Franchise Festival #80: Souls

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.

This week we’ll be discussing the grossly incandescent history of FromSoftware’s Souls series. Stick around to the end of the article for an interview with two people who have dedicated a significant portion of the last decade thoughtfully discussing the franchise: Bonfireside Chat podcast hosts Gary Butterfield and Kole Ross.

Primary sources, especially interviews with the developers and contemporary reviews, will be cited below. The following secondary sources were critical to my overview, though any errors are naturally my own:

Table of Contents

Background
Demon’s Souls (2009)
Dark Souls (2011)
Dark Souls II (2014)
Dark Souls III (2016)
Spinoffs
Interview with Gary Butterfield and Kole Ross

Background

FromSoftware was founded in 1986 in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo, Japan. The studio spent its first eight years developing office productivity software for the local PC market before entering the world of video games with the PlayStation’s King’s Field (1994). This title, an often-obtuse atmospheric first-person role-playing game (RPG), was not localized outside of Japan but was successful enough to merit a sequel. King’s Field 2 (1995) would be translated into English and released in North America as King’s Field. The series slowly established a reputation as a highly challenging, gameplay-focused cult classic.

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The King’s Field series makes Souls feel like a comparatively player-friendly experience. Source: DaveControl

FromSoftware produced several other RPGs for the PlayStation throughout the late 1990s, including Shadow Tower (1998), but its most successful franchise had nothing to do with dark fantasy dungeon-crawlers. Armored Core, a real-time arena combat game in which the player steps into the cockpit of a roughly humanoid mecha suit, was released to positive critical reception in 1997 on the PlayStation. While it was not the industry’s first mecha title, it became the sub-genre’s standard-bearer thanks to unsurpassed customization options, rewarding combat, and mecha designs by Shoji Kawamori; Kawamori was known as one of Japan’s leading mecha artists for his work on anime franchise Macross (1982-Present) and the 1980 product line of Transformers forerunner toy series Diaclone.

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It is challenging to visualize the director of Armored Core: For Answer going on to create the Souls series, but many of its fundamentals – strafing around enemies and carefully avoiding damage – are present here. Source: IGN

New entries in the King’s Field franchise were only sporadically localized in the West on the PlayStation and PlayStation 2, effectively being abandoned entirely by FromSoftware following 2001’s King’s Field: The Ancient City, while Armored Core became the preeminent name in mecha combat simulation. FromSoftware released no fewer than fifteen titles in the series between 1997 and 2013; nearly every new entry improved upon its predecessors, though increasing complexity threatened to make the franchise less accessible to newcomers as it entered its third decade.

This increasing level of depth and idiosyncratic design can be partially attributed to the involvement Hidetaka Miyazaki. Miyazaki had joined FromSoftware in 2004, following a brief career in IT, and had been put to work as a planner on Armored Core: Last Raven (2005) before rapidly ascending to a leadership role as director of Armored Core 4 (2006) and Armored Core: For Answer (2008). The director’s experience iterating upon Armored Core‘s already-byzantine customization systems would prove to be a formative introduction to the world of game design.

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Scholars have linked Kentaro Miura’s Berserk manga to the look of the Souls series. Source: Rock Paper Shotgun

Equally important to Miyazaki’s unique perspective, though, was his outsider’s approach to the medium. He grew up poor in the city of Shizuoka and depended on library books for mental stimulation. Miyazaki’s parents would not let him play video games, so he had no experience with the art form until attending college and encountering Fumito Ueda’s Ico. The greatest influences acting upon his own creative impulses were half-understood works of English literature, role-playing adventure game books like Sorcery (1983-1985), and tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons. This fractured approach to Western fantasy would pay dividends when FromSoftware gave Miyazaki the opportunity to produce his own franchise in 2007.

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Demon’s Souls (2009)

Demon’s Souls was pitched to FromSoftware by Sony’s Takeshi Kajii around 2006. Sony was seeking an exclusive title for its new PlayStation 3 platform in the tradition of dark fantasy dungeon-crawlers like Wizardry and King’s Field, as Kajii felt the Japanese market was saturated with anime-influenced RPGs. Early work went poorly, however, and Miyazaki “changed pretty much everything about it” when he was brought in to lead its second phase of development. Miyazaki’s history with that sub-genre’s literary influences made him a perfect fit to bring a distinctive voice to FromSoftware’s newest franchise. He also brought to the project a team comprised of FromSoftware’s top talent: among the most influential were Daisuke Satake, an artist who had gotten his start with FromSoftware on King’s Field: The Ancient City (2001), and lead programmer Jun Ito, who would be responsible for translating Miyazaki’s vision to playable mechanics. Though its first demo at the 2008 Tokyo Games Show was received with a shrug, Sony persisted in releasing Demon’s Souls as a PlayStation 3 exclusive in Japan on February 5, 2009.

In Demon’s Souls, the player creates a character based on one of several archetypal character classes that determine their starting statistics. These starting statistics can be altered as the player character acquires experience points from defeating enemies, though, offering wide latitude in how the player customizes their avatar over the course of the game. Stats determine which armor, equipment, and spells can be wielded by the player character, as well as their overall strength and ability to withstand damage.

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The player character confronts a targeted enemy on a precipitous cliff side. Note that the three gauges in the upper-left represent health (red), magic (blue), and stamina (green). Source: Matthewmatosis

Combat plays out in real time from a third-person perspective; the player can freely rotate the camera or lock onto an enemy with a button press, allowing them to focus on a specific target. Demon’s Souls would establish the series’ reputation for a high level of difficulty, as character actions can’t be canceled once input and sustained attacks rapidly deplete the player character’s health. Stamina is renewable, but finite, so the player character must retreat and let their stamina gauge recover between dodges and attacks. An encumbrance system likewise determines how speedily the player character moves, forcing the player to constantly make decisions between being able to nimbly avoid attacks or mitigate against damage through the use of varying armor types.

Death is a core part of the gameplay loop, as lives are eschewed in favor of an infinite number of retries. The player character has two forms, including a standard Soul Form and a more powerful Human Form; these respectively enhance stealth and health. The player character begins the game in Human Form but is revived in Soul Form each time they die, reducing their health to half of its maximum. Human Form can only be regained by consuming a rare item called the Stone of Ephemeral Eyes or defeating a boss.

