Stop the gobbons, save the town
Young Souls is the type of game that immediately charmed me. The art style is impeccable, the music is great, the characters are fully-formed, and the gameplay is both engaging and fun. If you’re looking for a flashy, action-packed brawler with challenging combat and a surprisingly deep and nuanced story, Young Souls might be the perfect stay-at-home-all-weekend game for you.
Young Souls opens up with a gorgeously-animated cut-scene that looks like something you might see in an animated film: the main human characters, teenage twin siblings named Jenn and Tristan, are knocked out in the middle of a street. Text pops up on the screen as an unseen figure mentions a war, and when the twins wake up, they find that they’re standing in the middle of a burning town. The unseen figure is revealed to be a goblin named Baldwin, and he says that the Goblin Leader Dwarvengobben has come, and that they must run – but the twins refuse. They say they must stop him, and then you are dropped right into the action.
What plays out is an interactive tutorial where you’re fighting waves of goblins through the street, quickly bringing you up to speed on the fairly simple game mechanics. You wield a sword and shield, and you can dodge, sprint, and block incoming attacks. The game is intended to be played via couch co-op, so if you have a second player, one of you controls Jenn and the other, Tristan. However, if you’re playing solo, then you simply swap out the character before they’re knocked out – much like a tag-team wrestling match. It’s an intuitive system that adds a layer of strategy to the game, especially as you advance further and level up each character. As you reach the end of Chapter 1, when the twin heroes are seemingly facing certain doom, the game’s narrative jumps back three weeks before the events of the climactic opening.
The beginning of Chapter 2 is the real start of the game, where you find Jenn and Tristan sitting on the roof of their home, chatting away as only siblings can, and in a way that reminded me of growing up with my siblings. The dialogue in this game is clever and so sharply written that it makes the characters feel like real people with their own voices and unique motivations. As the beginning of the story unfolds, you learn that the twins are orphans that have been adopted by a man known only as the Professor, who is more obsessed with his work than taking care of his teenage wards. In fact, more often than not, they have to take care of the Professor by making sure he’s eating and sleeping, and running errands for him (the latter of which sends you into the town for the first time). You also learn that the twins aren’t popular at school (when they bother to go), and the townspeople have a general disregard for them, too. Jenn and Tristan don’t seem to fit in anywhere, contributing to their teenage aloofness. It’s them against the world.
When the duo gets back home from town, they find that the front door to their house is busted open, the rooms are trashed, and the Professor is gone. They run down to his basement, where they’ve never been allowed to enter, and find a portal to the mystical underground world of the goblins. In front of them is a pair of rusty swords and wooden shields, which they grab before going through the portal, and thus begins their journey. I won’t really delve much more into the story beats beyond this point for fear of spoilers, but the primary objective of the game is to rescue the Professor from the clutches of Dwarvengobben and his legion of goblins (also referred to as “gobbons” in the game). Along the way, you’ll rescue goblins that have been held captive by Dwarvengobben, such as Baldwin from the game’s intro, along with a potion maker, blacksmith, and item master who equip you with stronger weapons, armors, and tools as you advance through the game.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this game is the level design. While the majority of the game is fairly linear, just moving from room to room as you’re fighting the goblins, the way you get to each section is atypical of traditional beat ‘em up games. It’s actually more like a dungeon crawler, as there are distinct worlds that are broken up into grid-based sections. As you progress through each world, you are moving through those grids to new sections. At the beginning of each section is a portal that allows you to fast travel back to it, so you can hop around section to section, making it fairly easy to navigate the underground catacombs and dungeons. You’ll also come across locked levels and chests that require keys that you might not have yet, so the fast travel really comes in clutch in those cases.
As mentioned earlier, the gameplay is pretty straightforward – swing your sword and smash the enemies. But the strategy comes into play once you start leveling up the twins. Jenn and Tristan don’t learn new abilities, but instead get boosts to each of the three stats – strength, resistance, and stamina. Every two levels you are awarded a pass to the local gym, where you can level up a specific stat for each character. At first, I stuck with the same stat for each character, but quickly realized you could make one character your agility fighter and the other your tank – in my case, Tristan was my nimble ninja and Jenn was my heavyweight paladin. Doing this opened up some really unique ways of battling through the levels, making it more interesting than a standard button-masher. Furthermore, the more you play, the more you fall into the rhythm of the game.
When playing Young Souls, timing is everything when battling the goblin hordes. I was really impressed with the variety of enemies found in the game – from flying bats that dive bomb you from across the screen to archers and swordsgoblins that will try to overwhelm you by their sheer numbers. Each world has its own unique enemies, forcing you to stay alert and learn patterns. This is especially true of the boss battles you’ll encounter. Sometimes it’s just a one-on-one fight with the boss, and others, the boss will summon more enemies to swarm you. Should your health become depleted, the other twin can rush to your aid and revive you, but you’ll lose a life in the process. Lose all your lives, and you’ll be kicked out to the start of the level to try again. This is why it’s important to level up each twin in different ways and give them different weapons and armor. You never know what you’re going to run into!
In addition to leveling up your stats, you can upgrade your weapons with resources you find by smashing pots (I loved smashing pots, it’s deeply satisfying) and defeating enemies. You’ll also find new weapons and armor in treasure chests littered throughout the levels, or you can purchase new weapons with the gold you collect from defeating enemies and completing levels. While weapons and armor are the most critical things, you can also buy new sneakers that will give you specific abilities or bonuses, as well as new clothing items (but these only change the look of your characters, no stats from clothes). Completionists will have a blast collecting all of the weapons and cosmetic items.
Unfortunately, for as fun and inventive as Young Souls is, the game’s performance on Switch could be better. The load times are, thankfully, pretty snappy, but the framerate can really struggle at times when there’s a lot of enemies on screen at once. I also had the game crash on two separate occasions in the latter half of the game. The first time was after I fast-traveled back and forth multiple times trying to find something, and the second was during a pivotal cutscene in one of the final chapters. The entire screen went white, but I could still play the game. I held on for about 5 minutes, hoping the game would correct itself, but it just crashed instead. This is not to say the game is unplayable, but hopefully a future patch will add some stability to the Switch version of the game…because it really is a great game!
Lastly, I’d like to just commend the writers of Young Souls for crafting a truly compelling story. What I thought was going to be a run-of-the-mill “save the world from the secret threat” story turned out to be a deeply moving narrative about family, trust, prejudice, and acceptance. The game doesn’t paint its world in black and white. It’s not really a story about good versus evil. It’s a story about discovering who you fight for, what you stand for, and why you do the things that you do. At the heart of that story is a pair of twins who don’t understand their place in the world, and in many ways, it’s their coming of age story that makes the game work as well as it does. I often felt like I was experiencing a novel more than playing a game; it was just that compelling.
Final thoughts: Young Souls is a blast of a game, filled to the brim with action, laughs, and undeniable charm. While I wish the Switch version didn’t have the performance issues it does, the gameplay is addictively fun and the story will hit you right in the feels, making it one of the best indie games to play on Switch right now.