There’s nothing quite like a good beat ’em up. Tricks of the trade guarantee things like fast-paced action, in-depth combat, and side-scrolling mayhem, with aesthetic flourish typically being the cherry on top. When a developer can successfully integrate all four of these elements into a cohesive whole, it’s easy to find yourself with a pretty addictive game on your hands.
As soon as I got a taste of combat in the demo for Young Souls, developed by 1P2P and published by The Arcade Crew, it was clear that I was playing a good beat ’em up as all of the necessary elements were there from the word go. However, as I continued to delve its dungeons, merc its mobs, and grab its gear, it became progressively clearer that it actually doesn’t have the potential to be a good beat ’em up—it has the potential to be a great one.
The demo was split into two portions: “The Beginning” and “Exploring Dungeons.” The former featured only a small taste of gameplay in order to highlight the overall story setup, while the latter was entirely focused on the action. Since there’s an order to these things, we’ll be tackling the story section first.
Young Souls puts you in the shoes of Jenn and Tristan, two twins living in a mansion on the outskirts of town under the foster care of a professor. The twins are sent off on a regular bout of chores in the downtown district, which serves as an introduction to some of the non-combat mechanics like selling loot and talking to the various townspeople. When they return to their home, they find the professor to be missing and discover a mysterious portal, which just so happens to be their most likely means of finding him.
This story slice of the demo leaves you with a lot of mysteries for solving in the full game, particularly those pertaining to the histories of the two twins and what led them to be taken under the charge of the professor in the first place. What isn’t a mystery is how endearing and charming Young Souls‘ first impression is.
The chemistry between the two twins feels consistently authentic. You really get the feeling that these characters are close to one another, with each knowing the other’s personality in a way that only siblings who’ve spent their lives together as loners can. It’s also usually pretty funny, to boot; it’s rare that a game with a visual style this cute has characters that drop the occasional F-bomb, but the juxtaposition works pretty well here and doesn’t feel too forced—they are teenagers, after all.
Its presentation is also more than up to snuff. Young Souls is unabashedly a side-scrolling affair in gameplay, but the camera is completely unrestricted by this perspective in cutscenes, sometimes detaching itself and showing us the events unfolding from a variety of different angles. One can only hope this carries on regularly throughout the full game.
Of course, we’ll have to wait and see if this level of praise can be doled out with consistency for the full release, but I found myself going into this demo with very little expectations, and I came out of it wanting to actually learn more about the world and its characters.
The second half of the demo throws you into the thick of things by immediately setting you up for your first dungeon crawl. I took some time parsing through my newly-granted equipment and refreshing myself on the controls, but it wasn’t too long before my eagerness to see how the game played pushed me into the first dungeon.
Fighting regular enemies was instantly a lot of fun. There’s a big emphasis on blocking attacks right as they land to execute a parry, which rewards you with a resource you can expend for powerful attacks. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do this with every attack, especially in encounters with a lot of enemies vying for your head at once, but the timing is made easier by a visual indicator that appears over the attacking enemy. In addition to the regular and more powerful attacks, you’re also able to lift up enemies and chuck them at the nearest wall (or another enemy) after landing enough successive hits, as well as attack enemies after a jump to juggle them into the air.
Each dungeon usually ended with a boss encounter that tested my skills much more than the enemies that came before it, and these boss fights are where Young Souls really started to shine. Only a few were available in this preview, but each of them were unique and required me to approach them a bit differently. Some of them had parry resistance, for example, which meant I had to repeatedly repel their offense multiple times before I got the chance to really let them have it. This demo was at its most fun when I parried enough times to stun a boss, lifted him up, threw him against the wall, then jumped and juggled him to finish out the combo.
As far as the length of each dungeon is concerned, I was surprised each of them only consisted of three or four rooms at maximum. Even if you’re able to make it through one without dying, you’ll probably be finished in less than ten minutes, and if you do meet an untimely end, Young Souls is happy to let you rush back into the fray just as quickly as you were rushed out of it.
I did find the traversal between each series of rooms a bit confusing, though. There are a lot of doors requiring a lot of different keys, and it isn’t always clear what your order of progression should be. There’s a 2D representation mapping out all nearby rooms, but its layout leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to helping you decide where to go next.
When it comes to advancement, all of it takes place outside of the dungeon crawl in the charming downtown district of the city proper. As you level up via the experience you earn from killing enemies, you also have the option to play button-mashing mini-games for a bit of an extra stat boost. They feel a bit superficial due to the fact that the stat increases you gain from them seem marginal at best, and I’m not sure if doing this repeatedly over the course of the full game will be able to keep itself from getting stale.
Equipment progression and itemization, on the other hand, has the potential to be pretty engaging. Each dungeon will give you at least a handful of items to consider for your current build, with their own unique passives to weigh against the ones you already have. Many weapons, shields, and armor pieces have both a positive effect and a negative one, which forces you to balance which negatives you would be willing to deal with in order to nab the more positive ones. This balancing can be simpler (do you want to get armor with higher defense, but a higher chance to get critically hit?) or more complex (do you want a sword with a chance of life-steal on each hit, but with slower mana regeneration for your more powerful abilities?). Upgrading also adds further passives and perks to weapons, which makes that process more than just a matter of getting larger damage numbers for your next trawl through the unknown.
I thoroughly enjoyed my experience with this demo. I spent a lot more time with the combat than I needed to simply because I wanted to keep playing. That’s a mark of quality for any game, but it’s especially true for a beat ’em up. It remains to be seen if the more tertiary mechanics will end up adding complexity to the overall experience or just end up being unnecessary busywork, but for now, Young Souls seems to be firing on all cylinders. It’s easy to have high hopes for the full release set for launch on PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Switch on October 1st, 2021.
Preview build provided by The Arcade Crew for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of The Arcade Crew.