From Souls to Goals: The sub-genre birthed by Dark Souls
Where’s the difficulty gone?
Difficulty is a subject that is somewhat glazed over in modern day video games. Games are getting “easy mode” difficulty options and as well as the gameplay becoming more based on a multiplayer experience rather than a story driven single player. Because of this shift into multiplayer games, a game’s difficulty can almost be considered completely random. For example, take games like Fifa, COD, or Battlefield you can join a multiplayer game and be instantly put against an entire enemy team that has collectively put more hours into the multiplayer than times I’ve rage quit games while researching this topic (trust me.. that’s a lot).
On the flip side, you could be put against a team of people that have only just bought the game and are considered to be “noobs” or “newbs” (new players) making the game a complete cakewalk. It’s this constant RNG of proxy difficulty that makes developers that try to do something different so refreshing to the industry.
Even when venturing into the old fashioned and some what outdated recipe of a single player story, developers are still keen to keep their audience playing. Things like constant checkpoints and safe zones are added to the omnipresent save game button and the little to no penalty of death. You know, the one that flashes up on our screens before our hero’s even learned to tie their shoelaces? Take the “bloody screen, so realistic” internet joke that was around for a while, it was proof that while many military based shooters boast about their realism, there’s always the addition of regenerating health and impenetrable walls to hide behind while you call your folks back home for some much-needed words of support.
If this 21-year-old is starting to sound like a grumpy old man sat in his arm chair yearning for the glory days, it’s only because that, in my opinion, the industry has become dry and stale with its yearly re-releases of the same games with newer graphics. There’s definitely still a place for people that want to sit alone on a sofa in their underwear playing through a decent story line and enjoying an afternoon of pure immersion. So, with all these triple A re-hashes flooding in and their popularity only increasing, you may wonder is there a saving grace?
Enter Demon Souls, stage left.
On February 5th, 2009, a company called FromSoftware released Demon Souls. Demon Souls was a spiritual successor to the King’s Field series. It was a 3rd person, RPG with a focus on a tactical and slow paced combat. It was well known for its solid fighting mechanics and dark, creepy art style as well as its famous (or sometimes infamous) boss fights. The game was praised for its high difficulty level and in depth, rich lore with many critics actually noting it as a definite challenge. With its punishing death mechanics along side the scarce and widely spaced checkpoints, Demon Souls was doing something that not many games had done, it was hard.
Demon Souls was built to be hard and not like “oh I’ve died, its okay, let me respawn with everything I’ve collected thus far” oh no, Demon Souls taunted players and scoffed at any inability to defeat even the most simple of enemies. It would strip you of all souls (this was the games XP and currency) gained so far, force you back to a checkpoint and make you trudge through the same section of the game again and again until you’d eventually over come it. This, paired with its dark, depressing art style and freaky, ever respawning enemies made progressing in Demon Souls feel like watching a Tim Burton directed Groundhog Day.
Although somewhat overlooked by many, FromSoftware would revive this recipe in the form Dark Souls. Two years later, on September 22nd, 2011 FromSoftware would release their newest game. At its core, Dark Souls was its successor. This time around FromSoftware had gotten more attention. Dark Souls had received a following from fans both old and new.
Partnered with Namco Bandai, their yearly financial report stated that the game sold over 1 million units in the United States and Europe by March 2012. FromSoftware also announced in April 2013 that the game had doubled those units worldwide. With sales figures rising and Dark Souls gathering quite the large player base, developers (mainly indie developers) reveled in the popularity of this fresh take on video games and began the creation of their own, personalized take on Dark Souls.
These games, after time, were branded as “souls-like”.
What is a souls-like?
A souls-like game is a newer type of genre. One that takes deeply from the games in the Souls series. These games take some of the main points of interest from a Souls game but it puts developers own spin on it. The games will usually follow the same pattern of progression that the Souls series do, going from checkpoint to checkpoint as the player learns, adapts, and survives. These games will often have an increased difficulty and death penalty such as loss of strength, maximum health, and/or currency/XP including having to restart the area with most, if not, all enemies respawned.
