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OnlySP 50 Favorite Games

OnlySP’s Favorite Games #6—Soulsborne

Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week’s games come from a fantastic team under unbelievably creative leadership; the Souls series and Bloodborne—collectively known as Soulsborne—of FromSoftware and director Hidetaka Miyazaki.

Souls

#6. FromSoftware’s Souls Games

Demon’s Souls, by Ben Newman

For many, Souls began with Dark Souls. Partially due to Demon’s Souls’s PlayStation 3 exclusivity and partially due to its position as a spiritual sequel to unpopular, obtuse games such as King’s Field, the hype for the game was low. What FromSoftware delivered, however, was a title that laid the foundation for action-RPG greatness.

Much as Demon’s Souls‘s better-known successor Dark Souls, the game drops players into a fallen land on the precipice of destruction. The Kingdom of Boletaria has become embroiled in turmoil by an encroaching darkness known as The Old One. FromSoftware’s masterful adaptation of Western fantasy tropes through the lens of Japanese game design is the game’s most staggering aspect.

Despite falling into distinctly recognisable Western tropes, Demon’s Souls exudes a tangible, suffocating sense of atmosphere and the uncanny. While the game lacks any of the recognisable, fondly remembered NPCs of later titles in the series, it still nails the mastery of level and overworld design.

Demon's Souls gameplay 1

Centring around a hub-world philosophy of level design, Demon’s Souls was a little different to the ever-expanding, interconnected world of its successor. However, Dark Souls II and, to a lesser extent, Dark Souls III borrowed heavily from this trailblazer’s approach to operating from a central hub with separate, instanced worlds. While no other games in the series opted for this degree of instancing, Dark Souls II’s Majula strikes as a direct parallel to the Nexus as a place for player reflection, upgrades, and lore.

Commonly, Demon’s Souls lack of bosses comes up as a criticism. However, while the game lacks the same number of bosses as other Souls games, the title makes up for its brevity with bosses by making each truly unique. Demon’s Souls sticks by a virtue of ensuring each of its bosses remains idiosyncratic, which was lost in Dark Souls II’s quantitative approach to boss design. A highlight is Maiden Astrea, a boss fight so entrenched in conflicting emotions that it leaves players in the dark as to whether the ends truly justifies the means. Storm King remains another standout, borrowing heavily from the sense of scale witnessed in games like Shadow of the Colossus.

Demon's Souls gameplay 3

Demon’s Souls’s biggest contribution to the Souls subgenre, though, was how it introduced the stamina-based combat that became so quintessential to the series. While magic was perhaps the strongest, most viable option in Demon’s Souls, the way the gameplay reinforced a large degree of precision, tactfulness, and reaction play laid the foundation for the industry’s embracing of the series. Demon’s Souls placed such an emphasis on the loop of finesse and repetition that it proved FromSoftware’s style could be scaled up to heights previously unforeseen, as seen in the more refined gameplay of Dark Souls.

What makes the Souls series so timeless is the fact that FromSoftware establishes rules within each game, then sticks with them unfalteringly. This trend of water-tight lore, game design, and level design began with Demon’s Souls, a moment where the gaming community realised they truly missed a challenge.

Dark Souls gameplay 1

Dark Souls, by Daniel Pereira

While not the first title in FromSoftware’s repertoire to achieve its symbolic formula, Dark Souls represents the experience that allowed said formula to become recognized within the industry as a trailblazer. Before its release, the Souls format was only present in Demon’s Souls, which was widely received as a niche title. Once Dark Souls entered community hands, however, liking the Souls franchise suddenly became “cool”. By this point, the series’s difficulty was known to all who heard the name, and, due to this reputation, the title embraced the controversial quality and wore it with pride.

Although Miyazaki has stated multiple times that the franchise’s difficulty was never its defining feature, it has nonetheless provided a catalyst for which the title is revered. As a bold marketing tactic, branding one’s product with the tagline “Prepare to Die” could have easily turned away consumers just as fast as it convinced them. For FromSoftware and Namco Bandai, this strategy proved to be their ace in the hole, as it aided in propelling the title into mainstream media and conversations throughout the industry. If Demon’s Souls was the first game to introduce the Souls formula, then Dark Souls is the reason that it is widely successful today.

