GameChangers - the SoulsLike Genre
Gamechangers. The series where we have a look at the mechanics or design choices that have gone on to change the gaming landscape, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. The series will look at whether or not these changes have been positive or negative, as well as the impact they have had on how we play games today. So without any more delays, let’s get started.
A number of new genres and sub-genres have been created over the last decade. As gaming appetites have changed, so too have the types of gaming experiences on offer. From battle royales, to auto-battler titles, the gaming landscape is constantly evolving and new genres are constantly spawning. It is rare that a developer creates an experience so fresh and unique, that it spawns its own sub-genre. That Developer is FromSoftware.
Created by Hidetaki Miyazaki, one of the most popular new sub-genres has been the Souls-likes. The genre owes its name to FromSoftwares classic title 'Demon's Soul's', but it was not popularised until the release of Dark Souls, another FromSoftware title. Souls-likes are known for their difficult but fair gameplay, which requires patience, cunning, attentiveness and, most importantly, skill. Simply put, Souls-likes are games that have high difficulty, high-risk combat with hard-hitting enemies and sparse checkpoints. Enemies will usually drop some form of currency or resource used for upgrading stats and/or weapons and the player will drop said currency or resource upon death.
The genre is primarily inspired by classic Japanese video games, combining elements from the action RPG, Metroidvania, survival horror, hack & slash and fighting game genres. The games excel at empowering players, making them initially feel helpless, before making them realise that the seemingly impossible encounter can be overcome, rewarding players with an unrivalled sense of euphoria and accomplishment. The themes and lore present in these games is often expressed through their gameplay.
FromSoft have released a number of different souls-like titles and have managed to keep the genre fresh with each new IP. A number of other Developers have also released their own souls-like titles but none have come close to the level of polish and expertise FromSoft continue to deliver.
The souls-like genre has begun to leak over into 2D games, but we will be focusing solely on 3D third-person souls-likes in this video, starting with the game that started it all Demon’s Souls.
Demon’s Souls was originally released solely in Japan and had a troubled development due to a lack of coherent vision. Hidetaki Miyazaki eventually took over the project and helped turn the title into what it became. The game’s difficulty was intended to both evoke classic video games and provide a sense of challenge and accomplishment for players, a design philosophy that has been dwindling due to the increased accessibility of video games. Early reactions were negative and the games high difficulty saw Sony opting to pass on publishing the title outside of Japan. Although initially met with middling reception and sales in Japan, it became a commercial and critical success in the West.
Dark Souls was the title, which popularised and solidified the souls-like genres place in gaming history, becoming an instant classic with a cult-like following. The game is a spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls and today it is lauded as one of the best video games of all times. Critics praised the depth of its combat and character builds, intricate and ingenious level-design and difficult but fair gameplay. Some people, however, have criticised its difficulty, stating the game is too unforgiving and does not do well to inform players of its more nuanced mechanics. The game feels like a constant struggle and players slowly progress through the game through trial and error. FromSoft are masters at letting the gameplay and game design guide the player, instead of specific tutorial sections or ‘hand holding’. Players must explore the open-world looking for bonfires that worked as checkpoints. Checkpoints work as re-spawn points but whenever they are used, all of the non-boss enemies in the world re-spawn. Like Demon’s Souls, another aspect of Dark Souls is its multiplayer. Players can work together to overcome challenges or against one another in player VS. player battles.
Due to the popularity of Dark souls and the new souls-like genre, Deck13 developed the first “carbon copy” souls-like game, not made by FromSoftware called Lords of the Fallen. Deck13 remixed the formula slightly rewarding players for not activating checkpoints and for mixing up combo attacks. The games setting, although different, is also thematically similar to FromSofts previous games. Although not received as well as Dark Souls, the game did okay commercially and a sequel was initially planned but the developers have since go on to develop another souls-like title.
FromSoftware then released Bloodborne. Considered by many to be Hidetaki Miyazakis’ magnum opus, Bloodborne adopted a lovecraftian horror aesthetic. It takes place in Yharnam, a decrepit Gothic city overrun by monsters and otherworldly entities. Bloodborne differed from previous souls-like titles by offering lightning fast and frantic combat. The combat still managed to feel solid and methodical, but FromSoft added the ability for players to regain some of the health that had just been lost, resulting in more brawl like combat. This, as well as the removal of shields from the game, forced players to abandon tried and tested souls-like strategies and focus on position, mobility and counter attacking.
Team Ninja’s souls-like, Nioh, was set in Japan in the 1600’s. It had a number of souls-like staples, such as extreme difficulty, stamina and a penalty for dying, but added stances to its combat system. Each stance had different effects. The high stance causes higher damage while lowering defence, the middle stance balances attack and defence and the low stance allows for quicker attacks and better defence. Different from previous Souls-likes, Nioh also focused a lot more on narrative, with the main character being fully voice acted.
The Surge was Deck13 Interactive’s second souls-like game. It traded the medieval setting for a futuristic sci-fi one, which they also incorporated into its gameplay. Players use an exoskeleton to battle enemies, which can be customised throughout the game using “modular upgrades”. The combat allows players to target different body parts of enemies, which they could then dismember in order to obtain materials and pieces of exoskeleton used to change or upgrade their exoskeleton.
Ashen, a game developed by A44 is a souls-like game which has a muted cel-shaded graphical style. Unlike other souls-likes, character growth is primarily dominated by equipment, rather than player ‘stats’. The game has a very minimalistic feel, offering open-world exploration and action combat.
FromSoft have managed to continually release new souls-like IP's, that, although similar in some regards, all manage to feel unique and offer brand new experiences. Sekiro Shadows Die Twice is their latest soulslike title and it manages to feel similar and different at the same time, implementing a number of new gameplay systems but keeping the fundamental souls-like principles in place. Set in a re-imagined late 16th century Sengoku period Japan, Sekiro added a level of mobility and verticality to the formula and was FromSoft’s first single-player only souls-like title. The player could only wield a katana and no additional weapons (other than those linked to the games narrative) could be obtained. Instead, the player progression is done by improving the protagonist’s skills and upgrading their tools (such as shuriken). Stealth was also present, which was another first for the genre as well as a new posture system. The posture system allowed players to focus on playing defensively in order to knock enemies off balance, which then allowed an opening for a killing blow.
Hidetaki Miyazaki has redefined the action, RPG genre. Instead of trying to simply copy the newer action, Rpg titles, Hidetaki instead took inspiration from past video games. Video games currently are not very difficult (unless of course the harder difficulties are chosen) and the difficulty found often simply boosts the enemies’ health while reducing the players. By opting to make the games difficult by default, FromSoft can design them in a way where the difficulty comes first. Every aspect of the game; from its enemies, to its world can benefit from this philosophy and make the developers consider the experience that players will have.
We here at Zoned love Souls-likes and we feel that they are in their infancy. The majority of games today are designed for as wide an audience as possible. FromSoft have realised that there are still gamers out there who appreciate and love difficult games; games that are challenging and unforgiving; games that are for the ‘hardcore’. Hidetaki Miyazaki understood this and created a game that although fresh and new, takes a lot of its influence from older more classic titles. FromSoft have struck gold and we cannot wait to see what else FromSoft and other developers end up doing with the genre.