It’s unsurprising that there’s no shortage of pixelated Metroidvanias these days. They’re not graphically intensive, for one thing, although pixel graphics can be an art-form of their own. What they often lack – outside of the really big hitters like Dead Cells or Blasphemous – is originality. They’ll often put their own spin on certain elements, but all Metroidvanias share mass amounts of DNA with their vaunted progenitors. Elderand, despite some impressive moments, is no different.
You play as a nameless bounty hunter who has come to the mysterious land of Elderand to find it in the grip of a religious civil war between the followers of two almost Lovecraftian cults. There’s some story here, though as with Soulslike titles, much of it is told in flavour text and snatches of cryptic dialogue that don’t make much sense even in context. Ultimately it boils down to killing everything that doesn’t sell you things.
Elderand is not a Soulslike though. When you die you go back to the last bonfire (seriously, they called them bonfires) and progress resets to that point. Thankfully they’re nicely spaced, and once you unlock the ability to fast travel between them exploration becomes a much more enjoyable affair.
As with other Metroidvania games, progress is periodically halted until you find certain artefacts that afford your hero new powers. There’s nothing overly original here. There’s a double jump, the ability to scale high walls, a hook-shot, various methods to open locked doors or clear thorny vines out of your way. Some of these artefacts are taken from bosses, others simply handed to you by a mysterious woman you meet in Terrakand, which is like a hub village.
What Elderand does slightly differently to the norm is incorporate RPG elements. Levelling up allows you to assign points to Vitality, Wisdom, Dexterity or Might, so you can build a heavy-hitting warrior, a nimble archer, or a staff-wielding mage. Sorcery comes from equipped staves rather than spellbooks, and I found the staff to be a little too weak in the early game. I stuck to a massive axe and a shield which I swapped out for stronger versions throughout and, with a bow as back up, had little real trouble beyond bosses.
The combat is a little hit and miss. It being on a strictly 2D plane means you’re limited to back-steps to avoid danger. You can dash, but it doesn’t have i-frames so you can’t use it to get through enemies like in Dead Cells, which means large enemies you can’t jump over can and will back you into corners. Leaving a screen and returning respawns enemies like its Super Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts, which is a system I’ve never liked. Though, you can exploit this for money and XP.
You can only carry three health or energy potions at a time, but you find them in breakable pots or you can buy them from merchants. Once you’ve unlocked the fast-travel, it becomes easy to simply stock up before each tough area, and there’s usually a save point before a boss fight.
The bosses themselves are pretty tough all-round, but once you get the hang of reading hitboxes they become less troublesome. The issue isn’t necessarily their move-sets, but how much health they have. You can feel like you’re just chipping away at them and it’s more disheartening than challenging.
Elderand is a fairly refreshing experience though. It is tough, but also feels almost old school in its dedication to fairness. It will kill you a lot, but there are save points everywhere, space to grind and improve, and items to buy or find that improve your chances. It doesn’t feel overly punishing and never makes you feel like it’s just pounding you into the floor for fun.
It’s also great looking. The pixel art is gorgeous, with some great enemy design and some impressive environments. Animations are fast and fluid, and the combat is smooth. That said, enemy hitboxes can be finicky, and it has the Castlevania problem of catapulting you back roughly a city block when you get hit by an enemy. It’s annoying if you’re at the top of a high climb, but not a major issue.
It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but Elderand is still an enjoyable, old-fashioned hack ‘n’ slash adventure that will challenge you without punishing you and entertain you without confounding you with too much overblown lore. It also runs lovely on Steam Deck, so if you have that option it’s definitely worth grabbing.
Great art style
Interesting world to explore
Not much originality
Bosses can be frustrating