Opinion: It’s time for the Souls-like genre to evolve

In my recent review for Gunfire Games’ Remnant: From the Ashes, I praised the game’s clever combining of third-person shooter gameplay and Dark Souls-esque difficulty. Remnant proved that, with a little planning and care, two genres as disparate as third-person shooter and Souls-like can work surprisingly well together. However, much like every previous Souls-like game I’ve played, Remnant was also incredibly stressful and, on many occasions, downright frustrating.

I readily acknowledge that high stress and high frustration come with the Souls-like territory, but as of late I’ve found myself asking a single question more and more, do they have to? I’m certainly not suggesting that developers like Dark Souls creator From Software should dumb their games down to the point of triviality, but I do want to encourage more experimentation like what I saw in Remnant: From the Ashes. With Remnant, Gunfire Games showed how the Souls-like genre’s infamously punishing learning curve can be adjusted without compromising its core integrity, and I hope I see similar adjustments made to upcoming Souls-like games.

The Coming Storm

It sure is a great time to be a Souls-like fan. This year has already seen the release of high-quality titles like the aforementioned Remnant and From Software’s latest masterpiece, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Plus, in just a few months, developer A44’s 2018 Souls-like sleeper hit Ashen will be coming to PS4, Nintendo Switch, and Steam. The future looks equally bright for Souls-like fans thanks to upcoming titles like Nioh 2, Hollow Knight: Silksong, The Surge 2, Code Vein, and From Software’s Elden Ring.

Being a hardcore Souls-like fan myself, part of me is naturally excited to have so many upcoming games on the horizon, but another part of me is also feeling no small amount of trepidation and dread. New Souls-like games mean more opportunities to explore the immersive (and deadly) worlds they conjure up, but it also means more punishing boss fights, more unforgiving gameplay mechanics…and more catalysts for the blinding frustration that really can’t be good for my health.

Out With the Old

If I’m being totally honest with myself, I’ll likely play many (if not all) of the above upcoming games I mentioned, whether for review or on my own time, despite my reservations. The inherent challenges found in every Souls-like game can be frustrating for sure, but there’s really no other feeling quite like the euphoric elation of finally besting those challenges.

Heck, I’d say that overcoming tough challenges is one of my biggest driving forces as a gamer, and you only live once, right? All that being said, though, I certainly wouldn’t be opposed if the developers behind the above mentioned games decided to experiment a bit with the ratio of challenge vs. accessibility.

Along with the obvious change of focusing on third-person shooting, Remnant: From the Ashes made another tweak to the established Souls-like formula which was as surprising as it was appreciated: it did away with harsh death penalties.

Typically when you die in a Souls-like game, you lose the accumulated currency you earned from slaying enemies, currency that’s vital for upgrading your character and/or purchasing items. This currency, be it souls in Dark Souls, scrap in The Surge, or scoria in Ashen is usually dropped on the spot where you died, creating a risk/reward mechanic where you can recover the lost currency through skilled play. If you die again, however, you lose it all, resulting in a frustrating loss of potential character progress.

No such penalty exists in Remnant: From the Ashes. Remnant actually has two different currencies for players to collect, traditional experience points for leveling up and scrap which is used to upgrade equipment and purchase items. I was wholly expecting to lose one or potentially both of those currencies if I died, but it turns out you lose neither. Death in Remnant merely kicks you back to the last checkpoint you used, with your XP and scrap totals remaining intact.

Remnant: From the Ashes is still an undeniably difficult game, but the lack of harsh death penalties combined with other handy systems like optional co-op multiplayer help in making it one of the most accessible Souls-like titles I’ve ever played. With one simple change Gunfire Games made Remnant many times more accessible without trivializing the inherent challenge (and the sense of accomplishment for overcoming said challenge).

The Promise of Progress

My point isn’t to suggest that every Souls-like game from here on out should nix harsh death penalties. No, the point I’m trying to make is that experimentation in a genre as rigid and uncompromising as the Souls-like genre is something that should be encouraged, not stamped out. Yes, most Souls-like players come for the punishing difficulty and terrifying boss fights, but there’s nothing that says difficulty and accessibility can’t coexist harmoniously.

In the case of previous Souls-like games, I’d argue this harmonious coexistence is best represented by the presence of cooperative multiplayer. Having the option of summoning a friend or a helpful stranger to your side has already smoothed out the rough edges for games like Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Nioh, Ashen, and Remnant. In fact, I’d argue that some of the toughest Souls-like games I’ve played were ones that didn’t have multiplayer (Sekiro, The Surge), though they also found their own ways of easing up on the difficulty, if only ever so slightly.

Thankfully, several upcoming Souls-like games are already showing clear signs of experimentation and improvement. The Surge 2 won’t have true co-op multiplayer, but it will allow players to leave helpful messages and warnings for other players to see, and the presence of new AI combat drone companions will help augment a players’ preferred combat tactics. Games like Code Vein and Nioh 2, meanwhile, will have co-op multiplayer, boosting their accessibility factor right out of the gate.

The wild card I’m most looking forward to, however, is From Software’s Elden Ring. The upcoming title (which From created with help from Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin) will be From’s first attempt to create a truly open world, and going by what little information From has shared so far, it sounds like Elden Ring will make a concerted effort to balance familiar Souls-like properties with new systems that fit better in an open-world setting.

Always Forward

I will forever cherish my time spent playing classic Souls-like games like the original Dark Souls and Bloodborne, but I’ll also be the first to argue that the Souls-like genre cannot remain a static entity. Souls-like purists may chafe at the idea of introducing more accessibility, and I totally get that change can be scary, but I honestly believe that if Souls-like games continue to evolve and experiment, they’ll be better off for it.

Experimentation doesn’t always have to mean making a game easier or introducing radical new concepts. One of the greatest things about the Souls-like genre is how much pure potential it has for new ideas both big and small. I just hope that Souls-like developers never lose that desire to keep dreaming up new ideas, to keep pushing the envelope, and most importantly, to keep players on their toes, even if it means turning down the difficulty dial when players are expecting the exact opposite.