Nearly four years ago, The Arcade Crew and 1P2P revealed Young Souls, a promising new entry in the oft-overlooked beat ‘em up genre. Then in 2021, the game launched as a Stadia exclusive and… well, we all know how that went. Unsurprisingly, the studio soon set about porting the release to other platforms, and it’s finally arrived now on the Switch. Young Souls proves itself to be a remarkably quality release that builds well on the foundations of the genre with some well-implemented ideas, making for an experience you won’t want to miss.
Young Souls follows the story of Tristan and Jenn, a set of orphaned headstrong twins living with an eccentric professor on the edge of town. The professor is an expert in Cryptozoology, and though he clearly cares about the kids in his care, he spends most of his time toiling away in the lab on some mysterious project. After a quick trip into town, the kids return home to find the place ransacked and their beloved professor gone, while an ominous portal stands open in his lab. They follow it through and find themselves in a lost world far beneath the surface of the earth, populated by a warring race of goblins that are mounting a plan to take over the surface. After pairing up with a friendly goblin, the two thus set out on a long guest to dismantle the key players of the war effort and hopefully save their professor in the process.
For a beat ‘em up, Young Souls proves to be a surprisingly story driven experience. This isn’t just a typical ‘find the mob boss and the beat the tar out of everything that moves’ story, but a coming-of-age narrative that deals with a charismatic duo of protagonists. Elements like the ongoing sibling banter between the twins makes them feel that much more endearing, while a filled-out cast of villains proves to have a little more substance that makes each fight with a rogue feeling suitably climactic. The story never gets in the way of the gameplay, of course, and you can always skip the cutscenes if you’d rather jump right back into the action, but we rather appreciated that the plot is more than just a throwaway framing device here.
Gameplay follows the flow of a typical beat ‘em up, but with several additional elements thrown in to make for an overall more rounded experience. Most of your time will be spent in small arenas where you cut through a few waves of foes by all manner of punches, kicks, grabs, and throws. Once you clear a room, you then typically move to another arena just to the right, but the level design proves to be more varied than just a linear A-to-B sequence.
Each region of the goblin world is broken up into a series of levels scattered around a small hub level. Some doors are mandatory, others are optional, and others are locked using keys that you’ll only acquire later on. Each stage has a suggested level requirement displayed before you enter, giving you a hint of the ideal stats you’ll need to deal with the enemies contained within. What’s nice about this non-linear system is that it gives you some agency to make progress on your own terms. If the boss at the end of one stage is just giving you way too much grief, you can always try another level instead and come back later once you’ve gotten better gear. Young Souls is still plenty difficult, but it never feels like you’ve hit an insurmountable wall—there’s always something else you could be doing to still make progress.
Those of you that are put off by high difficulty games like this will be pleased to know that there are a few difficulty levels here so you can scale the game to meet your skill level. We’d encourage you to go with the intended difficulty, however, as the hard-hitting enemies and patterns feel like they’re at that perfect mark where they’re manageable, but not on the first try. You’re constantly being pushed to learn enemy tells, wait for proper windows to get in a few shots, and make full usage of all the techniques and attacks at your disposal. Victories thus feel properly earned once you’ve achieved them, making Young Souls a consistently rewarding experience.
There’s quite a bit of technical depth to combat, as well. In single player, you can only play as one twin at a time, while there’s an interesting ‘tag’ system to encourage you to use both. A certain percentage of the damage a twin takes won’t immediately drain from the health bar, and if you tag them out before they take any more hits, they’ll slowly recover that health while their sibling fights instead.
In another example, you’re given two meaningful ways of avoiding damage. One is a limited use roll that gives you precious I-frames, but has a small cooldown to keep you from spamming. The other is a block with your shield, which can also be used to parry an attack if you press it at just the right time. Things like this help to imbue Young Souls with an impressively high skill ceiling, while giving you plenty of variety in how you can approach a battle.
Progressing through most levels will see you building up a small reserve of currency and collectable items that can later be used in shops for buying and upgrading equipment. The twins can be kitted out in all manner of swords, knives, axes, and the like, and each piece of equipment carries its own stats, special moves, and passives. This can help to give the gameplay even more variety, then, as each weapon carries its own playstyle. For our playthrough, we opted to give one of the twins a huge axe for dishing out the pain and controlling crowds, while the other one carried a knife with a lifesteal effect that made them quite nimble and resilient. Good quality armor and weapons aren’t a replacement for the raw skill you need to overcome the challenges of Young Souls, but we appreciated how it added more diversity to the gameplay and sometimes gave you the needed edge to eke out a win.
Those of you who have a friend on hand will be pleased to know that there’s also a local co-op feature for multiplayer. The rules here are largely the same, but there are some changes like how the ‘tag’ button causes you to instantly snap across the battlefield to your partner, or how potions will heal both of you if your partner is close enough when you use it. We felt the experience was well balanced whether playing in solo or co-op, so it’s tough to say if there’s a definitive way to play Young Souls, but it does feel a little more satisfying to overcome a boss with an extra set of hands to help out.
As for its presentation, Young Souls sticks to a fascinating 2D art style that still takes smart advantage of the 3D space. The comic book-esque visuals fit well with the tone of the narrative and the animations give you a nice amount of feedback to really sell the landing of every blow. We especially liked the attention to detail shown in the presentation, such as a quick zoom on feet running up the stairs when the twins go to their room or the artifacting around the screen when you hold the skip button during a cutscene. It’s clear that the developers put a lot of effort into making Young Souls look just right, and we think they really stuck the landing in this regard. This is then matched by an equally quality, high-energy soundtrack that provides a wonderful tempo for the fights you endure.
All of this is great, but the presentation is let down somewhat by occasional performance hitches. While versions on other platforms run at 60 FPS, the Switch version only manages 30 FPS, and even this sees some minor dips from time to time. The worst performance hiccup bizarrely takes place when you try to access your inventory to switch equipment; we encountered loading times here that sometimes exceeded ten seconds. It might not sound like much, but hitting that load every time you want to try a new sword or helmet is irritating, to say the least. We wouldn’t say the performance issues are a huge drawback of the Switch version, but just be aware that it feels a little rough in some parts.
Those of you who were big fans of Castle Crashers or Streets of Rage 4 will find plenty to love here. Young Souls smartly mixes RPG-lite elements with a compelling story, non-linear structure, and some impressively satisfying beat ‘em up combat to make for an experience that you won’t want to miss. Despite some rare performance hiccups which tarnish the Switch version slightly compared to the more powerful platforms, Young Souls still proves itself to be one of the best beat ‘em up titles on the system, and we’d give this one a high recommendation to anyone who enjoys a good brawler, co-op or solo.