Review: Wayward Souls

By Sean Clancy 02 May 2014 0
Oh, you lovable orcs. Have you ever not had *that* accent? Oh, you lovable orcs. Have you ever not had *that* accent?

The trick to Wayward Souls is that it offsets the poor, poor player's inevitable failure with modest pinches of refined badassery. You will cleave through waves of sentient jelly monsters, nimbly dodge the thrown pickaxes of zombie miners, and conjure up columns of flame to drive back floating magical hardcovers pinging mana bolts at you in an enchanted library.

And undoubtedly these moments will be far, far outnumbered by those when you, say, accidentally detonate a barrel of dynamite in your own face with an errant spell, or fatally misjudge an evil knight's attack pattern and sync yourself into—not away from--a series of mace blows, or simply when you're rushed-down by a pack of bads and dispatched with all the ceremony of someone taking out the trash on a Thursday.

And, undoubtedly, you'll give these moments roughly equal time in the spotlight when you're relating gaming tales to a savvy pal. Fair enough.

What's most surprising about Wayward Souls, though, is how seemingly played-out its foundation is, and how far it goes to give its generic 16-bit fantasy trappings some freshness. Our heroes each have their own motives for exploring the mines, abandoned mansion wings, and other sundry locales which comprise the randomly assembled maps of Wayward Souls. These are quick, unique bits of back-story woven into the overarching tale of restless ghosts and a long-abandoned magical nexus, related to the player through short cutscenes between dungeon floors and individual story segments which crop up through play (usually as preface to a big ol' fight). Naturally our starting characters are your warrior, mage, and rogue, filling the game roles of melee-focused tank, ranged DPS, and nimble backstabber, as well as the story roles of avenging brother, curious scholar, and money-loving cutthroat.

The rogue kicks people and then stabs them while they're still seeing stars. Great with kids and pets, though. The rogue kicks people and then stabs them while they're still seeing stars. Great with kids and pets, though.

And, what do you know, they all feel good. Really good. Souls' control scheme is the touch-screen standard of moving with the left thumb-zone, and attacking with the right, a set-up we've all learned to, well, tolerate. But by the grace of the gods (or some evil arcane devilry—I'm not complaining either way), it works. Movement is just sensitive enough where you feel confident navigating around foes' attacks (at least those you're quick enough to notice in time), but not finicky, and certainly not the too-common sluggish sort where your thumb needs to travel halfway across the screen every time your avatar walks through a room.

Enemies are fairly obvious when it comes to telegraphing their attacks, whether it be through the sound of a mage's lightning blast charging or the visual cue of a giant bronze automaton raising its arms to crush you. The problem isn't figuring out when an enemy is going to attack, it's in remembering how it attacks, and in deciding where you should position yourself to both avoid damage and launch a successful counter-strike.

Most characters have ammo-burning defensive and offensive maneuvers (activated by swiping down or up on the right of the screen—the least slick component of Souls' controls), such as the mage's combination of wind magic to blow foes away with fire magic to deal damage over time, or the warrior's infinitely less interesting shield(!) and throwing axes(!!!) kit. Attacks can be charged with energy (also used to power the mage's main attack, and the rogue's dodge) for extra damage, and enemies' attack frames can be interrupted by successful blows on your part, which is just endlessly satisfying. Overall, the combat is satisfyingly chunky, with weight behind every attack—even the mage's. And when you go on a roll in Wayward Souls, you're quite literally untouchable.

And untouchable really is the way to go. Even for the beefy warrior, damage can pile up quickly, with Wayward Souls being fantastically stingy when it comes to handing out health potions. (Maybe two per several-floor stage.) More reliable is the small heal you get when you head to the next part of a stage—assuming, of course, that you can keep your damage received to a minimum. Screwing up a little bit, consistently, is just as lethal as screwing up huge, once. More so than in its semi-permanent deaths and ever-changing levels, Wayward Souls betrays a roguelike-ness in this deadly attrition, which is constantly gnawing at the player and filling them with doubt during even the simplest fights.

It helps if your bling is named as though it were a Robot Master power-up in a Megaman game. It helps if your bling is named as though it were a Robot Master power-up in a Megaman game.

Similarly, Wayward Souls' main upgrade system presents players with a different sort of famine. In any one stage, you might be able to find a few magical forges, each of which offer an upgrade to either a character's weapon or one of their secondary skills. Rather than being simple damage boosts, these forges can fundamentally change the way a class works.

The rogue, for example, might have to choose between a cloak which makes invisibility potions last longer, or one which has a chance to automatically poison foes which attack her. The mage's basic mana blast can be turned into a speedy ice lance that, when charged, slows enemies, or a shorter-ranged fire blast which passes through multiple foes. It's not quite complicated enough, or consistent enough in the doling out of items, where you could really aim for certain "builds," but it's more than possible to create a somewhat rogue-esque warrior, or a close-range killer of a mage.

Of course, you can only get a few upgrades per stage, and always a choice between one of two boosts for the same ability. Oh, and upgrades don't carry over between stages, of course. (It's actually revealed that the forges can only make replicas of real legendary items. Effective, but cheap, magical knock-offs—a clever touch of lore to explain away the fact that you can lose and reacquire the same “unique” weapon in one playthrough.)

These temporary upgrades are far better than the game's permanent ones, bought with gold collected in dungeon runs and applied to specific classes. These latter boosts mostly involve passive percentage upgrades (and small ones, at that) to things like critical hit chance, health, energy regeneration, and so on—with nothing stopping you from acquiring all of them, in time. Useful, but dull as all hell when I can equip my warrior with a stained glass sword capable of deflecting magic.

Minor gripes aside, though, Wayward Souls is damn fine. It's an action RPG which simply feels great on iOS, not “you know, great... for iOS, I guess.” I imagine some will confuse its weighty, deliberate combat for clunkiness, and, eh, I suppose I can't blame them for being once bitten, twice shy when it comes to the faux-gamepad control scheme on touch-screen. But there's just too much here to ignore, including the three additional classes—adventurer, spellsword, and cultist—unlockable through play. (You can also find silly hats for characters to wear). Having spent some time with the former, I can say that he doesn't quite play like the warrior, mage, or rogue—more a combination of the three.

That's Wayward Souls all over: excellence by way of A) getting the basics right, B) making choices important, and C) not stopping until you've done something just a touch weird. Also, D) DEATH. Or... D) DIE. D) KILLS LOTS. Game's hard as a diamond, okay?

Wayward Souls was played on a 3rd generation iPad for this review.

Review: Wayward Souls

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