Thymesia, developed by OverBorder Studio, is a Souls-like game, and on the surface, it’s a pretty faithful one. The checkpoints, the layered, dense level design, the ‘NOUN VERBED’ messages, the healing system, the difficulty, - it’s all there. Everything except the combat. The combat in Thymesia has almost nothing in common with the Dark Souls games and its spiritual successor Elden Ring. Instead, Thymesia takes elements of the combat systems from Bloodborne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which themselves deviate from the Dark Souls formula of combat, and fuses them to create something that’s not quite like anything else. And I love it for that.
Combat in Dark Souls games is generally slow, almost turn-based. The enemy performs an attack that you either dodge or block and once they’re done, you attack. A methodical, cautious playstyle is encouraged. Sekiro and Bloodborne are different. These games encourage a faster pace of combat and are a little more forgiving of taking damage. It is fundamentally a playstyle in which the optimal way to play is to be aggressive, attacking every instant that you’re not deflecting or dodging. This style of play isn’t for everyone - some prefer the methodical pace of the Souls games, some the fast-paced action of Bloodborne and Sekiro. If you, like me, fall into the second camp, you’ll like this game.
Combat in Thymesia
Your primary weapon in Thymesia is a saber. You can use it to attack enemies and deflect attacks. You can deflect attacks by blocking them with your saber at exactly the right moment. A successful deflect staggers enemies and deals damage to them as well. A successful deflect feels very satisfying to pull off. As someone who beat Sekiro, a game in which deflecting attacks was a core component of the gameplay, I thought that this was the route I’d take through Thymesia, especially since deflecting also deals damage. However, I found the deflect window to be far too narrow for me, and I couldn’t consistently deflect. The deflect action felt slightly sluggish, and I found it tough to account for that.
Instead, I dealt with enemy attacks using the other option for evading damage the game provides - dodging. Timing dodges correctly doesn’t deal damage, but you perform a neat step dodge, often landing behind the enemy, well-positioned to deal significant damage. I personally found it much more intuitive to time dodges correctly. My playstyle for this game was primarily a combination of a variety of attacks and well-timed dodges, and it created a flow of combat that I found engaging, fun, and fast-paced. Your arsenal is also supplemented by a few other weapons - Claw Attacks, Feathers and Plague Weapons, which have associated mechanics that synergize with this primary combat system in interesting ways.
The Wound System - your incentive to attack quickly
Thymesia encourages a faster pace of combat via the Wound system. When you deal damage to an enemy, you see health bars of two colours. The white bar is the primary health bar, while the green represents the Wounds they’ve sustained. The developers have said that this mechanic is inspired by the medieval medical practice of bloodletting. If an enemy hasn’t taken damage in a certain period of time, their wounds heal, and you’re back to square one. You can kill an enemy when both health bars are empty. This means that if you don’t keep the pressure up, for instance, if you opt for a Dark Souls-type style of staying out of range of the attack and then moving in to retaliate, it will be almost impossible to kill anyone in this game.
Thymesia encourages you to adopt a faster playstyle by penalizing slowness. I do wish the game had some positive reinforcement for faster play instead of or along with the negative reinforcement for playing slowly, but it doesn’t feel unfair and does engender a sense of urgency.
When enemies have a significant amount of Wound damage, you can use Claw attacks to whittle down the overall Wound health bar, limiting how much the enemy would heal. Normal attacks do this as well once the white health bar is depleted, but Claw attacks exclusively focus on Wounds. The standard Claw attack launches you forward at the enemy and slashes at them in a wide arc, so it’s also a good way to close distances and deal damage to groups of enemies. They feel extremely satisfying to do, thanks to a combination of the animation, the spectral green claws, and the sight of a huge chunk of the enemy’s health disappearing.
Feathers - An Alternate Parry
Sometimes, enemies will flash green which indicates that they’re about to perform a critical attack. Critical attacks can’t be deflected, but can be evaded or dodged. Feathers provide another way to deal with critical attacks. They are three projectiles that can be thrown at enemies from a distance and gradually regenerate. If you time it correctly, you can interrupt an enemy as they perform the attack and stagger them, leaving them open to massive amounts of damage. It’s really satisfying if you can pull it off.
Since you tend to be at a distance when you throw Feathers, I found that it synchronizes quite well with a Claw attack right after, both closing the distance and dealing damage. Unfortunately, as with deflecting, I was unable to consistently nail down the timing to interrupt criticals, and found it easier to simply dodge attacks. Feathers are useful outside of interrupting critical attacks too, though. For example, I used them to lure enemies away from large groups to deal with them one at a time, and as a handy ranged weapon in certain environments.
Plague Weapons - Supplementary Aid
Plague weapons are the final addition to your offensive capabilities in Thymesia. They’re functionally similar to the prosthetics in Sekiro, supplementary offensive options that can be used a limited number of times in each life. Thymesia is a lot more generous than Sekiro in this regard, though. In Thymesia, it costs Energy to use plague weapons, which recharges every time you rest, or when you use Claw attacks in combat.
