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Souls-like: A tale of masochism and glory

Souls-like games have amassed a cult following over the years, with many considering them the ultimate test of skill and patience. In simple terms, souls-like titles are a series of punishingly difficult, third-person action games, taking place across vast fictional badlands. But regardless of the steep learning curve involved, the genre has been lauded time and again by critics and players alike. The overexposure to the death screen(which flashes every time you die), time investment, and the occasionally broken hitboxes are all part of the charm.

Many would ask, and rightly so, “why put yourself through pain when there are plenty of other relaxing games to pick from?” And surprisingly, I don’t have an answer for it. Is it for a sense of accomplishment? Or maybe it’s an excuse to put myself above others who play games at the often mocked “journalist difficulty” (hint: code for easy)? I, for one, love a good challenge, and the Souls-like genre is an experience that a lot of casual gamers are missing out on. Sure, these games are relentless, but there is a lot of fun to be had in them. In this article, we will take an in-depth look at a genre that has given rise to countless broken controllers.

A screenshot from Bloodborne representing the Gothic architecture and lighting.

First and foremost, I would encourage every gamer to try out a Souls-like at least once in their lifetime, instead of being intimidated. There are options for every kind, ranging from primitive battles to platformers to pixelated adventures. Then there’s even one for the Star Wars fanatics. You could see how your skills measure, experience the brutality first hand, and then, if you still hate it within two hours, feel free to get a refund on Steam.

Art and sound design

Disregarding the difficulty level, people are first drawn to Souls-like titles due to its unique art design and style that transcends mediums. Developer FromSoftware made the first mark with its 2009 release, Demon’s Souls, recalling old-school games that were challenging to play. At the time, there is no way director Hidetaka Miyazaki could have known that he accidentally kickstarted an entire sprawling genre in the world of gaming.

Souls-like games draw heavy inspiration from mangaka Kentaro Miura’s works – Berserk.

Drawing heavy inspiration from Japanese manga artist Kentaro Miura, who sadly passed away last year, he took a boring genre as medieval fantasy and turned it into something cool. You boot up the game and are instantly filled with a sense of caution. The alarming gong of a bell, a lute strumming away in the background, and violin notes that crescendo until you hit the start button.

And when you do, everything goes silent. The black screen fades into a scenic beauty of the perilous world you’re about to step in. Then, a voice echoes from the shadows. A narrator, a seemingly old one at that, sets up the scene by spelling out some lore. This cinematic build-up showcasing the spoils of great wars and towering monsters fills you with excitement, where you unknowingly sport a wide grin across your face.

As you get familiar with the controls, you notice the surrounding bleak atmosphere. Fog, barren land, dry vegetation, grey skies, tombstones huddled together – barely a life insight. And even upon seeing some motion, they are enemy corpses and demons, trudging along with a weapon in hand, waiting for an opportunity to strike you. And each game has a different take on the enemies you encounter.

For instance, in the game, Bloodborne, beasts and ghouls suffering from the endemic plague have befallen the gothic city of Yharnam. The mobs are all disfigured, with their tongue hanging out and dripping thick saliva that resembles rabies.

Creatures of the night are all disfigured, covered in dried-up blood, and stalk the streets to hunt unsuspecting strollers. (Image credit: Bloodborne)

Others are covered in dried-up blood, which isn’t made clear whether it is theirs or some preys’. You have giant rats, moles, spiders, and maggots, in addition to some twisted mutations such as the Bloodlicker, who crawls around at night looking to quench its thirst. The Lovecraftian themes are in full force here, as evidenced by the Victorian-era architecture, streets dimly lit by candles and lanterns, and tall characters in trenchcoats stomping across the map. The bosses (main villains) are fast and unforgiving – long reach, cursed, and screeches that strike terror into your hearts.

In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, we spawn into 17th century Japan, a while after the war-ridden Sengoku period. And accordingly, the game takes a more realistic approach – at least during the first half. It is winter, and the temple rooftops are covered in snow, whilst maintaining a fixed level of liveliness with persimmon trees and the sounds of a nearby stream. The enemies this time are the Ashina samurai, who loyally guard several locations within the game, sporting armoured uniforms and the traditional Japanese topknot haircut. As you fight these soldiers, the game begins switching themes on you, by first introducing a giant serpent in a foggy valley and then, an element of the afterlife.

