Far in the distance, a tower dominates the horizon, its imposing, deific architecture dwarfing even man’s most impressive imitations.
A sierra separates you from it, its winding, jagged paths zigzagging to impossible designs. Thankfully, our hero (Nor) and her mythical companion (Enki) are equipped with hidden knowledge of a secret path that weaves around the eastern front of the mountains. But this shortcut holds hidden dangers.
Do you endure the marathon trek up and over the peaks before you? Or do you risk it all along the precarious trails that shoot off in unknowable directions? The fact that Flintlock: The Siege of Dawn not only recognizes, but acts on the difference between the two is just one of the many reasons it manages to be an open-world Soulslike that drives the beloved subgenre forward, rather than amateurishly imitating FromSoftware’s design choices.
Flintlock is the upcoming action-RPG from A44, the New Zealand-based studio behind 2018’s critically acclaimed Ashen. While that game was also a successful Soulslike, it is markedly different from its successor in many ways, the most immediate of which is its minimalist art style. Flintlock is much more akin to a modern triple-A blockbuster (it’s being published by Kepler) and took cues from God of Wår (2018) for its world design and cutscene direction.
And yet it retains that timeless X-factor once described by Fumito Ueda — of Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and The Last Guardian fame — as “design by subtraction,” while at the same time remaining cognizant of the magical formula that is only known to FromSoftware and its most dedicated devotees. It combines intricate level design with drip-fed, fragmentary lore, precision combat, and an acute awareness of how the best games don’t discriminate against minutiae when it comes to stitching together the final tapestry.
Flintlock is rooted in an offshoot of fantasy called… well, “flintlock fantasy,” which the devs describe as a mashup of 16th century armaments with familiar fantasy tropes. The game takes place in a realm where the gods have opened the gates to the underworld and unleashed an army of the undead to punish humanity for its transgressions. Naturally, your job is to fight back, although you are afforded an enormous amount of variance when it comes to deciding how to do so.
While everything from Lies of P to Thymesia is getting compared to Bloodborne, Flintlock is the only game that truly emulates — and potentially elevates — the core combat mechanics. It features three distinct styles tied to your ax, your firearms, and your magical companion, Enki.
The ax style is, naturally, the closest to Souls. You use your firearm as an offhand weapon, similar to Bloodborne, and control most engagements via melee. There is only one ax in the entire game, so you will continuously upgrade and become further acquainted with it throughout the duration of your playthrough (this is yet another conscious nod to God of Wår). Your weaaapon functions more as an add-on, and you harvest bullets by defeating enemies with your ax. There’s also an armor mechanic that allows you to target specific points on enemies to remove their protective plating, which immediately decreases their damage resistance (it rules).
The skill tree is an inversion of this. Because bullets are finite, you obviously still need to use your ax — in general, all three styles are necessary, with skill-tree investment determining a direction toward which you sway, rather than staunchly commit. But this style makes your ax more of an off-hand weapon, directly affecting your approach to combat. Here, you’ll likely be more interested in exploiting choke points, whereas with a melee build, it’s about closing distance as quickly as possible.
The third style, which can be used alongside both of the others, is tied to Enki, your mysterious vulpine companion. Enki has access to magic, which means that investing in his skill tree provides you with access to powerful spells, each of which has its own elemental affinity that can be cleverly manipulated to exploit weaknesses in enemies and bosses.
On paper, all three of these combat styles seem pretty great. But it’s in their execution that they truly shine as Soulslike systems, rewarding precision and intent without relying on RNG, and regardless of the limitless permutations in which you choose to combine them.
There are plenty of other ideas at play that testify to A44’s status as Souls experts. Clear attention has been paid to not just enemy design, but encounter design. Mobs are placed in highly specific areas for highly specific reasons, and it’s up to you to intuit and exploit that. World design makes clever use of draw distance and scale to give the realm a constant sense of place, rather than it being a sequence of loosely connected spaces. This is not a Soulslike insofar as it drops monstrously large bosses into monstrously larger arenas while a resounding orchestral score appears to whisper the words “Remember Gwyn?” It’s so much more than that.
But A44’s ambition goes further, integrating not just iterations on existing ideas into the game, but full-blown innovations, too. As you progress through the game, a whole aerial traversal system becomes available to you, introducing an exciting new spin on Metroidvania-inspired level design. At certain checkpoints (the inevitable pseudo-bonfires), your entire hub will appear alongside you as a caravan, functioning as a sort of Firelink Shrine on wheels. This obviously heightens the degree to which you interact with and grow to know other characters, which is a little less Souls-y, but certainly not to the game’s detriment. That’s not to mention the Blackstream Sappers: a faction of explosives experts who you can call on to demolish monuments with TNT. Take that, gods!
In terms of Flintlock’s story, much of it has to do with Enki, who may or may not have some kind of association with the mysterious gods trying to destroy the world. There’s a smaller, more intricate tale running as an undercurrent beneath the apocalyptic big picture, potentially capable of eliciting the kind of warmth found in a character like Trico.
There are also plenty of flickers of warmth to be found elsewhere. For example, not all of the undead are inherently evil. They just capitalize on doing what they loved while they were alive. One undead, who was a barista before his untimely demise, just serves coffee. All day, every day, he is strictly devoted to his calling.
All in all, Flintlock looks like an honors Soulslike student who has become so well-acquainted with their field that they’ve finally started to experiment beyond it.
Oh, and there are difficulty options. On that front, they’ve even got FromSoft itself beat.