2D Soulslike experience Watcher Chronicles from Third Sphere Game Studios is ready for you on PS5. Learn more in our Watcher Chronicles review!
As September draws to a close, all eyes turn to the end of the year awards and the much-coveted Game of the Year title. For most, Elden Ring is a lock for the #1 spot, so the question becomes, “what gets #2?” In my mind, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion, which lands later this year, could certainly be in the running for #2… at least until I played Watcher Chronicles from Third Sphere Game Studios. Sure, there is a chance that Crisis Core will knock it from that spot, but for now, it sits there with all my blessing. So what is Watcher Chronicles?
The simplest way to describe it is imagine the first Dark Souls, but it is a 2D Metroidvania. The tight and methodical gameplay of a Soulslike game mixed in with the interconnected maps of a Metroidvania should give you a good idea of what Watcher Chronicles is all about. You choose your avatar who wakes up in a crypt and must escape into the world. The rest of the story is typical mystic/cryptic gubbins, but you can’t call it a Soulslike without that, and Watcher Chronicles understands the nuances of its forbearers.
All the trappings of a quality Soulslike are here but on the 2D plane. The tight controls, the huge bosses that act more as a puzzle than just a straight brawl, and the excursions to hidden paths to find loot are all here and a joy to play. The controls feel intuitive and second nature to those confident in the art of Soulslike. You are able to use the left analog stick or the D-Pad to move from side to side and can press the X button to jump. Since this is a 2D game, Square is your main attack instead of R1/R2 buttons. Each attack and each dodge from the Circle button costs stamina. You also have a secondary attack by way of the Triangle button that is mapped to your second weapon/magic item. This attack also costs mana, and, as expected, you’ll need to manage them in tandem if you wish to be an effective fighter.
Unlike your stamina, your mana does not refill over time. Instead, it relies on you being aggressive and connecting with your regular attacks and executing perfect blocks or perfect dodges (the art of blocking an attack with L1 or dodging out of the way the moment an attack is about to hit you), thus stopping you from relying too much on your convenient secondary attacks. Depending on how you choose to play, those secondary attacks can prove to be quite a powerful tool, and this is how the game balances things.
The combat is tight and reflexive during regular encounters with basic enemies, but it truly comes into its own during the many boss fight. In a regular Soulslike game, combat will feel measured/slow and balletic as you ebb and flow with the boss(es), trying to find that opening, and these can lead to some drawn-out but epic battles. As for Watcher Chronicles? Not so much! Bosses here are frantic and unrelenting and relish the act of turning you into mulch. You are constantly required to put into practice every tactic, trick, or act of luck you have garnered during your entire playthrough into practice as you waltz through the combat. Fights against bosses are often complete in no more than two frantic minutes. Whilst the combat here is a lot faster, it by no means skimps out on the Soulslike experience. The game manages to concentrate the whole affair into those 120 seconds of boss fights, and no boss fight ever feels like a chore. The game is truly a joy.
At first glance, the art style might put people off. The bright, cartoony gangly look of the monsters and characters looks a bit strange, but you get over it quickly and begin to see it for its true worth. The different regions are varied and rich in life as well as color, the designs of the levels, the monsters, the scenery, and just about every aspect of the game is exemplary in how to create a game. Whilst Watcher Chronicles is keen to show off its Soulslike tendencies, it does take note of the fact that it is also a 2D game by incorporating some platforming.
Mash the 2D Soulslike of the game with its 2Dness, and you eventually end up with a game that sometimes feels like Ghouls’ n Ghosts or Rogue Legacy. Watcher Chronicles is a game of many hats, and it wears all of them with great style. The gameplay is just shy of perfect, save for some issues with the dodge roll leaving you facing the wrong way, but this can easily be a user error and not an issue with the game. The designs of the worlds and monsters are all enticing and encourage you to continue to play from the moment you start to the moment you die and die again. Everything here is great. The audio work is simply outstanding. From the sound effects to the music of the different regions you encounter, each does an excellent job of evoking the atmosphere of the game. Everything here feels deliberate and well-considered before being added to the final puzzle, and 95% of the time, it all fits together.
Any criticism aimed at the game feels like a nitpick, and there is very little to nitpick about the game. The Umbra (this game’s version of Souls) feels too bountiful, and it is easy to become too powerful too early if you are not careful. In most Soulslike games, that journey to collect your dropped loot is always an edge-of-your-seat affair as one wrong move could see you lose a large number of souls, much to your chagrin, but that feeling is often absent here since, after a while, you find yourself trying not to level up too much.
That is not to say the game is unbalanced, as the bosses do give you a fight assuming you are roughly around their suggested level requirement. But with that being said, you can find yourself in that Elden Ring situation of sometimes facing bosses who are woefully underpowered compared to you. But that does not take away from the fact that the game is highly generous with its Umbra drops. Early on, you have a chance to buy a ring that increases your Umbras collected by 10%, but after a while, the ring becomes unnecessary as you are inundated with Umbras.
Please note that this is by no means a complaint as it is an observation. It can be argued this is simply an anti-frustration mechanic, and the game has no intention of fooling you into thinking it is an AAA 100hr+ affair. Far from it. By my third hour into the game, I was already into my 20th level and had discovered many areas. The game has a lot of secrets, and it wants you to discover them as best you can. The game feels determined to aid you in discovering as many as you can. In fairness, you are not required to power level if you wish – you can simply choose not to.
However you choose to play the game, Watcher Chronicles is accommodating, and for $19.99, you owe it to yourself to buy this one as soon as you can, especially when you consider that game was made by only three people. I was blown away by this discovery. Whenever I review a game, I like to look at the credits to pick out the name of someone whom I felt did something most noteworthy, and my gasp was most certainly audible when I saw the credits ending just after three names. There is not much else to say except if you like Soulslike games, Metroidvania games, 2D platforming hack and slash games, or just games in general, then this one is an absolute must-play.
Stephen Pepper, Miguel Spadafino, and Emanuele Viali take a bow, for you have done something truly remarkable here.
This Watcher Chronicles review is based on a Nintendo Switch copy provided by Third Sphere Game Studio.