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Monday, May 27, 2024

Why FromSoftware is Still King of the Soulslike

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The soulslike genre has exploded over the last decade or so with all sorts of different takes on the genre. We’ve seen 2D soulslikes, anime soulslikes, sci-fi soulslikes, ninja soulslikes, third person shooter soulslikes, Star Wars soulslikes… the list goes on and on. But I think it’s hard not to argue that the king of the genre is still the originator of it: FromSoftware. Now, if you were to ask 10 different people why that is, you’d probably get 10 different answers, because the Souls games mean different things to different people. For some, they’re all about the PvP invasions and the unique brand of online play that only FromSoft’s games provide. For others, they love the deep lore that FromSoft buries deep in its environments, world design, and yes, even item descriptions. Others still just broadly like the unique challenge these games provide.

Every IGN FromSoftware Game Review

But for me, if I had to boil down the key reason why the FromSoftware soulslikes are so special in a genre so full of other games trying to capture that same magic, it’s this: The feeling of awe and/or dread that you get from walking into a new region for the first time, not knowing what to expect or whether or not you’re even prepared for what’s in store for you, and the excitement that comes with the thought of exploring it. Other games have done a great job of putting their own spins on the methodical combat of the Souls series, the risk/reward mechanics surrounding death, and unique take on online play. Hell, some have even improved upon those features. But no soulslike has ever given me goosebumps like the first time I ventured into Sen’s Fortress, or Cainhurst Castle, or the Siofra River.

I’d count FromSoftware games among the best looking based on the strength of their art direction alone.


You could point to a number of reasons why FromSoftware is so good at creating these moments, but let’s get the most obvious and superficial one out of the way first: I dont think it’s hyperbole to say that the studio has some of the best environmental artists in video games today. FromSoft’s games may not be sheer graphical showcases in the same ways that powerhouses like Horizon, Battlefield, or Call of Duty are, but I’d always count them among the best looking games of each year based on the strength of their art direction alone. There’s just such a variety of breathtaking architecture, incredible vistas, and dreary, desolate landscapes that never fail to elicit whatever their intended reaction is.

And it's more than just their looks, it’s also the direction of how you’re introduced to these areas. Whether it’s the bat demons that pick you up and deliver you to Anor Londo, the lengthy elevator ride down to Siofra, or getting bagged by a snatcher in Bloodborne and taken away to the Hypogean Gaol, FromSoftware are masters of this technique of making grand introductions to exceedingly memorable areas.

But now let’s circle back to that feeling of dread, because that’s such a unique feeling in video games, and one that’s usually reserved for horror games. Every soulslike has some modicum of dread simply due to the fact that dying is so costly. You not only lose your progress to a checkpoint, but enemies respawn, whatever items you spent are not refunded, and you risk losing the one currency that’s used both for upgrading your character and gear. But despite this basically being a requirement at this point for every soulslike, no game makes me scared of the unknown quite like the Soulsborne series.

That’s probably because FromSoft is so good right out of the gate at making you well aware of the fact that there will be enemies and traps that, upon first encounter, you are simply not expected to survive against. There are forking paths with one route leading to the actual “right” way to go, and the other leading you down a road towards enemies that are far beyond your level range; shortcuts leading to areas that you’re not recommended to visit until much later; and treasure chests that… well you know.

It also helps that the enemies in Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro are absolutely vicious. Even the weakest enemies in these games can pose a threat, and the stronger standard enemies can sometimes feel like minibosses by themselves. This is important because these games are paced so well. Just when you start getting the hang of the attacks and patterns of enemies in one area you reach a brand new one, and are always faced with the prospect of new enemies that have a whole new set of attacks, techniques, and patterns to learn that are often completely different from anything else you’ve fought thus far. And sure, that sounds obvious, but no other soulslike has quite the level of enemy variety, both in terms of visual and AI design, as the FromSoftware games.

Finally, FromSoftware never rests on its laurels. Despite every game following the same core set of design mechanics and philosophies, there’s always some sort of substantial twist on the formula that prevents these games from ever feeling too reliant on what came before. Demon’s Souls established the formula, then Dark Souls took that formula into a small-scale open world with a huge emphasis on gated exploration. Dark Souls 2 adopted a bit more of a linear approach and changed up a number of mechanics, while Dark Souls 3 sort of combined elements of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. Bloodborne completely changed up the combat focus to be more aggressive on top of introducing a whole new dark victorian aesthetic. Sekiro made a shift to action over RPG, and finally Elden Ring took everything into the realm of a sprawling, nearly unrestrained open world. Not every change between these games is celebrated, but the fact that FromSoftware has been able to continuously iterate upon the formula without ever changing what fans truly love about these games is remarkable, and it’s one of the things that keeps the genre thriving. Now we don’t just have soulslikes, we have Sekiro-likes, Bloodborne-likes, and in the next few years, we’ll no doubt see some Elden Ring-likes.

FromSoftware Gameography

Developer spotlight: a look at the games the Tokyo-based company has developed over the years.See All

But as I said at the top, there are many reasons why people love these games. As someone who doesn’t care too much for the PvP aspects of these games, these are the things that make FromSoft’s games so special to me. What about you? Let me know what makes Soulsborne games so special to you in the comments below.


Mitchell Saltzman is an editorial producer at IGN. You can find him on twitter @JurassicRabbit

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