Once bitten by the Souls bug, there's no going back. Everything is different, and all you want is more of it. While I patiently wait for Bloodborne, I've searched for more Souls to consume, and found myself drawn to Malebolgia, best described as Souls mixed with a stylish horror flick.
First, let's talk about what it means to be a Souls game, From Software made or not.
Mystery is a defining characteristic of the series—for better or worse, depending on who you talk to. The game doesn't explain much about itself, purposely misleads the player, and its mechanics and systems are hilariously obtuse, especially compared to other modern games. The games are incredibly demanding of players, expecting them to follow the game's specific rules or be punished severely, often having to play through huge chunks of the game over and over.
Combat flow is also important. Most games let you to hit as many buttons as possible, allowing players to interrupt a punch for a kick, should the desire arise. That's not true in a Souls game. Instead, every attack has an painfully long animation. The wrong attack can result in precious seconds hanging in the wind, while opportunistic enemies quickly descend on your flesh.
Malebolgia adheres to both of these conventions. You wake up in a mansion, and while the people around you seem to know who you are and anticipated your arrival, it's not clear why you're there. They're looking for you for guidance and survival, however, so better get to it!
It's been interesting to watch how games use Souls as a touchstone. Lords of the Fallen had zero problems embracing its creative influences, but tried to make the concept approachable to a newcomer. While Malebolgia couldn't exist without what came before it, it doesn't feel totally slavish to From Software's foundation. Instead, Malebolgia immediately feels comfortable to anyone who's played a Souls game before, and the game doesn't have to communicate much.
Some things are different, however. There's no loot to pick up, and character upgrades happen automatically after defeating certain bosses. Whereas the Souls games place a heavy emphasis on nitpicky character customization, Malebolgia is content with drilling deep into atmosphere.
Boy, does this game have atmosphere. Just walking around in Malebolgia is a creepy delight.
The dangerously gorgeous world can be distracting sometimes, largely because you're directly influencing how it looks, thanks to your torch. There are a few other light sources in the mansion—lighting the ones by doors increases your health—but they can't really be relied upon. The torch can also be used as a weapon, but chances are you'll want to stick with your axe.
Fighting enemies is pretty simple. Moving the analog stick in different directions results in various attacks, and parrying is huge here. I've never dabbled too far into parrying with the Souls games because the timing was so dang specific, but Malebolgia is far more forgiving on this front. So long as you're parrying around the time an attack is coming at you, it should connect. Staying in the thick of combat is important in Malebolgia, as there is no way to heal yourself mid-fight, and enemies can be pretty relentless. You really want them dead ASAP.
More than anything, what stood out for me while playing Malebolgia was how the game tries to regularly spook you. The Souls games regularly deploy a macabre and unsettling aesthetic, but that's all in the service of tension. Malebolgia, on the other hand, deploys jump scares and other tools of the horror trade in order to keep players on their toes. I wasn't expecting to be yelping while playing Malebolgia, but that's what happened on more than one occasion. It gives Malebolgia a needed flair that helps the game move away from the constant Souls comparisons.
Malebolgia is currently in Early Access, though the developer says the final version is coming:
If you'd like to watch me try and fail to make progress in Malebolgia, do I have a video for you!
I may not yet know how to pronounce Malebolgia, but I do know I'll be keeping a close eye on it.