Back when the demo for Unsouled came out, I was, quite ironically, sold on it. The game takes clear inspiration from many great games that have come before it, but it seems that it shares most similarities with a game like Hyper Light Drifter. Fast-paced and precise hack-and-slash combat made Unsouled stand out from the rest of the demos I’ve played, and it really had the potential to be great. The game is made by a solo developer and is now out in early access. Has the game lived up to its potential? Or is there more potential here?
Unsouled is available in early access on Steam for your regional pricing.
STORY – THE FALLEN PRINCE
In Unsouled, you play as the fallen prince Maras, whose kingdom has been overtaken by an undead army led by a mysterious necromancer. You also have a special ability that allows you to talk to the dead and absorb their souls. Throughout the levels, you meet many different people from your past. The motivations of Maras are a little unclear here: does he want to stop the undead so he can get his kingdom back, or does he just want to confront the necromancer? Either way, we know that we just have to defeat these undead to find out more.
Given that Unsouled is in early access, it is understandable that the story is not fully fleshed out nor has a well-wrapped-up ending. The story that is in the game is decent enough, giving us enough context to know what is going on in the narrative, but it doesn’t give us anything memorable. The main draw of Unsouled for me wasn’t its story, but its gameplay.
GAMEPLAY – GOTTA CATCH THOSE FRAMES
I’m no stranger to difficult games. In fact, I genuinely enjoy a lot of them. Metroid Dread’s E.M.M.I.s and bosses were difficult to get past, but it felt good to do so. There is always a fine line to walk when it comes to difficulty. What makes a difficult game good can usually be summed up into three main parts: feeling of skill/improvement, punishment and reward. Sadly, at its current early access state, Unsouled does not do great in any of those aspects.
CHAINS EXCITE ME
The primary mechanic of Unsouled’s combat is the chaining mechanic. With almost any combat action you make, there is a way to chain it into another action. There is also a wide variety of combat actions that you can do, and each one of these can chain into others. This allows for a nearly infinite number of possible combos you can do since you’re not locked into doing a certain combo when attacking.
The combos that you choose to do will also change based on the situation, allowing for very fluid movement and combat. Enemies surrounding you while you were focused on a single one? Push all of them back and dash toward one of them to finish them off. Long range enemies are spread far apart? Stun one of them with a strong attack and dash your way to the others, countering through their projectiles along the way. These complex combat mechanics work great when paired with a simple chain system.
Where this fails, however, is the timing of the chains. In order to chain your combos, there is a certain timing when the next button needs to be pressed. Too late, and you’ll be stuck in the move’s recovery and lose your chain. There is almost no audio or visual cues for what the timing is. As a result, the only way to hit it reliably is to “feel” for the timings, or to just mash your buttons (which I found myself doing quite often). This made the combat much less satisfying because it felt like I was hitting chains and counters mostly from luck and not from skill.
The game does have quite a few upgrades as its progression. You can level up each of the different combat actions for better damage or stamina management. How you upgrade your abilities is by using the souls that you absorb from defeated enemies or corpses. Bosses also drop a unique soul that allows you to use certain active abilities, from creating poison clouds to shooting lightning bolts or just good old temporary invincibility.
Unfortunately, these mechanics, in their current state, only contribute to how unsatisfying the game is. After beating a boss or a room full of hard enemies in different waves, you would expect to receive a big reward. Instead, you are only granted a few thousand souls, which will be barely enough for one upgrade to your abilities. Grinding the normal souls is only sort of viable. You do keep your souls on death, and respawn at checkpoints, but if you get to a checkpoint where the next enemies or boss is a challenge to defeat, you can’t backtrack to go grind more souls. Also, some checkpoints can be very far back from your death with mandatory fights in between, making progress feel unnecessarily slow.
Even the unique boss souls do not feel as rewarding—other than the temporary invincibility, which is the first boss soul you get, the rest feel lacking. Sure, it’s cool to shoot out lightning, but when you die so easily, temporary invincibility is much more appealing.
BALANCE – GHOST MOVE
Overall, in terms of gameplay, Unsouled has so much potential, but is completely lacking in good balancing. To add on to the problems listed before, there is a very real possibility of getting stunlocked. There is an ability called “Ghost Move”, which allows you to recover after getting hit. However, this uses up stamina orbs, of which you have 4 maximum that take quite a while to recharge. Other moves also use these stamina orbs. So if you’re not extremely careful, you can be hit over and over again without being able to Ghost Move out of it. This is even more frustrating because some bosses and enemies have abilities that cannot be interrupted, but all of your abilities can be interrupted by enemy attacks.
BALANCE – DIFFICULTY SETTINGS
The difficulty settings of the game are also all over the place. I played on normal difficulty, which still had almost impossible counter windows and led to quite a few frustrating deaths. On the easier difficulty, the counter timing was easier to deal with, and the damage received was better. However, the enemies were much less aggressive and only did basic attacks. I didn’t try the harder difficulty, but it purports to have an even smaller timing window and more aggressive enemies with more attacks.
This meant that the easy difficulty was just too easy and the normal difficulty was too challenging, without any middle ground. The game does have more nuanced difficulty settings such as auto-chaining and auto-blocking. But I think having control over the other difficulty options like chain timings and enemy aggression would allow me to customize my experience a little better.
BALANCE – BEING F RANK
You’ve just defeated a boss that took you quite a while to defeat. After dealing with all the frustrations of the difficult enemies, you’re looking forward to some down time in between levels. And then it appears. That humiliating F rank.
Maybe I’m just traumatized from my school years, but I was really discouraged by that F rank. I think some of you would be, too. After trying my best to learn the abilities and enemy patterns, I finally beat the level, but the developer has decided that I am not worthy. I didn’t really think I did that bad. Player psychology is critical in difficult games like this, and I would personally like a bit of encouragement for beating the boss rather than getting an F.
GRAPHICS & AUDIO – AN UNDEAD LAND
The aesthetics of Unsouled, admittedly, are quite good. The pixel artstyle is great and showcases the different regions of each region quite well. And of course, the game doesn’t shy away from panning the camera to let you have a view of the gorgeous landscapes. There is a slight flaw, however, in some scenes where the screen seems to be stretched vertically.
During combat, the particle effects and slicing animations pair well with each ability, telling you exactly where each move is hitting. The animations also give a good enough cue as to which abilities both you and your enemies are using, as well as looking really cool in general. However, when it comes to certain bosses, or if there are too many on-screen enemies, the particle effects can get overwhelming.
The music is also decent enough, giving you a good feel of each level and the culture that inspired it. The levels range from typical medieval fantasies to deserts and more oriental inspired ones. During combat, the music also ramps up just enough to help create that epic and anxious feeling. The sound design in combat is also decent, giving each hit a satisfying enough thump.
Unsouled was previewed on PC via Steam with a key provided by NEOWIZ.