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Bosses are often gigantic and terrifying. Source: Mobygames

Bosses are found behind fog walls erected throughout the game’s stages and generally require multiple failed attempts before the player acquires enough knowledge and reflexes to defeat them. Stages consist of lengthy, often-claustrophobic environments accessed from a hub area called the Nexus. The absence of checkpoints means that players can only speedily repeat an area following a failed attempt by unlocking persistent shortcuts or memorizing efficient routes from their starting location.

As Demon’s Souls achieved its status as a cult classic among Japanese players and Western importers of its Chinese release – which features a rudimentary English language translation – during the summer of 2009, an esoteric narrative and lore became its most noteworthy features after its difficulty. Heavily influenced by Miyazaki’s own limited grasp of the English language while consuming Western literature as a child, Demon’s Souls offers only sideways glimpses into its overarching plot. An opening pre-rendered sequence introduces the crumbling medieval kingdom of Boleteria, which is undergoing an apocalyptic event inadvertently brought about by King Allant XII. The player character, an ambitious adventurer drawn to Boleteria to save it from an expanding demon-filled fog, is killed during the game’s tutorial area and awakens within a metaphysical crossroads called the Nexus. A mysterious non-player character (NPC) called the Maiden in Black then gives the player character their objective: forestall Boleteria’s decay by slaying four archdemons and lulling the Old One leading them back to sleep. Though a handful of major twists occur as the story progresses, much of Boleteria’s background and flavor is filled in through item descriptions and circuitous dialogue with evasive NPCs rather than traditional cutscenes.

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Players use a menu to navigate to new areas from the Nexus. Source: Mobygames

Demon’s Souls‘ narrative is not its only opaque element. A chance encounter while driving in the snow led Miyazaki to successfully implement one of the medium’s most inscrutable multiplayer mechanics. According to a 2010 Eurogamer interview:

The origin of that idea is actually due to a personal experience where a car suddenly stopped on a hillside after some heavy snow and started to slip. The car following me also got stuck, and then the one behind it spontaneously bumped into it and started pushing it up the hill… That’s it! That’s how everyone can get home! Then it was my turn and everyone started pushing my car up the hill, and I managed to get home safely.

But I couldn’t stop the car to say thanks to the people who gave me a shove. I’d have just got stuck again if I’d stopped. On the way back home I wondered whether the last person in the line had made it home, and thought that I would probably never meet the people who had helped me. I thought that maybe if we’d met in another place we’d become friends, or maybe we’d just fight…

You could probably call it a connection of mutual assistance between transient people. Oddly, that incident will probably linger in my heart for a long time. Simply because it’s fleeting, I think it stays with you a lot longer… like the cherry blossoms we Japanese love so much.

Multiplayer in Demon’s Souls allowed players to leave messages for one another on the ground by combining stock phrases, resulting in a clipped language peculiar to to game, or enter other players’ game worlds. Players could summon other human-controlled characters to aid them in boss battles or be invaded by antagonistic players seeking to engage in player-versus-player (PVP) combat, though they could not intentionally summon a real-life friend or communicate in anything but pantomime. Much of this system was based on two notoriously mysterious concepts called character tendency and world tendency – effectively a loose form of character alignment in the tradition of Dungeons and Dragons – influenced by the player’s behavior towards NPCs and total number of defeated demons in their instance of the game world. Real-time events hosted online by FromSoftware during the game’s first year saw players’ worlds being transformed into a black world tendency or light world tendency depending on the event, leading to rare enemy appearances and other surprising effects. Unfortunately, servers for Demon’s Souls were shut down in 2018 and its multiplayer aspects can no longer be accessed. Fleeting indeed.

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NPCs offer sidequests, though these are often diffifult to complete without discussing online or finding a walkthrough. Source: Matthewmatosis

Demon’s Soulsnegative reputation among Sony’s leadership and intense difficulty led the studio to pass on publishing it outside of Japan. Atlus, a studio famous for its English localizations of cult classics like the Persona series (1996-Present) and Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (2003), brought the game to North America nine months after its Japanese debut while Namco Bandai published it in Europe in 2010 following an infectious word-of-mouth campaign within hobbyist communities who had imported the game from China. It received heavy critical acclaim and commercial popularity upon its Western release, much to the chagrin of Sony executives, giving Hidetaka Miyazaki the cache he needed to create a successor for a wider audience.

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Dark Souls (2011)

FromSoftware quickly set about developing a sequel following the surprise success of Demon’s Souls outside of Japan. Since Sony owned the Demon’s Souls intellectual property (IP), however, FromSoftware could not produce another title bearing that name unless Sony published the game. With Namco Bandai picking up the international publishing rights to the studio’s next dark fantasy action-RPG, FromSoftware opted to produce a spiritual successor that is a sequel in all but name.

Namco Bandai’s primary approach to the game’s development process was getting out of Miyazaki’s way. The iconoclastic auteur had seemingly stumbled into creating one of the 2000s most unique video games and FromSoftware’s new partner had faith that he could duplicate his success for a wider market with a title not restricted to the PlayStation 3. Miyazaki was given freer rein than ever to realize his holistic, highly detailed vision of what a game could be. While concept artist Daisuke Satake, programmer Jun Ito, and lead graphic designer Makoto Sato returned alongside Miyazaki, Demon’s Souls composer Shunsuke Kida was replaced with Motoi Sakuraba as FromSoftware sought more complex musical accompaniment to the series’ improved visual design.

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The Chosen Undead engages in one of Dark Souls toughest boss fights, a two-on-one battle against royal knights Ornstein (right) and Smough (left). In the middle lies a glowing collection of souls dropped from the player’s last failed attempt; if they aren’t collected in the midst of the fight, they are lost forever. Source: Shirrako

Dark Souls is quite similar to its predecessor. Players create a character using one of several predefined classes, engage in real-time hand-to-hand or magical combat with a host of grotesque enemies, learn about the game world through item descriptions and dialogue with unreliable NPCs, and use their preferred hardware’s online capabilities to interact clumsily with allies or enemies controlled by other players. The devil’s in the details, though, and Dark Souls offers a number of important design distinctions that set it apart from Demon’s Souls.

