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Review: Young Souls

10 Mar 2022

At the tail end of last September, I had the opportunity to check out the demo for Young Souls, a previously Stadia-exclusive beat ‘em up developed by 1P2P and published by The Arcade Crew. By and large, the general takeaway from my several hours with it was an exceedingly positive one, and I found myself excited to experience the whole kit and caboodle to wallop some goblins in full.

With the wider release of Young Souls on March 10th, 2021, the game is now also available for PC (the version this review is based on), PlayStation 4, Switch, and Xbox One. Before, I mentioned it was somewhat difficult to predict how certain mechanics would fare once they were embedded into a full ten-hour experience. The comment was initially made with regard to the button-mashing minigames used to increase your stats, but the concern wound up being emblematic of the game’s issues as a whole.

Under the Well

Jenn and Tristan are two rebellious twins living on the outskirts of a small port town with their adoptive father, a man known to almost everyone as the Professor. It’s clear from the jump that this is a relatively new situation for everyone involved, but when the Professor suddenly vanishes and a portal is discovered underneath their home, the twins are thrust into an underground world of goblins, dungeons, and magic in order to save him. To make a bad situation worse, the leader of the underground, Dwarvengobben, is planning a full-scale invasion to lay claim the surface, forcing Jenn and Tristan to stymie those efforts as best they can over the course of their search.

As touched on in the preview, a lot of attention is given to the communication between the two siblings in Young Souls, and I would argue it’s the highlight of the narrative. Their attitudes feel realistic, and their interactions authentic. For all their razzing of one another, they’re very similar people, and their close bond makes even more sense coupled with the context of their relationship with the townspeople. They’re mistrusted by a majority of the characters you interact with for reasons that aren’t immediately clear, and unearthing that mystery is an excellent motivator for the dungeon crawling in the early game.

And it isn’t just the twins’ dialogue that gets this attention to detail. The primary players of the narrative offer a tangible charisma and charm to most all dialogue in the game. You can’t work through much of the text in Young Souls without coming across some clever exchange or a bit of humor, and most of it sticks the landing despite it sometimes feeling like the game is attempting to reach a quirky quip quota.

With all this said, the storytelling setup is a bit deceptive. For better and for worse, Young Souls puts its best foot forward with an opening narrative focus inconsistent with the full experience. When you’re first introduced to the twins and their situation, mystery and intrigue abound. It’s easy to assume there’s a lot more than meets the eye with Jenn and Tristan not unlike the goblins hiding below the surface, and it had me excited to learn more about the world and the characters inhabiting it.

Sadly you’re never given much of a chance to do so, as the story takes a backseat once you reach the gameplay loop proper. Very few story beats occur save for those after major boss fights, and while you’ll still get to see plenty of banter between characters (and the twins especially), it never reaches the heights of the opening again. The storytelling simply plateaus.

You’re Gonna Parry That Weight

Combat feel and general fun factor are ubiquitous topics in the discussion of beat ‘em ups. For many titles these are elements you either have or you don’t, and Young Souls definitely has both of them in spades. When you hit an enemy you feel it, and the satisfying weight of the fighting is the core of what keeps you playing even after you said “just one more dungeon” two dungeons ago. The largest emphasis of the game’s combat is in executing well-timed parries by blocking just before an attack hits, and nailing a string of them against a boss before unloading as much damage as you can before they recover from their dizzy phase is beyond satisfying.

But parries aren’t the only tool at your disposal. Dodging, blocking, team-up attacks, sub-weapons, special moves—a wide variety of these are readily available to you as you progress, but they’re intelligently limited by cooldowns and resources to the point where none of them can be abused. There’s a very prevalent feeling of having to both utilize and understand all aspects of the combat, especially since you’ll always have a different preferred method of dealing with each enemy types and boss.

While combat is fun in and of itself, it’s elevated thoroughly by the equipment system. With every dungeon you clear, you’ll be earning lots of different pieces of equipment with unique stats and passive effects to weigh for your current build. There isn’t much in the way of marginal increases in stats in Young Souls, with most of the passives you select through your equipped shoes and armors changing up your gameplay significantly. I played Jenn as an agile, roguish character with twin daggers and speed-increasing equipment, but she took a lot of damage, so I kitted Tristan as more of a tank to compensate for my Jenn build’s weaknesses.

