The Evolution of Souls-like Games

Souls games have been around for over a decade and given Demon Souls is back, now is a good time to have a look at the evolution of Souls games including the games that inspired Demon and Dark Souls as well as the games that FromSoftware inspired in the years following. FromSoftware has done a great deal to cultivate this style of game, but in recent years there have been some fantastic Souls-like games and today I am going to have a look at some of the best. The following is a look at The Evolution of Souls-like Games.

Before we have a look into where the Souls games came from, let’s have a quick look at the style of the game. Souls games are generally played from a third-person perspective and focus on exploring interconnected environments while battling with enemies with weapons and magic. Bosses are a big part of the game as well as chatting to weird and wonderful NPCs. Souls-like games are renowned for their difficulty. The difficulty is there to teach, rather than punish and is a feature of the series. Learn through repetition and past mistakes, to ultimately succeed – however big the boss might be. If you die though, you tend to lose everything and are teleported back to the last checkpoint.

At this point, you are normally given one chance to go back to where your body is and retrieve what you’ve lost. If you die again, all is lost forever. Another couple of features of Souls games are the respawning enemies and also bonfires which act as checkpoints – although these bonfires could be substituted for benches or other resting points in other games.

Combat is the main feature of the series, maintaining focus and endurance through a series of tough battles. A single mistake can often lead to death and the games focus on mastery to overcome the terrifyingly huge bosses. Normally this requires a combination of attacks, defensive and evasive manoeuvres. For example, you may rush into battle sword-swinging and shields up, however, run out of stamina and those weapons all of a sudden are going to feel mighty heavy and with leave you vulnerable to attack.

That’s a brief rundown of the main features of the series, let’s have a look at the early beginnings of FromSoftware and how they got to Demon Souls.

Demon Souls originally came out in 2009, but it didn’t just come out of nowhere and FromSoftware spent years honing their craft in similar areas. But it wasn’t until Demon Souls that things really took off. The combination of punishing gameplay mixed with RPG mechanics and exploration were seeded years before.

King’s Field was FromSoftware’s first entry into the games market. This was a huge departure from their previous work, making business software out of Shibuya Japan. King’s Field was an original PlayStation game in the classic style of the time. This was an action RPG with a difference – it wasn’t like the Final Fantasy pixel art games, this was 3D, created with polygons and had some rough edges. This was a first-person perspective game in a world devoid of colour and visual stimulation – far from other games like the Legend of Zelda with its bright greens and vibrant worlds. King’s Field was dark, but also much deadlier than other RPGs like it.

The difficulty level, which is now a calling card of FromSoftware, didn’t originate in King’s Field itself. It took inspiration from tabletop RPGs of the time like 1981’s Wizardry and Ultima. The formula for King’s Field was practised over a series of four games and as you go through the series you can see the formula for the Souls games emerging.

Shadow Tower was another iteration on the style by FromSoftware, another first-person RPG from 1998. Here we see the introduction of the stamina bar, equipment weight and also weapon durability. One of the most direct inspirations came from the Soul gathering mechanic in Shadow Tower, which draws a direct line to the gameplay found in Demon Souls. FromSoftware continued with the iteration of Shadow Tower in the late 90s on the PlayStation 2 with Shadow Tower Abyss which continued to get closer to the Demon Souls we’d end up seeing a decade later with dark and dangerous environments. Shadow Tower was a little different as it has a modern-day setting rather than a medieval one, where you can wield guns rather than swords and shields. FromSoftware continued making games with titles like Lost Kingdoms and Chromehounds.

Demon Souls (2009)

It wasn’t until 2009 and Demon Souls when they finally struck gold with their formula. This was the product of honing their craft, gameplay and systems over the past decade. Demon Souls has a troubled development and almost didn’t make it until Hidetaka Miyazaki came into the picture. Miyazaki had been with FromSoftware since 2004, but this was his first opportunity to shape the vision and direction for a game and he looked to FromSoftware’s past from King’s Field and Shadow Tower, mixing in gothic themes and realised what we know as Demon Souls today.

Demon Souls was crafted with the earlier work inspirations. One of the main features was the weight of combat. For the first time, players would feel the clash of swords and the clang against shields like they never have before. Exploration was another focus and Miyazaki brought his own personality into the game with his love for dark fantasy and FromSoftware were onto a winner.