Dark Souls gameplay 2

Dark Souls’s gameplay represented a high point in the franchise by maintaining its focus on the spectacle and threat present in every situation. At this point in the series, difficulty was used to heighten anxiety and panic, as players were forced to think on the fly as to how they would survive. Each encounter is reflective of how the title utilizes difficulty to create a memorable experience out of something good.

In Dark Souls, difficulty is used to accentuate good gameplay, not replace it. An example of this is the Smough and Ornstein fight, which gradually increases its difficulty as the encounter goes on. The difficulty spike for this battle serves the purpose of making the player more aware that their chances of survival has suddenly reduced.

Dark Souls gameplay 3

Dark Souls’s legacy is more than just its ability to capture the public eye, though, as it fostered a community of comradery through its hardship. As the Souls franchise has evolved over time, one aspect remains a constant throughout each entry: jolly cooperation and PvP deathmatch. As a feature present in every Souls title, the multiplayer aspect became widely appreciated during the life of Dark Souls.

Even with limited communication, players found ways to encourage each other through messages left in the world. In the PvP sphere, the community conceived an honor system that can be found in each entry to the series. Bowing or emoting before and sometimes after a fight is seen as a sign of respect and acknowledgement of the comradery found between players.  

Dark Souls gameplay 4

Additionally, the community truly came together through the PC port of Dark Souls, as the developers released a version that was far below expectations, only to abandon it shortly after. Members within the PC modding community therefore banded together and released a mod that overhauled the majority of the game in the process, correcting nearly every issue created by the poor port.

To this day, installing the mod before attempting to play the PC version of Dark Souls is almost a requirement. Furthermore, the PC version of Dark Souls will always be remembered for its developer misstep—and community revival.

Bloodborne gameplay 1

Bloodborne, by Mitchell Akhurst

Though the Dark Souls trilogy, particularly the first and final entries, are so beloved—and Demon’s Souls remains a remarkable, beautiful accomplishment all its own—Bloodborne was what won me over to Miyazaki’s games. To this day, it remains the only one I ever finished, though this is likely to change with the upcoming Sekiro. To say that ‘the game is so much more than …’, or something along the lines of ‘rather than its predecessors, Bloodborne’s excellence comes from its …’, would be reductive and unfair to the previous titles that Miyazaki and FromSoftware brought to gamers.

No, Bloodborne is not an achievement beyond, nor in spite of, the Dark Souls games. More importantly, neither is why I found the title entrancing enough to push past my unbelievably weak skills in action games. Bloodborne is ultimately yet another achievement from Miyazaki that stands apart from Souls in subject matter, but not in quality.

So what is that subject matter?

Following three modern iterations of the ‘FromSoftware Medieval Fantasy Aesthetic’, Bloodborne takes a big step toward overtly horrific themes, coming with a bump up in ratings classification thanks to a (fittingly) more bloody presentation. Firstly, the game eschews medieval fantasy for its own take on an early-modern metropolis: pre-Victorian and dripping in faux-Gothic cathedrals, lust, and corruption. Later on, Bloodborne morphs into something much grander that would be hailed as one of the best twists in games—if the twist itself were not so perfectly woven in as a matter of fact. With that said, consider these slight spoilers ahead.

Bloodborne gameplay 2

Halfway through, Bloodborne performs a thematic transition that has not been pulled off  as effectively since the early Resident Evil games. Motifs in the early levels are perfect for lulling the gamer into a pattern that even echoes those games, particularly parts of Resident Evil 4, making copious use of angry townsfolk and public displays of violence: a city gone to the dogs, but with only a few horrible creatures here and there. The culprit must be lycanthropy, if the stalking hairy beasts are any indication.

As the player delves deeper beneath the cursed city, lore morsels and increasingly awful enemies make clear that evil in the city of Yharnam comes from elsewhere—no simple plague, but an unholy rot from beyond human ken. The true story of Bloodborne is not just another survival horror, it is a cosmic horror a la Lovecraft. The game does one better by being as creative and unsettling as Lovecraft’s oeuvre, but lacking the racist inelegance.

Bloodborne gameplay 3

Just like the Souls games, Bloodborne‘s actual narrative is restricted to item descriptions or in-clued around the margins of the action, rather than told plainly. Nevertheless, despite this economy and finesse, as well as a classy approach to cosmic horror that avoids the genre’s problematic origins, the game has a darkly humorous irreverence. From the flippant phrasing of important text (“Already dead.”) to the obvious inanity of the blood-obsessed Yharnamites (“… they produce more blood than alcohol, as the former is the more intoxicating.”) nothing is sacred in Bloodborne.

