It took me 15 minutes and 12 deaths to beat the first enemy in Eldest Souls

(Image credit: United Label)

Eldest Souls is due out later this year. A demo is currently available on Steam as part of The Game Festival.

Desolation? Check. Old Gods? Check. 'Souls' literally in the title? Check. Eldest Souls isn't shy about its influences. It's a pixelated Souls-like with nothing but large-scale boss battles. I play a cloaked figure called the Crusader who carries a sword so comically oversized it would make Cloud Strife blush. The world has gone to absolute hell, and it's up to him and his sword to kick every Old God's ass up and down the Ancient Citadel. 

At least that's the plan. In reality I get my butt handed to me again and again by the very first enemy. The Watchdog is at least three times my size with a canine face, a jagged sword, and a ribcage shield, and it murdered me in a matter of seconds. The Watchdog leaps, slashes, and charges with frustratingly quick reflexes, every hit shaving off a third to half my health. 

I'm a big fan of well-done pixel art (and Eldest Souls looks real nice) but it's difficult to determine where the hits will strike, and my limited dodge skill offers me almost zero frames of invincibility. I die and die again, averaging a 20-second life-span.

But, true to the genre, I begin to improve. Respawning is instant, combat is quick and rhythmic. My basic sword swing does almost nothing to the Watchdog's massive health bar, but charging my sword results in a dash-attack, and more importantly, buffs it with Bloodrage, providing extra damage for a limited time. 

Half a dozen deaths later the game kindly informs me I can perform a high-damage special attack called Blood Burst as long as my sword still has half its Bloodrage charge left. I've finally learned all the basic dance moves, though my partner remains mostly uncooperative.

I continue to learn the boss's patterns, performing my charge-dash only when it's safe, unleashing a quick flurry of Bloodrage attacks, then ending with a big wallop of Blood Burst, and quickly dashing away. It takes a few more tries, but eventually the Watchdog falls, and I can finally exhale. It feels like an hour's passed, but it's only been about 15 minutes.

(Image credit: United Label)

After the battle I acquire a talent point that can be spent on one of three abilities: A retaliatory guard; a new longer-range dash-attack with little green laser beams; or a temporary buff with explosive damage. All three abilities need to charge via attacking before I can unleash them, maintaining the speed and offensive focus of combat.

Each of the three talents has another three trees to further specialize each ability. The demo is too limited to try them out, but judging from the descriptions they vary wildly, including adding debuffs to Blood Burst, unleashing shockwaves after charging, or empowering shard attacks—and that's just for the Fury talent. Shards are an entirely different section that's completely grayed-out during the demo, but look like a form of magic.

Between boss fights I can explore the next area and pick up a few items, though I wasn't able to determine what significance they held in the demo beyond giving a harp string to a gloomy bard, who rewarded me with a feather that increased my movement speed outside of combat. Exploration is very limited and linear, but the pixelated world is appropriately moody and dark, with half-buried skeletons, ancient runes, and stormy weather, and oppressively gothic music that grows in intensity during the boss fights.

(Image credit: United Label)

Next stop is the Citadel itself, an imposing fortress where a half-dead guard lies among his slain brethren, trying to warn me away. Maybe he saw how many times it took me to beat the Watchdog. But I'm still standing, so I soldier on, dropping into an arena with a towering knight called the Guardian. 

It takes me 20 minutes and more deaths than I can count before I discover this armored bastard has a second, faster, tentacled form when I finally start hacking him down to half health. Needless to say, another death soon followed.

The demo ends after finally laying the Guardian to rest. Eldest Souls definitely has the brutal difficulty locked down. Skipping all the in-between minion fluff to get right to the big boss battles is an intriguing, if humbling, take on the Souls-like genre. Hopefully the talent trees and shards add much-needed tactical depth later on, as the charging sword combo can only carry the action so far.