In 2009, Demon’s Souls was released. Initially a cult favorite, its popularity grew and put From Software on the map worldwide. The game spawned four titles that the copyright lawyers assure you are only spiritual successors, as well as a host of imitators. The series really hit the mainstream with Demon’s Souls’ immediate not-sequel Dark Souls, and its incredibly challenging, unforgiving and epic dark fantasy quests became iconic. Until reviewers passed the title on to Crash Bandicoot and Cuphead to hide how terrible they were at old-school platformers and action shooters, Dark Souls became the go-to example of a hard game. It was the Dark Souls of lazy and often nonsensical comparisons.
My feelings on the series (Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls 1-3, and Bloodborne, the fan name for the collective being Soulsborne) are… complicated. I wanted to like the series, lengthy and challenging action-adventure games in a dark fantasy setting sounded great to me. But with all those stats and equipment to manage, despite being Japanese I would classify the Soulsborne games (or at least the earlier ones) as really hard WRPGs. I have no problem with hard games if they’re in a genre I like, but WRPGs are definitely not one of those genres. And the controls and hit detection seemed too clunky for such a demanding game. But were my complaints legitimate, or just me refusing to adapt to a series outside of my comfort zone? I was never completely sure, which was a major reason I haven’t said much about these games before.
Well, the series offered to meet me halfway, and I accepted. Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3 addressed some of my major issues (the characters move faster and checkpoints are a little more sane), and I managed to beat both of them. For reference, I made it around a quarter of the way through Demon’s Souls before giving up, and only played a little bit of a friend’s copy of Dark Souls to confirm it hadn’t fixed my issues. I didn’t bother trying Dark Souls 2. I’m not claiming to be an expert on the series, but am I a fan? I’m still not completely sure, which is why I’m writing this article. While playing Dark Souls 3 (I beat that very recently, while Bloodborne was a couple years ago), I switched several times between finding it an enjoyable and satisfying game, and being furious at it and wanting to quit. But either way, it was addictive and dominated my gaming time. When I finished it, I felt a wave of emotion that was part accomplishment and part relief. I’ve been trying to understand and articulate my thoughts on the series, and I think I’ve finally gotten it.
The Soulsborne games have a concept I love, they are in a genre that has great potential to draw me in. I really want to like them, but I feel like there are some serious flaws that could be easily fixed. However, many of these flaws haven’t been addressed, and I think a major reason for that is that reviewers and the gaming community are refusing to acknowledge these flaws. As the series progresses, some of my problems are addressed, but others are completely ignored. I trudge through these issues to get at the part of the game that I enjoy, while wishing that the genre could fix these flaws and feeling resentful towards the rabid fanbase of the series for refusing to acknowledge these issues as flaws. As these thoughts went through my head, I realized there was a very close parallel to my feelings about Soulsborne in a different series. Yes, for all the games that supposedly are the Dark Souls (apparently the first difficult game ever made) of their genre, Soulsborne itself fits into that mold.
Dark Souls is the Grand Theft Auto of the 2010s.
Yes, Soulsborne lines up almost perfectly with the beloved sandbox codifier that contains my personal punching bag (Grand Theft Auto 3 will always be terrible no matter how much the series improves). And I think I’ve pinpointed what I find so frustrating about both the Soulsborne games and the pre-Grand Theft Auto V GTA games…
Recently, I’ve grown fond of the term “quality of life” as it relates to game design. I define quality of life as features in a game that reduce frustration and inconvenience without making the game easier. Being able to quickly equip items or abilities in real time instead of constantly pausing, information about items and stats prominently displayed and easy to access, the ability to retry challenges on the spot instead of being forced to commit suicide if you think you’ve messed up too much to finish an area. And I’m sorry to say that in many ways the Soulsborne games seem to pride themselves on being anti-quality of life. Want to fight a boss again? In the later games you can almost always run to that boss easily without enemies getting any hits on you, but every time the boss kills you have to make that run again. To make matters worse, you have to deal with a load time that’s longer than it would be if you could just respawn in the boss room. You aren’t allowed to have a map, which isn’t even justified by realism, explorers made their own maps. You… you can’t even pause. There’s an offline mode, for God’s sake, let us pause!
This is in addition to things that do make the game harder, but in ways I feel aren’t legitimate. Having one shot at collecting the souls/blood you had at your last death is an interesting feature, but something needs to be done about how it punishes you for making progress between checkpoints. Die early? You can easily get your experience points back. Make lots of progress then die? You are very likely screwed. And don’t get me started on using an item, dying, the enemies you killed along the way respawning, and that item STILL BEING GONE. The line between challenging and cheap is always… one of those… to draw, but I think there are some elements of the Soulsborne games that are legitimately cheap.
So, what is my overall point, what am I hoping to get out of this? Well, it ties back to the Grand Theft Auto parallels. In 2008, Saints Row 2 came out, and in 2012 I finally tried the “GTA rip-off.” It was night and day, SR2 kept everything I liked about GTA and fixed all of my problems. That’s what I want: the Saints Row 2 of Dark Souls. A game that improves the genre so much that previous games in it feel unplayable in comparison. Something that even makes the developer of the earlier, more famous series take notice and improve their games.
So, back to the question of how I feel about Soulsborne, it remains complicated. The later games are for the most part enjoyable for me, but I’m actively hoping for a game that will make me unable to ever go back to them. So I guess I’m a fan at the moment, but a fair amount of that comes from Stockholm Syndrome. Soulsborne draws me in with things I love, and holds them hostage with needlessly annoying and frustrating “traditions” that its fanbase refuses to acknowledge as flaws. I seriously saw people arguing that the pre-patch Bloodborne load times were a good thing because they punished the player for dying. Few internet gaming opinions have aggravated me that much. For the time being, the Soulsborne games are good, but they could be so much better. Let’s just hope that someday a Saint-like franchise fills these Dark Souls with light.