This is to say that Bloodborne is a true masterpiece of FromSoftware, as if the original Demon’s Souls was not already, but nothing would matter if the game were a pain to play. Yes, difficulty is a prime factor as in the other Souls titles, but its action tilts from the meat and potatoes of a sword-and-shield RPG toward an aggressive and Castlevania-inspired mechanic with even more focus on dodging and parrying. Hiding behind a large defensive shield (‘turtling’) is made more-or-less impossible—replacing shields with guns—and retaliation is incentivised by letting players regain part of their lost health if they land an attack quickly enough.

Bloodborne gameplay 4

These concepts are basic enough for veteran action-gamers, but for an admitted action-game-halfwit like myself, this was the first time that everything else in a game was so thematically captivating that I bothered to learn enough to successfully face off against such a fearsome collection of disgustingly memorable enemies.

The bosses, the stars of any Souls title. The tragic malformations that haunt the various halls and hollows of Yharnam are enough to sit in the canon alongside any movie monsters since King Kong climbed the Empire State. Stand out performances include the pained roars of Vicar Amelia, the abortive One Reborn, and the cackling Micolash.

Shorter than its medieval siblings, Bloodborne is perhaps the least daunting of FromSoftware’s recent triumphs. However, its lower bar for completion by no means makes it the runt of the litter—and, as will almost surely be seen with the upcoming Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the approach of taking Souls-like games to new settings and game genres has paid off handsomely for Miyazaki and his team.

Dark Souls 3 gameplay 1

Dark Souls III, by Mike Cripe

Dark Souls and its history are rooted in trial and error. Just as players learn throughout each subsequent attempt at reaching a bonfire, the series has transformed in many ways. By the time Dark Souls III rolled around, FromSoftware managed to refine the Souls formula into a game more streamlined and focused than ever before.

FromSoftware was not aiming to reinvent the wheel with the third entry, and the lead up to release shows just that. The months before release in March 2016 had many anticipating the return of director Hidetaka Miyazaki. Miyazaki was an integral part of Demon’s Souls and the first Dark Souls, but only served as a supervisor for Dark Souls II. Demon’s Souls, though not much of a unit mover, is thought of by many to be the spark that reignited the market’s love for punishing games. When Dark Souls followed up as a spiritual successor shortly after, its infectious gameplay loop spread like wildfire. Sure, Dark Souls II kept the fire raging and then some, but fans still wanted a true finale before FromSoftware moved on. With Miyazaki back on board, what players got was a finale that respected and learned from everything that came before.

Just as players will undoubtedly perish hundreds of time during their journeys to reach the end of each game, Dark Souls III is the culmination of an entire series. Demon’s Souls’s foundation, Dark Souls’s level design and lore, and Bloodborne’s relentless nature are all found coursing through the veins that keep this third entry’s heart pounding with a fierceness. Even mechanics from the second game find their way into gameplay that is already finely tuned. Just playing a few hours yields a feeling of history. Though nearly every detail was grown just for this final adieu, Dark Souls III still felt like coming home.

Dark Souls 3 gameplay 2

Bosses like the Abyss Watchers and The Nameless King fit like a finely crafted glove in a universe packed with legendary battles. From the get go, players are made aware of the big-name challengers they will inevitably come face to face with. Each villain is brought to life by the nightmarish art style made famous from the first Demon’s Souls landscapes. What terrors lie behind every door are beyond imagination. Despite any glimmer of hope players manage to cling on to, Dark Souls III is never afraid to kick any who let their guard down. This is thanks to enemy design that somehow manages to stay wholly unique even after a half decade of constant innovation.

In many ways, Dark Souls III is the Souls series’s crowning achievement. Placing one entry in the series over another is next to impossible, as each game has numerous strengths and weaknesses. Though the world design strives for less cohesion, each segmented path is crafted to perfection. Differences are what set the entire series apart, while the level of refinement found in this third title serve as a constant reminder of quality and history. With Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice on the horizon, FromSoftware can show what reinventing the wheel can be like with an entire franchise providing the foundation.

Dark Souls 3 gameplay 3

Thanks again for joining us to look at our favourite games ever (did you catch that we’re excited for Sekiro?). Don’t miss next week’s game, a rare sports title in our 50 favourites. For all the latest from the world of single-player gaming, be sure to bookmark OnlySP.com, follow us on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube, and join our community Discord server.

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