The premise of Titan Souls, while unusual, is not entirely unique as anyone familiar with the 2005 cult classic Shadow of the Colossus should know.
While both Shadow of the Colossus and Titan Souls take place in fantasy-inspired universes, composed of magic, monsters, and men, a la Legend of Zelda and countless other games that have come in its wake, the actual living population of the worlds belonging to the aforementioned games, though, is much more sparse than that of a Zelda game.
While Zelda asks the player to take on the role of Link, an adventurer seeking to rescue the eponymous Princess Zelda, by exploring the Kingdom of Hyrule, battling its hordes of monsters, locating its dungeons, and then defeating each dungeon’s boss, Shadow of the Colossus eschewed much of the constant action and combat of previous games of this sort. It cut out the traditional “hordes of monsters” to focus on the protagonist’s real goal, the defeat of a series of boss monsters.
In other words, all that the gameplay of Shadow of the Colossus consists of is that series of boss fights so familiar to gamers. In the game, the player explores, locates a colossus, and then dispatches it. There are no enemies along the way. The focus of the game is only on the all important “big” fights of this video game tradition.
And it is this minimalism, just exploration followed by the “important part” of any game, the boss fight, that makes up the action of Titan Souls. This game just like Shadow of the Colossus is a series of boss fights and little else.
That being said, Titan Souls adds a new twist on this minimalistic design by minimizing even more of the experience of a very traditional trope in video games, the boss fight, by minimizing the mechanics of the game itself (there are only two buttons used in the game, one that allows you to run if held down or to roll if simply pressed and released and one that allows you to fire an arrow if pressed and released and to telekinetically retrieve the arrow afterward by holding the button down).
Gone also from the standard formula of games like this is any kind of collection of new weapons and power ups. The hero is armed with a bow and arrow. That is correct, not a bow and arrows, but a bow and arrow, one, single arrow.
Essentially what this means is that in a fight, the hero can run, roll to dodge, and fire a single precise shot. A shot can be taken again, but only after the arrow is retrieved. This archer is no machine gunner.
Oh, and by the way, in most instances the boss characters in Titan Souls take a single shot to kill. Yes, that’s right. There is no exceptionally long health bar that your hero needs to wear down in order to down a boss. He just has to nail it perfectly once (again, in most cases) to get the job done. While that might make the game sound easy, this, of course, is where the game actually develops its real challenge.
If a “boss,” a Titan in the game’s context, requires only a single shot to kill that does mean that the game is going to make it extremely difficult to nail that one shot and another challenge to figure out exactly where or how that shot must be taken in order to be successful. Boss battles, then, become a kind of puzzle, in which you fire, retreat, and move all while considering what needs to be done to take a particular Titan down. The puzzle is then complicated by the fact that doing so usually requires some pretty dextrous action in accomplishing whatever physical combination of running, rolling, dodging, shooting, and retrieving will lead to that single successful shot.
Oh, and the other thing that adds to the challenge of killing a Titan? Your character will also be dispatched by a single shot, too.
That’s the game, a game that is about as minimal as the already minimalistic formula of Shadow of the Colossus can get: one arrow, one shot, one hit, one life, one kill.
In other words, Titan Souls is anything but easy.
The fascinating thing about this minimalistic design is the minimal emotional response that it evokes in its player. In my experience of the game so far (I haven’t beaten it quite yet, though I don’t think that it is exceptionally long), having beaten five bosses so far, is that the game makes me feel only two starkly different emotions, complete and utter aggravation or one of the purest senses of accomplishment that I have ever felt while playing a video game.
Titans Souls is unforgiving and unrelenting. You travel the game world, locate a place where a Titan spawns, initiate a battle with it, and then you die. You then, finding yourself only slightly wiser than before, travel back to that place, reinitiate battle with the Titan, and die again. You then typically repeat this process… a lot.
Over and over again, you die to the boss, sometimes learning something new about how to better avoid his attacks or getting a new idea of what might need to be done to take him down in a single shot, but sometimes having nothing learned at all, just that you timed a dodge badly… yet again.
Death is irritating and made all the more irritating because you have to travel back again to the place you just fought (usually a fairly short distance, but I promise after a dozen or so returns that even traveling a short distance can grate on one’s nerves). Also, sometimes your next effort, the actual battle itself, may only take one or two seconds before you are dead and respawning once again (remember one life, one hit, and you’re dead).
A sense of aggravation at the game and at one’s self is persistent throughout most of one’s actual playtime in Titan Souls. And, yet, I can’t help myself. I just keep going back for more punishment because…
Well, eventually you are going to make that hit, and when you do, man, is it satisfying.
In a Zelda game or most other games, killing a boss would lead to rewards, a sense of accomplishment represented through some additional hit points, a new item, some kind of power up. Again, though, Titan Souls‘s formula and mechanics, its commitment to minimalism, allows for no such practical and functional reward. You will always only have one arrow, one shot, and one hit point.
So, instead, the game provides a spectacle that matches your own elation at finally having made that one perfect shot. The hero rises into the air, much like a warrior from the Highlander series does after successfully dispatching his opponent, glowing with energy and then that energy explodes around him marking the grandeur of the moment.
In a sense, the game game rewards your own sense of accomplishment with a visual spectacle that matches and acknowledges that feeling, nothing more. But in a sense, it doesn’t need to do anything more than that. The experience of knowing that you did something perfectly offsets the aggravation of the puzzle-like play of tactics and quick reflexes that grow more and more irritating through repetition of failure after failure. You don’t need some new bauble to understand how good this feels.
If I could graph the emotional experience of playing Titan Souls, it would look something like this: aggravation, more aggravation, growing aggravation, even more aggravation, complete and utter elation, followed by aggravation, more aggravation, growing aggravation, even more aggravation, complete and utter elation, followed by aggravation, more aggravation, growing aggravation, even more aggravation, complete and utter elation… well, you get the picture.
In this, seemingly the Golden Age of minimalist game design (given the vast amount of brief, cheap, and minimally designed indie games available on Steam or on Xbox Live or on the Playstation Network in the last couple years), Titan Souls does something that I can’t say that I think I have seen another minimalist game do. That is, Titan Souls weds the emotional experience to its commitment to minimalism. Its minimal mechanics, minimal graphics, minimal boss battles, minimal lives, minimal ammunition, etc. all lead to a minimal emotional range that one can experience in response to it. This might sound limiting to the overall experience, but in truth, it leads to a surprisingly satisfying gaming experience born of the game’s efficiency in delivering challenge and a tremendous sense of accomplishment through brief, compact combat experiences that deliver more, rather than less.