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Soulsborne: The Path from Franchise to Buzzword to Subgenre

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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.

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Editorial

The PlayStation 5 Specs Are Beefy, But Not Entirely Necessary

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PlayStation 5

Six years have passed since the launch of the PlayStation 4, and, consequently, the launch of the eighth generation of consoles. Throughout this time the industry has seen a shift in how the medium is consumed. Nowadays, gamers are no longer forced to experience titles through conventional controller inputs thanks to the implementation of VR, while visual performance and optimization are at record heights given the current technology available to developers.

For well over a year now, rumors and speculations have sprung up surrounding the next generation of hardware from both Sony and Microsoft, with the latter being more open about its technological aspirations. Despite withholding true hardware specifications, Microsoft does not shy away from igniting conversations around its next systems (yes plural). Sony, on the other hand, has been extremely tight lipped on the topic, only hinting at the PlayStation 5 during a discussion on the success of the PS4.

Until now, consumers were left to speculate on the possibilities of what the PlayStation 5 will contain. To the surprise of many, however, Sony has unexpectedly opened up about the final specifications that will be found within the upcoming hardware. Lead architect on Sony’s next console Mark Cerny detailed how important this generational leap is for the company and what consumers can expect from its beefy machine. While confirming some rumors, and debunking others, Cerny expressed Sony’s desire for the new generation to allow “for fundamental changes in what a game could be.” As a bold statement by Cerny, this ideology will help Sony fall in line with the trajectory that other studios, such as Xbox, have had during the eighth generation of consoles.

For those who are unaware, the PS4 launched in 2013 to wide success, re-establishing Sony’s brand at the forefront of console gaming. Although the console became a household and media juggernaut, many tech-savvy individuals were quick to point out the flaws within its hardware. For example, much of the specifications that the PS4 touted were, in fact, already outdated at release when compared to high-end PC rigs. Despite the obvious limitations of console gaming, the choice of hardware found within the PS4 proved puzzling, as it was being marketed as a giant leap forward for the industry. Sony would later attempt to mitigate the ongoing damage caused by underperforming hardware with the mid-generation iteration of the PS4 Pro, though this attempt only served to extend the console lifecycle by another few years.

From the outset, Sony knew its largest issue was underperforming hardware, and, thanks to the information detailed by Mark Cerny, the community finally has some insight on how that will be addressed. For starters, the CPU found within the PS5’s hardware will use the third generation of AMD’s Ryzen line which is a massive leap over the PS4’s Jaguar chip. Although I am not much for technical jargon within the PC economy, I do understand how much the Jaguar chip held back performance within the eighth generation, and I welcome the Ryzen with open arms. My only hope is that this upgrade will be enough to sustain the PlayStation 5 throughout the years and maintain its presence as a PC competitor.

Additionally, the custom AMD Navi GPU that will be present in the PS5 will support ray-tracing, a feature that only a few games fully utilize on PC, but nonetheless will provide a more realistic experience. Although this specific feature is a welcome addition to the console ecosystem, I honestly never expected it to be a priority. While having real-time accurate reflections within the environment will definitely increase immersion, I would personally desire a more optimized experience that will never falter during play. We will have to wait until more is revealed on the PS5’s ray-tracing technology, but I can only hope that it will not take priority over performance.

Building upon the implementation of ray-tracing with the PS5, Cerny noted that, for him, the audio technology present within the PS4 did not achieve the standards of a generational leap from the PS3. According to Cerny, the PS5 will implement 3D Audio, dramatically changing how gamers perceive sound within a video game. The inclusion of 3D Audio sounds like a well-deserved feature for PlayStation veterans. However, I feel as though this addition will only benefit those who have an entertainment setup that supports it. Unfortunately, individuals who resort to stereo speakers could potentially see no difference in how the audio is delivered from PS5 titles compared to those on PS4.