There is a broad array of Plague Weapons, which consist of the weapons wielded by enemies in the game, and they have a variety of functionality in combat from dealing large amounts of damage, to enemy knockback, healing, and mobility options. They’re all relatively easy to unlock as well - you just have to kill a set number of enemies wielding that weapon. I found the process of trying and testing different Plague Weapons to see which ones suited my playstyle best to be really fun and engaging. My current favourite is the hammer which complements my high-vitality build well, deals massive amounts of damage, and staggers enemies after the attack as well.
Upgrades and Leveling Up
I think the upgrade system is its best gameplay mechanic, and is the element that enhances every other combat mechanic associated with it. Leveling up in Thymesia works the same way as it does in the Souls games - collect enough memories to put points into one of three attributes: Vitality which increases your health bar, Strength which boosts your attack and Plague which increases your energy bar and therefore your capacity to use Plague Weapons. Each time you level up, you also get a point to put in one of the game’s skill trees. And this is where Thymesia really hooked me.
There are multiple skill trees for each of the aspects of combat - attacks, dodges, deflects, Feathers, Claw attacks, Plague Weapons, and general combat. The skills in these trees offer upgrades and modifications to the combat aspect they’re associated with. You can unlock skills that you know will complement and enhance your play style. For example, since my playstyle relied heavily on dodging, I invested in several skills in the dodge trees. One of the skills, unlocking a second dodge that can be performed immediately after the first, proved invaluable to my play style. One skill buffs your attack when you successfully dodge an enemy’s attack and another one lets you immediately perform a counter-attack after dodging. The skills have great synergy with each other and with your playstyle if you pick the right ones, and help build an addictive sense of momentum in combat.
In my opinion, the skill trees tie everything in Thymesia together. They create a strong feedback loop of going through an area, leveling up and unlocking new skills, and then becoming even more effective at going through the next level. Although the game has the same narrower range of combat styles as Sekiro and Bloodborne, these skill trees give your preferred combat style a great amount of depth. Thymesia does a better job at skill trees than Sekiro because the skills feel better integrated with the primary combat mechanics while also not being plain passive buffs.
It also introduces nuance within each of the gameplay styles. For example, if you’re going for a deflect-based build, there are still multiple options within the scope of deflecting, like skills that enhance its offensive capabilities or modify the timing window to make it easier to deflect. These changes feel significant, and they do impact your moment-to-moment gameplay in a meaningful way, which imbues the process of investing in skills with stakes.
All of these aspects come together to make combat in Thymesia a fun, engaging experience. There’s responsiveness here, both in the visual and auditory feedback of moment-to-moment gameplay - the sound of the weapons, the staggering of enemies who have been attacked, the green glow of Plague-based attacks - but also in the big picture, in terms of the skills you choose. Thymesia may be a Souls-like, but it put its own spin on an established set of conventions and created a dynamic, challenging, engaging, and fun experience.
A World Ravaged by Plague
The combat system is Thymesia’s central focus and the highlight of the game. If you like how combat works here, you like the game itself, which is why most of this review is dedicated to talking about it. Worldbuilding, atmosphere, and level design are important aspects of the Souls games, and Thymesia has these on offer as well.
The game takes place in Hermes Kingdom, an alchemy-focused society being ravaged by a plague. You play as Corvus, an amnesiac who is implied to not be entirely human, and who has also lost his memories. Each level in the game is framed as Corvus recollecting his actions in that level to a mysterious magical little girl called Aisemy, who also helps you level up. Characters like Aisemy are a standard of the Souls games, and the premise of an amnesiac character is common in gaming in general, but the same originality that permeates the combat system isn’t really found here. This aspect of the game isn’t weak by any means, but it comes across as perfunctory, being there because it’s expected.
The world-building and atmosphere are more compelling to me. Each level has tidbits of lore, generally delivered in the form of papers and items scattered around telling you about the specifics of the level, the boss, and the state of the wider world. My favourite of these is the very first one you can encounter - a notice from the kingdom taped to the wall describing lockdown measures to contain the plague, including the amusing detail that grocery delivery will be handled by knights. It’s hard to think of games set during a plague without thinking about the ongoing global pandemic, but I really believe that grocery deliveries being handled by the kingdom’s knights would not have been included in the worldbuilding in a pre-COVID world.
The game has a strong atmosphere. It has a medieval-esque dark aesthetic and consistently good art direction. One of my favourite things about the visual design is that each level has a specific colour associated with it, something that immediately created a distinct identity for that stage of the game. The levels themselves are small but dense, full of alternate routes, shortcuts, and side areas. Despite this density, I did feel that the levels were on the shorter side, and I always felt like I had cleared them too quickly. The boss fights were another matter, taking me much longer to get through than the levels associated with them, but they almost never felt unfair or impossible. I think after the combat system, Thymesia’s atmosphere is the best thing about it, creating a creepy, melancholic, visually distinct setting.
Thymesia is consistently at its best when putting its own spin on things. This comes through very strongly in the combat system, which makes the most of its narrow scope and is complex, dynamic, and engaging. Other aspects of the game like the story and characters didn’t grip me as much, but the combat system is strong and occupies the central focus of the game, so it isn’t a major detriment. If you’re itching for a challenging, fast-paced, action game with a well-implemented skill tree system, give Thymesia a shot.
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