Way back in 2008, I was lucky enough to spot some preview screenshots for a new, mysterious Japanese game in my monthly sub of Official PlayStation Magazine. Unlike today, where in-game trailers and videos reign supreme, the noughties relied more heavily on images to help folks get excited about their upcoming titles.
Seriously, I’d pore over every minute detail, every nook and cranny, every millimetre of pics that were no bigger than an average postage stamp. These enchanting screenshots set my imagination ablaze. What is this bleak, derelict fantasy world? Can you really fight that giant towering monstrosity wielding a gargantuan shield? Is it really as difficult as they say? Of course, it didn’t take long for me to realise: I must buy this game.
Turns out, said title was a little game from a studio called FromSoftware. Indeed, you guessed it – I was super psyched to play PS3 exclusive dungeon-crawler, Demon’s Souls. The sad thing? It wasn’t releasing in the West as Sony was only publishing the game in Japan. Blast!
Luckily, not all was lost, though. One of the PS3’s coolest features was that it was thankfully region-free. Suffice it to say, if I wanted to get my mitts on this magical-looking action-RPG, I was going to have to import a slightly overpriced Japanese version from across the pond. Fortunately, I decided to pull the trigger. Sure, I had to pay a little bit more for the privilege, and wait a wee bit longer for it to arrive, but was it worth the wait? You’re goddamn right!
After several hours with Demon’s Souls, it struck me: this was an incredibly fresh experience, and one that harkened back to the tough-as-nails gaming experiences from a bygone era (read: my youth). This was totally my jam.
Indeed, as soon as I had tasted FromSoftware’s new risk-and-reward formula, there was no going back. It was a delectable fantasy cocktail; its bleak beauty, its goading challenge, and its eerie otherworldliness coursed through my veins like a brand-new, intoxicating Estus-like tincture. From that point on, I was hooked on its electrifyingly addictive gameplay loop and back-to-basics game design. For me, and for many other folks out there, the Souls franchise was nothing short of a revolution.
The popular saying goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I’m pretty sure ol’ Einstein (or whoever actually said it) would’ve loved the Souls franchise then, right? At the core of the Souls formula, so many elements of FromSoftware’s dark fantasy worlds riff on this specific “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” motif. From the games’ constantly resetting enemy positions to the unendingly cyclical nature of their ethereal narratives, to their interlocking M.C. Escher-esque worlds, it’s this meticulous blending of all these distinct elements that sit at the heart of these brutally unforgiving experiences.
In other words, the Souls games are not your dime-a-dozen, button-mashing arcade hack-and-slashers. Au contraire: Souls games are way more sophisticated than that. They’re action experiences that reward patience, cunning and quick thinking, all wrapped up in a series of thoughtfully crafted worlds where every enemy is placed like a twisted chess-piece that waits patiently to wreak havoc upon your lonely protagonist. Essentially, what the Souls franchise helped popularise cannot be understated.
Since its inception in 2009, it’s been super interesting seeing the Souls series’ risk-and-reward DNA proliferate amongst other “Soulslikes”. From The Surge and Necropolis, to Lords Of The Fallen and Salt And Sanctuary, to even glossier big-budget blockbusters like Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, the Soulslike sub-genre has seen a massive rise in popularity over the last decade.
Like a weird little acorn, I’ve seen FromSoftware’s critically acclaimed series grow into this contorted, gnarled monstrosity and, frankly, I couldn’t be happier about that. Move over battle royale this and games-as-a service that, this gameplay revolution still continues to kick ass and take names. Its name is the Soulslike sub-genre. And I hope it continues to go from strength-to-strength.
Now, if only we could get an official announcement for Bloodborne 2… come on FromSoftware. You know you want to.