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Dark Souls‘ opening cutscene, which introduces major characters like the pictured Gravelord Nito, doubles down on the franchise’s heavy metal aesthetic. Source: MobyGames

The world of Lordran is entirely new, bearing no direct connection to Boleteria. An introductory cutscene establishes Lordran as the victim of an unpleasant curse which causes members of its human population marked with a Darksign to be revived as “hollow” undead shadows of their former selves and eventually descen into violent insanity. Lordran’s cosmology is more fleshed out than that of Boleteria, as a variety of major quasi-mythical lords are established during the game’s short opening; these include the Daughters of Chaos, descendants of the Witch of Izalith; Gravelord Nito, first of the dead; Seath the Scaleless, a traitorous dragon who discovered his species’ weakness in order to facilitate their eradication; and Gwyn, a mighty god who ushered in the Age of Fire by conquering the world’s former masters. The player character, a so-called Chosen Undead cast out of society and into an isolated prison at the edge of the world, is tasked with finding all of these legendary figures and killing them in order to rekindle the First Flame; this fading conflagration is a mystical bonfire that serves as the literal and figurative source of the gods’ tenuous dominion over an otherwise dark, cold universe.

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Judson Cowan produced what remains the most succinct rendering of Lordran’s vertical landscape. Source: tettix

Lordran’s geographical design is one of Dark Souls’ most beguiling features. The Chosen Undead begins their adventure in a highly linear prison environment that recalls dungeons familiar to players of King’s Field and Demon’s Souls, but is carried to an open, largely outdoor setting by an unnervingly oversized crow once the prison has been conquered. Given the task of ringing two bells – one above, and one below – the Chosen Undead must decide which of several paths to explore; while an area called Firelink Shrine serves as a mostly safe hub location, Lordran’s spaces are contiguous instead of discrete. There is an optimal path geared to ramp up difficulty over time, but a skilled player can approach the strikingly vertical environments in their preferred order.

Character death, which had already been a major part of Miyazaki’s previous game, is more closely connected to the world’s cosmology than it had been in Demon’s Souls. The Chosen Undead begins the game as a human who becomes hollow upon their first death. Hollow characters are unable to summon allies or be invaded by enemies, cut off as they are from shared humanity, and only being summoned by another human player to defeat a boss or consuming a hardened chunk of humanity found in the game world can restore the player character to their human form.

Other elements of gameplay are similarly refined from earlier incarnations. Healing is now carried out using an Estus Flask, a vessel filled with a limited number of charges that must be restored by resting at one of the bonfires scattered throughout Lordran. These small safe spaces serve as checkpoints to which the player returns upon defeat, allowing areas to be much larger than those of Demon’s Souls. Resting at a bonfire restores slain enemies to their posts, too, forcing the player to engage in a cautious risk/reward calculation every time they want to restore their Estus Flask charges. Enemies also now offer comparatively large numbers of souls – used to level up the Chosen Undead – rather than the paltry amount they provided in Demon’s Souls. Dying once while traveling through an area strips the Chosen Undead of all amassed souls not yet used to level up, but these can be recovered if the player navigates their avatar to the spot where they died before dying once again; a second death causes the souls to be lost forever.

Dark Souls’ combat systems are iterative, building on what existed in Demon’s Souls while jettisoning what did not work. Armor is more successful at reducing damage while there are more levels of character movement speed available, allowing the player to decide whether increased defense is worth reduced mobility during a fight. While some spells can still be learned through being trained by in-game NPCs, others are found lying around Lordran’s environments. An entirely new school of magic that does not depend on the player character’s intelligence or faith stats, pyromancy, opens up projectile combat to character builds not oriented towards magic expertise. World tendency and character tendency are entirely replaced by a selection of covenants, which the Chosen Undead can join in order to explore unique online goals alongside like-minded covenant members.

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Solaire of Astora is one of Dark Souls’ most memorable NPCs, and can be summoned as an AI ally in certain boss battles. Source: Dark Souls Wiki

An episode of downloadable content (DLC) called Artorias of the Abyss was released shortly after its inclusion within the PC port of Dark Souls in 2012. This portion of the game, which is locked behind an obscure series of in-game events resembling the franchise’s characteristically obscure NPC quests, sees the Chosen Undead traveling into the past and into Lordran’s neighboring land of Oolacile to battle corrupted knight Artorias and Manus of the Abyss. The PC port was a technical disappointment, though its improvement through the application of Durante’s unofficial DSFix patch reinforced a sense of community among fans. Ongoing patches by the studio to the home console and PC versions of the game carefully avoided the alteration of exploits that players had discovered and discussed online in order to preserve this identity of shared exploration.

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Ash Lake, Lordran’s lowest point and one of its eeriest locations, is entirely optional and easily missed while exploring. Source: FightinCowboy

Miyazaki’s second entry in what would henceforth be known as the Souls series rewarded Namco Bandai’s faith in his idiosyncratic approach to game design. It was an instant critical and commercial success worldwide across consoles and the PC platform, collectively selling five million units by 2015. An entire community dedicated to the game, documented in Keza MacDonald’s unparalleled You Died: The Dark Souls Companion (2016), sprung up to uncover its every nook and cranny. It became so popular over the following decade that it spawned a sub-genre of punishing action game, the Soulslike, and careened into internet infamy with a Twitter profile dedicated to reductive comparisons. Though this ubiquity ensured that it faced no risk of becoming obscure, Dark Souls was made accessible to eighth generation console owners with a remastered release on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and a faithful portable adaptation of the seventh-generation original to Nintendo Switch in 2018.

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Dark Souls II (2014)

Dark Souls II was announced with a pre-rendered trailer at the Video Game Awards 2012. Hidetaka Miyazaki had moved on to begin work on another project – later revealed to be Dark Souls spinoff Bloodborne (2015) – and only checked in on the project occasionally, though aesthetic continuity was ensured through the promotion of Dark Souls‘ Daisuke Satake to art director. Development was led by Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura, respectively the director and lead designer for FromSoftware’s 2005 mecha combat game Another Century’s Episode. To some fans’ consternation, Shibuya claimed that the team was working to make the game more accessible than its predecessor had been.

These fears would prove to be ill-founded when it launched on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in March 2014 and on Windows in April 2014. Many of Dark Souls’ fundamentals remain intact, including bonfires, challenging combat, an opaque narrative, and highly flexible character customization. Multiplayer likewise underwent no serious revision aside from the addition of new covenants and new items that let the player character speak a canned dialogue line aloud when adventuring with others.

