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Soulslike: Rise of a Genre

Demons Souls. Dark Souls. Bloodborne. Lords of the Fallen. Nioh. The Surge.

With cult classic PS3 exclusive Demon‘s Souls servers about to be shut down forever I thought now would be an ideal time to do a retrospective on the Souls series and its emerging clones.

The series is very important to me, it revitalized my love for gaming on the PS3 and really stood out as something different in an era where the vast majority of games were copy and pasted First Person Shooters or button mashing hack and slash Action games.

In the nine years since Demon’s Souls acquired a hardcore following of gamers and redefined the genre of hardcore Action-RPG other developers have finally started to embrace the play style that From Software brought to our consoles. The Soulslike, or Soulsborne genre was created.

These games tend to be very challenging, featuring high risk, high reward gameplay. Despite being aimed at a small, niche audience, Demon’s Souls went on to sell 1.7 million copies. Sony did not expect the exclusive to perform this well and the developer From Software decided to do a soft reboot of the series, the spiritual successor Dark Souls would be multiplatform.

There would be three games in the Dark Souls series, all receiving critical acclaim. Dark Souls 2 is often seen as the series low point, with a lot of fans criticizing the game for its lack of meaningful connection to the other games. However the game sits at a lofty 91/100 on Metacritic, for the PS3 version. The fact that fans consider this a disappointment should go a long way to showing the standard expected of From Software and this iconic series. The three games have passed 13 million sales.

The more action oriented PS4 exclusive spin off Bloodborne has sold at least 2 million copies as of 2015. This is a genre that people are hungry for more content in, therefore it is no surprise other developers saw an opportunity.

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The Inspired Clones

Enter Deck13 Interactive and Lords of the Fallen. This game would be a fantasy hardcore Action RPG, however unlike From Software’s masterpieces this game was linear. The combat was great but the overall package really lacked a special sauce.

The developer had a second go at the genre with 2017’s The Surge. This time they refreshed their design by bringing in a Sci-Fi, robotic element to a genre usually only associated with High Fantasy. The game was average, interesting combat but again the linearity really removed the sense of exploration and freedom that makes the Soulsborne games so unique. The only tracked sales estimates are very low, only just over 100k copies.

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Lords of the Fallen on the other hand has passed 1 million sales, a sequel has been greenlit and was supposed to release in 2017 before a subsequent delay, common practice in the Video game industry nowadays.

The Surge’s failure could say that changing the setting this genre is so closely associated with was a huge risk, however the games lacking quality in a year over saturated with fantastic games is another factor.

In 2017 there was another game that embraced the Souls formula while also sticking to a linear format. Nioh, from Team Ninja became Koei Tecmo’s fastest selling Western published game with over 1 million copies sold on PS4 alone. A PC release 9 months later no doubt saw sales further boosted and the game was included in many major publications game of the year discussions.

The game was a roaring success, more akin to Demon’s Souls but with a Samurai setting that triple A videogames hadn’t been near in years. Despite the games lack of exploration it had a fantastically deep combat system that differed itself from other Soulslike games in its complexity offering many variety of play styles. The games success despite being a console exclusive with limited marketing shows how alive this genre really is.

The PS4 version is currently sitting at an 88/100 on metacritic, for comparisons sake Lords of the Fallen is at 68, The Surge is at 73. This is a genre where the fans really care about quality and depth and sales reflect this. I can also be sure that this a genre that is going to go from strength to strength, with the release of Bandai Namco’s Code Vein (essentially anime Bloodborne) coming in 2018 and the reveal of a new From Software game with almost zero details at the 2017 Video Game Awards,  I’m sure fans of the genre have a lot to be excited for, as do company shareholders based on the commercial appeal.

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‘The Dark Souls of…’

It is impossible to talk about the series without exploring the difficulty. The Souls games have a reputation for being punishing to the point that every game with even slight challenge is being compared to them.

