Few game companies have pivoted in a way as significant as FromSoftware. Their first release, King’s Field for the original PlayStation, was a promising first-person RPG bogged down by slow character movement and high difficulty. However, it had a dark and oppressive atmosphere that was appealing to some. From there, after a few sequels and other similarly dark, medieval games, From moved on to science fiction with the Armored Core series. Here, players took command of a giant robot, which they could customize to their specifications and take on missions. To date, fifteen games in the series have been released.
Still, it wasn’t until the surprise PlayStation 3 hit, Demon’s Souls, that FromSoftware really began to be recognized as a pioneer in game development. This is due in large part to the involvement of Hidetaka Miyazaki. A former account manager for Oracle Corporation, Miyazaki eventually joined From to work on some of their Armored Core titles. Directing Demon’s Souls was his big break. Since then, he has been either director or high-ranking supervisor on every Souls game to release. His latest directorial effort, a PlayStation VR title called Deracine, launched last week. In celebration, we thought we’d take a look back at the Souls games that defined Miyazaki’s career and FromSoftware’s remarkable pivot into the Souls studio.
Originally a first-party Sony title in Japan, Sony of America passed on localizing Demon’s Souls. It was too hard, too esoteric for American audiences, they thought. Atlus stepped in, fortunately, and Demon’s Souls found a surprising amount of success in the States. Players take control of an avatar they can customize, and they are dropped into a dark and oppressive world full of undead monsters and demons. This game laid the foundation for every Souls game to come after it. Here we are introduced to the concept of souls as currency and experience, of losing every soul in your possession upon dying, of having one opportunity to regain your souls by touching your own bloodstain but losing them all forever if you die once more before grabbing them. Unlike the games that would come after it, Demon’s Souls used a hub world with teleportation points that would launch you into distinct and separate levels. The series’s intense challenge was fully on display here, though, made even more difficult now, after having gotten used to subsequent games’ quality-of-life improvements. Still, Demon’s Souls is a masterpiece, worthy of all the attention and praise it’s received.
For many, this was their first foray into the Souls-verse, and what a trip it was. Dark Souls took everything that was great about Demon’s Souls (which, to be honest, was pretty much everything) and added in a complex open world to explore. Now, rather than returning to a single hub to purchase equipment and level up, players had access to bonfires throughout the world that acted as checkpoints and safe havens. The same Souls gameplay loop — gain souls, lose souls by dying, try to regain them before dying again — is in full effect here, too. This year, Dark Souls received a remastered version on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch, and it’s definitely worth picking up, whether you’re already a fan or not. For veterans, it greatly improves the frame rate, which makes playing through some of the tougher areas a bit more fair. For newcomers, it’s pretty much the definitive version of one of the best games ever made. Playing on Switch has the added bonus of allowing you to take Dark Souls on the road in handheld mode. No drops in frame rate, just a smooth, on-the-go Souls experience.
Dark Souls II (Scholar of the First Sin)
Because Demon’s Souls flew so stealthily under the radar, Dark Souls was more or less welcomed as a clean slate — people were thrilled to discover its prequel later, but they hadn’t played it, so it could not color their experience with Dark Souls at all. Dark Souls II did not have that luxury. With the weight of such a colossal game on its back, how could it hope to receive the same sort of adoration? And in fact, there were initially some fairly vocal critics of the game when it first came out. The open world, so pivotal in Dark Souls, was replaced with a world that, while not nearly as cordoned off as Demon’s Souls distinct levels, still felt more like a collection of disconnected areas than a continuous land. Not only that, but bosses didn’t feel quite as grotesquely creative. But despite the complaints, an audience grew, and Dark Souls II eventually received the respect it was due as a worthy successor. The expanded version released for current-gen consoles, called Scholar of the First Sin, included extensive downloadable content for free, along with updated graphics. That’s the version to get today, if you’re just exploring the series for the first time.
What’s a game with a non-Souls name doing on this list? Bloodborne, by Souls director Miyazaki, is a Souls game in everything but title. Set in a gothic world of vicious monsters and an unhealthy obsession with blood, this is one of the highlights of the PlayStation 4 exclusive catalog. It takes the classic Souls gameplay and mixes it up a bit, taking away the ability to block (for the most part) and replacing it with a skill-based parry system. Characters can equip both a blade and a gun, using the gun not as a primary means of attacking, but as a way to knock enemies off balance when they attempt an attack. This keeps the action fast and fluid. After getting hit, players have a brief window of opportunity to regain health by attacking enemies. This sets up an interesting risk/reward system. You might be able to regain your lost health, or you might get reckless and end up kicking the bucket. This offshoot of the Souls DNA is a must-have for any PlayStation 4 owner.
Dark Souls III
Billed as the end of the Dark Souls saga (we’ll see how long that lasts in a world of reboots and never-ending parades of sequels), Dark Souls III merges the best ideas from every prior game into a finale worthy of the series. A big, interconnected world full of shortcuts with a central hub area to serve as a place of respite; hideous monstrosities to face, not just human-shaped knights; and all the challenge and elusive storytelling that fans had come to expect. While Souls games have never focused on plot, its story wraps up the Souls saga about as well as it could. We’re left with a Dark Souls-shaped hole in our hearts as we await what comes next from FromSoftware. Of course we have Deracine (at least those with PlayStation VR do), as well as the soon-to-be-released Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which will hit all major platforms next March. Until then, I suggest you dive into the Souls series if you’ve never given it a try. And even if you have, these games are endlessly replayable and challenging. AAA gaming has changed dramatically since the creation of Souls. I can’t wait to see what FromSoftware does next.