I’ve always loved beat ’em ups. In recent years, they’ve become more complicated, showcasing classic 2D gameplay alongside RPG elements and gear. Young Souls is a positively gorgeous game, with snappy, satisfying combat and an enjoyable loop. But it’s also horribly let down by an insanely inconsistent difficulty curve and some of the most unfair boss battles I’ve seen in the genre. It’s worth checking out, but there are some serious caveats on display. Young Souls is not the sterling example of the modern beat ’em up that it could have been with better balance.
Young Souls‘ story is an enjoyable one. Tristan and Jenn are twin teenage delinquents who have been taken in by the Professor, an old scientist living in a mansion. One day, the Goblin king, called Dwarvengobben, abducts the Professor in order to force him to help with an invasion of the surface. Undaunted, the twins make contact with a Goblin of an opposing faction and use a gate to go into the Goblin realm. It’s their job to track down runes and deliver them to their town’s mayor in order to delve deeper in and rescue their adoptive father.
The dialogue is well written and can be fairly funny. The twins themselves are a high point, as their pissed-off bravado and brusque tongues make them endearing. Young Souls has plenty of story sequences, although none of them are voiced. Still, the cast’s personalities shine through, including Dwarvengobben’s band of Goblin commanders. The game’s visuals are even more impressive. Characters are all comprised of beautifully animated 2D art that is just brimming with life. Environments are 3D, making Young Souls one of the best-looking 2.5D games I’ve ever seen. The game also has a solid amount of content and can take 8-10 hours to get through, depending on difficulty level and how much side stuff you do.
Into the depths
The Goblin underworld is divided into four sections, although the last of these is purely linear. The first three sections are dungeon areas that lead to mini sections mostly gated off by keys. You just go in these and kill everything you come across until you make it to the mini-boss or what have you at the end, which then usually leads to another level chunk or boss battle. Some of these areas are optional, though, such as ones where you can fight bosses again in new areas for some overpowered loot.
Aside from the Goblin underworld, you also have free reign of the Professor’s house. The twins’ bedroom is where they can level up once you have enough experience. You can also take them into the town itself either via fast travel or by riding Tristan’s moped. The town has the Mayor’s office, as well as a gym for increasing stats if you have a token, and a couple of shops. There’s also a well leading to the Goblin market, where the twins can buy and upgrade gear, as well as potions.
Combat is fantastic in some ways. Hitting enemies causes them to get staggered and knocked around, and it feels wonderful. You can also block, parry, and dodge.
In essence, Young Souls has the potential of a great beat ’em up, but it makes some truly poor choices that stop it short. For one, you can only move the twins using an analog stick on gamepad, which just doesn’t feel as accurate as a d-pad would have been. Much worse is that you double-tap to run. Since it uses an analog stick, you’ll find yourself running by mistake. To add insult to injury, running is annoyingly slippery and feels slipshod. But the problems don’t end there.
How could I ever?
At first, the twins only have two dodge charges in Young Souls, which can make getting out of the way feel arbitrarily restricted. This gets better as the game goes on, but it feels unnecessary and is even more unfortunate due to the greasy and haphazard movement.
But the biggest problem with the game is that it cares more about being “hard” than it does about being fun. Granted, the game isn’t challenging. Whenever it attempts to be, it only feels ridiculously cheap instead.
There are a great many strong enemies in the game, and a lot of them are pure bullshit. They’re often resistant to parries and block damn near everything you throw at them, meaning you’ll only get tiny windows where you can attack. Bosses can have up to four health bars, so these fights can be truly awful. You literally have to just do chip damage while waiting for openings. All the while, you’re struggling to control your characters as they glide around the arenas while you’re trying to avoid damage.
Enemies also hit hard and fast. Many can kill a character in two or three hits with no invulnerability time. Tons of occasions saw a character die because they were juggled to death by enemy spam.
On the recommended difficulty, Tristan and Jenn have one extra life, but that goes up by one as the difficulty is lowered. A lot of the bosses on the recommended difficulty feel like you’re being mocked. I had to reduce the difficulty for two bosses to the easiest setting, as I don’t even see how they’re possible otherwise. One boss has four health bars, can kill your character in three hits, and is almost always impossible to attack as he blocks everything. Another boss can one-shot you and also heals itself multiple times during the fight. It’s almost like the game wasn’t even balanced at times.
On the flipside, once you’ve properly geared up and upgraded, Young Souls can feel astoundingly easy on the recommended difficulty. I’d go from leisurely slaughtering my way through my foes, only to find a nearly unbeatable enemy in the next room. As I said, the balance is just baffling. Some of the gear you can equip is also stupidly overpowered. Strangely, the final boss fight isn’t bad at all, and I thought the difficulty of that specific fight was mostly where it needed to be.
I also saw some bugs. One time, after getting to the exit of a level chunk, the twins fell through the ground indefinitely, requiring me to start it over again from the beginning. Another time, I was unable to pick up one of the game’s rarest finite currencies, as it bugged out. You swap between Tristan and Jenn with a button press while solo, and they can revive each other if they have the lives. But sometimes the character I switched from would randomly die while in reserve mode. I saw that one happen again and again.
Young Souls is undoubtedly lovely to look at and the basics of the combat feel great. But the game is poorly balanced and full of unnecessary cheapness and lackluster design. I do like it overall, but I’m disappointed at the same time, as it really could have been so much better with additional polish. If you love loot-based beat ’em ups, then there are plenty of reasons to give the game a go. Just be prepared for some serious frustration along the way.