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The player character still exploits invincibility frames – brief animations in which they are invincible while dodging – though these are now impacted by a stat called adaptability. Source: Joseph Anderson

A variety of new mechanical features, however, serve to differentiate Dark Souls II from its predecessor without undermining the series’ unique identity. The protagonist goes hollow when they die, though their maximum health is now slightly reduced with each death; this process can only be reversed by regaining their human form. The Estus Flask begins with only a single charge, and must be upgraded throughout the game as the player character discovers Estus Shards hidden across the game world; this limitation on the player character’s renewable healing resource is mitigated through the addition of consumable healing items that can be found or purchased from merchants.

Dark Souls II‘s most significant changes concern combat and world design. With regard to the former, enemies attack in groups much more frequently than they had in Dark Souls. This controversial design decision dramatically complicates an already-intense battle system, as the player’s ability to target and pick off individual enemies methodically is no longer a given. Far from being an accident, though, Dark Souls II‘s focus on managing groups of foes rewards players who are able to remain flexible and enhances mechanical depth. It also reinforces the franchise’s emphasis on detailed environments, as unobservant players are likely to be punished with deadly ambushes. In one of Dark Souls II‘s most surprising concessions to player perseverance, though, enemies disappear permanently once they have been defeated ten times. Finally, player characters can dual-wield weapons for the first time in the series’ history.

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Where Lordran was tall, Drangleic is wide. Source: Dark Souls II Wiki

The world of Drangleic, in which Dark Souls II is set, is geographically and temporally distant from Lordran. Its areas feature more diverse color palettes, more varied enemy types, and a greater number of NPCs. Still, the lack of clarity in its narrative and presence of numerous nods to its predecessor led many players to initially conclude that it was Lordran under a new name.

The amnesiac player character finds themself in Drangleic in search of a cure for their undead affliction. After making their way through a tutorial area and entering the sparsely populated seaside settlement of Majula, they are tasked with the acquisition of four Great Souls by a mysterious woman called the Emerald Herald. These souls are held by powerful Old Ones scattered around Drangleic. The Herald seeks the restoration of Drangleic’s monarch following his disappearance, and it is only through gathering the Great Souls that the player character can gain access to the kingdom’s isolated palace. Upon meeting Queen Nashandra and  King Vendrick, the player character discovers that not all is as it seems.

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Majula is a bit homier than other Souls series hub areas. In a nod to its sense of community, players earn an achievement when they successfully bring all available NPCs to the area. Source: Attack of the Fanboy

Fractured time and the unreliability of memory is the core theme of Dark Souls II. Rather than being one densely interconnected area through which the player character must fight tooth and nail, Drangleic is comprised of increasingly distant paths leading away from Majula and only sometimes visibly connected to other areas. A teleportation mechanic, which was introduced only late in Dark Souls, is present in Dark Souls II as soon as the player character leaves Majula and undermines the region’s sense of continuity. The precipitous verticality of Dark Souls gives way to sprawling horizontal spaces joined by jarring transitions, while a late game sequence sees the player character traveling into the distant past through the memories of long-dead giants who had been part of a war against Drangleic; through this time paradox, the player character becomes a pivotal part of the region’s history in spite of their recent arrival.

NPCs too reflect Dark Souls II‘s preoccupation with the past. Where AI allies in Dark Souls were increasingly at risk of going violently mad and losing their shared humanity as the narrative progressed, recurring characters in Dark Souls II slowly lose their personal memories over time. These include the tragic warrior Lucatiel of Mirrah, who narrates her own decaying recollection with each in-game appearance, and merchant Chloanne, who fails to recognize her own father when both finally arrive at the safety of Majula.

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Dark Souls II’s DLC features many of the game’s most thrilling setpieces and boss encounters, including a duel with poisonous dragon Sinh. Source: Joseph Anderson

Though Namco Bandai producer Takeshi Miyazoe told Official Xbox Magazine that DLC for Dark Souls II was not planned at the time of release, an interview with Yui Tanimura in UDON’s Dark Souls II Design Works book confirmed that development on three DLC episodes began as soon as the base game was completed. The suite of new areas and enemies, known collectively as The Lost Crowns and published over a period of months in late 2014, was designed to be especially challenging. Crown of the Sunken King sees the player exploring a subterranean pyramid that echoes the oeuvre of H. P. Lovecraft, Crown of the Old Iron King is an evolution on Dark Souls II‘s lava-filled Old Iron Keep, and Crown of the Ivory King represents one of the series’ rare forays into a frigid, foggy landscape. All offer greater context for Dark Souls II‘s plot and focus on the role of Drangleic’s sinister scientist Aldia.

An expanded edition featuring gameplay changes and integrating all DLC episodes, Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, was published on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in North America in April 2015 following a February 2015 Japanese release. PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, along with the Windows platform, simultaneously received a Scholar of the First Sin port featuring upgraded graphics and performance. The eighth generation console and PC version introduce the Dark Souls II demo’s dynamic lighting system to a retail build of the game, resolving a controversy concerning the appearance of graphical compromises in the initial PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 release.

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Some locations in Dark Souls II feature environmental details, like this flammable windmill in Earthen Peak, that alter boss arenas when the player interacts with them. Source: Joseph Anderson

Commercial reception to Dark Souls II was strong, with roughly three million copies of the base game and its updated edition sold in 2014 and 2015, but critical reception was divisive. Some outlets praised FromSoftware’s willingness to iterate meaningfully upon a game that had already become a titan of the medium three years after its initial release, while others felt that the sequel failed to inspire as much awe as its predecessor. Pre-release fears of reduced difficulty actually gave way to concerns that the final game’s difficulty – particularly its punitive health system and boss fights involving multiple targets – was too high. The series would continue to evolve in the years ahead, but the issue surrounding its difficulty would only become more pronounced in future entries.

