I’m sure you, educated reader, are well-versed in masocore platformers – how some grant an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, some are crude spike bonanzas, and most exist to goad absurd human caricatures into screaming at their webcams – but riddle me this: why is it only retro platformers that people associate with masocore? Is it because the difference between success and failure, between landing on a pixel-wide ledge and falling into a giant meat grinder, can be balanced on such a thin knife-edge? Is it because the platformer is one of the few genres remaining whose arteries have yet to be clogged up with unnecessary storytelling, padding, fluff, and other things that would get in the way of retrying the same segment a hundred times over? Is it because they boil down to so few mechanics that their challenges are completely readable? To answer those questions – sort of – allow me to introduce my first example of a masocore non-platformer: Titan Souls.
The reason I drop ‘non-platformer’ is that Titan Souls is a little bit tricky to describe succinctly in the same kind of space. For all intents and purposes it’s a boss rush, but it feels more like what might have happened if Fumito Ueda had never gotten to a point where he was able to direct Shadow of the Colossus, and instead was forced to realise his vision by the much more modest means of romhacking Link To The Past for a decade or so. You’re a tiny pixel fellow who finds himself in a nearly-deserted ancient landscape, and must journey across it in order to find a load of titans, mercilessly slay them, and absorb their power. Perhaps you’re saving the world, perhaps you have a selfish motive, perhaps you’re just clearing them out so that somebody can start laying the foundations to a shopping complex. Kind of a shame that games don’t come with booklets anymore, ’cause this one would benefit from that.
Titan Souls was initially conceived for a game jam under the theme ‘You Only Get One’, and you can tell that Acid Nerve weren’t going to let anybody show them up when it came to adhering to that theme: you only have one arrow, which needs to be hastily retrieved after every shot, and can only take one hit before the titans have to call in the golem cleaners to scrape your pancaked remains off the floor. The titans, too, can only take a single hit, but as you’d expect, guard their weak points more carefully than a gentleman in front of a paintball firing squad. Back in my PAX Aus preview, drunk on my recent victory, I compared it to Dark Souls – as have many others – but in truth, other than the ‘definitely not derivative at all, trust us’ title, the only thing that makes it Souls-y is the punishing difficulty, which is a bit like saying that a rabid rhinoceros is a viable addition to the Ikea catalogue because it has four sturdy legs.
Right, so it’s a masocore one of those, then. Every fight is not a self-contained experience that you’re expected to beat on your first try, but a lengthy process involving attempting the fight, being pounded into the ground before you can say “hey, where’s my Estus Flask?”, respawning nearby, and repeating the whole thing numerous times until you’ve devised the perfect sequence of moves that grant you success. Like pulling off a sequence of jumps in I Wanna Be The Guy, it’s a process of steady refinement, building muscle memory, and a pinch of pure dumb luck. Everything is so beautifully minimalist in a way that you rarely see outside of platformers, expecting nothing more and nothing less than pure mechanical precision. “Here are your abilities,” says the game, laying down the thumbstick, the roll button, and the shoot button with the reverence of an elderly scholar bringing out their favourite manuscript. “Now master them.” Alright, it’s not the most cerebral sort of challenge, but whaddaya want, a skill tree?
Let’s just get straight to the boss fights, because that’s exactly what the game does. The titans of Titan Souls are a lot less titan-like than one would expect from the word ‘titan’ – including, among other things, a perpetually pogo-ing psychedelic mushroom, a yeti with an exposed bum and the unofficial king of the mimic chests – but since the game uses these liberties to make sure that every fight is a unique, memorable experience, I think we can avoid any needless pedantry. What’s nice about the boss designs is that they aren’t just a series of instant-kill hazards dressed up in progressively more extravagant skins; most have an interesting gimmick of sorts, be it the ability to swallow your arrow or make parts of the arena permanently unusable, that force you to play differently in some capacity beyond just trying to find the angle that’ll let you make the lethal shot. Still, I can’t help feeling that there are a few cop-outs, only remarkable at all because they live in the realm of one-hit kills and ridiculous aggression. How many games are going to make me fight a giant floating pair of hands with all the dexterity of a pair of smelting gloves? At least Master Hand and Crazy Hand have a bit of a flair for the dramatic. Some titans have such tiny windows of vulnerability that success feels more like a massive stroke of luck than any evolution of your own skill, while other titans, especially the final boss, are so obtuse that each fight with them is less of a desperate struggle and more of a textbook demonstration of the scientific method. What happens if I shoot here? What about here? What if I drag my arrow over here? Oh no, my investigations were cut short by my own expiration. Well, anyway, back to work.
