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I usually think “Soulslike” is a loaded term; FromSoftware’s legendarily grim and difficult 2011 role-playing game Dark Souls inspired a crowd of similarly grim, difficult games, but I don’t think any of those imitators can compare to the regal original. Except, maybe, FromSoftware’s other games and Souls sequels. With the help of other Kotaku staffers, I ranked them.
It didn’t take too long. Though FromSoftware has existed as a studio since home console gaming’s early days, there are only seven homegrown Soulslikes. The studio’s first release, King’s Field, a role-playing game scattered with skeletons, came out in 1994, and the first piece of its flagship mech franchise Armored Core was out in 1997, but a lot of this damp and dungeon-y early work stayed in Japan.
2009, when current president Hidetaka Miyazaki’s castle-addled brain shaped breakout titles Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, changed that. Since then, “FromSoftware” has been synonymous with pain and rusted chains.
Now it’s time for you to start screaming. My ranking awaits you.
I get it. Almost as much as I am a writer, I am a diehard FromSoftware fan, and I know the feeling of your organs liquefying to sludge when someone shares an opinion you disagree with. “But, but, but!” I sometimes find myself saying, like a baby recently parted with its bottle.
I can’t offer much consolation aside from the kindergarten platitude that opinions aren’t facts, the postmodern suggestion that there is no absolute truth, and the personal belief that, hey, guys, it’s only video games. These are all some of the best.
Though it’s always had its strenuous defenders, Dark Souls 2 is arguably the most divisive game to actually bear the Souls name, and it certainly was not what everyone was hoping for in a sequel to its groundbreaking, landmark predecessor. Its brighter environments weren’t as haunting and iconic, its quasi-time-travel mechanic felt undercooked, and its lore didn’t sink its hooks as deep into our collective psyches. At the same time, in some ways, it felt like just more of the same—a safe, predictable sequel—where what had defined Dark Souls before it had largely been its ambition to shatter our expectations.
And yet, though it didn’t all quite click into place as satisfyingly as Dark Souls had, there was something stirring within this game, some grasping for ideas, that made it linger in the mind, and that perhaps has only come into sharper focus in the years since its release.
In its more open world, we can now see the experimental seeds of what FromSoft would go on to more fully achieve in Elden Ring. In retrospect, it’s easier to appreciate that what appeared to be a conventional and fairly unremarkable sequel was actually FromSoft testing out some new ideas, and although it may have stumbled a bit in the realization of those ideas, it’s admirable that they were willing to take those risks at all.
Dark Souls 2 is, if nothing else, an interesting game, and I’ll take an interesting but flawed game over a conventional one that’s free of glaring issues any time. Today, the golden light of Majula feels quintessentially Dark Souls, beautiful and sad, and in the character of Lucatiel, Dark Souls 2 has one of the most poignant NPCs in FromSoft’s oeuvre, one who enables any of us to see the struggles our characters face throughout the series through the lens of the struggles in our own lives.
And isn’t that a huge part of why so many of us find these games so irresistible?
– Carolyn Petit, Managing Editor
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the biggest outlier in FromSoftware’s post-Demon’s Souls era. While it retains many of the familiar elements that characterize a Soulslike, it is very much not a trad Souls game.
There’s no variety in character builds, nor can you grind for experience to over-level your stats for the game’s many punishing encounters. There’s no additional equipment to find, save for a few alternative prosthetics for Wolf. Hell, you can’t even call up an NPC or online friend to help you with any of the boss fights.
These differences make Sekiro a brick wall for some veteran Souls players. The game demands a more aggressive playstyle when compared to other games in the genre, and that can be jarring for folks conditioned to the slower, more methodical approach that something like Dark Souls or Elden Ring necessitates. Some have referred to Sekiro as the perfect ninja game, which is apt (a position it arguably shares with Ninja Gaiden).
However, we’re not ranking ninja games here, and in terms of Souls games, Sekiro is the most difficult and off-putting of the bunch. It’s the only game that wants you to play it strictly the way that FromSoft designed it, with little to no breathing room, no way to fumble and grind your way to victory, no room to really experiment with different builds and tactics. It’s a great game to be sure, especially if you’re into the shinobi mythos and can master its complex-yet-satisfying combat, but it’s not a great entry point to the Souls genre.