Dark Souls (2011)

Whereas Demon Souls had been a surprise hit, Dark Souls was much bigger in almost every way, including success for FromSoftware. Main features of the Souls series were introduced such as Bonfires and the interconnected world. FromSoftware wanted to create something similar to Demon Souls but as Sony owned the rights to the game, FromSoftware had to start again, and Dark Souls was the product of that rethink. It originally came out on the PS3 and Xbox 360. You play as a cursed human character who sets out to discover the fate of other undead humans, like yourself. The story is delivered to the player through small environment interactions and you have to piece together little clues, rather than the story being told in a more traditional way. The high level of difficulty cemented FromSoftware’s approach to games and won much praise and sales leading to Dark Souls becoming a huge hit.

Dak Souls II (2014)

Dark Souls II is slightly different from the previous two games in the Souls series since Hidetaka Miyazaki didn’t take on the game director role, he was busy working on the upcoming Bloodborne, however, he was still involved in as a supervisor. Dark Souls II released in 2014 for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. This time the game takes place in the fictional kingdom of Drangleic, where players have to find a cure for the undead curse. It’s set in the same universe as Dark Souls, without a direct story connection to the original.

Bloodborne (2015)

Bloodborne was a new IP developed by FromSoftware in the mould of the Souls series. You play as a Hunter in a gothic victoria era-inspired city called Yharnam. The people of the town have been infected by a blood-borne disease and it’s Hunter’s job to find out the source of the plague while fighting classic FromSoftware enemies and bosses. There are similarities to the Souls series with the customisable player character, weapons, bosses and a huge interconnected environment to explore. Miyazaki took inspiration from H. P. Lovecraft and Bram Stoker as well as real-world architecture from Romania and the Czech Republic. Miyazaki wanted to create a new IP having worked on the Souls series for a number of years and the game remains a PlayStation Exclusive to this day. You can pick it up as part of the PS Plus Classic PS4 games on the PS5.

Dark Souls III (2016)

Originally announced at E3 in 2015 Dark Souls III was released early 2016 for Windows, PS4 and Xbox One. The gameplay is much faster than the previous Dark Souls games, leaning on influence from Bloodborne. This time the game is set in Lothric where players have to end the cycle of linking the Flame. In 2017 a complete version was released which included the base game and the expansions (Ashes of Ariendel and The Ringed City) and was titled Dark Souls III: The Fire Fades. Dark Souls III was a massive hit for FromSoftware and it became Bandai Namco’s fastest-selling game by selling 10 million copies by 2020. Miyazaki was interviewed during the promotional tour of Dark Souls III and was asked about the Souls and Bloodborne games. He said “I don’t think it’d be the right choice to continue indefinitely creating Souls and Bloodborne games. I’m considering Dark Souls 3 to be the big closure on the series. That’s not just limited to me, but From Software and myself together want to aggressively make new things in the future… I believe that From Software has to create new things. There will be new types of games coming from us, and Dark Souls 3 is an important marker in the evolution of From Software.”

From this point, I am going to have a look at some games that the Souls series inspired. Demon Souls, Dark Souls 1-3 and Bloodborne had cemented this new type of punishing action RPG style, which was slowly becoming a new genre in it’s own right. There are plenty of other games in this style to check out, the following I think are some of the best.

Nioh (2017)

Nioh is an action-adventure RPG developed by Team Ninja for the PS4. It was first released in 2017, and a sequel followed in 2020. A remaster of Nioh is planned for the PS5 in February 2021. The game is set in a fictional 1600s and follows the protagonist William Adams, an Irish Sailor named after and inspired by an Englishman who was one of the only Western Samurai. The gameplay is similar to the Souls series where you navigate levels and defeat huge monsters. Combat is focused around stamina or ‘Ki’ management and different sword stances that are strong or weak against different enemies.

Hollow Knight (2017)

Hollow Knight is a challenging, beautiful action-adventure game set in the vast, inter-connected underground kingdom of Hallownest. A 2D action game with an emphasis on skill and exploration, Hollow Knight has you fighting a fearsome host of deadly creatures, avoiding intricate traps and solving ancient mysteries as you make your own way through fungal wastes, forests of bone, and ruined underground cities. Hollow Knight looks a lot different from traditional Souls-like games given its 2D art style, but it has a lot of the mechanics of a Souls game. The action-RPG elements, exploration, fighting massive and difficult bosses and speaking to weird and wonderful NPCs.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (2019)

Sekiro is the latest game from FromSoftware. The game follows a shinobi known as Sekiro and his story of revenge on his samurai attacker. Unlike other games in the Souls series, the game doesn’t have as many RPG features. For example character creation, multiplayer elements and levelling up abilities. It does include however gear upgrades, skill trees and a little bit of character customisation.