And those weaknesses were keenly felt on higher difficulties. The option recommended by the developers (the third of four choices) offers a steep challenge and requires some snappy reaction times. This is especially true in the early game, when you’re still trying to come to grips with the controls and wanting for more equipment. Bosses will demand quite a bit of focus until you start to memorize their moves, and recognizing each attack in order to respond accordingly is a big part of getting stuck into the game.

It’s also very much worth noting the plethora of accessibility options for things like auto-blocking, increasing your damage dealt to enemies, altering your attack speed, adjusting your stamina refill rate, and tweaks of that nature. The options here are in addition to the four separate difficulty levels, providing a lot of customization to shape the experience differently, should you find the game’s default balance prohibitive to your enjoyment for one reason or another.

Regardless of how you tune the experience to your liking, however, the game has a tendency to feel a bit one-note, especially when it comes to boss encounters. There are a lot of reused attacks and animations across bosses, even if the designs and textures themselves are more varied, and it doesn’t take long at all for you to start reaching a boss and see that its attacks are eerily similar to another you fought twenty minutes ago. There are far too many big bosses with large weapons, and it begs the question as to why this specific archetype was reused so extensively when there are other boss designs earlier on to draw from. Naturally you can offset the repetition by changing up your builds, but the overabundance of similar attack patterns and enemy layouts ensure that the feeling follows you no matter how often you switch things up. Especially in the latter third of the game, it starts to feel a bit exhausting with how quickly you’re playing through the same fights in close proximity.

While I didn’t experience any outright crashes, I did encounter several bugs. None of them were game-breaking, but plenty of them were a source of annoyance, with the worst culprit being the disappearance of a blacksmith NPC that I needed to interact with to upgrade my equipment. Fast traveling to his location would often result in him disappearing after the twins entered the room, and this happened with such consistency that I had to get into the habit of traveling to the adjacent area and then physically walking there if I wanted to upgrade. Interface display issues (and one instance of being jettisoned through the walls of a boss arena) required a restart of the game a handful of times, but the generous auto-save system prevented them from being large detriments to the experience.

I feel the need to include the caveat that all of the above is coming from a singleplayer perspective, and Young Souls is quite clearly designed as a local co-op experience first and foremost. I can easily see a lot of these issues being less conspicuous when you’re playing through it with a friend or significant other, and the game is always fun, but it’s clear a lot more could have been done to keep things from getting stale all the same.

Colorful Cutouts

If ever there was an aspect of Young Souls where it’s difficult to find any faults, it’d be the visuals. The game employs an exuberantly expressive papercraft presentation for its distinct look, but it’s the infusion of a colorful yet desaturated palette that brings it all home. The character design is particularly impressive, with no shortage of memorable looks, and I greatly appreciated the ability to customize the twins’ outfits to my liking.

The implementation of two-dimensional characters on the three-dimensional environments is nothing short of a treat on every screen, and the fact that Young Souls can look this good without cluttering up the gameplay itself is something to be commended. It’s also a great feeling to build up your mana bar and unleash a special attack, covering your currently controlled character in a flash of colors before they deal heavy damage.

When it comes to audio, the heaviness of the sound effects does wonders for combat feedback. Swinging a greatsword at a group of goblins, for example, results in a meaty sound effect for each strike, and the same is true for every swipe of a dagger. Noticeable attention was also given to the ambient sound effects and music, which always elevate the atmosphere, although I did find myself wishing the soundtrack was a little more pronounced and memorable as time went on.

Young At Heart

With a more concerted effort to keep the experience exciting as the playthrough carries on, Young Souls could have easily been so much more. Instead, you have a game where you’ve seen the lion’s share of what it has to offer after three or so of the game’s ten hours.

And yet despite the lack of variety in the encounters and the receding relevance of an initially intriguing storyline, I never wanted to put it down thanks to an abundance of heart. It’s charming, it’s a joy to look at, it’s challenging, and its accessibility options are lightyears ahead of most beat ‘em ups, but what you see is what you get in Young Souls: a demonstrably good game, but not a great one.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by The Arcade Crew for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of The Arcade Crew.