. Damage appears in numbers as you hit, and there's no way of telling how much health each enemy has- other than the bosses.
The bosses are, understandably, where the heart of the game lies; it's all well and good needlessly attacking the minions of evil (and nature), but if you're going to get Petra back from the clutches of evil you'll need to take down the scantily clad demons, each complete with their own moves and attack styles.
Disappointingly, though perhaps predictably, the fights soon come down to memorising patterns and knowing when to dodge, shield or attack. If you do get hit, they can knock a rather substantial amount of health, particularly if you don't get out of the way of a sustained attack. Your mana and your health potions regenerate over time, so if you use them up in the first few stages of a boss battle, you're, for wont of a better term, screwed; you'll spend a good 30 seconds leaping around and dodging attacks waiting to be able to heal yourself.
These fights can go on for several minutes without much change, and if, like me, you die (which I did at least five times against the first boss, on easy mode), you'll find yourself back at square one, and looking forward to ten more minutes of button mashing before you can progress.
At the end of each boss fight, you obtain the demon's "soul", apparently needed to progress further, and are rewarded with experience points (how completely unexpected), and can upgrade your abilities or stats, while "unlocking" Eris' potential. This is an interesting idea, that some dark power resides within her, but not much happens in terms of animation or the environment to suggest as such. The character development is limited only to the visual novel elements of the game- i.e., the static images seen during dialogue; and even then, the drawings, beautiful as they are, demonstrate a range of emotion only slightly larger than that managed by Kristen Stewart across five Twilight films.
Graphics and sound
It's not a common occurrence that a developer's name gives clues as to the game's style; Rockstar doesn't make rhythm games, DICE doesn't make gambling games, and, on the face of it, Ubisoft doesn't suggest "buggy piece of crap". In this instance, however, Visualnoveler gives a bit more of a hint. Rat Simulator was released rather confusingly, but Chaos Souls sees a return to the world of, you guessed it, visual novels.
I can't claim to know too much on the subject, but apparently, visual novels are distinctly different from anime and manga; all three have a similar distinctive art style, which is heavily present throughout; Chaos Souls' charm lies primarily in its graphical design. Great care has been taken to animate a variety of different monsters, from wolves to trolls to possessed plants. These animations are, however, limited to a certain extent; hitting many of them doesn't result in much recoil or disruption of movement (the exception, I found, was the fairies), and "cutscenes" and conversations which tell the story are merely a series of images; this element, however, is to be expected from what is essentially an interactive visual novel. At least, I think that's what it is.
Dialogue in Chaos Souls is entirely text-based; as such, there's no voice cast to speak of. What is present throughout are sound effects and a musical score, to varying degrees of success. The score is pleasant, an instrumental soundtrack which can become tense amidst boss battles and more serious moments (not that the whole thing isn't serious- it is a little difficult to take the stern authority of a mage and guard seriously when they're scantily clothed, however).
The background design is also pleasing; there is always a tendency in games to do a Hann-Barbera; that is, have a repeating background while trying to diversify the foreground, to keep you distracted. In Chaos Souls' case, however, the scenery changes rather frequently, and rarely do the same backdrops occur. This ties in thematically; the whole idea is you're progressing deeper into a castle, or a forest, or whatever; so why would anything look the same? It's a nice touch which many sidescrollers ignore completely.
The sound effects, however, are left a little wanting. No matter what you are hitting with your sword, it sounds the same- no squishes as you slice through skin or clangs as you strike solid rock. Similarly, much of the enemies' attacks sound the same; a thud of a club, or a "pazish" of a magic spell (I honestly can't think of an onomatopoeia to describe that, or for that matter, any word at all). It's disappointing, as the visual array of opponents on display is negated by the limited number of sound effects, which makes therm feel and sound the same.
If you're a fan of its art style and side-scrolling mechanics, Chaos Souls is a nice diversion for a few hours, until you develop repetitive strain injury from the button-mashing. If you're a superb gamer, you'll probably enjoy progressing through the worlds with ease, following Eris' quest to rescue her sister, take the demons' souls and discover the "dark power" within her. While the gameplay may get repetitive, the changing enemies and backgrounds are just enough to keep you playing.
Casual gamers may struggle, however, as even on easy difficulty there's a tendency for Eris to die a lot, unless you're constantly on the ball, which can get quite tiresome in itself. Its price tag isn't too unreasonable though, and with enough perseverance, players will get the hang of the mechanics, timing and magic/health potion management needed to progress far into the game. It's just a question of whether, when that time comes, your fingers aren't too blistered to continue.
|+ Nice art style||– Gets repetitive|
|+ Variety in backgrounds and enemies||– Limited mechanics|
|– Too difficult for a casual gamer?|