Note: Cover sourced from videogamex.com

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Dark Souls III (2016)

Production began on Dark Souls III in mid-2013 with Dark Souls II co-director Yui Tanimura and Bloodborne designer Isamu Okano spearheading the project. Its early phase went badly, though, and FromSoftware president Naotoshi Zin asked Hidetaka Miyazaki to return to the franchise as producer. Miyazaki acceded to the request, splitting his time between Dark Souls III and Bloodborne for the last year of the latter’s lengthy development cycle. Virtually no other Bloodborne staff members joined Miyazaki, Okano, and programmer Jun Ito on Dark Souls III.

Though nominally a spinoff, Bloodborne had an outsized influence on the development of Dark Souls III. Bloodborne‘s versatile game engine, for which Jun Ito was largely responsible, heavily exploited the PlayStation 4’s architecture and was put to use undergirding Dark Souls‘ most detailed, fast-paced entry yet. Miyazaki’s experience creating a spinoff with comparatively restrictive character customization made him more eager than ever to open up player options in Dark Souls. The expansion of project scope during Bloodborne‘s development and increased funding by Sony had also made possible the sub-contracting of technical work out to a variety of small studios based in Japan, China, and Taiwan. FromSoftware’s positive experience with this method of large-scale collaborative development led to its reuse in Dark Souls III, as no fewer than 150 internal staff members (primarily drawn from the Dark Souls II team) and ten sub-contractors contributed to the final product.

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Firelink Shrine is in a state of decay, like most of Lothric. It’s a far cry from the warm hues of Majula, that’s for sure. Source: Joseph Anderson

Dark Souls III, was published on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in Japan on March 24, 2016 and three weeks later in the rest of the world. A Windows version was released alongside the worldwide home console localization. The game rapidly became Bandai Namco’s bestselling title, outselling Dark Souls II by 61% during their respective first weeks on sale. Dark Souls was more popular than ever.

The player takes on the role of the Ashen One, an undead warrior called to rekindle the First Flame as the Age of Fire dwindles. This can only be accomplished by seeking out and killing four Lords of Cinder, great heroes who have abdicated their responsibility to kindle the First Flame. Among these are the Abyss Watchers, a collective of knights who bear a linked soul and are sworn to defend the world from the encroaching Abyss; Aldrich, a shapeless creature of unquenchable hunger; Yhorm, a once-dignified hero of the Giants; and Prince Lothric, monarch of Dark Souls III‘s central Kingdom of Lothric. Once all Lords of Cinder have been defeated, the Ashen One must enter the Kiln of the First Flame as time itself breaks down, dueling the Soul of Cinder – a physical manifestation of all former Lords of Cinder who have linked the First Flame in ages past – and deciding whether to rekindle the fire or extinguish it to usher in an Age of Dark.

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Does it get more dignified or epic than fighting an armored pope who wields blades of fire and frost? Source: Joseph Anderson

Dark Souls III is an intriguing mechanical blend of all preceding series entries, including Bloodborne. It integrates the non-linear geography of Demon’s Souls through its isolated hub location and disconnected areas. It directly echoes the plot of Dark Souls, offering the player an opportunity to return to one of that game’s most memorable areas eons after the Chosen Undead walked its glimmering cathedral halls. Dark Souls II’s combat mechanics – especially its inclusion of dual-wielded weapons and juggling of multiple simultaneous attacks – inform Dark Souls III’s tense battles. Finally, highly mobile multi-phase bosses are reminiscent of Bloodborne’s toughest encounters; apparent attempts to reduce difficulty are not discernable in the final game build. Dark Souls III‘s most noticeable new feature is the inclusion of battle arts, special moves associated with specific weapons that reduce the player’s Focus Point (FP) gauge when initiated.

The fundamentals, of course, remain familiar to players who had faithfully devoured each new title since 2011’s Dark Souls. The Ashen One explores hostile environments, fights aggressive enemies, opens up shortcuts to facilitate progression, dies repeatedly, acquires souls from slain foes, levels up, and is forced to constantly calculate the reward of refilling a renewable healing item at bonfire checkpoints against the risk of restoring all defeated monsters to life. Online multiplayer once again features a variety of new covenants to aid players interested either in cooperating one another or invading and engaging in combat with one another. NPCs are as inscrutable as ever.

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The beautiful worlds of Dark Souls are collapsing in upon themselves in The Ringed City. Source: Joseph Anderson

Hidetaka Miyazaki stated in a 2016 interview with Vice‘s Sayem Ahmed that Dark Souls III’s central concept is withering beauty, emphasizing this through the inclusion of more diverse color palettes and grand environments than in prior series entries. The universe of Dark Souls, even outside of the Kingdom of Lothric, is collapsing under the weight of time and the dimming of its First Flame. Boss enemies are uncharacteristically stately with few exceptions, making the most of the hardware’s ability to render highly detailed dark fantasy creations. Even the cruelest of Dark Souls III’s named antagonists offer an aura of tarnished dignity.

Two DLC episodes were launched in the year following the game’s initial release. Ashes of Ariandel returns the player to Dark Souls’ Painted World of Ariamis for the first time since 2011, while The Ringed City drops the player into pitched combat against overwhelming numbers of enemies in a circuitous metropolis. Both were relatively well-received, though the latter represents a perhaps unreasonably stark increase in difficulty level. Whether this serves as a stepping stone for another approach to the franchise or the culmination of its arc remains uncertain: according to Hidetaka Miyazaki, who became president of FromSoftware upon the studio’s purchase by Japanese media conglomerate Kadokawa Corporation in 2014, Dark Souls III is intended to be the end of his involvement with the Souls series but the franchise may yet continue under a new director.

Note: Cover sourced from gamestop.com

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Spinoffs

Deciding which titles in FromSoftware’s magnum opus constitute spinoffs is something of an academic exercise. Only two games have been produced by Hidetaka Miyazaki and his collaborators since 2009 that do not bear the Souls moniker, and both share numerous elements in common with the titles outlined above. Still, Bloodborne and Sekiro feature enough differences from other Souls games that it seems reasonable to isolate them from the core franchise.

Bloodborne, which was called “Project Beast” prior to its announcement at E3 2014, was the result of an attempt by Sony to correct what it considered to be an error in its handling of Demon’s Souls. Sony’s Masami Yamamoto recounted in an IGN documentary feature that the publisher had uncharacteristically reached out to FromSoftware in 2012 rather than the other way around. The PlayStation 4 proved to be an ideal home for the new title, as it made Miyazaki’s long-gestating dream of a Victorian setting possible for the first time. A new team of 50 members formed within FromSoftware – including veteran Souls programmer Jun Ito and concept artist Daisuke Satake, as well as series newcomer Kazuhiro Hamatani (lead designer) – was augmented by outsourced work produced by over a dozen other studios. Bloodborne launched worldwide in March 2015 following nearly three years in development.

