The label Souls-like is sometimes thrown around haphazardly to just refer to games that are incredibly hard. But really, the difficulty in the Souls series is far more complicated than just being extremely challenging. (Though make no mistake, the series is extremely challenging.)
Dark Souls and its related games balance player limitations and knowledge of your enemies. Combat relies on pattern and animation recognition, good timing, dexterity, and willpower. And any Souls-like worth its salt will have these elements as well.
Moonscars, a Souls-like game released earlier this year, takes things a step further. It combines the hand-crampingly difficult action of the Souls games with the workings of an action-platformer. It seems a little strange at first to add the elements of a Souls-like game to a Metroidvania, yet Moonscars makes the juxtaposition seem natural.
Let’s examine how Moonscars successfully crafted a Souls-like platformer by taking the best elements from the Souls franchise.
Combat, enemies, and timing
The comparisons to Moonscars and other Souls-like games naturally begin with the gameplay — and specifically, the combat. Just like in Dark Souls, you’ve got a number of weapons and magic spells plus a variety of combo moves at your disposal. Learning how to deal with enemies with careful timing and breaking their attack patterns when you can is critical for advancing.
Where Moonscars strikes off on its own is combining the combat of Dark Souls with the elements of a platformer. Enemies can be knocked back with the right attacks, and although fall damage isn’t a mechanic here, you can push your enemies off the plane you’re currently on and, potentially, into an instant death trap. (Provided you don’t fall into it yourself, of course.)
Usually, you’re confined to the ground in a Souls-like, but Grey can leap into the air and take care of enemies on high or from above them. It provides a brand-new dimension when it comes to laying out a plan of attack.
This level of maneuverability is a step up from the likes of Dark Souls, and yet the action still feels just as nerve-wracking. Grey isn’t a glass cannon by any means, but until you find the upgrades required to extend your health and special meters, you may find yourself struggling to survive in the clay-borne wastes. That’s where another Souls-like staple comes in: the will to keep going.
Patience is a virtue
Every Dark Souls player knows the importance of patience and perseverance. Unless you manage to hit the one-in-a-trillion odds, you’re likely to die and die again at various parts of the game. Yet the game also encourages you to keep moving forward by rewarding you to learn the timing and patterns necessary to conquer what it throws at you.
Moonscars is no different, especially when it comes to the boss battles. You’ll encounter a number of frustrating and dangerous boss encounters on your quest to meet the Sculptor. Each one’s got more tricks up their sleeves than the last. With Moonscars’ emphasis on tough-as-nail combat, every player will naturally come up against their own giant wall.
Yet as with any good Souls-like, if you’re patient and stick with it, the hurdles of Moonscars are incredibly satisfying to overcome. Grey is a capable warrior, and in the player’s hands, there’s nothing she can’t handle. You just need to keep trying, and when you don’t succeed, try again.
But of course, nobody said it was going to be easy.
Scraping your fingers to the bone
There’s a subtle nuance to the difficulty of a Souls-like that often goes underappreciated. Yes, they’re mind-numbingly challenging. Yet a good Souls-like knows how much power to put in the player’s hands, and Moonscars is no exception. Even in the second dimension, Moonscars delivers the same
This might come down to personal preference, of course. But for me, there was never a point in Moonscars where I felt like something was impossible. Hard as hell? Absolutely. Irritating beyond belief? Without a doubt. But not impossible.
What the Souls games do to keep you invested is silent encouragement. Sure, the games might seem intimidating to a first-time player, and you might read it as unwelcoming. That may be true to some extent, but when you understand what the game wants you to accomplish, death doesn’t feel as much of a discouragement.
The same holds true for Moonscars. Every time Grey falls, you’ve gained a little bit of knowledge. How should you not approach something? What’s the best weapon to use against this enemy? When should I strike to have the best chance of surviving? The pieces are all there, and though fitting them together takes a lot of work, it’s certainly not impossible.
Blood and darkness reign supreme
On a different note, Moonscars also shows its inspiration from Dark Souls in the aesthetics department. It’s not a written rule that Souls-likes have to be dark fantasies, but it’s the genre most associated with those games.
Moonscars is a visceral and beautiful game, with blood and clay and ichor spilling everywhere. The fluid animations and shadowy environments deliver a haunting and incredibly absorbing world.
Yet it’s the color palette that really strikes a chord and helps enhance the Souls-like mood. With many shades of black and grey and brown, Moonscars is a brooding, depressing, and yet gorgeous-looking game. Just like the dark fantasy worlds of Dark Souls, it presents a moody and gloomy experience.
Obviously, the environments are built very differently given that Moonscars adds platforming to the mix. Yet the common threads are clear as day. Alongside titles like Blasphemous and Hollow Knight, Moonscars proves that 3D action isn’t a necessity to capture the same mood and tone as the Souls series.
Moonscars is the ultimate Souls-like platformer
While it doesn’t necessarily wear its Dark Souls influences entirely on its sleeve, Moonscars proves that the Souls-like formula works just as well as a 2D platformer. It makes enough adjustments to keep its platforming roots feeling strong. Yet the final product is a great melding between two genres that you may not expect to work so well together.
Moonscars is developed by Black Mermaid and published by Humble Games. It is available now for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC via Steam. It’s also available on Xbox and PC Game Pass.
What do you think of Moonscars’ combination of Souls gameplay with the Metroidvania format? What other Souls-like platformers are you familiar with? Let us know!