In 2009, the video game industry was treated to an experience unlike any other. Releasing first in Japan and later in the rest of the world, FromSoftware’s breakout game Demon’s Souls found its way onto the PlayStation 3—and eventually into history—as a defining experience for many gamers. Since then, the Souls franchise has expanded to include multiple sequels and spiritual successors, establishing a legacy within the industry that is enviable among other titles.
However, throughout all its success, FromSoftware’s Souls franchise is misrepresented among its peers. Despite creating an influential legacy, the saga fails to receive a classification bestowed upon other franchises that have achieved similar success. With countless titles featuring obvious Dark Souls and Bloodborne inspirations, the time has come for the franchise to be recognized for its genre-defining status.
In relation to media and entertainment, a genre (noun) is defined as a particular subject or style of literature, art, or music. As an umbrella term, genre outlines a group of properties that share similar traits and features. In cinema, a genre could be defined as comedy, drama, or action, while the video game industry includes action-adventure, platforming, and role-playing to name a few.
Within the entertainment industries, genres can overlap and coexist, creating new categories and subgenres. Due to constant development and innovation within the video game industry, the possibility exists for hybrid genres to be formed, where developers take influences from a variety of titles to craft an experience that is unique.
A convention can become a genre or subgenre once certain characteristics are established as being universal across many titles. Some features of Metroidvania games, for example, are interconnected levels, power-ups, and secrets to uncover. The large maps often require backtracking to maintain progression by unlocking early-game areas with late-game items. Items unlocked by players not only serve the purpose of progression, but also provide gameplay benefits. A bomb ability could be used to break down a hidden wall in a beginning stage, while also providing an advantage during an end-game boss encounter.
For Soulsborne to be classified as a subgenre, it must maintain specific qualities that are found within its shared titles. While many characteristics can be used to describe a Soulsborne game, three stand out as primary factors: higher than average difficulty, severe death penalties, and, most importantly, stamina-based combat.
Stamina-based combat remains an important aspect of a Soulsborne title because, without it, the game loses its soul. In the absence of stamina-based combat, boss fights become less frightening at first glance, and enemy encounters lose all of the tension that is built up from the outnumbering of the player. A Soulsborne game should strive for greatness within this factor, as it is the defining feature that sets it apart from other genres.
Since the beginning of the Souls franchise, any game that is referenced in comparison is primarily done so due to its difficulty. While notorious for its difficult gameplay, the Souls franchise always rewarded players for patience and determination. Anyone who misjudged the situation and entered combat without taking the time to get in the right headspace always found themselves with a first-class ticket to the grave.
Not many games can match the balance of difficulty found within a Souls title. However, recently, Ashen has received praise among both critics and users for its art style and challenging-but-rewarding gameplay. Despite being shorter than most Souls titles and having only a handful of bosses, Ashen’s intricate level design requires more patience and awareness than that of similar games. Due to the limited mobility found in Ashen compared to other Souls-like titles, each encounter requires an extra second of patience to find the opportune strike. Each boss fight highlights the beauty found within Ashen’s level design and greatly rewards players who take the time to uncover the boss’s weaknesses.
Developed by Deck13, The Surge is heavily inspired by the Dark Souls series and was released back in 2017 to a middling reception. At first glance, The Surge comes across as another basic Souls-like title, but, when given the opportunity, it shows how it fundamentally alters FromSoftware’s formula to create a unique science-fiction take on the subgenre. Set in a dystopian future and relying on technological enhancements, The Surge provides a more grounded experience than other Souls-likes, while still maintaining a small amount of fantasy.
The Surge’s mech-infused character design and combat allows for more player freedom due to armor upgrades and weapon enhancements. While most games found under the Soulsborne banner incorporate a similar economy, where items dropped by enemies serve as both currency and upgrade resources, The Surge takes this influence and adds a new level of stress to the already nail-biting experience.
Within a Soulsborne title, player currency is presented as a high-risk, high-reward economy. Upon death, any unspent currency accumulated is left at the corpse, requiring the player to make their way back to the point of death to retrieve it. However, if the player should die again before completing the task of retrieval, the currency is then lost forever. The Surge implements a similar mechanic, taking it one step further by adding a time limit to said retrieval. If the player is successful in retrieving or maintaining their currency, they are treated to a more in-depth upgrade system than in most other Souls-like titles.
