Two years ago I reviewed Mortal Shell, a game heavily inspired by From Software’s Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, that brought to light this idea that the “Souls-like” genre had truly achieved a sort of “Doom clone” status. For every advancement From Software makes with Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Sekiro, and now Elden Ring, there are dozens of copycat games mimicking the formula to varying degrees of success.
Two years since that Mortal Shell review, the genre has only gotten bigger. I used to play every one of them that came out. This year I’ve already played three new ones before finishing Elden Ring, and I’ve probably missed at least a half-dozen more.
And in the same way that Doom eventually inspired Duke Nukem and Serious Sam, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to take the comedy angle with a Dark Souls parody. Enter: The Last Hero of Nostalgaia.
Nostalgia is the latest from developer Over the Moon, whose prior games, The Fall and The Fall Part 2 garnered praise for their clever writing. Here that cleverness arrives in the form of silly references to other classic games, a snarky narrator tossing insults at the player, and a character creator that may be the best joke in the game.
The game’s world is a glitchy amalgam of modern-ish textures and chunky, flat, pixelated sprites. Some sort of curse has stricken the land, reverting parts of the environment and enemies into the kinds of assets you’d expect to see in the era of the original Playstation. You play the unlikely hero—a stick figure in a suit of armor—who, much like the zombified corpses you play as in the Dark Souls games, doesn’t inspire a ton of hope for a happy ending.
It’s a clever framework that mirrors a lot of the ideas of rising and falling dynasties, looping narratives, greed, and corruption that go hand-in-hand with the brutal combat of the Souls games. The Last Hero of Nostalgaia is essentially a spoof of Dark Souls where the castles don’t fall into ruin, they just get worse graphics.
Off in the distance you’ll see things like a loop-de-loop from Sonic the Hedgehog or the lighthouse from Bioshock. You’ll also acquire all kinds of armor and weapons inspired by games big and small, from Halo to Hotline Miami.
With all of that you’d think that this game would be a comedy-first, joke-a-minute experience. You might also think it would toss aside good gameplay to focus on laughs. In the moment, though, Nostalgaia feels quite the opposite. The jokes and references definitely had me snickering here and there, but I was surprised by how earnestly this game takes its over-the-top concept. Once the groundwork is in place, large swathes of The Last Hero of Nostalgaia are just intense combat, exploration, and self-serious exposition.
A lot of the time the game is very dark, and it’s not afraid to be pretty challenging. It feels almost as if, in the pursuit of a fun comedy game, the developers veered off in pursuit of a serious Souls-like contender.
That’s both a good and a bad thing, depending on what elements of the package you’re talking about. It’s great that this is a game you can laugh at, but then spend long stretches in that classic risk/reward concentration mode that these games tend to activate.
It also has a few cool ideas up its sleeve. The luck stat is one of a bunch of generic RPG stats you can put points into. Whereas strength and stamina have obvious benefits to your attack power and number of consecutive moves you can do, the luck stat improves a whole skill tree of various chance-based effects. Put enough points into luck and you’ll randomly heal for free, pile on critical hits, or regain all your stamina in a flash. It’s a brilliant implementation of the concept of “luck” in a game that I’d love to see in other games.
Another interesting system is the concept of “remembering” various items in your inventory. If you come across a particular landmark that has history with an item you carry, that item will vibrate in the inventory menu. Clicking the “Remember” button not only improves its stats, but unlocks a little story about the world of Nostalgaia. Because I was unlocking tangible benefits by remembering items, I found myself encouraged to read the flavor text as well. This system got me to read more of the inventory descriptions than I would in most actual Souls games.
That said, it’s a bit of a flawed system. Anytime I came upon a bit of the environment that looked at all unique or interesting, I felt compelled to open the inventory, scroll down my ever-growing list of items, and see if anything could be remembered. This got a bit tedious as the game progressed, and even when I knew where I had to go to remember an item, it could be prohibitively far away from my current location. The lack of full fast-travel is another sore spot that makes this system harder to engage with.
And that gets us to one of the bigger issues that wriggles its way into so much of Nostalgaia’s design. This game prays at the altar of the early Souls games, sticking to rules and bits of friction that From Software’s newer games have moved on from. The aforementioned lack of fast-travel here is so oppressive that it made me hesitate to explore on multiple occasions.
Nostalgaia doesn’t have as many ways to organically tweak the difficulty of encounters as something like Elden Ring. Its co-op seems to be a friends-only affair, rather than something you can matchmake into. There is a magic system that’s potentially pretty powerful, but I chose not to spec into it because I wanted to experience the Luck system firsthand. It would have been quite the grind to adjust and there doesn’t seem to be a way to respec your character.
That left me feeling like the best tactic was to just go grind somewhere for a bit and level up until a tough boss fight felt a little more doable. This is another spot where the lack of fast travel hurts. It was too inefficient to go exploring another area, so I spent a chunk of my playthrough killing the same 10-15 enemies in the same set of rooms over and over.
The game attempts to ease the lack of fast travel with shortcuts and a network of secret tunnels that connect all the areas. It’s a cool idea, and they’re fun to unlock as you forge ahead, but they’re complicated enough that it doesn’t feel worthwhile to backtrack through them. At one point, I could have made an armor set more powerful if I could get back to one of the earlier areas, but the process of getting there and back never felt worth the trouble.
And then there’s the combat, arguably the most important part of a Souls-like. It’s mostly quite solid, mimicking the deliberate pace of Dark Souls. But I found the collision detection, attack range, and lock-on to be inconsistent in a way that had me whiffing attacks pretty consistently. A running dash attack, one of my favorite openers to use in a Dark Souls game, was a sure-fire way to completely miss and leave myself open to punishment. For some reason, my character always seemed to attack off to one side, despite being locked on.
The Last Hero of Nostalgaia has a Youtube series of short videos promoting it as an “indie title that actually plays like a Souls-like should.” That claim is mostly accurate, and in my 18-20 hours with it I was having fun more often than not. But by trying to get so close to the Dark Souls formula, Nostalgaia’s wrinkles stand out even more. The flaws in the combat, the oppressive level design, and the drip-feed of comedy all come together to create a game that sometimes feels like a weak clone rather than a unique twist.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve played a lot of these Souls-like games from developers not called From Software. Often if they get close enough to the formula they end up being a fun-enough time just because it’s such a good formula. That said, it’s the fresh ideas they bring to the table that make them memorable, and unfortunately, while it’s a fine time, The Last Hero of Nostalgaia is too reverent to Dark Souls to leave a lasting impression.