There’s a majesty in Elden Ring that few other games can contend with. Its world is densely packed with a thousand waiting discoveries, its combat systems are richly layered, and its lore begs to be chronicled by a dozen YouTube scholars. But every now and again I can’t help but wonder what Elden Ring would be if it were not so beholden to 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, ability-augmented combat of God of War? The answer, it seems, may well be held in Flintlock: The Siege of Dawn.
At Gamescom 2022 I sat down with a couple of developers from A44, the New Zealand-based developer behind Ashen, to watch them play around 30 minutes of Flintlock. They explained that their new Soulslike RPG, set in a fantasy world of ancient magic and blackpowder guns, is designed to sit somewhere between Elden Ring and God of War, taking the challenge and discovery of the former and combining it with the narrative-focused, glossy presentation of the latter.
This approach is clear to see in the demo’s boss battle, which sees protagonist Nor Vanek face off against the imposing God of Knowledge, a towering spirit encased in golden plates of triangular armour. As the Soulslike genre dictates, the boss has an inflated health bar, deals huge damage with telegraphed attacks, and becomes more fearsome in its second phase. The initial steps to overcome all this follows the Dark Souls playbook; a well-timed dodge roll is followed by a few aggressive ax strikes, and then a patient wait for an attack that can be parried. But it’s in the parry that Flintlock’s God of War influences begin to show through; Nor knocks the God to its knees and the camera flies in close to perfectly capture a brutal blow to the side of its head.
The demo is filled with these moments. Nor might unleash a roundhouse kick that sends a foe flying, or tackle an enemy to the ground before firing her pistol into their face. The camera swoops around the action, triggering bursts of slow motion to truly emphasize spectacle. It may use the FromSoft ruleset, but Flintlock’s combat looks flashier – more fantastical, even – than any Souls game has ever been.
But it goes further than just glossy animations and cool camera angles. Nor has a range of abilities that make her much more dynamic than a Souls character, including acrobatic jump strikes and being able to quickly switch between her guns and axe. She’s also accompanied by Enki, a fox-like creature who can, among other skills, freeze an enemy in mid-air and absorb their health. Think of him as a little like God of War’s Atreus, just infinitely old and with the ability to channel dark magic.
Since I’ve not yet played Flintlock, it’s impossible for me to know right now if that blend of challenge and cinema results in a tight, responsive combat system. But the signs are good, and A44 clearly believes in its combat so much that it even has a Devil May Cry-like Stylish Rank system. Each attack, skill, and combo performed by Nor and Enki is awarded points, which rack up in their thousands over time. This score, known as your Reputation, doubles as a currency which can be used to buy new weapons and items at the black market. But, as in the real world, Reputation can be lost. Dying reduces your score to zero, locking you out of the black market’s inventory. Thankfully it can be restored if you pick it up from the location you died.
Flintlock: The Siege of Dawn – Gamescom 2022 Screenshots
Don’t mistake Reputation for Souls, though. Character progression is not tied to this temporary score; instead Nor and Enki evolve through the use of XP points, which when earned stay with you permanently. That XP is used to unlock upgrades on what A44 describes as an “intentionally overwhelming” skill tree, with far more options than is possible to unlock in a single playthrough. Further progression comes through victories; each defeated boss rewards you with its special ability, and so with each major kill comes a significant expansion of your power arsenal. Divorcing the die-and-drop mechanic from character development is a huge deviation from the FromSoft formula, and could well be one of Flintlock’s key weapons in bringing the joy of Soulslike combat and worlds to a wider audience.
Outside the heat of battle, Flintlock’s demo shows a similar rethinking of Soulslike principles. Nor navigates the open world on foot but can also jump up high, 3D platformer-style, using grenade blasts to reach ledges and hidden items or, with specific unlocks, can have Enki teleport her over huge distances.
It’s the way A44 treats its world and population, though, that could truly mark new ground for a Soulslike. During the demo Nor and Enki come across a village that has been overrun by the undead (the old gods have torn open the doors to the underworld, hence Flintlock’s big zombie and deity problem), which triggers a ‘Hamlet Liberation’ activity. Defeating the mini-boss that has taken up residency here sees the original community return to their homes, a change that won’t be reset by resting at a bonfire checkpoint. These villagers can then offer up new quests; I watch as Nor introduces herself to a bizarre collection of limbs (character designs can get very out-there) that asks her to help satisfy her coffee obsession. This all suggests that progression doesn’t just come in the evolution of your character build and position on the main story path; there’s also advancement in the world around you and the communities that you encounter. It’s the kind of approach I’d expect from a more traditional RPG over a Soulslike.
As the demo progresses, 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 lots of optional dungeons and bosses, some of which are linked to side questlines or endgame objectives. You can stumble upon a variety of incidental stories, from a man being robbed on the roadside to a whole cult obsessed with death. There are special items to be found, including one that resurrects you as an undead if you die. Over time you recruit a team of engineers who can use explosives to open up access to shortcuts and secret areas. There’s a story mode that recalibrates the difficulty to something more accessible should people need it. Each new feature he mentions reshapes my expectations and increases my excitement. I walk away from the appointment convinced that Flintlock is the best thing I’ve seen at Gamescom.
My enthusiastic chatter about Flintlock convinces my colleague, IGN’s executive news editor Joe Skrebels, to book a last-minute appointment to see it. There, Bradley tells him that Elden Ring pushed Soulslikes in a new direction, and he wants Flintlock to push even further. It’s clear that A44 has serious, shoot-for-the-moon ambition, then. And right now, without having played Flintlock, I can’t say with confidence how close the modestly-sized studio has come to those lofty goals. Bradley notes that his 60-person team doesn’t have the immense budget of Sony Santa Monica, and while that’s clear in Flintlock’s not-quite-AAA visuals, I’m hopeful money won’t impact its ability to be a bold rethink of what a Soulslike can be. Because, more than anything else, the thing that I think will make Flintlock special isn’t its cinematic approach, but its understanding that the FromSoftware formula is not a set of rules to replicate, but a framework to build upon.
FPS games were largely considered Doom clones until games like GoldenEye and Half-Life reconsidered what first-person shooting could be. Flintlock, if it’s everything it promises, could well be part of the vanguard that makes Soulslikes much more than just Dark Souls copies.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.