Furthermore, combat within a Soulsborne game can be regarded as a dance between two partners. Where many games focus on stylistic attacks or high-action combos, a Soulsborne game rewards players who take the time to understand their opponents’ move-sets and attack windows to determine when striking is most opportune. Uncovering the ideal striking window is meaningless without the resources required to follow through. The player who conservatively manages their remaining stamina between attacks will have the most advantage during the fight. Stamina consumption in a Soulsborne title should be fair and balanced. The amount required for dodging or striking determines the level of satisfaction a player will receive.
Since the release of Demon’s Souls, few games have reached a level of notoriety for their stamina-based combat. Titles such as Nioh have managed to capture the essence of the dance between two opponents, prioritizing patience over pure action. Set in the late Sengoku period, Nioh manages to add a new layer of finesse onto the fast-paced combat of Bloodborne, providing players with a variety of weapon archetypes that have different moves and damage windows.
Each weapon type requires different amounts of stamina to execute attacks, forcing the player to become accustomed to unique play-styles for each one. In addition to the varied stamina requirements, Nioh offers multiple fighting stances, altering the way players approach each situation. By taking the stamina management of Dark Souls and Bloodborne and fusing it with a unique fighting mechanic, Nioh manages to show its inspiration while emphasizing its own style.
Each title mentioned so far fall within the categories described. Ashen’s unique difficulty flows well with its stamina-based combat, while The Surge’s punishing economy would not feel as daunting without its painful difficulty. Nioh finds harmony within each category due to its fleshed-out gameplay mechanics. The latter game’s fighting stances provide context to the stamina drain, which alters the difficulty of each encounter; this trait makes spending hard-earned currency even more of a risk when having to sacrifice one play-style over another. As a subgenre, Soulsborne can take pride in teaching players how each aspect of a game can influence the rest.
The Soulsborne subgenre can also be seen as an inspiration of Masocore. Each game that is to be classified as a Soulsborne exhibits gameplay that teaches players through trial and error. While Masocore games are designed to frustrate players until a solution is reached, Soulsborne titles emphasize patience and, despite the soundtrack or set piece, a calm approach to each situation.
The importance of incorporating and improving upon the mechanics found within a Soulsborne game is necessary for the establishment of the subgenre. Many Metroidvania titles achieve success within the industry by simultaneously highlighting their influences and improving upon them. Titles such as Dead Cells and Hollow Knight appear as Metroidvanias at first glance but diving deeper into each uncovers a level of polish that games of similar ilk lack. These titles are able to independently win awards and find success without being considered a copy of either Metroid or Castlevania.
The lack of recognition towards Soulsborne as a subgenre stems from the disambiguation of the ideology of what makes FromSoftware’s series unique. During an interview at E3 2017, former developer Cliff Bleszinski noted that with Lawbreakers (his then-new project), his team was developing “the Dark Souls of competitive first-person shooters”. This single statement created temporary hype around Lawbreakers, piquing the interests of many games who were outside of its target demographic.
The issue surrounding the disambiguation of ‘Soulsborne’ is that, without proper recognition of its influence within the gaming industry, it will remain as it currently is: a buzzword. Incorrectly associating one brand with another is a way of falsely justifying the existence of a product. As is evident from the remarks by Bleszinski, any reference to a Souls-like title is made with the sole purpose of capitalizing on the hype surrounding the franchise’s legacy.
Soulsborne as a subgenre seeks to recognize titles that take its core mechanics and improve upon them. The genre provides a platform for games that would otherwise be cast aside as copy-cats, instead of being judged on their own value. By recognizing Soulsborne as a subgenre, the influence of FromSoftware’s saga would be seen as a byproduct of the legacy that has been established, rather than as other developers capitalizing on a buzzword to turn heads and improve on sales.
Ashen, The Surge, and Nioh are all examples of games that have released in recent years that aim to resonate with Souls fans and leave players with an experience they will always remember. Each of the aforementioned titles represent an experience that is determined to honor what came before it, while simultaneously establishing its own legacy within the Soulsborne subgenre. Whether it is an indie effort or a product of AAA development, any game that can take the foundation that was conceived during Demon’s Souls and successfully build upon it should be classified as a Soulsborne.