Christmas Day, 2011. I see two gifts wrapped up in front of me and it is blatantly obvious what they are. I open the first one to see The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, exactly what I asked for. While I knew the second one was most certainly another game, it had me guessing as to what it could be. I had previously given hints to my friend as to what she could get me for this year’s Christmas present, but we always like to surprise each other. I rip open the wrapping paper, and lo and behold, Dark Souls was staring back at me. Since being released two months prior, it had gained a reputation for its crushing difficulty and unforgiving nature. This was a game that I was both excited but extremely apprehensive to play.
Later that day, I jumped straight into Skyrim and had a blast with it for a good 2 and a half to 3 hours. It wasn’t until late in the evening that I decided to try out Dark Souls. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I hobbled on through for the next couple of hours and I honestly didn’t know what to think. I gave the game a rest, continued with Skyrim, but was quickly lured back into it. Soon enough, my time with Skyrim started to dwindle and eventually Dark Souls was front and centre. Bethesda’s sprawling RPG that was accruing numerous awards and winning over the entire gaming public was being side-lined by this game that revelled in having me crushed by weak skeletons. Needless to say, I hadn’t anticipated this. Nor could I predict that almost five years later I would have reached 100% achievements earned on all three Dark Souls games, watched countless videos on Demon’s Souls due to not having a PS3 to play it and giving into temptation and buying a PS4 to play (and eventually platinum) Bloodborne. I had become a Souls fanatic.
The Souls games, a name solely created by fans of the series, has amassed a gargantuan following and it wouldn’t be too farfetched to say that it is a series that will go down in the gaming history books because of its very nature. How did this series get from the slums of gaming to the highest peak imaginable, though? Let’s start at the beginning.
February 5th, 2009, the day where it all began. Demon’s Souls was released as a PS3 exclusive, shunting Xbox users completely. This still didn’t stop the game from gaining a bit of a cult following, though, and that was due to its unique mechanics. The player was regularly faced with insurmountable odds as they braved the fictional kingdom of Boletaria to face the demons within and then die in the process. Punishing enemies, a not so clear sense of direction and regular deaths were all part and parcel of this title, and it helped to pave the way for its spiritual successor, Dark Souls. Due to its exclusivity, though, the game wasn’t quite as well-known across the board and it is still regularly forgotten when discussing the series as a whole, even to the point that critics use Dark Souls as the go-to term for the series. Nonetheless, it’s this game that we have to thank for the series as we know it today.
In October of 2011, Dark Souls made its debut on both PS3 and Xbox 360, so from the very beginning, this title had a wider market. Boasting a completely interconnected world instead of the somewhat separate areas tied to the Nexus in Demon’s Souls, the game appeared to be an instant hit. The mechanics of the previous game were all there in some form, but they were more refined without being completely different. The feeling of exploration and lack of direction sucked in many new players to the series and the game received far more media coverage and attention than its predecessor. The kingdom of Lordran was an enticing one, and players all over the globe were utterly hooked. The Souls series had skyrocketed in popularity.
FromSoftware, the game’s developer, were onto something big with this one and so decided to create Dark Souls II. Hidetaka Miyazaki, the series’ director and overall mastermind, was unfortunately absent for this instalment and many fans would agree that the game itself took a big hit because of it. The so-called “B Team” of FromSoftware created a sequel that, while possessing the Souls essence, didn’t quite reach the heights of its counterparts. I won’t deny the fact that I personally loved this game just as much as the first, but the general consensus from the fan base was one of disappointment. The marketing and pre-release coverage for the game was vastly different to the retail release, so this only added fuel for the fire. The series was on a rocky road at this point and players were pining for Miyazaki’s input on the inevitable sequel.
Only a year later, Miyazaki made a triumphant comeback with Bloodborne. While this title has no immediate connection to Dark/Demon’s Souls, the games share so many obvious similarities and mechanics that fans brought it into the Souls compendium. The term “Soulsborne” has even been coined to encompass this series of games since Bloodborne’s release.
Bloodborne itself is far more noticeably different than Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. The gothic scenery and Lovecraftian lore cause it to stand out in comparison, but the essence still remains. The player will die, die and die again as both enemies and bosses continue to pummel them into the dust. The game is much more fast-paced so the clunky combat that became a staple of Souls was turned on its head with this one. As a PS4 exclusive, the game was a huge success and the Souls community were left in awe of its quality. It felt like a much-needed change from past titles and it was proof that Souls could flourish when being reimagined in completely different worlds.
In April of this year, Dark Souls presented its grand finale with its final instalment, Dark Souls III. Said to be the last game of the entire Souls series, fans were eager for something truly spectacular, and after Dark Souls II, this was all the more apparent. For the most part, the title delivered, letting players feast their eyes on gorgeous visuals and (mostly) memorable boss fights, but something felt slightly different in comparison to both of the previous Dark Souls titles. Combat certainly felt faster, and it could be argued that the aftermath of Bloodborne caused Dark Souls III to be directly influenced by it, despite not being tied to the PS4 exclusive in any immediate way.
With each iteration, it is clear that earlier titles have influenced the latter ones and because of this, we can see how much the Souls series has evolved. Each game, apart from Demon’s Souls, has also received fairly large expansions that have enriched the experience for those who purchased them. Even Dark Souls II was praised for its DLC, despite the fans’ initial reaction the base game. The recently released “Ashes of Ariandel” DLC for Dark Souls III has had mixed responses due to its shorter length and overall lack of content compared to past DLCs, but a second expansion is on schedule for next year, so there is still something to look forward to before we bid the series a teary farewell.
From a little PS3 exclusive to a world-famous series in the industry, the Souls games have certainly earned their reputation. This “marmite” franchise is both loved and hated by many and is even being heralded as genre defining. Since its inception, the series has spawned many “Souls-like” games that vary in popularity. The most noticeable of these is probably Lords of the Fallen, a more story driven and arguably easier title. The series itself obviously took inspiration from plenty of games before it, but now it is passing on its very own knowledge to other projects.
It’s not even been eight years and the Souls series has managed to go from what would have been an idea in a meeting room to a world renown franchise. It’s not been an easy ride, but the games now have a huge fanbase and will be remembered for years to come. Whether you’ve played any of the titles or not, you have to agree that this is a series that won’t fade into obscurity anytime soon.
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