You battle ingeniously designed bosses hailing from Japanese folklore such as a headless orc who can manipulate time and send out evil spirit balls to hunt in the dark. Then you have the Demon of Hatred, a giant beast who flings fireballs at anyone entering his safe space. To defeat him, one has to hit his giant testicles in repeated succession. No, I’m not making this up.

The Guardian Ape has some of the most unpredictable, winding attacks in Sekiro, and also includes a secret second phase. (Image credit: Sekiro)

And to top it all off, there is the Guardian Ape, the most annoying one of the bunch. He leaps around the battlefield, much like a real monkey and does a range of unpredictable attacks. He slams down on the ground, throws a tantrum upon failing repeatedly, and sends out a poisonous fart cloud towards you. And if you manage to evade that, expect a big chunk of poop coming your way next. The mannerisms are so accurate and identical to an ape, that even when you die, you just have an appreciation for the creativity.

The sound design in these games is top-notch as well. When walking through a dark alleyway, distant voices echo within the walls, forcing you to sit upright and focus. In Sekiro, the enemies instantly react to your movement, be it the accidental clang of your sword or just jumping among bushes.

FromSoftware also heavily invests in the graphics, trying to make everything look as visceral as possible. All locations have a distinct personality to them, characters are memorable and look realistic, and dealing the finishing blow results in powerful blood spray, mimicking filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s Sanjuro.

The art design in Cuphead is inspired by cartoons from the 1930s evoking nostalgia. (Screenshot)

And if all this seems violent for you, there are some tamer choices as well in the genre. Cuphead, for instance, pays homage to retro rubber hose style animation to mislead players into believing that it is a fun, easygoing game. Characters are hand-drawn, and feature giant eyeballs and over-exaggerated features, inspired by cartoons from the 1930s. Finish that off with some sweet jazz music, water coloured backgrounds, and platforming action, and it feels solid on every level.

Another great example is Hollow Knight, which deals with dark fantasy themes, but on a two-dimensional plane. Its design feels cutesy and thus makes it less daunting to explore twisting caverns and the ruined kingdom of insects. Each location features brilliant, spectral lighting that resembles an aurora (northern lights), and it looks gorgeous in the background.

Gameplay and level design

The genre is difficult. There is no getting around it. One can keep begging the developers for an easy mode but then, it just turns into another standard action game. In a period where pretty much every studio is trying to pull off the “shoot zombies/aliens/robots” meta, be glad that these games are offering something different.

The character creation screen in Dark Souls. (Screenshot)

Your journey starts on a character creation screen, where you pick a class to forge your destiny. This is the first hurdle you face, thanks to the wide range of choices, each with unique perks and abilities. The abundance of customisation options and the fear of dying repeatedly causes some to spend too long in this section. In reality, this is kind of an illusion. Because at the end of the day, your life depends on how skilled you are at the game.

You could pick a bulky class (characters that are heavily armoured) thinking it’s going to absorb tons of damage, but the only thing it affects is the type of weapons you can use. So, instead of choosing a perk, you’re actually finding ways to die slowly. The only difference is how it is incorporated into your playstyle.

From here, the game puts you on a fairly linear path to confront one of the actual challenges in your way to glory – the tutorial. You fight a few mobs, collect consumable items, and then, walk into a dark, wide room. In the centre, there is movement. A few steps forward, and you can hear its breathing. Then, music erupts. A tall, monstrous boss stands upright, wielding a weapon the size of your body. As fear takes over, the fight or flight response kicks in. But before you actually manage to do something with it, you find yourself dead.

Dancer of the Boreal Valley deals a range of erratic attacks using her flaming sword. (Image credit: Dark Souls 3)

This repeated cycle of pain and death continues unless you memorise the attack patterns and adapt accordingly. A lot of the combat in Dark Souls simply involves dodge rolling behind the enemy to strike it in the back. And from an external point of view, this might seem easy. But the bosses are relentless, and once you chip through half its health bar, it introduces new attacks in addition to the ones you were already struggling with. You’re left with no choice but to take baby steps and actually care about the hero – like your life depends on it. Not many games manage to do that.

Now, this genre is notorious for not explaining its mechanics properly. That is by design. The developers want you to learn it the hard way, and if possible, devise creative “cheese” moves that will help take care of the boss with virtually no effort. Think of it like learning to ride a bike. The more you fall, the more you realise what not to do. And to some, this might seem too harsh.

But the game doesn’t prevent you from getting help. Open a YouTube tutorial or a Wiki link or a guide in the background. As long as the help source is not from some weird corner on Reddit or 4Chan, it’s all good and valid. Because once you enter that territory, you’ll be greeted with those entitled fanboys, who instead of being helpful, respond with “Git Gud” as a way to heckle inexperienced players.