Combat is similar to other Souls games, punishing and using death and repetition to teach you. Rather than beating down health bars Sekiro attack’s enemy’s balance and poise looking for an opportunity to strike a killing blow. There are stealth elements allowing you to sneak up on enemies to deliver a stealth kill from behind. As well as your trusty Katana Sekiro can use a variety of tools such as a grappling hook. There are more tools available later on in the game to provide variety to the combat and world traversal.

This is much faster than other Souls games FromSoftware has released and the game rewards you for attacking and being in the face of enemies, rather than the hit and roll tactics found in Bloodborne. It’s another iteration on the winning formula by FromSoftware and it makes me look forward to what they have next.

Remnant From The Ashes (2019)

Remnant mashes together some successful ideas of other games to provide a refreshing cocktail of a game. There are elements of Souls-like games here with an exploration of an overworld, third-person view and challenging boss battles. Mix that up with an over-the-shoulder shooter like Gears of War and the loot-gathering of a game like Destiny then you have an interesting prospect in your hands. The basic premise of the game is you are a character set in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by monsters. The world takes inspiration from Fallout or Metro – the environments are baron and the overworld is danger-filled. The evil Root has taken control of the overworld and wants to smash, kill and perhaps eat anything that gets in their way.

One of the best features in the game is the procedurally generated levels and randomisation. At the start of the playthrough, the game Remnant generates the world, items and bosses in a random manner meaning each player will have a slightly different experience from each other. The quick elevator pitch for Remnant: From the Ashes is Dak Souls with guns. While that may be accurate, there’s a depth to the game that keeps the player engaged and challenged throughout. The weapons, armour and mod system provides specialisation systems to allow the players to hone their playstyle to be specific. The procedurally-generated levels will keep you guessing and provide variety that will keep you coming back.

Mortal Shell (2020)

Mortal Shell is a Souls-like game where you take on the form of a white, frail being forced to inhabit the shells of fallen champions. The world is dark, moody and full of danger and interesting lore and it’ll send a shiver or two down your spine. In this action RPG, you’ll be collecting shells (or armour suits) as well as weapons and items and along the way, you’ll face off against some very scary looking enemies.

Much like other Souls-like games before it, Mortal Shell from Cold Symmetry is punishing, but ultimately satisfying when you come out of a battle. We start out in a dreamlike world learning the ropes in the tutorial area where we’re given a sword and learn a few moves like our light attack, heavy attack dodge and one of the unique selling points of the game – our harden mechanic. Instead of blocking in the game, we have the ability to harden, which then has a cool-down of a few seconds. When an enemy is approaching and they swing their sword at you, you can harden and the sword will bounce right off, leaving them prone for a counter-attack. It’s a great Souls-like effort from a smaller indie team. The game is gorgeous and the story and gameplay will have you coming back for more each time.

Demon Souls Remake (2020)

Miyazaki had spoken in the past about the audience requests for a Demon Souls remake, but he didn’t want to work on the project himself, having left behind the series with 2016’s Dark Souls III. In June 2020, Bluepoint Games announced they were working on a remake as a launch title for PlayStation 5. Bluepoint went on to co-develop the game with Japan Studios, who had helped them out on the remake of Shadow of the Colossus.

Elden Ring (2021?)

We don’t know much about Elden Ring. It was announced in 2019 as a partnership between FromSoftware and George RR Martin, the writer of A Song Of Fire & Ice novels (including Game of Thrones). We’ve has a teaser trailer and that’s it, with many fans wanting it to come out in 2021. The game is being directed by Miyazaki and he asked George to come and work on the project as he was a fan of his work. Martin will develop the backstory and the lore of the world. The game started development in 2017 following the release of The Ringed City, a DLC for Dark Souls III. According to Miyazaki, the game is going to be much larger in scale and scope than the Souls series and he sees the game as a ‘natural evolution’ of the Souls games rather than a sequel of some kind.

Those are some of the best games than having released since the original Souls series came out. I wanted to mention a couple of others too, just in case you wanted to go back and check them out. Ashen, Titan Souls and Code Vein are also other worthing games to check out in the souls-like genre.

That’s it for my look at The Evolution of Souls-like Games. The Souls-like games have evolved over the last 10 years and we now have a load of interesting and challenging games to play across a variety of platforms. Some are 2D, some are 3D. You can play the Demon Souls Remake on PlayStation 5 in all it’s 4k glory, or you can chill on the sofa or in bed with Dark Souls on the Nintendo Switch. If you haven’t jumped into this genre before, then give it a shot. At times you’ll be frustrated, at the time you will die – but if you can crack the formula and stick with these titles long enough to experience the sheer joy of beating these seemingly impossible bosses, then you’ll realise why the Souls series has had such an influence over the last decade and why so many games since have tried to emulate what FromSoftware started.