Given my record with the game in the past 30 or so minutes, I should have known better, but I ask anyways. “How long do you think I’ll last?” The developers’ eyes flit around, the three of them resisting a wry smile or two. Design lead Mark Foster speaks up. “Three seconds.” Hmm, three seconds, huh? We’ll see about tha—oh fuck I died.
This is Titan Souls, a game from Acid Nerve that originally started out as a part of Ludum Dare 28. Ludum Dare is a game jam competition that gives developers two days to make a game that fits a theme, and the one for LD28 was “you only get one.” In the case of Titan Souls, you only get one hit point and one arrow for your one bow.
It’s an intensely difficult game, often resulting in rapid and accumulating deaths in short spans of time. It’s presents a dude in a The Legend of Zelda-esque perspective and visual milieu but puts you in a Shadow of the Colossus predicament. You must take down several titans, each one unique and powerful and unapologetically bigger than you, with little to no understand of why. At least, in the beginning.
I’m assured by the developers that there is a reason to all this, an explanation behind you going after these defensive-turned-offensive foes and why you only have the one arrow. Until you fire your single, lonely pointed stick at a titan, they don’t do much except just sit there. In fact, they tell me the most common mistake people make is they attack when they’re standing right next to the titan just because they’re so docile at first.
Luckily, you are mostly well equipped to fight these angry behemoths. You move around with the left stick and dodge-roll with the B button, the sustained pressing of which enables you to simply run around. And then you hold R2 to draw your bow and release it to fire. And to get your arrow back, you hold down R2 again as it magnetically/magically rattles and shoots back to your quiver.
You move impressively fast. Or rather, fast enough to dodge most of what the titans can throw at you. In many cases, it’s just enough to stay alive, and others it’s just enough to get ahead and put the bare minimum distance between you two to get a single haphazardly aimed shot off. It’s an incredibly panicked affair, but it is just as exhilarating as it is stressful.
And these are just titans, I should say. The first open area is actually comprised of three doors, and each one hides a sole boss in a spacious room that quickly becomes claustrophobic. One is a heart, one is an eye, and another is brain. Once you beat all three, you can open the fourth door and finally attack the real titan, which is more traditionally shaped like an anthropomorphic being would be.
The first boss I attempt is the heart, which really is a heart encased in a blob of…something. It bounces around, trying to squash you, but each time you hit a chunk with your arrow, the chunk splits in half. If you’re not careful, you could end up with over a dozen pint-sized blobs while the heart roams free. But this is also where I’m accidentally introduced to the depth of this game.
When dodging around and attempting to retrieve my arrow, I draw it in just as a blob happens to plop down between my killing implement and me. And it hits. And it splits. And I realize that if I play my cards right, I can make every single shot count for two. I succeed at gaming the encounter slightly, but soon fall folly to my hubris as I deftly expose the heart for the killing blow and stupidly expose myself for a swift restart.
But in that moment, I understand. I understand that this is a significant and substantial game. It’s overflowing with nuanced mechanics. For instance, rolling up stairs actually results in a halted stumble while rolling down stairs gives you a double roll. And in the brain battle where it is encased in ice, fire will attach itself from the environment to your arrow, opening up the possibility of anything affecting your arrow in any other number of ways.
In that way, Titan Souls is an incredibly fascinating game. It forces you to act quickly and decisively to stay alive but plan ahead and think strategically as if you were playing a puzzle game. For instance, the eye boss is actually a cube that moves solely along the four cardinal directions, stomping along its locked lines as it seeks to squash you. You have to not only maneuver around sufficiently to survive but also plan your moves to expose its single eye-bearing side and fire your arrow into it.
It provides an intellectual rhythm to the combat, if there is such a thing. Every move matters, but it only matters insomuch that you figure out how to keep going and keep killing these titans. No particular action feels wasted or unnecessary, even when you miss a shot, because then it just opens up a new path that leads to your potential victory. Even in death is this game satisfying.
After I pass the reins to the developers to see what it looks like to succeed at the game with a masterful hand, they lead me into the debug area where four more challenging titans await. They sit behind unguarded doors in a largely empty space (it is a debug area, after all). As I enter the first door, I ask the question. “How long do you think I’ll last?”
It seems they’ve added quite a bit since their initial LD28 version. That one only ever had four titans to begin with, let alone some semblance of a story behind the battles. And movement has opened up, allowing more tactical and tactile rolls and shots. But even then, I never quite made it to the end. Some fun three seconds, though. Perhaps the best I found in all of E3. Titan Souls comes out early next year for PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, and the PlayStation Vita.