To say I am a fan of the Souls series would be quite the understatement. I have been obsessed ever since I bought a Chinese import copy of Demon’s Souls from a friend on PS3 several years ago. I even find myself referencing the franchise in most of the articles I write or I try to connect the Souls series to whichever game I may be covering, yet I have not covered them in their own right. Perhaps because, as it is to play, the thought of doing so is quite intimidating.
You would be forgiven for perhaps thinking that before Demon’s Souls developer From Software were hitherto unknown. This is not the case of course and From has been developing high-quality games across a plethora of genres and platforms for decades now.
Arguably better known for the Armored Core franchise until Demon’s Souls was a surprise super hit – so much of a surprise that originally it had no planned Western release. However, seeing the high number of import purchases Sony quickly snapped up the IP and, working with various publishers including Namco Bandai, decided to bring the game to North America and Europe.
The fact that Sony currently own the rights to Demon’s Souls and at one point hoped to release a fully owned sequel was, in fact, the very reason why Dark Souls was created. This overall outcome is potentially what eventually lead to the release of Bloodborne on PS4.
So, what is it about this set of games and its developer that has resonated so well and for so long now?
From Software was founded in 1986 in Tokyo. They quickly established themselves as a developer that could develop various types of games across multiple platforms. Their longest running franchise is the previously mentioned Armored Core which started in 1997 with the most recent game having been released in 2013 with Armored Core: Verdict Day. They are also known however for titles such as Enchanted Arms, Chromehounds, the ill-advised Kinect-centric Steel Battalion, an entry in the long running Tenchu series and of course the more obscure franchise King’s Field, which most certainly set the foundation for the Souls games to come.
One of my favourite anecdotes surrounding the Souls series (it was in reference to Demon’s Souls at the time) was spoken by From Software president and Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki. He likened the co-operative element of the game to being broken down at the side of a road. People may eventually see you and stop to help, but once they have, they would get in their car and be on their way. It is this idea which clearly shaped and evolved the multiplayer element of the Souls and Bloodborne games. Overall they have a lonely and oppressive atmosphere. You are but one weak and brittle person alone in a world full of hostile creatures and treacherous environments. But every now and then – as everyone knows – you will be able to summon help from a fellow adventurer who, once the boss has been vanquished or the area cleared, will return to their world with nary a word. Much like a person would return to their car and drive off after helping a stranger broken down at the side of the road. You may never see nor speak to this person again, but you would forever remain grateful for their assistance.
There are two camps when it comes to co-op in Souls. Those that believe to summon someone goes against the very nature of the game and those that think it enhances it. I am a bit in the middle. I think a lot of the game was designed to be improved by co-op but it is also well balanced to be enjoyed solo. Solo play obviously increases the crushing feeling of despair and isolation but having someone join you to get you through a boss you have been stuck on for several hours (or days) can keep you going and offer you some light reprieve.
The earlier games did not feature voice communication in an effort to emphasise this design. It has since been added to the later games but can be disabled if you so choose.
The Souls games also eschew some traditional elements associated with the RPG genre. It has quests, but it doesn’t have a quest log or tracker. It has exploration but it doesn’t have a map. These are two elements along with the solid gameplay and joy of discovery the player enjoys that helped and helps to keep the series so popular.
It may be debatable to some, but I strongly believe that these games are also masterclasses in the art of subtle storytelling and non-invasive world building. Every enemy or NPC that you meet simply permeates a deeper non-spoken backstory. They all feel real. They feel sad and they feel desperate. What they proffer to the player in-game via dialogue is simply scratching the surface. Whilst Destiny may have been criticised for having the majority of its lore and story external to the game, From do this deliberately in an effort to inspire the community to engage with each other and enhance what is teased in the game itself. Most of the stories are beautiful yet somewhat melancholic, like Knight Artorias and his faithful companion Sif.
Everyone you meet just seems off in some way. Whether it is a shifty look or a subtle but creepy laugh at the end of a sentence. It is never clear who is good or who you can even begin to trust. It is quite hard to put into words the feelings inspired by the various characters in the Souls games. To me personally, they all seem to be hopelessly doomed, yet perhaps not aware of it. They seem to always be searching for something, someone or some sort of closure. The world always feels like an oppressive purgatory. There are rarely any happy endings here.
The difficulty associated with these games is oft spoken of and impossible not to cover here even though it is well-trodden ground. “Souls-Like” has even become a genre in itself because of the challenging, yet rewarding gameplay found in this series. They are undoubtedly hard games, but they are fair. They are about learning the enemies, areas and perhaps, more importantly, your own limitations.
They encourage you to improve your character and your skill and reward you with eventually overcoming what once seemed insurmountable. There is something incredibly satisfying about hitting your head against a tough area or enemy, which at the time seems truly impossible, only to return later and suddenly you are the danger because you have learnt, you are better, you are stronger, and they no longer present such a threat.
This is where I think other games that try to ape the franchise miss the mark. They believe dying a lot and being hard for the sake of it should be a selling point of their game. It is not. It is the sense of achievement and empowerment that follows getting through a tough but fair game.
At this point I believe we have seen the conclusion of the Souls series (future DLC excluded) and From have announced they are working on new IP which I am happy and excited about so with that in mind, which game in the series would I say is my favourite? Demon’s Souls will always be special to me as it was my first; I own four different versions of the game. Because of this, I always wanted a current gen remake on PS4 or PC. At this point, this is highly unlikely but I actually feel we ended up getting that remake, or a close approximation with Dark Souls III. In my opinion, it is as close to the game that started this all than any before it.
This means that overall Dark Souls III has become my favourite game in the franchise. It has the best bits from all the others before it – including Bloodborne. It retains the creativity, imagination and quality that From has been able to consistently produce over what is, in reality, a rather short space of time - given the scope of each game - and is as close to a Demon’s Souls remake that we will ever likely get. With that said I am happy that they were able to give Souls a fine send off as the doors close on this great series.
Now, how about a King’s Field remake?