Here’s a proposal: the satisfaction of Titan Souls is not in your success, but in proving that you are capable of it.
This is a bit abstract but stick with me a moment and I’ll explain. Titan Souls is a game of extreme efficiency. You are given one arrow and one hit to defeat an assembly of enormous and monstrously powerful titans. There are no upgrades, no minor enemies or side objectives, just you against an array of incredible and individual foes. The hook is in how Titan Souls resolves the asymmetry of its bosses by designing them to go down just as quickly as you, that being with a single well aimed shot to their Achilles’ Heal. Your job then is to figure out where this weak point is and how to hit it, a task that sounds simple on paper but becomes exponentially more challenging when you’re staring down a 50-foot hallucinogen excreting mushroom or an anthropomorphic blob of sentient lava.
Parallels have been drawn between Titan Souls’ and Shadow of the Colossus, both featuring a stripped down design focused entirely on encounters with huge monument like creatures. But where Titan Souls divulges from Shadow of the Colossus is in its framing and structure. Where Shadow of the Colossus’ fights would often be drawn out and almost poetic in their grandiosity, Titan Souls’ are fast and brutal. Titan Souls doesn’t want to entrance you with its majesty, it wants to break you with it. Because of the nature of its 1-1 design, Titan Souls’ bosses have been designed in such a way as to kill you quickly and repeatedly as you slowly learn enemy patterns and suss out how to exploit them. Once you do manage to land a successful blow though there is rarely a moment of true catharsis. Everything moves so fast and is over so suddenly that the ramp up to victory often seems far greater than the reward, each kill leading only to another fight.
But say we take a metaphorical step back and consider if Titan Souls’ actually wants you to feel satisfied. Nothing in its design is built to appease the player’s need for recognition. There is a brief animation at the end of each kill letting you know you did the thing, but otherwise Titan Souls’ feels in most ways utterly indifferent to your achievement. What it cares much more about is in keeping you from it as long as it can in as patronizing and taunting a way possible.
Titan Souls, I would argue, doesn’t want you to feel satisfied, it wants you to feel accomplished. Success isn’t dictated by the kill itself but in getting to throw it back in the game’s face as you declare it too little a challenge. The relationship Titan Souls build throughout the game between itself and you, the player, is one of domination and strength through brutality. It wants to make you work for your kill, dropping you back at inconvenient checkpoints after each death, only to sludge back across the overworld and die in less time than it took to get to the boss itself. It’s agonizing and tedious and you can almost feel Titan Souls laughing at you as you continue to throw yourself at these slumbering behemoths over and over. And for what? With no satisfaction to be found in the kill you are left with little more than a sensation of having all the air sucked out of the room, your only purpose for existing now dead at your feet and you no less content. As a final gift upon completing the game you are awarded with “hard mode,” captioned “the real challenge” as if to further demean the player’s success by effectively christening it a warm up.
If all this sounds entirely the opposite of fun that’s because in many ways it is, and I think that’s intentional. Titan Souls isn’t interested in fulfilling a player’s power fantasy, it just wants to see how far they’ll run, going about itself with a smugness that is simultaneously alienating and gravitational. It’s a game that exists purely for itself, and it feeds into that elitism in a way that eats at you until you find yourself once again playing along purely for the sake of proving to the game that you are better at it than is at killing you.
And once you get into Titan Souls’ rhythm, removed from the necessity of payoff or justification beyond proving yourself capable enough to play along, the game’s flow can become hypnotic. Titan Souls is cruel, but it is also incredibly smooth and refined. Your moveset is limited but every action has a purposeful weight to it. Rolling feels slick and chunky, blending seamlessly with your run to create a tactile sense of momentum. Aiming a shot momentarily slows down time as the camera narrows on your character rooted to the spot, causing each second spent pulling back your bow to feel terrifying and vulnerable but also necessarily precise. Titan Souls’ core gameplay loop is brilliant in its compactness and feel, its narrow design granting each inclusion an enormity unto itself, each mechanic feeling invaluable and utterly necessary. Titan Souls remains a small game in most respects, but it is so concise that it rarely feels that way in the context of itself.
Titan Souls is also a wonder to behold, enthralling environments stretching all around you as you search for your next fight, the world’s indecipherable history jumping out at you from wall carvings and monuments to events unknown as you wander through forests and dungeons that have long fell into disuse. It’s an intensely isolating experience but not one that feels lonely so much as decidedly melancholy, accompanied by a somber and gorgeous soundtrack that takes the place of exposition to set the mood. If it wasn’t so fixated on death, Titan Souls’ world would almost be soothing, but the presence of such enormous enemies instead imbues it with a sinister tone fitting for the brutality of your quest. It’s unquestionably grim, but with how fast everything moves you probably won’t have time to stop and think about it.
Titan Souls is a challenging game, both in terms of play and enjoyment. Its antagonistic nature likely requires a particularly masochistic and determined mindset to appreciate, as on the surface Titan Souls is a game that goes to almost absurd lengths to push players away. But underneath all that snobbery is a fantastically sharp design philosophy that becomes a means to its own end, a delight to employ even as the game itself refuses to allow you any satisfaction for your accomplishments. Instead it asks you to do it again, faster, smarter, and with more efficiency. How you respond to this demand will likely determine if you’re the sort of player capable of finding the “fun side” of Titan Souls, or if you’ll bounce off it and go in search of something less abrasive, a decision I couldn’t entirely fault you for.