I suppose it’s an inevitable product of making every titan die in one hit that some of them boil down to needlessly unintuitive puzzle fights, but even taking that out of the equation, it’s still not a system I see having much of a future. Not because it makes the fights too easy – it most certainly doesn’t, not with every single boss jumping around, blocking zealously or otherwise protecting itself – but because it gives them a very peculiar flow that I’m not sure I like. Health bars aren’t just a means of dragging out a fight you’ve already basically won: they force you to demonstrate consistency, avoid mistakes. They give a tangible sense of strength to a foe, directly communicating the size of the obstacle you need to overcome, transforming them into something solid that you have to wear down. We’ve all had that one sweat-inducing moment in Dark Souls (look, I just like using it as an example) where the boss’s remaining health bar is thinner than a coat of paint but one wrong move could put you back at square one. All that effort, all that tension, builds up to the point where landing the killing blow douses you in pure, unfiltered relief. In Titan Souls’ fights there’s no such tension, no sense of closing in on success or reaching a suitable culmination; the winning run isn’t so much an epic clash with a titan as an anticlimactic scuffle behind the bike sheds, over before you’ve invested anything in it. Success is still pretty satisfying, don’t get me wrong, but it all arrives very abruptly, and despite the game’s weirdly creative use of the rumble function when you tear out a titan’s soul, not with a whole lot of fanfare. I’m not asking for a level-up or the morph ball or anything like that, but when your only reward for succeeding is being closer to finishing the game – without anything new to see or do – it all seems rather meaningless.
Incidentally, have you ever wondered how popular masocore games get away with intentional trial-and-error gameplay when any other game trying the same would be lynched by a mob of sleep-deprived game journos? It’s because they punish failure so leniently: you get as many tries as you like, you lose no resources or lives, your death isn’t drawn out, and restarting is often little more than a single button-press away – a button that you will probably find yourself reflexively reaching for the moment things even begin to look vaguely pear-shaped. Alas, Titan Souls doesn’t quite reach that ideal. So much of the game consists of you entering a fight, dying within a second or so, respawning at a nearby checkpoint and navigating your way back to the arena you were just in, which after the tenth attempt starts to get a little bit tiresome. Dark Souls had a similar problem – sorry, but it’s actually relevant here, I promise – in the sense that the amount of time you spent actually fighting a boss paled in comparison to the amount of time you’d spend mindlessly retreading the same route to get to them in the first place. So why is it so much more wearisome here? Was it simply more tolerable in Dark Souls because it felt as if you were actually doing something productive on the way – even if it was just keeping your hand in practising your parrying – rather than just traversing space with no inherent purpose?
That’s what gets me about Titan Souls’ world: it exists, and it’s not particularly troublesome to navigate, but I’m not really sure why it’s there. There’s a fairly weak puzzle in one area and a hidden shortcut in a dusty corner, but apart from that the game might as well be taking place in a series of featureless office corridors for all the function the setting serves. You could argue that it’s a peaceful, contemplative interlude juxtaposed with the blood-pumping clamour of the battles, as in Shadow of the Colossus, but despite the stylish pixel art and ambient music, the overworld feels dead and empty – not in a ‘desolate land full of ancient beasts’ sort of way so much as a ‘we sucked all traces of life out of this stock fantasy land with an enormous vacuum hose’ sort of way. It’s too small to facilitate actual exploration, yet too large to prevent most of the space from feeling like anything but the video game equivalent of the stuff you find in bean bag chairs.
What else? A few things to note, I suppose. Even with the rather unnecessary overworld padding it out, Titan Souls is not a particularly lengthy game. Depending on how quick-fingered and stubborn you are, it’ll probably cave in after two to three hours, which is – if you’re the sort to measure your satisfaction by how long you’re distracted from your own inevitable decay – a bit of a poke in the eye. The game does its best with secret bosses, extra unlockable modes and such, but unless you’re playing the game for bragging rights, chances are they’re not worth bothering with. Oh yes, and there’s no mouse aiming in the game, so if you don’t own a controller you might as well throw any hope of ever succeeding right out the window – although given the kind of achievement arms-race this kind of game tends to inspire, I’m sure somebody will have beaten it with a Sega Activator they found in a dumpster before April is over.
When all’s said, done, and thoroughly nitpicked, Titan Souls still achieves what it wants to achieve: it’s creative, elegantly simple, very pretty, and of course, nail-rippingly hard. If you just want a brick wall to beat your head against for a while, and you’re tired of jumping titchy mascots through rooms full of spikes, then it’s a damn fine alternative, but it just feels so much less rewarding than it ought to be. Ordinarily success would be its own reward, but when it arrives so suddenly, so opportunistically and virtually without context, it can’t help but feel meaningless. Things are so much better when the masocore core shines through; when it’s just you, the boss, the tight controls, and your fiftieth sweaty-palmed attempt that day.
So that’s Titan Souls: more fun to lose than to win.
Source : Titan Souls Review from Playtroll.org