The Souls-Like Genre
The Souls series emerged from seemingly nowhere to spawn an entire genre of punishingly difficult hack and slash (but not too much or you’ll run out of stamina) games that have very little “soul” to them. While the first game, Demon Souls, stayed a relatively obscure cult classic for most of its lifespan on the PlayStation 3, its spiritual successor, Dark Souls, took off like wildfire and its influence has spread quickly and fiercely throughout the gaming landscape. The “Souls-like” game, which now has its own tag on Steam, consists of a very particular series of tropes and game mechanics that when enough are present in any particular game, will make you think to yourself, “oh, that’s clearly a Dark Souls clone”.
Features of a Dark Souls Clone
What makes a game Souls-like? There is a very particular list of features that don’t necessarily belong to Dark Souls inherently, but when combined give a game an unmistakably Souls-like quality. Having just one or two of these features don’t transform a game into a Dark Souls clone, but the more a game has, the more it tends to mimic its source material, usually with disappointing results. The following is an unofficial list of characteristics that comprise the Dark Souls gameplay and aesthetic:
- Fantasy/Medieval Setting and Imagery
- Third Person Perspective
- Punishing Difficulty
- Challenging Boss Fights
- Stamina-Based Combat System
- Dying Resets Progress
- Environmental/Visual Storytelling
- Limited Healing
- Safe Areas for Upgrades and Dialogue with NPCs
- Shortcuts/Circular Level Design
- Lock On/Z-Targeting
- Respawning Enemies
And so on…
Again, none of these things by themselves come even close to a Souls game. Many of these mechanics are much older than the Souls series. Battletoads isn’t a Souls-like just because it’s of it’s insane difficulty. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning isn’t a Dark Souls clone just because it’s a third-person action game with a medieval flair. It’s the combination of many of these features that give a game its inherent Souls-like qualities.
The biggest legacy of the Souls series on the video game industry is how much it has influenced combat systems for future games. The Batman: Arkham series introduced the free-flow style of combat that has been shamelessly been copied by contemporary Warner Brothers title Shadow of Mordor/War, Assassin’s Creed, Sleeping Dogs, and the most recent Spider-Man game, to name a few. In the same vein, the Souls games introduced a simple but challenging mechanic to combat that takes a step away from mindlessly hacking and slashing hordes of zombies wave after wave and forces the player to think more critically about combat.
The main challenge of Dark Souls combat is simple: nearly every important action uses stamina and your actions take time to perform. Want to swing your sword? Block a hit? Roll out of the way? Run away from the fight? It’ll all take up your very limited stamina meter and once that stamina meter runs out you’re a sitting duck until it’s replenished.
In addition to stamina management, you’ll also have to time your actions precisely. When you decide to attack your enemies, many weapons can take up to a full second or two to finish their animations, and you can’t cancel an animation once it’s started, meaning actions not only have to be thought about tactically, but also temporally. Using healing items in combat does not use your stamina, but they will keep you stuck in one place for the duration of its use, so you’d better be sure that you’re far enough away from danger before healing up or you’ll be brutally murdered.
The Souls-like combat system turns many confrontations into a thinking game. Do you risk that extra hit and drain the last of your stamina hoping to defeat your enemy before he has a change to react, or do you roll away to avoid the incoming assault and counter-swing. Do you stick with a light weapon and armor setup that allows you to land small hits that wear down your opponent, or will you opt for a massive sword and bulky armor that can take out most foes easily, but drains your stamina meter quickly, restricts your movement, and leaves you wide open to counter attacks?
The slow, methodical combat system is just one half of the famous Souls gameplay loop that has captivated gamers. The reason why the combat system is so effective is not just its way of forcing you to anticipate your opponent’s moves, but because there are significant repercussions for failing in combat. Many enemies in the Souls series have 1-2 hit KO potential, and those that don’t pack as much of a punch often hunt in packs and can quickly overwhelm your character after one errant swing or roll.
When your character dies, there’s (sometimes multiple) penalties applied to your character, making progression difficult and causing many players to just give up. In all of the Souls games, you’ll lose all of the experience (souls) you’ve collected up to that point and must start from the last checkpoint (bonfire) at which you’ve rested, with only one opportunity to reclaim those lost souls by returning to the spot where you were killed without dying again. In two of the Souls games (Demon Souls & Dark Souls 2), your maximum health will decrease every time your character dies, which means every subsequent attempt to clear an area will be that much more difficult.
The Souls series’ punishing but fair difficulty has breathed new life into an industry that’s moved more towards AAA cinematic experiences than challenging gameplay. Souls has become synonymous with difficulty and completing the game has become a badge of honor for gamers worldwide.
A Short List of Souls-Like Games
- Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice – FromSoftware (Creators of Dark Souls), 2019: PlayStation 4 | Xbox One
- Bloodborne – FromSoftware (Creators of Dark Souls), 2015 : PlayStation 4
- Lords of the Fallen – Deck13 Interactive & CI Games, 2014: PlayStation 4 | Xbox One
- Dead Cells – Motion Twin, 2019: PlayStation 4 | Xbox One | Nintendo Switch
- Nioh – Team Ninja, 2017: Playstation 4
- Salt and Sanctuary – Ska Studios, 2016: PlayStation 4 | Nintendo Switch | PlayStation Vita
- Hollow Knight – Team Cherry, 2017: Nintendo Switch
- The Surge – Deck13 Interactive, 2017: PlayStation 4 | Xbox One
- Ashen – A44, 2018: Xbox One
- Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption – Darkstar, 2018: PC | Nintendo Switch
- Death’s Gambit – White Rabbit, 2018: PlayStation 4
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