What Makes From Software’s ‘SoulsBorne’ Games Special?

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Posted April 26, 2016 by John Clark in Video Games

From Software has enjoyed immense growth in the last decade. What started as a modest success with the critically adored but extremely niche Demon’s Souls has exploded into a franchise that sells millions of copies with each entry. While Bandai Namco’s aggressive marketing strategy has always been heavily focused on the ‘git gud’ mentality of the hardcore playerbase, advertising the series’ notorious difficulty, I’ve long since felt that what makes the games special is completely unrelated to their challenge. While it’s likely we’ll see future Souls games, From Software president Hidetaka Miyazaki has expressed interest in doing something else–and these are the trademarks of his company’s titles I’d like to see in whatever they make next.

 

Atmosphere

Any FromSoft fan will probably tell you that one of the most standout aspects of Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls, and Bloodborne is the atmosphere. In each of these series, the art and sound design come together combined with level structure and enemy placement to create an oppressive, compelling world that’s as interesting as it is dangerous to explore. In my opinion, none of their titles expressed this as well as Dark Souls 3. Even when I was low on estus flasks and had no idea where the next bonfire was, I’d still sometimes find myself wandering aimlessly, too interested in seeing what was around the next corner to worry about the fact I’d likely die finding out. While the ‘Soulsborne’ games have generally leaned towards a gothic fantasy vibe, I don’t think that the unique brand of atmosphere that FromSoft has cultivated over the last few years in their titles is restricted to such a universe. The company also owns the Armored Core franchise, and a new entry in that series–or a new IP entirely–could take advantage of the unique blend of dramatic boss themes, near-silent ambience, and pressing sense of danger to provide what makes FromSoft’s atmosphere so special while retaining the franchise’s classic appeal, too.

 

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Methodical Combat

I’ve always felt that the SoulsBorne games were better described as ‘methodical’ than outright difficult. I haven’t ever had an exceptionally easy time with the games; it took me just as many tries to take down Ornstein and Smough or The Nameless King as most players, but these weren’t necessarily challenges of twitch reflexes, grinding out levels, or other traditional techniques game designers use to make bosses hard. Ornstein and Smough were tough because it was a war of attrition while outnumbered, dealing with Ornstein’s aggressive spear-play while trying to navigate Smough’s slower-but-monstrously damaging hammer swings. The Nameless King was a challenge because of his flowing combos and heavy cleave on every strike. Neither of these pressed me in the same way as the highest difficulties in RPGs like Pillars of Eternity or action games such as Ninja Gaiden, but instead, pushed me to recognize patterns, acknowledge enemy habits, and learn patience in my own attacks. Over time, I learned that Ornstein would happily distance himself from Smough given the opportunity, giving me room to breathe, and that the Nameless King wasn’t actually that fast as long as I only attacked once between each of his blows.

Exploring the environments presents a similar challenge; rushing into a new zone is a great way to be mutilated by traps, ambushes, and pitfalls, but pacing yourself makes it very possible to navigate from one bonfire to another without a single death. Unlike atmosphere, I don’t think this approach to gameplay design could necessarily translate to Armored Core, a series known for its high-flying, bombastic mech battles, but there are definitely plenty of fans who would love such a grounded approach to modern or sci-fi titles. A new IP would be well-served capitalizing on these aspects of FromSoft’s previous games.

 

Hidden Stories

Disclaimer: I’m actually one of the biggest critics of the Dark Souls series’ storytelling. Where many people see it as rewarding careful exploration and connecting the dots, I’ve always found gleaning the plot to the games needlessly obtuse and lacking any imperative for me to invest in my character. This isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate the work and design that FromSoft put into their writing, however, and while I’m not the biggest fan of how they deliver their main plots, I’ve always had plenty of love for the hundreds of hidden mini-narratives you can always find sprinkled throughout their worlds. Easily missed, persistently followed threads can reveal the fate of a likable NPC, the tale of how a Hollow-infested zone fell to ruin, or even something more esoteric, like a relationship between two characters I wasn’t aware had ever even met. This kind of storytelling, I think, would be a perfect fit for a cyberpunk world in particular. As fun as near-future dystopias are, I often feel like they drag themselves down with an excess of narrative that can often be as self-conflicting as it is entertaining. FromSoft’s more minimalist approach would be perfect for this genre.

 

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Wait a minute…in fact, everything I’ve listed would be great for a cyberpunk game. So, Miyazaki…where’s our Sci-Fi Souls?!


About the Author

John Clark