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Yharnam is the first location in the Souls series that’s populated by large numbers of sentient humans, but it’s far from a comforting place. Source: Joseph Anderson

Players step into the shoes of a customizable Hunter who arrives in the city of Yharnam and seeks the cure for a mysterious affliction called Paleblood amidst a plague outbreak. An unsettling first-person introductory sequence gives way to a deadly gauntlet of foes, which are likely to kill the unarmed player character as they explore Yharnam. Upon their first death, the player character is transported to a safe, isolated hub location called the Hunter’s Dream. As with the Nexus of Demon’s Souls and Firelink Shrine of Dark Souls III, the Hunter’s Dream allows the player character to acquire their first weapon, recuperate, buy items, and access other areas through teleportation. It is also home to two of the game’s most important NPCs, a sentient life-size porcelain doll and an aged hunter named Gehrman who gives the player character their initial goal of hunting down the beasts plaguing Yharnam.

Bloodborne features a more fully fleshed-out plot than any core Souls title and is the first Miyazaki game set during the breakdown of a society rather than long after its demise. Though its early hours are spent in combat with monsters drawn from European folktales, it slowly transitions into a cosmic horror story that shares more in common with the work of H. P. Lovecraft than Bram Stoker. The game’s increasingly metaphysical back half explores the inter-dimensional and institutional origins of the conditions ravaging Yharnam and its surrounding countryside.

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Even powerful bosses can be countered using guns, allowing the Hunter to unleash a devastating visceral attack. Source: Joseph Anderson

Mechanically, Bloodborne represents a dramatic departure from the conservative combat of its Souls predecessors. Armor is replaced with clothing, which bears no impact on movement speed and prioritizes offense over defense. Its design team sought to encourage fast-paced battles by swapping out shields for short-range firearms. Though a single near-useless example of the former is present in the base game – bearing the sardonic caption “shields are nice, but not if they engender passivity” – players instead must deploy the latter to interrupt attacks from incoming foes. Attack wind-ups are shorter, forcing the player to rapidly decide whether they want their avatar to fire on an enemy as it swings a claw or weapon; bullets are consumable and the Hunter can run out with careless usage.

Likewise, healing items are a consumable resource for the first time since Demon’s Souls. Blood vials must be acquired from defeated enemies or caches hidden around the environment in order to restore health. As a concession to the lack of a renewable source of healing, up to 20 blood vials can be carried at any given time and additional ones are stored in the Hunter’s Dream, automatically repopulating the Hunter’s supply upon death. These can become challenging to acquire in later areas, however, making grinding for resources an unfortunate reality for many players.

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The wheelchair-bound Gehrman introduces the Hunter to the world of Yharnam, but he’s not the most reliable narrator. Source: Joseph Anderson

Multiplayer features one of Bloodborne’s most surprising updates to the Souls formula, as it omits much of what made invasions engaging in earlier titles. Players can still summon one another to aid in boss battles, but a comparatively limited suite of mechanical and cosmetic customization options means that players tend to be different only in which weapons they wield. Magic is similarly de-emphasized, though a handful of late-game spells are exceptionally powerful if the player has allocated enough skill points into their avatar’s arcane stat.

In place of traditional multiplayer, then, FromSoftware has included Chalice Dungeons. These procedurally-generated subterranean dungeons can be generated by individual players as they acquire prerequisite chalice items throughout the single-player campaign of Bloodborne, then tackled alone or shared with friends using key codes called glyphs. Some enemies can only be encountered in Chalice Dungeons, while the areas deepen the lore of the game by offering tantalizing clues about a precursor race called the Pthumerians. Particularly ambitious players, in the tradition of the Souls’ series dedicated fan community, were using the feature to discover content cut from the final build of the game three years after its initial release.

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Many Bloodborne areas, like this abandoned orphanage, lean heavily into horror rather than fantasy. Source: Joseph Anderson

Bloodborne’s initial technical issues, including lengthy load times and a notorious memory leak glitch that caused enemies to cease performing many of their most dangerous attacks when the console was awoken from sleep mode, were resolved through patches during the months after its release. A Bloodborne DLC package called The Old Hunters was published in late 2015 and introduces a handful of new areas and bosses that shed light on Yharnam’s troubled history. Both the base game and its expansion were especially well-received by critics and fans, selling over two million copies by the end of its first year on store shelves and remaining one of its platform’s most popular titles five years after its release; in 2019, Miyazaki himself credited Bloodborne as his favorite game on which he’s worked.

The Souls series’ second spinoff shares less in common with its parent series than had Bloodborne. Prototyping began in 2015, around the time that development concluded on The Old Hunters. Hidetaka Miyazaki retained his role as director, but was joined by co-director Kazuhiro Hamatani. Yoshitaka Suzuki, lead programmer of Dark Souls II, returned to that role for the first time since 2014. Though it was initially planned as an entry in the Tenchu series, due to the Japanese Sengoku period aesthetic of its prototype and FromSoftware’s partnership with Tenchu IP owner Activision during development, the game would be released as new IP Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice in 2019.

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Most enemies in Sekiro are humans, but a handful of oversized monsters like this Guardian Ape are introduced as the game goes on. Using the firecrackers prosthetic tool tends to be the most efficient way to fight these bosses. Source: World of Longplays

In Sekiro, players take on the role of a predefined protagonist for the first time in a Souls title. Lead character Wolf is a shinobi who is cut down while serving as the bodyguard of a young lord named Kuro. When he recovers, Wolf discovers that he has been outfitted with a mechanical arm that grants him enhanced navigation and combat skills. Using the so-called Shinobi Prosthetic, Wolf embarks on a mission to rescue Kuro and exact vengeance on the assembled army of kidnapper Genichiro Ashina. The scope widens throughout the adventure, in characteristic FromSoftware style, broadening out to reflect on a regional war and the conflict between masters in medieval Japan.

