There’s this term in gaming parlance these days called “souls like”. It refers to games that ape the incredibly successful formula we see/saw in From Software’s more recent games, particularly the “Dark Souls” trilogy. These games are usually incredibly hard, with little to no hand holding, dropping the players into a world that actively wants to kill them with no apologies. The trick is that they’re incredibly fair, rewarding players who figure out their systems and making each victory feel like you’re actually succeeding at something. Quite frequently they’re set in dark fantasy worlds (usually dying), and the lore is more hidden than outright stated.
For some reason developers have decided that Metroidvania titles should follow this general setup. This happens again and again: Dead Cells (though it’s arguable how Metroidvania that is), Blasphemous, and some would argue Hollow Knight all attempt to use this formula in Metroidvanias. It does mostly work, and often produces engaging games that are well done: the three I just listed are highly successful for a reason.
Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights is the most souls-like game I’ve played that isn’t Dark Souls.
The basic premise here is that you are Lily, a white priestess (or possibly a clone of one) who is sent into a world overrun by Blight. You wake up in a kind of gothic, kind of reverential, kind of experimental area as seen above, and are told by the hovering spirit of a knight that the world is worse than you remember before going to sleep. The Knight volunteers to help you through this world and escape the weight of it all (by journeying, not by killing you).
Thus begins an excellent Metroidvania game. The world continues this dark ambiance throughout, but does a pretty good job of balancing it. Lily is an embodiment of light: she literally shines forth with like and casts it simply by existing. Mix this with her doll like presentation and demeanor, and the contrast helps stop the game from being the endlessly dark slog that souls-likes can often be (looking at you, Blasphemous, good game that you are). Your goal here is to purge the world of blight and sin, taking it on yourself, which grants you more powers and abilities as you go.
Lily does not fight directly. Instead she summons the spirits of various knights and villagers you encounter throughout your journey. This almost gives things a Mega Man like quality, as each boss rewards you with their knight/spirit, which you can then use throughout the rest of the game. The player can freely map a spirit to a face button (save the one saved for jumping), and that allows you to mix and match spirits as you will.
These spirits can be upgraded too. There’s blight throughout the world. It glows red, which means it’s actually kind of fun to find. On top of that, the blight is attached to a person who succumbed to the blight, and they grant you a snippet of dialogue that enhances the world. This means that seeking upgrades gives you peeks at the world and the lore around it, which is a brilliant way of doing this, rewarding the players in multiple ways. In this, the game does even better than Hollow Knight, which I and many others consider the pinnacle of this genre.
The upgrade system does have a slight drawback. If you read the caption up there, you’ll see I used the first boss’s ability throughout the entire game. I dumped a lot of my blight into making it a strong attack, and I got both attached to the spirit it represented and to the way it attacks. In a game like this where how you attack and move is crucial to your muscle memory to survive, switching out moves for anything that’s not just a blatant upgrade of a move (there’s at least one like that) just hurts you instead of helping. This meant I was less interested in seeking out the hidden mini-bosses or even some of the main bosses toward the end of the game: I had my set of abilities and didn’t want to change them (I had one set for melee and one for ranged).
The bosses are fantastic as well. They’re all knights or other major figures that were supposed to guard Lily and her kind against the blight. But at some point prior to her arrival, they succumbed to that which they swore to fight, and now serve as tests of your abilities. This is where the already moderately difficult game ratchets up the difficulty, testing your skills at dodging ,jumping, and fighting in general.
It was rare that I felt like a boss fight was unfair. The one pictured above probably got close, as he had an attack that seemingly just appeared right over my character. And the attacks hurt; quite frequently your usually impressive life bar will get consumed in just a few hits. Yet it always felt like it was my fault that I lost (unlike some games: Talking about you, The Messenger and your cheap totem pole boss). It drove me to try again and again, even if it took upwards of a dozen times (which I think is the number that knight took).
The story unfolds slowly, and to really discover everything requires digging around. Like many games of this genre, there’s an early out that gives you what is technically a happy ending for Lily (she denies this broken world’s insistence on her bearing their sin and blight), but y’know, doesn’t have a killer final boss or major sense of accomplishment.
The biggest knock against this game is that it really doesn’t bring a whole lot new to the genre. It feels like a souls game. It plays like an extremely tight metroidvania. Its story is yet another about a decaying world where your character is the last hope for revival. Been there; done that. Even the upgrade system and setup isn’t entirely new.
The graphics are stylized, and it could take some getting used to. The main character reminded me of nothing so much as a Precious Moments doll, and the fact that she’s fighting eldritch horrors amused me greatly. I loved the style, but it has turned some people away and I could see why.
Here’s the thing though, I’ll take a game that does stuff brilliantly over games that don’t. This game showed up in a recent advertisement for Indieworld, as a game about facing your fears, and it does often feel like that. It’s incredibly well done, and definitely would’ve ended up on my top 10 for the year list (bumping down Pokemon Snap, which means no more Guacamelee 2). If you’re into games like this, it’s an excellent entry, and worth getting, on sale or no. It took me about 15/16 hours, and I nearly 100% the game (I missed some blight and at least one special item).
9 give me a little more originality and it would be a 10, but it’s still a classic of the genre and one of the best games I’ve played all year