Crash Bandicoot and Cuphead were two games in 2017 that suffered from these comparisons. Crash was the Dark Souls of platforming, despite the game having been out for 21 years and its difficulty already being well documented.

The Souls series found a way to adapt the gameplay found in a lot of 90s platformers; where players would die and then learn from that death to figure out a path through a level, to modern 3D action gaming. This is obvious in certain boss fights, such as the Capra Demon in Dark Souls. When you enter the arena you are charged by two dog enemies, if you do not dodge immediately you will be trapped and the boss will kill you in seconds. However after the first death you learn that you need to dodge the dogs original attack in order to open more space for yourself.

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The genre is all about learning from your mistakes. The game encourages players to die and learn, but also to take risks. Bloodborne’s regain system made taking risks more than worth it. In fact I think it’s the single most important factor separating Bloodborne from the Souls series and stapling it as a great franchise in its own right. If you take damage and lose health, dealing damage immediately afterward will restore your lost health. It will leave you open to further damage, but it opens a cycle where you can just regain it straight back. It makes the end of some boss fights incredible intense, it can lead to a fight being completely changed on its head in an instant and creates some genuinely memorable moments.

32 - Gehrman the First Hunter

Tonight, Gehrman joins the Hunt…

The genre is really defined by its memorable moments. These are what separate a great Soulslike game to a clone. Both Lords of the Fallen and The Surge are very forgetful, I struggle to recall a memorable moment from Dark Souls 2 as well, despite putting over 200 hours into the game and getting the platinum.

It’s impossible to forget taking down the Dragon God in Demon’s Souls despite it towering over you, Gehrman rising from his chair in Bloodborne, Nioh’s huge sprawling battlefield that you carve your way across near the end of the game, Ornstein and Smough descending from the rafters in Anor Londo or my personal favorite, the Nameless King fight near the end of Dark Souls 3.

Without these moments that require precision button pressing, rolling for your life before timing the perfect attack the games just wouldn’t have the soul that they do. They are built to record clips of yourself, for people to be able to talk about the incredible time they had zero Estus flasks (health potions) left but still were able to land the final blow on Seath the Scaleless before he sprayed his crystal breath around the arena and killed you. From Software understand this, as does the Souls game’s mastermind Hidetaka Miyazaki.

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The appeal in keeping the story as vague as possible so that people need to band together and form a community in order to research every tiny detail, whether that’s the placement of a corpse below rafters with a set of heavy armor the player can obtain (the original owner fell due to the weight) or a weapon found in a boss arena that the original owner disposed of in order to the a new form, everything matters in these games. Nioh understood the important of intense moments, where Deck13’s two attempts at the genre failed to capture both the memorability and the aspect of community collaboration that From Software and Miyazaki have perfected.

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Praise the Sun

Before the servers go offline for Demon’s Souls I will get the platinum, poetically it was my first ever Souls game but it will also be the final game I 100%. This includes clones such as the games mentioned above.

With Sony announcing the servers for the game will shut on February 28th 2018,  it will lead to a major influx of players desperate for one last Demon slaying fix in the fictional land of Boletaria. I will finally complete a nine year long personal journey, and I’m sure I won’t be the only one.

Xbox One X owners can be in for a further treat knowing that, although Dark Souls has no official enhancements, it plays incredibly well using the console’s backwards compatibly function. The frame rate is the most stable it’s ever been, making a significant impact to certain troublesome areas in the game, such as Blightown and its infamous slowdown.

Having put hundreds of hours into Dark Souls on PS3 and Xbox 360 already I can really appreciate the Xbox One X version, I know the areas to expect performance issues and can honestly say that this version of the game feels closer to an enhanced remaster than a simple rerelease.

Wherever you choose to play, these games will be known as classics for years to come, when the genre becomes as over saturated as first person shooters are today then we will look back on 2018 as the Golden Age of Hardcore Action-RPGs.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article, it’s my first and it features a subject that’s very personal to me! Feel free to leave a comment and if you do, don’t forget to mention your memorable Souls moments!