The interview also provided information surrounding the type of storage available in the PS5. As a much-needed addition, the PlayStation 5 will contain a solid state drive (SSD), which will allow for faster load times and experiences. As many PlayStation users know, the PS4 can provide some appalling load times, leading this issue to be a constant topic of discussion throughout the entire generation. The possibility of a game having long load times was so great that it often made headlines in video game’s media, pleading for action to be taken (Bloodborne anyone?).

Thankfully, information on the PS5’s hard drive capabilities does not require too much speculation, as Cerny provided an example of how fast it will be. According to him, Marvel’s Spider-Man, which has an average of a 15 second load time on a PS4 Pro, will have just 0.8 second load times on a PS5. No indication is yet forthcoming as to how consistent this technological feat will be across different titles, and I urge consumers to temper their expectations on the speed of the PS5 because only time will tell how efficient it can be. Regardless of my concerns surrounding inconsistencies, the PS5 will feature the fastest load times of any console before it, eliminating one of the greatest issues of the PS4’s hardware.

Bloodborne gameplay 1

In addition to the announcement that PlayStation 5 will have an SSD, Cerny confirmed a much-desired feature in backwards compatibility. Although this feature will not reach as far back as the competition, the PS5 will be compatible with PS4 titles, both digital and physical. This was to be expected—seeing as both consoles will run off the same architecture—but the silence from Sony proved worrisome for some fans, myself included. While I am disappointed that PS3 titles will not be compatible with the PS5, I understand that the cell processor of that earlier device would take more effort than it is worth to make games from the platform compatible. Regardless, PlayStation fans can rejoice in this news, as it further validates any investment into the PS4’s ecosystem.

Where I draw most of my criticism from Mark Cerny’s report on the specifications of the PS5 is within the idea that Sony’s next hardware will support 8K resolution. To be clear, I am not stating that such an achievement is impossible; rather I question the necessity of it. Given everything that we know about the PS5, one can assume that the system will cost around USD $500. With 4K televisions slowly becoming a household norm, is it worthwhile for a company to be devoting resources into a feature that will likely not be consumer friendly for years to come? I understand that Sony is at a disadvantage right now with the Xbox One X outputting at native 4K, but seeking to outdo the competition to this extent seems financially unobtainable for most consumers.

My concerns develop from individuals who hear the news of PS5 and 8K resolution and assume it to be the Second Coming. It is unfeasible to have a $500 to $600 console run at a native 8K resolution. Anyone who believes this will happen need look no further than PlayStation’s competition with the Xbox One X. At its launch, Microsoft was selling the Xbox One X at a loss, solely to prevent the console from exceeding the $500 mark and turning away consumers. Microsoft’s current machine is capable of outputting at a native 4K resolution, whereas the PS4 Pro can only achieve the same through upscaled checkerboarding. The PS5 will surely be able to output at a native 4K resolution, but to expect anything more with the current state of consumer technology is wishful thinking. I urge consumers to understand that if the PS5 has an 8K setting, it will likely be only achieved in the future and through a checkerboarded solution.

Spider-Man PS4

Given the rumors that the next generation of hardware will be the last, Sony may be trying to future proof the PS5 so that it can remain on the market for as long as possible. Given the information provided by Mark Cerny, Sony may be intending to utilize every feature of the PS5 to its entirety before considering what could come after. By future proofing the PlayStation 5, Sony can anticipate where the industry is heading, ultimately eliminating the need for a mid-generation upgrade with a PS5 Pro.

I have been a PlayStation fan for as long as I can remember, but have recently branched out with the Xbox One X and PC gaming to experience what those ecosystems have to offer. By broadening my horizons, I maintain an outside perspective on how Sony is upholding its promise to gamers and how the competition tackles similar issues created by an ever-growing industry. With the eighth generation nearing its completion, I look forward to discussions such as this one as it generates hope and excitement for the future of the brand.

While the PlayStation 4’s colossal success this generation will provide a jump-start in sales for the company’s new hardware, the beginning of a new generation only reinvigorates the console wars. As a firm believer in what both Sony and Microsoft will do to shape the future of the industry, I am reminded that competition breeds excellence. Furthermore, when competition is present between both parties to win over public appeal, in the end, consumers emerge victorious.

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