Another card taken from the souls-series’ stacked deck is it’s incredibly in depth lore that isn’t thrust upon you. Dark Souls was known for its little tidbits of lore and information it gave you. These came in the form of item descriptions and small amounts of dialogue from NPCs, this allowed those that were after just the game play with out much of a story line (not that it was without its story driven progression) to focus more on arguably its most renowned feature, it’s combat system.
So what good comes from the introduction of the genre?
For fans of the souls-series, these clones were a welcome addition, as most triple A companies didn’t seem to want to follow suit and make games similar as they already had their “tried and tested” formulas. The clones bought their own special twists to the recipe, some being 2D with sprite art work and a more platformer feel such as Salt and Sanctuary. Some took a top-down, isometric take on the series like Eitr which focused on Norse mythology and played a lot like the Diablo series. For those sci-fi fans, there was even a futuristic space version released recently called The Surge, which had its own new system of building a mechanized suit around your paralyzed character, changing out the mechanical legs or arm for different styles of play.
All of these clones still offered the same huge feeling of satisfaction after you’ve staved off snapping your controller or throwing a table through a window for hours on end until you finally get that boss down, reaching the rewards and progression you’ve been craving, only to restart the cycle.
Now the anger, pain, blood, sweat and most definitely tears that progressing in these games cost might seem somewhat masochistic to players not familiar with the series, but those in the know, know that the feeling of progression isn’t just achieved with some camo stuck on a weapon or having some fancy names in something called a “football team”. It’s about repeating the same area of a game, again and again, learning each individual enemies attacks and weaknesses until your incoherent screams and cries become cheers of pride and joy only to be stabbed in the face and die… again, in the next area. This viscous circle of players dying to survive and progress (quite literally) becomes addictive as the bosses become harder and your character and gear become stronger, causing the good old “just one more try” situation.
Surely there are negatives to these kinds of games?
Yes, its written in the tag line.
“Prepare to die”
There’s a gigantic wall with the Souls series and Souls-like clones.. the difficulty. Yes, I know I’ve just spent the last six or seven paragraphs praising it, however, that’s because I know my way around the Souls-series and am well equipped to tackle any game in the genre. To new players, this ramp up in difficulty can be its coup de grâce as people can be taken by complete surprise by the change.
From personal experience, after carelessly wandering into the wrong area in Dark Souls 1, I found myself dying to a group of infinitely respawning skeletons, A LOT. Again and again, in fact, I couldn’t give you a number of how many times I died. All I remember is that I gave up on Dark Souls and didn’t touch anything in the Souls series until 2015 after Dark Souls 2 was released. One of the best decisions I had made was returning to the Souls series. Having now played Dark Souls 1 through 3, Bloodborne and many Souls clones, this has quickly become one of my favorite genres.
However, others aren’t as willing to give the game a second chance, they aren’t willing to give the time and practice to learn just how different the game is and how to “git gud”.
Persistence is key here (failing that, a healthy dose of luck is always helpful). Personally, I wish that more people would give the experience the chance it deserves, behind its standoffish features and its immediate brick wall that has to be scaled, the Souls series of games are grotesquely beautiful and packed to the brim with incredible amounts of lore and unique characters, on top of its solid combat and vast game world.
In summary, the Souls-Series is one of the only series of games to birth its own genre and to have new clones being created even to this day, nearly a decade later. In this writers completely unbiased and professional opinion (scoff), I feel like this genre does more than just bring some new games to a smaller section of the community. I feel that it shows the way forward for more developers and companies to do their own thing and create new and fresh ideas.
It shows that regardless of how much, straying from the common path can bring massive and impressive leaps in the industry which can help keep peoples love for video games alive. Souls-like clones prove that this is an industry that we are all deeply attached too and sometimes it just takes a little deviation to revive peoples passions to create something new and unique.
Let’s hope that even though FromSoftware have said that they have stopped making games in the Souls Series, other developers keep the genre alive and keep expanding on it.