Ellie Zoe returns with the latest entry in her Memoirs of a Gamer series. This part looks at the popular Dark Souls and Bloodborne games, collectively defined by gamers as Soulsborne games.
Alright – to be fair, the Souls series and Bloodborne are two separate franchises. However, they are very similar to one another, and are often grouped together by the larger gaming community when referenced. It’s also fairly difficult to love one without adoring the other. With the roaring success and acclaim that every new entry in the series releases to, it perhaps may be a little surprising to hear that From Software’s first entry in the series was far from universally adored. In fact, plenty of gamers (myself included) barely even knew it existed until far after release.
The Souls games are hard, by design, but they’re rarely unfair. As with the Trials series, a portion of the fun is facing seemingly insurmountable odds, failing many times and eventually overcoming them, even if by sheer perseverance alone. Tight and polished mechanics assure a relatively user-friendly experience that allows even absolute beginners to take a crack. That’s not to say there’s not a lot of depth in the combat and weapon systems though. Whilst perhaps punishing on an initial encounter, earlier enemies and bosses can be beaten by an ample amount of dodging and a few well timed strikes – but don’t expect to walk out of later fights alive without some careful planning and strategy.
Thankfully, even if you’re a little lost, the community are here to help. Whilst there is plenty of PVP in the Souls series, there’s a fair share of positive co-operative interaction too, ranging anywhere from (usually) helpful messages left on the floor by other travelers, or full-on online multiplayer combat support from friends and strangers alike. Whilst most bosses can be overcome with patience, skill and effort, it’s not to say that a few of them aren’t a little poorly designed. Arguably cheap mechanics can be somewhat countered with one or two extra players running around and smacking the boss from a variety of angles.
Of course, not everyone is here to help you. From time to time, you’ll be invaded by malicious red spirits – other players looking to find and kill you. This feature can be turned off completely, so there’s no need to stress about constantly being ganked if that’s not your idea of fun. Besides, even without opposing players and mobs, the levels themselves can quite easily off you. There’s all manner of fatal hazards ranging from very high cliffs and poisonous fog to rolling boulders and swinging axes. Knowing your way around drastically increases your chance of survival, but far from guarantees it.
Levels aren’t separate instances as such, but more large interconnected areas with branching paths. At times you can move straight in to the next area, but at others you’ll have to pass a boss or a story event first. There’s a real range of environments on display here too. All of them are of course based in high fantasy – so there aren’t any space stations on offer – but you’ll find catacombs, forests, sewers, ruined villages, castles, prisons on the Souls side, and grim yet harrowingly beautiful Gothic architecture in Bloodborne. The environments are filled with little secrets and hidden passageways, all connecting to one another and allowing you to sneak through the stage efficiently, yet not without risk.
Bonfires and lanterns provide brief respite, acting as checkpoints and fast travel locations. You’ll also need to make use of this feature to return a hub area of sorts where you can level, upgrade your weapons and trade. Unfortunately, you can’t simply equip just any old weapon, as you’ll need the stats to do so. Increasing certain attributes such as dexterity or strength will change your play style significantly and completely change the equipment you have access too. Don’t neglect your other stats too, with health and stamina being obvious must haves, and the likes of intelligence and faith required to cast spells, and resistance to increase your defensive capabilities.
I love Soulsborne titles for a mix of reasons. The aesthetic in both series really appeals to me, and there’s not much wrong that can be done whilst staying within those theme. There’s also not really a lot of games that give quite the same sense of adventure. Sure, large open world games might offer a far bigger play space, but it’s rarely quite as well populated and defined. I adore getting lost in the world of a game and exploring every nook and cranny – which can be incredibly difficult and even somewhat boring and frustrating in far larger environments, but the Souls series has enough variety and challenge packed in to a small enough space to be manageable.
Speaking of challenge, the sense of accomplishment I feel from overcoming a given enemy or boss is near unparalleled. The learning curve is particularly well rounded too, and always left me yearning more, but never feeling as if any wall were too high. I remember one time at a convention, a chap had sat down and played through the entirety of the first Dark Souls over the course of the weekend. Perhaps not as impressive as a speed-run of the game in an hour and a half, but an achievement nonetheless – and it’s these little victories that keep you going, and fuel your love for the franchise. As great as challenge is in a title, games are supposed to be fun at the end of the day, and I genuinely feel that From have found the perfect balance.
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