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The Cultural Impact of the Souls Series

The Cultural Impact of the Souls Series

The Souls series absolutely shattered the mould for gaming, bordering on directly contradicting many of the traditional game design concepts of the time while still managing to release a fantastic and genre-defining series. Demon's Souls released when games were making a much harder transition into the cinematic realm, with games like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Dragon Age: Origins releasing within the same year.

Demon’s Souls was vastly different from everything else released during that period, with Hidetaka Miyazaki taking the helm as director. The game was heavily inspired by dark fantasy, such as Berserk, the manga series written by Kentaro Miura (RIP), along with FromSoftware’s past works, such as the Kings Field and Shadow Tower series. A prime focus of the game was a cruel and punishing world that does not hold the players’ hand and gives them the freedom to explore the game and its world. Whilst working as a director with FromSoftware, and supported by Sony Japan, Miyazaki decided to try and hide the difficulty from the publisher due to fears of it not getting published. Despite this, after around two hours of play, the Sony Japan CEO, Shuhei Yoshida, stated, “This is crap, this is an unbelievably bad game” (Barker), leading to Sony avoiding publishing the game outside of Japan. Later, Atlus and Bandai Namco took the reins to publish the game in the North American and PAL regions, respectively. Demon’s Souls was very well received, with IGN giving it a 9.4, which was highly unexpected by many people, leading to a sequel being pushed into development incredibly quickly.

DARK SOULS began FromSoftware’s renaissance period. Introducing a revolutionary style of exploration, being one of the first 3D games that borrowed heavily from the metroidvania style of gameplay, with a large interconnected world that rewards clever exploration; and going off the beaten path. The game’s popularity also began to skyrocket, thanks to the impact of lets plays from people such as PewDiePie. Not only that, the game's bosses were incredibly standout from most games of the time, with names such as Ornstein and Smough still being one of the most iconic bosses in the franchise. This is due to the infamy surrounding the difficulty of the fight, and the creativity behind it, as the player has to manage two very different enemies at the same time, which is a very different task and feel to all the bosses who came before. Despite many other attempts in later games, no other duo fight has ever matched the feel of the O&S fight.

Dark Souls II was released next and is notably the black sheep of the series. Directed by Yui Tanimura and Tomohiro Shibuya, as Miyazaki was busy directing Bloodborne at the time. DS2 is notably different tonally and feels messier than its predecessor. The world design feels much less connected, with many locations feeling physically impossible. However, while it may have been an unintentional design flaw, this dissonance feels somewhat fitting for the world. NPCs and bosses are somewhat tired; the world is looping, with bosses like Najka seemingly a reworked form of Quelaag; and the Old Dragonslayer being a blatant repeat of Ornstein. Despite the game’s issues, it was still received well critically and sold fantastically, and earned a multitude of awards. Following this, an updated version of the game known as Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin was released, which was packaged with the game’s three DLC. The remake released with some changes to the enemy placement (which was frowned upon, as it felt haphazard) along with a few smaller changes to the rest of the game, and a new final boss.

DARK SOULS III was the final game in the trilogy, which is an incredibly important role to play and a difficult one at that. Wrapping up nearly 10 years of entries, along with an incredibly complex and diverse plot, without having to compromise on the series’ unique form of storytelling. Despite this monumental task, with the return of Miyazaki to the director’s chair, they managed to knock it out of the park. It still didn’t manage to match the first game’s exploration and interlinking world; however, the gameplay and bosses were the best in the series, taking everything great about all the previous games and tying it all up nicely. The game is not only full of fan service, but it manages to blend that with the newer concepts that the franchise was tackling without feeling overbearing. This really gave DARK SOULS 3 a great feeling of finality, mixing old and new to help wrap everything up nicely while giving nods to older players for sticking with the series. Combined with the DLC, this made for an incredible conclusion to the story, with the best boss fights the series had seen, along with a breadth of choice surrounding weapons and builds, more so than any previous game. 

The Souls games may be best known for worldbuilding and storytelling, giving the player practically no direct information and instead forcing them to hunt it down through NPC dialogue, item descriptions, and parts of the world. This also requires quite a lot of inference and theory-crafting, which leads to an incredible community surrounding these games, not to mention FromSoftware’s other games, such as Bloodborne and ELDEN RING. Since the explosion of popularity, many other games have taken massive amounts of inspiration from these games, even going as far as to create an entire subgenre of soulslikes. While none of these games have reached the same heights as the original series, some notable examples are Nioh and Nioh 2, Hollow Knight (while not directly influenced by Souls, it shares a vast amount, especially surrounding the worldbuilding and death mechanics), and Salt and Sanctuary, a 2D take on a soulslike, which was incredibly popular and even managed to spawn a successful sequel. 

Despite this, there are definitely some negative outcomes, primarily, the argument between difficulty and accessibility. This has been heavily debated over the years but was incredibly prominent with ELDEN RING, FromSoftware’s most recent title. Many people believe the game should have easier difficulty options, while others feel that it would compromise on Miyazaki’s artistic vision, as the game's difficulty is an integral part of its world and themes. The Souls games also spawned an overused phrase, “This is the DARK SOULS of ___”, which is a fine phrase to use to describe a very set type of titles; it was commonly used as a way to describe difficult games no matter the genre, which felt like a complete lack of understanding to what makes them hard.

DARK SOULS is one of the most influential franchises within the past decade of gaming and still manages to reach newer and bigger heights. Along with the vast influx of soulslikes and the success of ELDEN RING, the series is showing absolutely no sign of slowing down and may remain one of the most popular franchises for years to come.

Jacob Sanderson

Jacob Sanderson

Staff Writer

It's not an obsession if it counts as work...

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