Of the three key influences in Acid Nerve's Titan Souls, From Software's Souls series is the least obvious. The PS4, Vita and PC game is an immediate callback to top-down Zeldas like A Link to the Past, with its pixelated bow-wielding hero dueling with boss after boss hidden in room-like caverns. The bosses themselves are huge, powerful and varied, and the very nature of a game in which you only take on bosses clearly takes inspiration from Shadow of the Colossus. These influences aren't hard to spot.
Your hero only has one hit point and a single weapon, the bow and arrow. It's a formula which on paper presents a challenge that doesn't have much to do with the Souls games at all. Yet there is a key similarity, and it's what makes Titan Souls shine with so much potential. If you love a good challenge, Titan Souls should definitely be on your radar.
The difficulties are very different in Titan Souls and the series which shares the latter half of its name. For all their cruelty, the Souls games aren't about punishing every single mistake with death, they are long hauls built on exploration and character progression. In Titan Souls you don't get stronger, and you'll only ever have a bow and arrow. That's a single arrow, by the way, that you have to magically call back after you fire it. While the bosses all technically have just one hit point each, sometimes you have to get past armor of sorts before you inflict damage. Your hero doesn't ever get armor; you always only have one hit point. If you're hit you're dead, and you have to start that boss fight from the top.
There is that immediate WTF feeling at how tough Titan Souls is - that's not the Souls-like similarity, by the way, and I'll get to that later. But yes, Titan Souls is a bastard. The first boss, a green bubble-like blob, bounced around the screen as he looked to squish me. The time I had between firing a shot and having to run and dodge a squish was minimal. It got tinier as I realized successful shots were only splitting the blob into two over and over until there was a small army of smaller, quicker blobs all bouncing around. It was like being a tiny bug inside a shoebox with a bunch of green jumping beans.
I died and I died, and I began to get frustrated at how powerless I felt. Movement was limited to a jog and small rolls. The arrow's analog stick aim was sensitive, exacerbating the precision required to land a hit against a foe who wasn't staying put. I was also really struggling with the distance and velocity of my sole arrow, which changed severely with how long I held down the button to charge each shot. Also, having to stay still both to fire the arrow and then make it return to me was painful. Holding down a button dragged the fired arrow straight to me, but I often had to let it drop back to the ground mid-drag so I could roll out of the way of one of the many squishy green goo-balls of instant death. The only plus? The arrow could impact on its return journey as well as when fired.
Dying six times in my first three minutes, it should've felt overwhelming. By the seventh death I'd somehow split the initial blob into about nine smaller ones, but I didn't know what I was now supposed to do to land that all-important hit. One of the blobs crushed me, and I should've been crushed inside too.
Yet I was quickly acclimatizing to Titan Souls, and here's where that similarity between it and the Souls series lies: There's a simple rawness to both. In the Souls games, ultimately you are the archetypal, Link-like hero. You have a weapon, a shield, some magic and a few other gizmos, and there's no real complexity to any of that. You swing your sword and you block with your shield, and if you do that well enough for long enough, you can beat a Souls game. For all the traps and tricks, it's that simple core that matters, and that's reflected by the rough, awkward but tense combat that similarly simple-yet-difficult classic adventure games were built on. Like its namesake, Titan Souls is a raw test of skill.
Developer Acid Nerve could make the arrow firing less skill-based, less precise and less awkward to make that difficulty more palatable. But where's the fun in that? This way, the awkward way, the concentration needed is amplified and then some. When the arrow misses - as it often does - that attempt to drag it back is uncertain and treacherous, but useful since you can still do damage. Because you've got one hit point, every single step, shot and roll is vital, but that would grate if the enemy had loads of hit points too. Finally, there's the puzzle element to keep you thinking. With the bouncing blobs for example, you need to spot that when you split the first one into two, one blob keeps the heart while the other is empty. Hit the spheres containing the heart enough times and it will flop out, and that is the boss' single hit point for you to finally fire at and wipe out.
The tension grew when I finally worked out what I was supposed to do, and then realized how hard it was to do it, even with the simple tools I had to hand. I got close once or twice, but sadly it was another player who took the glory and finally defeated the blobs, building on all my hard work, the swine. Still, he'd shown it could be done.
I now wanted to defeat as many of the bosses Acid Nerve had for me to try. There will be 20 in the final game, and I got to take on the five the British team has created so far. I only defeated two. I won't spoil how I beat them, but the two I felled included a large cube that flung itself like a bullet across a room, and another, smaller cube that moved around a grid, rotating on its sides and firing a very wide red laser from a beady eye that was reminiscent of the similarly laser-loaded statues found in the desert temple of A Link to the Past. In both instances, the arrow that won the fight had to hit, otherwise I'd have died the very next second. Also, like the green blobs, there was a puzzling element to both these fights.
The ones I couldn't defeat, however, showed puzzling won't always be a part of the boss fights, particularly the new one Acid Nerve brought to Gamescom. With this new boss, the objective was clear: just get one hit in anywhere on him. Unfortunately, he happened to be an ice titan who could rain down a flurry of ice picks, chuck giant snowballs straight at you, and then roll himself at you if you'd managed to survive that long. Just finding the time to fire an arrow was tough, let alone getting it on target.
It's a testament to Acid Nerve that it's managed to create bosses that you just have to hit once and made them somehow so difficult to beat. The difficulty the studio now faces is making all 20 bosses as strong as the five they've shown, and finding a way to keep players on their toes purely through the boss designs. Can it sustain a whole game with enough variety given the self-imposed limitations? If the answer is yes, then Titan Souls should prove to be a one-hit wonder - and I don't mean like Vanilla Ice - when it comes to PS4, Vita, Windows, Mac and Linux in early 2015.