The inventory management screen in Sekiro that lets you assign special items for quick use. (Screenshot)

Throughout your playthrough, the game doles out items that increase your survivability or grant magic spells that can be cast from range. Again, these have to be timed perfectly in those short periods of calmness when you know the enemy isn’t going to engage. Prior knowledge of move patterns helps a lot, especially when you know the fights are going to draw out for too long.

You can be patient, chip away at your target, and easily win. But sometimes, you get greedy and bite off more than you can chew, resulting in instant death. This is something you want to avoid as much as possible since the game punishes you for being consistently bad. That’s because fighting smaller enemies or mobs earns you souls, using which one can upgrade their weapons or skills. The more souls you have, the better upgrades you can buy. And the more you die, the more souls you lose. You get a few chances to retrieve them back, but if you’ve been stuck on a boss for more than an hour, consider them gone. Plus, each time you die or save progress at a nearby bonfire or idol, all the mobs are brought back to life.

Now, to any newcomer, this might seem like a nuisance, given they have to sprint all the way back to the boss area while trying to stay alive. But, this is the part where the game is actually trying to help you. Since the enemies respawn each time you rest, you can kill them over and over again to farm souls. The game puts no restrictions on how many times you can do so, and is an easy way to reclaim them, and in time, purchase upgrades.

Lighting bonfires/idols/lamps serve as a way to save your progress and rest before the perilous journey ahead. (Image credit: Dark Souls 2)

The mini-bosses are another hurdle you don’t want to ignore. They pose a greater threat than the average enemies and usually have faster movement. However, the actual challenge here is the surrounding environment. To make such affairs nerve-wracking, the game puts you in tight spots such as narrow bridges or rooms with limited space to run around. This leads to panic and camera disorientation, causing you to accidentally jump off the map or make basic errors.

Another aspect I love about this genre is how the developers evolve their titles with each entry. Both Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls were considered slow-paced games, due to their cautious playstyle which involved hitting once and running away to safety. With Bloodborne, the developers switched things up by rewarding aggression. Both enemies and the protagonist saw a significant increase in speed, with the latter being able to dodge projectiles by strafing sideways.

A rally system was introduced as well, letting players recover portions of lost health by striking back the enemy within a small time window. According to director Miyazaki, the mechanic represented a player’s increased morale to continue fighting, thereby encouraging fierce gameplay.

Movement in Bloodborne is swift and features a Rally system that encourages an aggressive play style. (Image credit: Bloodborne)

Even the game Sekiro saw a drastic change in gameplay, with the addition of parry and stealth mechanics that perfectly aligned with the Shinobi Wolf’s character. There was a lot more freedom in how you tackled heavily guarded areas, as you could sneak in and silently stab people to death one at a time, instead of taking them head-on. Combat revolves around the use of a katana and does not require you to fully deplete an enemy’s health bar – though it is still an option.

Instead, it once again prompts aggressive gameplay, where with a series of perfectly timed slashes, stabs, and deflects, you can reduce the enemy’s posture and balance. This eventually leads to an opening, indicated by a bright red dot. Press the right bumper on your controller one last time and you’ve managed to kill a foe far quicker than it would’ve taken with the hit and run method.

Combat in Sekiro heavily relies on sword deflection and stealth – a far cry from other Souls-like. (Image credit: FromSoftware)

Parries are difficult to time perfectly, but with the right amount of practice, it soon turns into a rhythm game. As the sweet metallic clang of clashing swords fill your eardrums, you realise that the entire game could be played blindfolded with audio cues. Still tough to beat, but possible. And the rewarding feeling you get upon slaying a boss – after sitting through hours of pain, is totally unmatched by other genres. The dopamine hit is addicting in every right way, and when you’re done, you let out a loud sigh of relief, stretch, realise how sweaty your butt has been the whole time, and get back to repeating the cycle.

That feeling is quite nice, and with Elden Ring coming out next month, I can’t wait to experience it all over again. This time, FromSoftware is experimenting with an open-world setting and looking at their track record, they might actually pull it off.

But personally, I want to see a souls-like game based on New English folktales. The period dialect, tales of witches and beasts, biblical themes, and the haunting percussion music would make for a great horror backdrop and lore. Just get filmmaker Robert Eggers into the mix as a creative lead and boom – you got yourself another masterpiece.

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