Growing up as a SEGA kid left me lacking in traditional turn-based RPGs. But beat-em-ups and dungeon crawlers? Those were my bread and butter through the 90s. The addictive loops of monster slaying and exploration in titles like Golden Axe and Might and Magic II: Gates to Another World left younger me interested in little else and inspired the love of games I carry today. I’ve dabbled with a few titles that blended elements of beat-em-ups and dungeon crawlers since, but most left me nostalgic for the classics they borrowed from. Young Souls stands out from this crowd by combining the best of both genres and infusing the result with a colorful character all its own. Young Souls leaves room for improvement, but it’s the first crossover that’s shown me that when these two genres work together, they can accomplish great things.
Teenage twins Jenn and Tristan are the heroic young souls at the center of this tale. They live – but don’t necessarily enjoy – an uneventful small-town life with their adoptive guardian, a scientist nicknamed “the professor.” Otherworldly goblins turn the twins’ quaint lives upside down by abducting the professor and threatening to use his research to destroy the town the twins reluctantly call home. Afraid they’ll lose the closest thing they have to a parent, the twins journey to rescue the professor from the menacing goblins, who, as it turns out, aren’t all as evil as they initially seem.
This premise doesn’t break the mold, but the narrative’s portrayal of life as an adoptee is more touching than I expected. The twins grimace at the prospect of regarding the professor as their dad, and they direct all their abandonment angst his way. It was painful to watch him suffer through their resentment but gratifying to watch the twins slowly realize how much they love him as their adventure progresses. Young Souls‘s villains are also surprisingly nuanced and helped draw me in – especially the maligned goblin leader who, unlike your typical RPG baddie, terrorizes the twins in a bid to save his people. I struggled not to sympathize with him even as he did his darndest to send me to the game over screen.
The gameplay at the heart of this journey is also deeper than it initially appears. You navigate and brawl across four dungeons in typical side-scrolling, 2D fashion, but you level up, tweak your stats, and discover oodles of loot in the process. Think of Young Souls as a clever mix of Golden Axe and Diablo, with less gore and more attitude – a “dungeon brawler,” if you will. Beat-em-up and dungeon crawler conventions mesh nicely and produce a gameplay loop that’s as satisfying as it is varied.
Much of that loop will see you guiding the twins as they hack and slash their way through goblins, ogres, dragons, and other terrors in the goblin world. Though they’re adorable, the twins are far from defenseless. You select swords, axes, shields, bombs, and other tools to arm them, and they dodge, parry, block, and swing their weapons in real time. Like this game’s brawler predecessors, fighting is fluid and fun; it’s easy to jump into but challenging to master. Enemies give you clues about their next moves, and you can chain crushing combos if you’re precise, so it pays to approach battles in Young Souls with more care than its lighthearted art style suggests.
None of this is to say that combat wouldn’t benefit from fine-tuning. Your window of opportunity to parry enemy attacks is comically unforgiving, and navigating north or south on the field is frustratingly slow. Large-scale encounters can feel unfairly challenging, with small groups of enemies able to bludgeon you continually and leave you struggling to rise and evade or block. And before you begin finding decent armor a few hours into the opening dungeon, opponents can fell the twins in as few as five swings, making some early fights feel punishing.
Robust accessibility options balance out some of these difficulty gripes. By pulling up a constantly accessible menu, you can adjust just about every important combat metric – your attack speed, enemies’ HP and attack damage, cooldown lengths, and more. For someone like me who hasn’t excelled at real-time combat since he was a kid, these accessibility choices are a breath of fresh air. They let me meet the game at my current level and ensured I never needed to spin my wheels retrying tough encounters. I hope more developers follow 1P2P’s lead and realize that baking player-controlled accessibility options into their titles only widens the audience that will enjoy them.
Another integral piece of the gameplay loop centers on managing loot. It’s almost as plentiful here as it is in Diablo, with most enemies dropping weapons, armor, crafting materials, or currency upon death. Through crafting, you can upgrade rarer weapons and armor (often several times) and sell unwanted gear to merchants who may have stronger weapons and armor in stock. The best armor pieces are set items that offer bonuses scaling with the number of matching pieces you have equipped.
Young Souls doesn’t reinvent the wheel with this familiar loot system, but its take on this dungeon crawler hallmark is solid. Using equipment to specialize each twin in a different playstyle was a thought-provoking treat that helped me manage the array of enemy encounters in each dungeon, and it kept the fighting fresh into a second playthrough. I opted for one twin to wield great axes and use their broad swings to decimate groups of foes and for the other to focus on single-target, high-DPS daggers that make short work of bosses. You find gear making plenty of other playstyles viable too. Though I would’ve welcomed more variety among armor pieces, hunting for rarer and better loot in Young Souls scratches an itch that I once thought only Diablo could.
Hearkening back to classic beat-em-ups, you and a friend can dungeon crawl cooperatively with each person controlling a twin. Along with Young Souls’s toggleable profanity filter, local co-op makes Young Souls a strong sell for parents looking for a brawler to enjoy with their kids. I imagine multiplayer is where most of the fun’s at, but playing solo left me satisfied. When playing alone, you switch between twins with the press of a button, incentivizing you to build them out differently and jump between them strategically as situations demand.
The disappointing piece of Young Souls’s gameplay loop is exploring the picturesque port town the twins call home. It exudes charm but not much else. A few shops offer accessories and cosmetic tweaks, and you can toy with a button-tapping minigame for a minor stat boost at the gym. The minigame was charming the first time I played it, but it felt like busywork afterward. I can’t shake the feeling that 1P2P intended to fill the town with interesting activities and NPCs but ran short on time.
1P2P didn’t skimp on Young Souls’s visuals, though. The vibrant art design wowed me for the entirety of my initial ten-hour playthrough. It’s reminiscent of Cartoon Network classics, with a touch more cuteness. Environments are eye-catching though limited in variety. The twins, NPCs, and even most enemies border on adorable, and everyone and everything looks crisp and bursting with personality. The visuals make up for lack of detail with a lighthearted charisma that’s sure to warm your heart.
The soundtrack is harder to admire. It’s serviceable but centers on a limited selection of energizing, vaguely menacing tracks mirroring the tone of the goblin world. None of the tracks stuck with me, and I was disappointed to discover there’s no voice acting whatsoever. The absence of voicework is a missed opportunity by 1P2P to use talented actors to bolster the game’s humorous, snappy tone.
Young Souls is easy to recommend if you’re hungry for a beat-em-up or dungeon crawler – or better yet, a clever combination of the two! Doubly so if you’re looking for a gorgeous, kid-friendly title to introduce a youngster to the brand of game that captivated you when you were their age. Young Souls’s rewarding gameplay loop, beautiful world, and heartening story make up for its so-so audio and other disappointments, leaving me hoping for a sophomore outing by 1P2P sooner rather than later.