Games in the style of Dark Souls and other similar FromSoftware games are all the rage these days. Commonly referred to as Souls-likes, they usually take several of the key aspects of Dark Souls ― challenging combat, losing experience upon dying, being all-around very difficult and obtuse ― and ideally add their own unique twist. Some emphasise ranged combat, others are set in sci-fi worlds. Elderborn’s unique selling proposition is that it’s a first-person take on the genre, a self-described “Action Fantasy Slasher with brütal FPP melee combat and Souls-like/RPG character progression”.
First-person melee combat? Sounds like the perfect recipe for nausea. It’s been tried before to varying success. While Dark Messiah of Might and Magic is considered a cult classic nowadays, other ventures like 2004’s Breakdown have rightly been forgotten about. Will Elderborn stand side-by-side with the great Souls-likes, or was it doomed from the start?
Knife to Meet You
In addition to the above description, developer/publisher Hyperstrange also refer to it as “Metal AF”, and boy, oh boy, is that ever an apt description. After choosing either a male or female protagonist, our chosen one narrates an intro sequence during which they brutally kill the other playable character in arena combat. This sets the tone for a grueling journey towards the fabled city of Jurmum, filled with blood, guts, and decapitations, set to a soundtrack that’s true to the tagline and packs a punch.
As for the combat, rest assured that it works much better than anticipated. Slashing, clubbing, poking, blocking and parrying, it all comes together to form a ballet of violence. Decimating opponents is visceral and satisfying, due in no small part to the FoV slider in the options menu. Although the camera sways around with every attack as if we were suffering from the worst bout of seasickness in history, it didn’t bother me. Not when speaking about nausea, that is. It’s easy to lose focus and be overwhelmed by enemies when everything starts wibbling and wobbling like crazy with each swing we make and each hit we take. Later on, we find a huge club that deals extra damage when it hits heads, but aiming for heads is made all the more difficult when the crosshair flies around like a, well, fly.
Speaking of which (weapons, not flies), there’s a multitude of weapons to find, each with their own unique upside. A spear deals more damage the further away from the enemy you are, a greatsword is mightier the more experience points ― called essence ― you currently have. Weapons can be divided into two groups: those that can block and those that can parry. As becomes apparent very quickly, blocking is basically pointless, rendering most of the weapons that use that form of defense obsolete. A successful parry not only slows down time, it also allows for a devastating counterattack. What’s more, certain special attacks can be parried but not blocked. The first boss heavily relies on these attacks, teaching us that blocking just isn’t metal AF, whereas parrying is vital AF.
The only blocking weapon I regularly used was the greathammer because smacking foes around and off platforms was the best. That was also more reliable than the character’s kick. It interrupts enemy attacks but only sometimes. It sends them flying off edges in theory, and while it’s great fun when it works, sometimes there’s an invisible railing around edges that prevents the poor bastards from plunging to their deaths. But with enough persistence ― and kicks ― we get them down eventually as these invisible railings, again, only work sometimes.
Can I Axe You a Question?
As we slaughter our way through hordes of enemies, we gain more and more essence, and when our essence bar is full, we get to level up at fountains that function as checkpoints. This is where Elderborn is most obviously inspired by Dark Souls: Resting at fountains restores our health but also resurrects all enemies. And once we die, we respawn at the latest fountain activated, with our essence left behind where we perished, waiting for us to retrieve it.
And since this is a Souls-like, we die frequently, especially once enemies start ganging up on us. Our health bar depletes in no time, and back to the last fountain we go. Make no mistake, Elderborn is a difficult game, and it won’t always feel fair. But four difficulty settings make sure even newcomers don’t face too steep a climb.
Apart from actually offering more than one difficulty setting, Elderborn diverges slightly from the Souls-like formula on leveling too. Three categories wait to be bolstered: strength, boosts attack damage; speed, lets us attack and run faster; and vitality, increases health. Each individual level up is only a miniscule increase, taking a while for an effect to be noticeable. Each category also features three perks that are unlocked after a certain amount of points are spent. One lets us parry and reflect projectiles, an absolutely vital perk. The rest? Eh. Ripping heads off corpses and throwing them at their unfortunate former comrades is a creative ability, don’t get me wrong, but is that really worth investing several points to acquire? Is it a perk that feels like a proper reward for having leveled up enough times, one that elevates our combat/gameplay experience? It’s just not impactful enough, regardless of the awesome concept. The case is similar for a dash in mid-air. Sounds nice and useful, but it’s super clunky, just dropping us straight down afterwards with no way of moving in the air, not adding the expected mobility.
The RPG aspect isn’t Elderborn’s strongest suit, but the fundamental gameplay is more than solid enough to compensate for it.
Take Me Down to Jurmum City
Too bad the same can’t be said for the plain levels. The first chapter takes place in an unsightly cave below the city. A lava-filled section is a welcome, albeit brief visual pleasure, before we’re back to more caves and some ruins. The general aesthetic of the latter is interesting, reminiscent of Egyptian tombs. However, the overall low graphical quality of the environments persists. But it’s not violently ugly, far from it, especially for a low-budget title from a small indie developer.
That judgment holds until we finally enter Jurmum in chapter two. Rusted metal accompanied by mud, as far as the eye can see. It’s supposed to be hideous; the city has long lost its splendour, after all. But it’s simply unpleasant to look at in a way that doesn’t seem entirely intentional. Flat and uninspired level design with enemies apparently randomly placed about, and key after key after key to search for round off the remarkable drop in quality. The much more open approach after the claustrophobic first chapter could have catapulted Elderborn from an alright game to a damn good one. Unfortunately, what followed the appetiser was a well-done steak with ketchup. Edible yet a mere hint of what could have been.
Then the waiter arrives with one small spoon of lukewarm ice cream for dessert before handing us the bill.
Seriously, that’s the third and final chapter. A series of arena-like fights against groups of enemies in tiny environments. No intoxicating, adrenaline-fueled boss fight, just a few minutes of regular enemies followed by an exposition dump over the credits. It’s a huge letdown, an anti-climactic end to our voyage of death and glory. While the second chapter was a drop in quality, this was a nosedive straight down a canyon. The fact it’s not a complete and utter disaster ruining the game is owed solely to the splendid combat. After all, there’s nothing more to chapter three than combat.
With all that said, do I recommend Elderborn? Actually, yes. Even for someone like me who very easily feels nauseated due to screenshake, I never once had the urge to stop playing due to feeling sick. Hats off to Hyperstrange for that. Combat works like a charm, even though parries are a bit overpowered. Boosting the speed stat to zoom around like greased lightning is characteristic of the kind of leveling system steering closely to being broken that I love. However, all the flaws just keep piling on. Instead of evolving over time, steadily improving, Elderborn devolves further and further until it collapses in on itself in a baffling finale. The more weapons we receive, the more we realise how useless most of them are. The further we progress, the more apparent it becomes that most thought and budget were spent on designing chapter one and parts of chapter two. Elderborn isn’t ruined by any of that, and the actually bad part is so short it’s only a fraction of the game, but I’ll end on the verdict that, unlike with Dark Souls or Bloodborne, I have zero desire to tread through Elderborn again.
Release Date: 30th January 2020