Three of the Best Soulslike Games from PAX East 2018
Between Below, Ashen and Eitr, Soulslikes are here in a big way
Literally two days ago, I received the news that would shape the tone of a majority of my first day at PAX East 2018. That was of course, that Below, Capy Games long lost title was going to have a presence on the show floor. For the first time in years, a game I’ve yearned day and night for was finally going to be out in the wild and I had the privilege of seeing it, relatively unbothered by the masses. Not only did I play this game, but there were a litany of games of similar ilk that plagued my first day on the show floor. With that in mind, I figured I’d share some impressions from a day filled with Souls-like video games.
I figure there’s no better way to start this then with the best and earliest game I played, aside from a game of PUBG I indulged in at the Xbox booth. So let’s talk about Below.
It seems like it’s close, folks. The biggest takeaway from its presence on the floor and the incredibly polished nature of the demo tells me that as I’ve suspected, this is the year we get it. Nothing that I saw was terribly new or unfamiliar but rather a reinforcement that what we’ve come to know has been polished to a tee, with small changes for the better.
It’s still as dark and oppressive as you likely thought it was when we first saw the game 5 years ago. In that sense, nothing has changed at all. Light comes almost entirely off of your own person and the lantern that you receive. You still feel infinitely smaller than your surroundings, cavern walls still tower over you and to complement that feeling, you are lacking in resilience. Within a few hits, you are either dead, or at least dying from bleed damage. If the mobs of enemies aren’t hurting you, traps are lying in wait to trip you up or impale you. Enemies lie in wait in the obfuscated edges of the screen and their emergence from thin air, enveloped in an ominous series of red lights is as fantastical as it is outright freakish. At the heart of this design choice though is a drive to explore every edge of every screen you come to. The blurriness only serves to block whatever key or doorway you’ll need to get out of your immediate surroundings while simultaneously refusing to give away any information that would make you less likely to explore the level to the utmost degree.
This philosophy carries over to your equipment and supplies which have no descriptors let alone a tutorial to instruct its usage and application.I found a water mask and equipped it well before knowing what purpose it would serve me and I died before I could ever find out. I only made a potion near the end of my demo by discovering that there needed to be a vial of water to combine with the fish and meat that i’d been scrounging for. Oh yes, there’s a crafting system. Which is itself all a part of a grander survival system that affords the game the heft that will inevitably carry it beyond its rogue-like trappings, Legend of Zelda combat mechanics and Souls-like ambiance. In my own demo, my ultimate undoing ended up being the fact that I bled out. The whole time I was worrying about hunger, there were aspects of my being I neglected that ended my run. This balancing act is the necessary differentiation that helps Below stand apart from its obvious influences. While Below is very much the marriage of all these legacies, it also stands to be the most successful and novel portmanteaus in the genre. It’s simplistic approach, its embodiment of scale, its withholding of information and its layered systems will be what makes Below the fantastic game it’s incredibly poised to be.
There are myriad aspects that anyone can lift from the Dark Souls games at this point that could inform any number of games that would clearly invoke the heritage and be runaway successes. Ashen, the latest from Annapurna’s publishing arm and the debut title of developer Aurora44, is one of those titles.
Ashen, the latest addition to this family, is on a purely aesthetic level, Dark Souls 3. It’s just as heavy on the doom and gloom as that particular title in the series, which centers around its world ending. The landscapes of Ashen are bleak, minimalist, and dotted by foes, lending the game a feeling of despair that few others truly channel. As you walk through the barren over-world of the game, descended on my marauders, it really does feel like the end is nigh.
Unfortunately, the focus of the game does not lie in that world. Instead it seems that the crux of the game is its dungeons, or at the very least that’s what was the focal point of my demo.
The dungeon that I saw was more akin to a series of short hallways with detours that were less than encouraging in what you’d find should you explore. The occasional mushroom was at the end of one, which functioned as a source of health aside from the occasional fountain of water. From the outset, me and my companion (find devs and ask them how matchmaking works) were led to a stone face with holes sufficiently sized for us to place our hands in. Upon doing that, the wall receded and we were led through brief hallway after brief hallway by a shadow that would emerge from the ground to guide us. As the shadow did that, me any my partner got by on swinging our spears or bludgeons at our foes, who were predominantly spiders. This is where the game lost me.
While deriving from the same visual aesthetic, Ashen has placed itself in an awkward situation. It’s guided nature robs the game of any mystery outside of jump scares, of which there was one which triggered the boss fight at the end of the demo. However as well as mystery, the Souls games have been lauded for their open-ended design choices and their elegant gameplay. Ashen has not only mostly deprived itself of the open spaces of those games but refuses to give you the capability to move with any elegance outside of a heavy and big swing. Enemies in the early stages feel easily conquerable, which makes maneuverability secondary, and the difficulty seems to emerge from foes able to capitalize on your slow movements rather than intelligently designed encounters.
While I can imagine a world where I greatly enjoyed Ashen, it seems to prioritize certain aspects of its lineage while doubling down on design that’s counter intuitive to what actually made those games enjoyable to play. I look forward to seeing more from that world in the hope that this demo is only an inkling of what the whole package has to offer. If the ending of the demo is any indication, there’s a lot more to this game than meets the eye.
Admittedly the Soulslike I spent the least time with, Eitr grabbed my attention purely visually. Whereas I’ve seen this staple of games in beautifully rendered 3D constructions of nightmares and 2D offerings, Eitr decides to forgo both and gives the player an isometric camera view and a 16-bit style to work with. Mechanically everything is in place: there’s a swing, there’s a block, there’s weirdly enough a parry that’s on a separate button rather than being a timed block, there’s a dodge etc.
It’s at least halfway between Below, which gives you speed but asks you to be slow, and Ashen, which just tasks you with being slow atop of all the regular challenges. The encounters ranged from anywhere between manageable and “holy shit, that skeleton annihilated me” which is about the balance that I want out of those games.
Ultimately Eitr’s chief sin is that it fails to be terribly imaginative in a space that has been dominated by games exuding creativity. This is evident in its basic foes but most obviously in its setting. While Below uses its scale to make you feel insignificant and weak, it also serves to provide space for more fantastic occurrences and iconography. Eitr instead puts you in what on first glance appears to be the cellar to a castle. For a brief second, I thought I’d entered the cellar of a Poe story like The Cask of Amontillado, though that cellar at least has characters bouncing off the walls. There’s the potential for something good hidden in there, it just needs to find its way from out of the rubble.
To some degree all three of these games are derivative of tried and true formulas, which makes them beacons for success. On some level, these games get what is to be a Soulslike and are even trying to do them differently in a way that pleases me and is sure to please consumers and while all of them aren’t entirely successful in replicating what makes Souls games as special, they at least understand the core principles of what makes them tick. At least with this knowledge in hand, I can trust that without Souls there’s still heart in this genre.