Gameplay is similar to core Souls series entries only in the broadest strokes: Sekiro is an action-adventure game in which the player engages in real-time combat with enemies while exploring dense, often-vertical spaces full of secrets and checkpoints that respawn fallen foes when activated. It is otherwise highly distinct, from its lack of character customization to its omission of multiplayer. Only Wolf’s special abilities and overall health can be enhanced through the acquisition of items, as the character does not ever level up or receive new weapons. Sekiro’s high difficulty is mitigated slightly by allowing players to pause the game – a series first – but is reinforced through the inability to summon other players. Wolf can also revive himself in place after his first death following a visit to a checkpoint statue, an ability that might reduce difficulty if the character’s revived form was not hamstrung with low health upon its use.

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Vertical pagodas are numerous, letting Wolf get the figurative and literal drop on foes using his grappling hook. Source: World of Longplays

Sekiro’s progression is unlike its predecessors, as a handful of major setpiece bosses are rounded out by a staggering number of mid-stage bosses not separated from the surrounding world through the Souls series’ iconic fog walls. These mid-stage bosses are often just powerful human warriors, rather than oversized or supernatural foes, and are frequently aided by lieutenants or rank-and-file soldiers. Handling the simultaneous assault of multiple opponents or secretly assassinating support units in advance of a tough fight reflect lead programmer Yoshitaka Suzuki’s prior work on Dark Souls II.

An emphasis on stealth permeates the exploration portions of Sekiro, allowing Wolf to methodically stalk enemies rather than engage in direct combat if the player prefers. Tall grass and extensive man-made structures serve to obscure enemy lines of sight in most areas. Wolf’s ability to launch a grappling hook and either swing away from danger or utilize verticality to his benefit enhance the game’s sense of dynamism while also offering alternate approaches to most stages. These actions are unfortunately not exploited, or often even available, in boss encounters.

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A red icon appears when Wolf can execute a killing blow, either through stealthily approaching an enemy or by breaking their posture in combat. Source: World of Longplays

Sekiro’s combat is its most unique element. Wolf and every enemy has a posture gauge, which determines whether they are able to block or strike; depletion of the gauge renders them open to attack. Duels typically see the player attempting to reduce an enemy’s posture gauge through a combination of sword slashes – which limit its capacity to refill – and carefully-timed deflections of enemy attacks. Boss enemies have multiple health gauges, but each is instantly removed when the posture gauge is emptied and a killing blow is performed. In addition to the health gauges, some particularly challenging bosses feature multiple forms.

Unsurprisingly, given its major updates to the franchise’s traditions, Sekiro was a  divisive title. Many outlets praised its mobility and balletic katana combat while others lamented that the series had finally become so difficult that it excluded most players from engaging with it. The latter became a particularly contentious point in discourse surrounding the medium in the months after Sekiro’s release, dividing the Souls’ franchise’s fan community into those who embraced greater inclusivity and gatekeepers who believed that accessibility would compromise their vision of FromSoftware’s art. As was often the case in late-2010s internet culture, toxicity reigned.

Note: Cover sourced from covercentury.com

Conclusion

Lest we conclude this column’s coverage of the Souls series on a somber note, let’s take stock of the franchise as a whole. Hidetaka Miyazaki ascended the corporate ladder at FromSoftware over ten short years following a youthful unfamiliarity with the medium and a career transition out of an unfulfilling IT job. In collaboration with Jun Ito, Daisuke Satake, Motoi Sakuraba, Tomohiro Shibuya, Yui Tanimura, Isamu Okano, and hundreds of others, the auteur brought mystery back to a medium which had eschewed opacity in favor of cinematic narratives during the late 2000s. The Souls series would produce voluminous secondary works, an impossibly prolific fan community, and imitators of all stripes in the increasingly mainstream Soulslike action-adventure sub-genre. Elden Ring, a new video game produced through the collaboration of Hidetaka Miyazaki and A Song of Ice and Fire novelist George R. R. Martin, is currently anticipated in 2020. Whatever comes next, the Souls series is poised to retain its status as one of the medium’s defining works for decades to come.

Interview

Gary Butterfield and Kole Ross, co-founders of the Duckfeed.tv podcast network and hosts of long-running Souls podcast Bonfireside Chat, were kind enough to answer a few questions about their experience with the Souls series.

1. What was your introduction to the Souls series and what about the games inspired you to start Bonfireside Chat?

Gary: I first heard about the Souls series from Kole. Before and after recording Watch Out For Fireballs! we would chat about what we were playing and he recommended it. It didn’t take very long for me to get hooked. Talking with Kole about it, our enthusiasm fed off one another’s. One thing we were both impressed by is how in Dark Souls 1, each area feels like it has a solid gameplay thesis. This area is about camouflage, this area is about endurance, this area is about darkness, etc. Thinking about that idea specifically, we decided to create “a travel guide to Lordran.” This was further inspired by the burgeoning Dark Souls lore community at the time. It became evident, given the density of story and idea in each area, that the game would support such an approach.

Kole: I came to the Souls series with Dark Souls, having skipped out on Demon’s Souls because I didn’t own a PS3 at the time. Dark Souls was getting hyped, so I rented it… and really didn’t care for my first impression. Everything about it just felt “off” somehow. But for about a month afterwards, I kept thinking about the game and reading about it online, catching really tantalizing scraps of future areas, bosses, and concepts, and learning what kinds of mistakes I made with that first run (The Graveyard is bad news! Skeletons are serious business!). This convinced me to give it another shot, and I was completely hooked.

2. Which is your favorite series entry and why?

Gary: Nothing competes with Dark Souls 1 for me, though I don’t know if that’s purely because it’s my first. I do think that, of all the entries, it has my favorite rhythm of combat. Dark Souls 1 has the plodding, methodical pace of Demon’s Souls that I love, but with more options for builds and a greater variety of approach. And obviously, the world design is unmatched in the series. The two aspects tie into one another too. Being able to approach a combat encounter in a variety of ways, and from a variety of directions, makes Dark Souls 1 feel very special to me.

Kole: As From iterates on the formula, Demon’s Souls continues to rise for me because of its relative weirdness. Dark Souls does so many things that make it a better game, but I think Demon’s Souls is more unique, especially when it comes to bosses.

