Airtight Games attempts many fusions of style in Soul Fjord, one of the few high-profile exclusives to come to the Ouya console. Thematically, it’s a hybrid of 1970s funk and Norse mythology. It features elements of Diablo-esque dungeon crawlers, classic brawlers, and rhythm games. While the lighthearted theme is novel, the core gameplay gimmick manages to pull down the entire experience.
You assume the role of Magnus Jones, a funky dude with an afro who gets tragically rejected from the heaven-like Club Valhalla. To gain entry to the nightclub, you battle through nine stages of enemies while facing the consequence of restarting if you die. Each time you restart, you lose all of your experience, loot, and items. Plus, the basic design of stages changes with each playthrough. This structure is intriguing, but the combat system is where things fall apart.
The musical premise is tied into the fighting mechanics, which require you to hit attack buttons along with a beat line below your character. Anyone who’s played a rhythm game before is familiar with the idea of pressing buttons while watching a timeline, but this system doesn’t work when mashed into another genre. Trying to watch a timeline of beats is frustrating while giant squirrels and poisonous spiders are attacking you. Mashing buttons off-beat still triggers attack animations, but you do a fraction of the damage to your foe, which forces you to keep your eyes on the beat line most of the time. That means you can’t pay attention to other important things, like where the enemies are, which direction you’re facing, or how much health you have. If fights were constricted to a 2D plane or featured stationary enemies, this wouldn’t be as bad, but the baddies are running around as they attack. It’s infuriating.
Luckily, one element that doesn’t get distracting is the inclusion of in-game purchases. Soul Fjord is free-to-play, with the option to buy records that prevent selected pieces of loot from being lost when you die. This lessens the sting of defeat, and the records can be earned in-game by defeating bosses. If you don’t mind starting from the beginning and taking down a few bosses to earn some records, you won’t have to spend a dime on Soul Fjord. Of course, that assumes you can tolerate the awful combat long enough to appreciate the fact that you aren’t paying for it.
It’s great when free games don’t beat you over the head with purchases, but it doesn’t mean much if they aren’t fun to play. I enjoyed the silly tone of Soul Fjord, but the rhythm-based combat system was all it took to completely sabotage the experience.
I enjoyed the silly tone of Soul Fjord, but the rhythm-based combat system was all it took to completely sabotage the experience.