There is a majesty to Elden Ring that few games can match. His world is packed with thousands of discoveries, his combat systems are layered, and his story begs to be told by a dozen experts on YouTube. But from time to time I can’t help but wonder what Elden Ring would be like if it weren’t so bound by FromSoftware’s own rules. What if it had the sense of cinematic spectacle that fuels Sony’s blockbusters? A story-rich narrative with the flashy, skillful combat of God of War? The answer, it seems, could lie in Flintlock: The Siege of Dawn..
At Gamescom 2022 I sat down with a couple of developers from A44, the New Zealand company behind Ashen, to watch them play about 30 minutes of Flintlock. They explained to me that their new Souls-like role-playing game, set in a fantasy world of ancient magic and gunpowder weaponsis designed to sit somewhere between Elden Ring and God of Wartaking the challenge and discovery of the former and combining it with the brilliant narrative presentation of the latter.
This approach is evident in the demo’s boss battle, in which protagonist Nor Vanek faces off against the towering God of Knowledge, a towering spirit clad in golden triangular armor plates. As the Souls genre dictates, the boss has a massive health bar, deals massive damage with telegraphed attacks, and becomes more fearsome in its second phase. The initial steps to get through all of this follow the Dark Souls playbook; a well-timed dodge is followed by a few aggressive swings with the axe, and then a patient wait for an attack that can be parried. But it is in the parry when the influences of Flintlock in God of War begin to appear; Nor brings the god to his knees and the camera zooms in to perfectly capture a vicious blow to the side of the head.
The demo is full of these moments. Nor can unleash a roundhouse kick that launches an enemy into the air, or knock an enemy to the ground before firing his pistol at their face. The camera pans around the action, causing bursts of slow motion to really emphasize the show. It may use FromSoftware’s ruleset, but Flintlock’s combat seems flashier (more fantastical, even) than any Souls game.
I walk away convinced that Flintlock is the best thing I’ve seen at Gamescom.
But it goes beyond brilliant animations and engaging camera angles. Nor has a series of abilities that make her much more dynamic0 than a Souls character, such as the acrobatic jumps and the ability to quickly switch between his pistols and his ax. She is also accompanied by Enki, a fox-like creature that can, among other abilities, freeze an enemy in mid-air and drain health from them. She thinks of him as being a bit like Atreus from God of War, only infinitely old and with the ability to channel dark magic.
Since I haven’t played Flintlock yet, it’s impossible for me to know right now if that mix of challenge and cinema translates into a tight and responsive combat system. But the signs are good, and it is clear that A44 believes in his combat so much that he even has a similar Devil May Cry style ranking system.. Every attack, skill, and combo performed by Nor and Enki is awarded points, which accumulate by the thousands over time. This score, known as your Reputation, is converted into currency that can be used to purchase new weapons and items on the black market. But, as in the real world, reputation can be lost. If you die, your score is reduced to zero. Luckily, it can be recovered if you pick it up at the place where you died.
Nevertheless, don’t confuse reputation with souls. Character progression is not tied to this temporary score; instead, Nor and Enki evolve through the use of experience points, which when earned stay with you permanently. Those experience points are used to unlock upgrades in what A44 describes as an “intentionally overwhelming” skill tree, with far more options than is possible to unlock in a single playthrough. Progression comes hand in hand with victories; each boss defeated rewards you with his special ability, so each major kill is a significant expansion of your arsenal of power. Separating die-and-drop mechanics from character development is a huge departure from the FromSoftware formula, and could be one of Flintlock’s key weapons in bringing the joy of Souls combat and worlds to a wider audience.
Out of the heat of battle, the Flintlock demo shows a similar approach to Soulslike principles. Nor navigates the open world on foot, but he can also jump high, 3D platformer-style, using grenade blasts to reach ledges and hidden objects, or, with specific unlocks, he can be teleported by Enki. at great distances.
However, it is the way A44 treats its world and its population that really could mark a new path for a Soulslike. During the demo, Nor and Enki come across a village that has been overrun by the undead (the old gods have opened the gates to the underworld, hence Flintlock’s big deity/zombie problem). Upon defeating the mini-boss that has taken up residence here, the original community returns to their homes, a change that is not reset by resting at a bonfire checkpoint. These villagers can offer new quests; I watch as Nor introduces himself to a bizarre collection of members (character designs can be pretty wacky) who ask for his help in satisfying his coffee obsession. All of this suggests that progression is not limited to the evolution of your character build and position in the main story, but also progresses the world around you and the communities you encounter. It’s the kind of approach you’d expect from a more traditional RPG than a Souls-like.
As the demo goes on, game director Derek Bradley constantly tells me about other things in the game that he can’t show right now. The open world is home to plenty of optional dungeons and bosses, some of which are related to side quests or end goals. You can stumble across a variety of incidental stories, from a man getting robbed on the highway to an entire cult obsessed with death. There are special items you can find, including one that resurrects you as the undead if you die. Over time, you recruit a team of engineers who can use explosives to access shortcuts and secret areas. There’s a story mode that recalibrates the difficulty to something more accessible should you need it. Every new feature he mentions reconfigures my expectations and increases my excitement. I walk away convinced that Flintlock is the best thing I’ve seen at Gamescom.
Bradley tells us that Elden Ring pushed Soulslikes in a new direction, and that he wants Flintlock to push even more. It is clear that A44 has great ambition. And right now, without having played Flintlock, I can’t say for sure how close the modest studio is to those lofty goals. Bradley points out that his 60-person team doesn’t have the massive budget of Sony Santa Monica, and while that shows in the visuals of Flintlock, which isn’t exactly AAA, I’m hopeful the money doesn’t affect their ability to be a bold rethinking of what a Soulslike can be. Because, more than anything, what I think will make Flintlock special is not its cinematic approach, but its understanding that the FromSoftware formula is not a set of rules to replicate, but rather a framework to build on.
FPS games were largely considered clones of Doom until games like GoldenEye and Half-Life reconsidered what first-person shooters could be. Flintlock, if he’s all he promises, he might as well be part of the avant-garde that makes Soulslike much more than just copies of Dark Souls.