– Levi Winslow, staff writer
Yes, the 2009 role-playing game is monumentally influential. It’s approaching two decades of motivating callous, fantasy realms and one reverent remake, but, like any first attempt, its importance belies growing pains.
The complex gameplay that lives like a nut inside gray kingdom Boletaria—keeping track of collected Souls, waking up after death with a reduced health bar, staying locked into your white and black tendency, which influences enemy’s health and item drops—is what made Demon’s Souls a slow-burning cult classic. It’s also really fucking frustrating.
I think FromSoftware’s later titles strike more of a balance between challenge and reward. I rarely choose to replay Demon’s Souls over one of those, which are similarly covered in rubble and mystery but have the confidence that being a second, third, and fourth try warrants.
A lot of people will tell you, disparagingly, that the 2016 game and conclusion to the Dark Souls trilogy Dark Souls 3 was a load of fan service. And it was, in many ways.
It pulled the series back from Dark Souls 2’s spread-out experimentation, taking it home to original Dark Souls locations like Firelink Shrine, bone-white and polished Anor Londo, and re-introducing Dark Souls’ onion-bulb knight Siegmeyer as equally round and jolly Siegward. It, to many apologists’ great displeasure, barely acknowledges Dark Souls 2’s existence. As a DS2 hater and a brat, I don’t mind that, and I appreciate the service.
DS3 is less of a true finale than it is a glossy, spun-sugar retelling, but with bosses as beautifully punishing as Pontiff Sulyvahn and the Ringed City DLC’s Slave Knight Gael, I happily eat it up.
I have to pay proper respects to the Dark Souls series’ firstborn, which fine tuned Demon’s Souls tone, mechanics, and Machiavellian style and established a precedent for nearly every major FromSoftware title after it.
It locked in collecting Souls as currency, losing them upon death, and introduced the warmth of the bonfire, rest locations polka-dotted around a location. Its map is expertly crafted, forcing you to walk through green hills, crumbling archways, and wet basements until giving you the gift of partial fast travel in Anor Londo. It introduces bloated, operatic boss music that makes you feel like you’re about to get crunched by a monster truck, and bosses themselves, like Gravelord Nito, are brutally beautiful. And, I mean, there’s a guy named Ceaseless Discharge.
I consider open-world RPG Elden Ring to be not only the star jewel in FromSoftware’s heavy crown, but also, probably, the last decade of gaming. It’s so easy to explore, to live and to die, in the bucolic and gruesome game. You can target the game’s litany of mangled bosses, head underground toward dungeons, or through the ground to places like the Siofra or Ainsel River underworlds. You can collect, craft, or get married. You can lose yourself in the game’s high-profile lore, partially provided by Game of Thrones creator George R. R. Martin.
And, if you’ve played every FromSoftware Soulslike multiple times like I have, you can get a little tired of seeing all the recycled assets and hearing another story about death, and rebuilding, and power, and blah, blah, blah.
Elden Ring is the perfect culmination of the past decade or so of FromSoftware’s hard work, but it is not the most special, I don’t think.
I can only, in good faith, reward the “most special” designation to my one true love, Bloodborne, which takes all of the expected elements of a FromSoft Soulslike (collected XP points, limited health top-offs, rest locations, extraordinary music, etc.) and dyes it nightmare black.
Bloodborne is Lovecraftian, intimidating, and disgusting. One of my favorite bosses, Mergo’s Wet Nurse, looks like a clump of hair caught in the drain. But none of it is scary enough to make you want to run away. It’s too well-crafted. Eventually, the game’s total cohesion entreats you to stoop to its level without you even realizing it.
Your gameplay shifts as your character is exposed to mystic locations and bosses, lifting their third eye with Insight. Like its blood-possessed inhabitants, Bloodborne eventually makes you obsessed with aggression, too. You get health back when you land attacks immediately after a hit, so you keep hitting things.
Like with other FromSoft titles, violence triggers plenty of deep contemplation about systematic power here. But Bloodborne is so peculiarly bleak, so stalked by spilled blood and uncontrollable, cosmic horrors, that you wonder less about if struggle should continue than how struggle should continue. Do you join it in the sky, or do you die in your dreams? It’s a complete gothic Rubik’s Cube, and there’s nothing else like it.
What’s your favorite FromSoftware game?