Developer: Airtight Games
OUYA needs exclusives like Toejam needs Earl. Following months of what can charitably be described as plucky fumbling, the Kickstarted cube is struggling to find its calling as more than an XBMC box, emulation station or novelty paperweight. For those of us who backed the console, there's been precious little to get fired up about beyond a few cracking titles that are readily available on other platforms. Those groovy crowd funding days are just a distant memory now.
So when the creator of Portal announced an OUYA exclusive action RPG... featuring funky Vikings... and rhythm-based combat... and sweet fresh jams scored by Journey's Austin Wintory... you'd better believe we scampered straight into the office cupboard to locate where we'd stashed the power cable. We eventually found it wedged between our dusty Leap Motion unit and my personal bag of John Carmack's hair clippings [I'm not actually sure if he's joking - Ed].
Soul Fjord is a funky take on Norse Mythology, an epic saga directed like a cheesy 70s Blaxploitation flick. After legendary warrior Magnus Jones dies and finds himself barred from the disco at the top of the World Tree by a chump bouncer, he embarks on an quest throughout a selection of procedurally generated dungeons, matching the rhythm of his attacks to the beat of the funkified soundtrack; with the ultimate goal of ascending back to the top and funk eternal. It's a little like a blend between Dungeon Hunters, Patapon and the original Toejam & Earl, perhaps, only Toejam is now a fly Viking sporting a massive axe and afro to match.
As a fairly basic dungeon crawling Rogue-lite at heart, Magnus struts around the 2D stages from an isometric perspective; hacking and slashing at enemies to unlock doors and eventually find the exit to the next floor. Killing enemies grants experience, money and loot to power up Magnus from zero to hero, all of which will be reset if you die along with your progress. Bosses need killing. Chests need unlocking. A familiar formula, but Soul Fjord is several shades funkier than your typical loot'em up.
Kim Swift and Airtight Games have royally funked up Norse mythology, resulting in a game that looks and sounds like no APRG you've ever played. Instead of skeletons and knights, you'll do battle against Disco Wizards and Lounge Lizards, while disco balls merrily glitter in the air and even the most mundane of objects boogie along to the beat. A cheesy narrator, sepia-toned menus and graphical artefacts evoke the 70s vibe nicely. As icing on the cake, the entire game is underpinned by a toe-tapping funk soundtrack, though could arguably use a few more tunes in repeat playthroughs.
Austin Wintory's tunes are more than just backing music, though, because Soul Fjord's combat ties directly into the rhythm. Attacks deal vastly increased damage when triggered on the downbeat, alternating between O and U to create powerful rhythmical combos. A scrolling indicator between Magnus shows exactly when you need to let fly, which proves to be initially confusing and somewhat distracting during massed battles against multiple foes, but results in a warm feeling of intense satisfaction when you get into the groove.
Speaking of intense satisfaction, there's a primal joy to be found in collecting loot, and Soul Fjord knows it. You'll find a huge amount of gear throughout each dungeon, from weapons (including saxophones and fairy wands) to shields, hats, hairstyles, armour and consumables, all of which are pleasingly modelled on Magnus and confer immediately obvious effects. However, as any Roguelike veteran will attest, the satisfaction of hoarding becomes the bittersweet sting of loss when your inevitable death resets everything to zero.
Which is where Soul Fjord's monetisation model comes in. Or more precisely, the near-total lack thereof.
The entire game can be played for free, without adverts, forever. However, should you want to use your favourite gear in future runs, you can Soulbind them by spending Platinum Discs: Soul Fjords' premium currency du jour. Doing so sagely lets you gradually accrue enough swag to beast through Normal and Hardcore difficulty, but in a surprising twist, Platinum Records can also be found in-game. Though premium chests are designed to make you reach for a microtransaction or two, the costs involved are minute, and spending money is easily ignored. After seeing so many money-grubbing freemium titles on the OUYA and Android platform, it's refreshing to see a game stick to its principles.
Sadly Soul Fjord lacks the long-term appeal that Roguelikes absolutely require, and may likely outstay its welcome for many players after a handful of hours. Despite unlockable difficulty modes, there are only nine levels in all, which suffer from repetition due to recycled enemies, uninspired procedural level generation (expect lots of borderline-identical rooms filled with familiar beasties) and the drab art design of the first few stages.
Worse, Soul Fjord offers little of the unpredictability that the best examples of the genre throw at us, those bizarre and unexpected encounters both positive and dangerous that keep us coming back for yet another run. Causing tomatoes to rain from the heavens by opening a present in Toejam & Earl, for example, or the crazy distractions in Desktop Dungeons. It doesn't really go anywhere; you'll rarely get the thrill of discovering anything new save a weapon or shield with slightly higher stats. Critically, what might have worked better as an Android game on a smartphone or tablet, played in short doses at the bus stop, can't support the lengthier sessions we're used to on a traditional console.
But that's not the worst criticism you could level at a free game, especially one that's so generous with its content and works so well as a fun snack between meatier games. Though Soul Fjord isn't worth buying an OUYA for, it's easily worth firing up if you're looking for something new to play that's a cut above what you'd usually expect from the console.
- Fun dungeon crawling with unique musical combat and loads of loot
- Groovy 70s art design and funky jams aplenty
- Very generous, can be played indefinitely for free
- Rhythmic combat can be initially confusing and distracting
- Highly repetitious in terms of gameplay and level design
- Lacks long-term appeal; might have worked better as a mobile game
The Short Version: Soul Fjord is fun, free and seriously funky, but this rhythmic Roguelike might not have the substance to support hours of continued play. Get your groove on little and often for the full effect.
Still, it's great to see new IP on OUYA. Please sir, can we have some more?