3. To what extent do you see continuity between FromSoftware’s pre-Demon’s Souls work and its post-Demon’s Souls work?

Gary: There’s a lot of connective tissue there, both in terms of obvious inspiration (there are serpent men in a house of traps in King’s Field 4, for example, in a way that directly presages Sen’s Fortress), and in terms of tone and atmosphere. From loves its bleak worlds that are sandwiched after one catastrophe and just before another. From loves to make you feel hopeless before giving you hope, and to make you feel relief at progress. This is all evident in King’s Field and Shadow Tower at least.

Kole: We covered Armored Core 4: For Answer on Watch Out for Fireballs! at a listener’s request, and it was startling how much DNA was there, from the rhythm of combat to the atmosphere of the world. The story’s main choices even echo in Demon’s Souls, since you’re combatting a world-endangering corruption and making a decision about how to deal with it. This was one of Miyazaki’s first games as a director at From, and he makes his mark right away.

4. Are you of the opinion that Bloodborne and Sekiro constitute spinoffs, Souls series entries, or something else entirely?

Gary: I try not to get involved in gatekeeping around definitions, but to me, they have far more similarities than differences in a way that makes it useful to compare them, even if one doesn’t consider them part of the same series. There is a trajectory from BB->DS3->Sekiro in terms of changing the FromSoft combat rhythm. There are also so many core things that just feel elemental to the franchise that all entries share. Even though combat feels markedly different in Sekiro than Dark Souls, both share bonfires and estus as a concept. Though Bloodborne and Dark Souls 2 are very different in terms of fluidity, it’s important to manage stamina in combat in both.

Kole: To me, it’s inarguable that Bloodborne and Sekiro are cut from the same cloth as Souls. Whether they’re Souls series spinoffs or entries, it seems like a distinction without a difference (barring story continuity). Bloodborne’s combat changes and pacing worked their way into Dark Souls 3, and I’d be surprised if we don’t see Sekiro’s influence on Elden Ring.

5. What has been the most rewarding part of your experience becoming one of the preeminent secondary sources on the series? How about the greatest challenge you’ve encountered?

Gary: Dark Souls literally changed our lives, in a lot of ways. I’m not saying we owe all of our success and fortune to that one game, but it was a big part of it, and I think the experience of creating Bonfireside Chat helped me refine how I thought about games, and other media, in a way that has made me a better critic across the board. Aside from simply being a big factor in our career, we’ve met a lot of great people through the Souls community. Great folk like Jeremy Greer, Illusory Wall, Richard Pilbeam, Lobos Jr., and many more. That’s been incredible. It’s created a really powerful sense of camaraderie. In terms of challenge, I think the toughest part has reckoning with how the media we’re covering has changed. I liked Sekiro a great deal, and had a lot of fun with Dark Souls 3, but both of those games were not nearly as special to me as the earlier entries. This has created some dissonance both in terms of the experience of covering them but also in terms of expectations from listeners.

Kole: I’ll echo what Gary says. The community we’ve found and had a role in building is life-changing.

6. Ten years out from Demon’s Souls, are you of the opinion that the Souls series has had a positive or negative impact on the wider medium?

Gary: I think that Demon’s Souls/Dark Souls was sort of necessary and has largely had a positive impact, though there are exceptions. When I say necessary, I mean that I think the landscape of the medium was ready for a game that asked for a bit more from the player. I’m always reminded of something I read about the first Strokes album, where one reason it was such a success is that after hearing a lot of rock bands going all in on studio production as an instrument, people were ready to hear four people playing instruments again. I think of Souls that way too. People were ready for something challenging, that had an air of mystery, something downbeat, and methodical.

I also roll my eyes a little at the fact that almost everything is Dark Souls now. It’s really hard for me to think of a game that’s had a bigger impact on the medium, especially the indie scene. It’s difficult to justify that annoyance when a lot of games greatly benefit from it. The best God of War and Zelda games have lots of Dark Souls DNA.

Kole: It’s been really fun watching other developers catch on to the Souls formula and try to reverse engineer it. It’s happened in phases, and I think we’re better off now than we were a few years ago. Extremely close imitations (Nioh and Lords of the Fallen) have given way to subtler and less wholesale borrowing. I want developers to take the thing that works best for them from Souls, and reinterpret it in a way that suits their strengths. The best example I can think of is Hollow Knight, which is a perfect expression of the desolate-yet-beautiful mood and atmosphere of Souls at its height.

7. What would you like to see from the series in the future?

Gary: I really want the games to slow down. I know that’s not necessarily popular, I’d really like a game that had combat that felt heavy again. I know that’s sort of a basic answer, but the nice thing is that from everything we know about Elden Ring, it’s granting a lot of my other wishes, which would be things like a big world to explore, or heavy RPG elements.

Kole: I’d like them to get off of the difficulty treadmill and get more inventive with boss and encounter design. I guess this means I want them to look backward a bit, since those are things I associate with earlier entries. The last thing I want is for them to buy into the marketing line about difficulty being the thing that makes them special. A lot of people like it, but it’s one part of many that make their games worth paying attention to.

8. Aside from Bonfireside Chat, are there any other major resources you’d recommend for fans who want to know more about the series?

Gary: I love the data mining community for the Souls series. People like Illusory Wall, Lance MacDonald, Zullie the Witch, and Richard Pilbeam. I think they’re doing really awesome work and it’s amazing that one of them can put out a video and show me that there are still things to learn about this series I feel like I know really well.

Kole: I’ll second Illusory Wall. They and their community continue to dig up surprising and fascinating things, long after you’d think everything ran dry.

I’m extremely grateful to Gary and Kole for taking the time to answer these questions in the midst of their hectic podcasting schedule. If you would like to hear more from these thoughtful commentators, please consider supporting Duckfeed.tv on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/duckfeedtv and checking out what they have to say on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GaryBuh and https://twitter.com/koleross


What do you think about the Souls series? Which is your favorite entry? How about your favorite community project related to the franchise? Which boss or enemy has killed you the most times? Let’s discuss below.

This article marks the end of Franchise Festival’s 2019 run. The column will return in 2020. In the interim, though, I would like to recommend listening to Franchise Festival: Podcast Edition! The first episode is coming The Avocado on January 1, 2019, and to podcast aggregators later that month. Please join my co-hosts and me as we discuss the history of The Legend of Zelda over 12 monthly episodes next year.