Who would have guessed that FromSoftware would go on to make a dent on the global game development scene when it dropped Demon's Souls? A seemingly inconspicuous title upon release, it spawned a game formula that has evolved and enthralled more and more with its sophisticated sequels. The games test your resolve with a blend of unbearable frustration and profound jubilation, which few games can achieve effectively. This isn't even mentioning the extensive lore, gorgeous locales, and dark, fantastical art direction.
It's no wonder, then, that we see the Souls series all around us, whether it be in the creation of blatant homages like Nioh and Lords of the Fallen or as subtle influences in the likes of Shovel Knight and Dying Light. The impact of Miyazaki's brainchild cannot be understated, and while many are aware of the meat and potatoes in the Souls series' soup, we want to shed a little light on some of the spices that don't get as much recognition.
The Music of Silence
It makes sense that developers almost always pack long stretches of gameplay with music. We're used to recognising themes on every route and city in the Pokémon series, and you'll no doubt hear familiar tracks as you travel and battle through The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Music has a way of alerting us to details, like entering a certain location and knowing when a hostile presence is present or vanquished. It's traditionally meant to complement the nature of the moment and thematically mirror the nature of what you're doing or where you are, so FromSoftware utilises tracks sparingly with hub worlds and bosses to amplify these contextual effects.
We're comforted more while seeking refuge in Majula to a melody of soft, warm chimes. Fighting Gehrman is all the more chilling as you're treated to an epic, orchestral piece charged with more emotion than usual. However, in between the musical lows of safety and highs of bosses, you have nothing to reflect on but the ambience of the environments, the choir of your enemies' howls, and the beat of combat during normal gameplay. This forces you to focus on the sound design, and by strategically listening for sound cues during battle or wondering what could be echoing in the distance, you become more involved in the exploration and your surroundings' mysteries. I know my interest is piqued by the absence of music, and the Souls series only increases this by making it the norm. So whenever the music hits, it's actually a reward for progression in itself.
There Will Be Consequences
We've been accustomed to making up for mistakes with checkpoints and save files without penalty. I know I've made use of this with games like Dishonored and The Evil Within whenever I messed up an elaborate plan or wasted too many supplies, but some developers take these liberties away like Telltale Games with its episodic series, but you can still replay entire sections if you want to slog through them to patch up a foolish decision. However, the Souls series resurrects a principle from the bygone pixelated era. Do you remember when a lot of cartridge games didn't have save files? You had to play through the entire thing and live with whatever mistakes you made until you reached the end or not. While the Souls series reasonably grants us the ability to save our progress, it's set up in a similiar manner: every moment cannot be undone.
If you accidentally kill an NPC, the games automatically save. If you are unexpectedly launched off a ledge by a grunt while seeking to gain back a stockpile of souls you've lost, they are gone in that instant. Just as there's no margin for errors in the franchise's combat, the save system is equally brutal. The consequences are immediate and permanent, which means that if you want to go back just a minute before you increased a stat, you're out of luck. Even minor decisions during character interactions you've likely forgotten can come back to bite you by not being granted an important item or causing some NPCs to force you into duels. With such an unpredictable, unalterable future, every move you make is always worth paying attention to throughout these adventures with a keen eye, which is an uncommon attitude to demand of players in an age of hand-holding and convenience.
All-Encompassing Narratological Purpose
Why do you regenerate health as a normal human in first-person shooters? How does one literally unlock talents from a skill tree? There are aspects about games that are simply "game-y", which end up feeling out of place or awkward when they present themselves seriously. Booker DeWitt eating food out of the trash to regain health in BioShock Infinite is a good example to say the least. In the end, we have to suspend our disbelief when someone like your agent in The Division is somehow able to carry hundreds of pounds of items. While the Souls games actually ignore that last detail, too, they are nevertheless consistent about giving logical purpose to anything "game-y".
Checkpoints take the form of bonfires that are essential to light not just for gameplay's sake, but for the story's sake. In Demon's Souls, your soul is sent back to an Archstone upon death since you're connected to the Nexus, and you must recover your acquired souls where your Bloodstain is, which explains respawning. Leveling up in Bloodborne isn't just some abstract system tacked on, but is narratively sound in being about increasing your connection with the memories of your victims through their Blood Echoes, thereby making you stronger. Generic items and weapons can also reveal integral information behind the vague storytelling of the series, and that's not including how the intricate placement of environmental objects and elements contributes to this, too. Even multiplayer is deeply embedded in all of the stories' folds, which is just one out of other examples proving that Miyazaki is highly concerned about constructing consistent universes that make sense when channeled through the rules and mechanics of game structures.
The Power of Landmarks and Interwoven Worlds
A sign of brilliant level and environmental design is when you need not rely on objective markers or a mini map, but instead can use your surroundings to get an idea of how to reach new destinations. FromSoftware is one such developer that understands this, such as by providing glimpses of the Bell Tower of the Undead Parish as you climb your way there in Dark Souls. Slowly making your way to the ship in Dark Souls II's No-Man's Wharf is a fun process as you go this way and that with the ship in view the whole time. Whether it also be Demon's Souls' Tower of Latria or the Djura's Tower in Old Yharnam, landmarks are a natural yet undervalued way of monitoring your progress and positionally situating yourself in these games.
What comes with this slowly growing knowledge of the world are epiphanies where you suddenly connect the dots with certain areas. The Souls series, much like Ratchet and Clank and The Legend of Zelda, is great about taking you off the beaten path for some time and looping foreign areas back to a familiar place. It's pleasantly surprising to say the least, which should give anyone an appreciation of how this contributes to retaining the excitement of exploration. After all, while your educated guesses of where you are may be well founded, FromSoftware will not fail to make you exclaim in wonder when its mad, twisting worlds reveal their hidden, thoughtful coherence.
Intricate Choreography of Motion
If there's one aspect of FromSoftware's games that you must adjust to, it's the animation. Never have I played games that so cleverly deceive me with how and when new types of opposition will unexpectedly feign strikes or frantically lash out at me. Even with Demon's Souls, I marvel at the time variations in how long foes will take to strike with a weapon or spells, which never fails to make me second-guess if I'll parry or dodge at the right time. You truly have to study their patterns down to the milliseconds, and even then, how AI behave next can still catch you off-guard. It demonstrates how your skills and reflexes aren't the only things that are meant to be hard-pressed by this deceptive developer. It has always intended to psychologically trip you up, too.
This isn't limited to your enemies, but also your own character. The effective usage of some weapons can require exceptionally accurate and almost prophetic vision since some attacks can take up to two to three seconds to come around full circle. You need to know how long your heavy and light attacks take in order to effectively unleash them on adversaries when they're open, in addition to how precisely long it will take to dodge, heal, and more during brief moments when they lie back. Because of this, many would rightly argue that the Soul series should run at 60 frames-per-second for optimal experiences, but thanks to painstakingly elaborate animations for you and your opponents, gameplay doesn't play like a jerky, unpleasant mess. It can look and feel like beautiful dances with death that can take your breath away.
What did you think of these points made about the Souls series? Are there some you agree or disagree with? What subtleties would you introduce to this list? Prithee share your own thoughts in the comments section below.