What makes a Souls-like (and why the definition is important) – Reader’s Feature

A reader lists the six features every game must have to be considered a Souls-like and how that differs from a clone or Soulsborne game.

Okay, so this subject seems to rub a lot of people up the wrong way but a reply to a Games Inbox letter has spurred me on to be the latest in a long line of people to try and define the ‘Souls-like’. I say Souls-like over Soulsborne or Dark Souls clone as the latter two have a slightly more ‘closed’ implication… to me at least.

To me Soulsborne are FromSoftware games only (maybe even FromSoftware games that have either Souls or borne in the title) while a clone would be bringing nothing new to the sub-genre… rigidly following in the footprints of Demon’s Souls.

Souls-like (nomenclature is inspired by the roguelike sub-genre) opens up the game type for FromSoftware (as well as other developers) to add new ‘wrinkles’ to the fundamentals in order to evolve the experience.

So, to the reason that sparked this feature, I had mentioned that I was quite surprised by the general games journalism consensus to quickly proclaim Mortal Shell as the best Souls-like. Not that I have played it yet, but I had posited that the Nioh and The Surge games would take some beating in my opinion.

GC replied (and this is me putting forward my opinion rather than going on the attack) that ‘We’ve never been big fans of The Surge, so we’d definitely put Mortal Shell above that. Nioh 1 and 2 are better games, but for some reason we never really think of them as Dark Souls clones, probably because the combat is so much more involved.’

Now while I disagree that the only similarity between the Nioh series and the Souls games is the difficulty, this is not the first time I have heard this. My reply though is to show the other similarities not only between these two series of games but of all the games that I believe should be considered Souls-likes. It doesn’t mean that there can be no evolution (as with Nioh’s more involved combat) but if the core foundations are present, they should be categorised accordingly. It is the core fundamentals of any genre (or in this case sub-genre) that defines its heritage and hope for legacy.

So, to the essential aspects of a Souls-like… and I will use both Nioh and Dark Souls (and some others) as the examples (as they were the games that caused me to hammer on keys).

1. The Bonfire
It is called by other names in other games (shrines in Nioh) but they all essentially do the same thing. It is a reset, where you refill your health (more on that later), you can level up your character and most importantly all mob enemies are respawned. As stated, Nioh has shrines, Bloodborne has lamps and The Surge has medbays… but they all basically perform the same function.

2. The Souls
Again, these are called different things in different games but they are all essentially proxies for the same thing. Amrita in Nioh, blood echoes in Bloodborne, tech scrap in The Surge… but they’re all the same thing. They are all basically experience points earnt from defeating enemies that can be used as both in game currency and to level up.

3. The corpse run
Not an official in-game term but one that is generally used for all Souls-likes within the community. It stems from the fact that your souls (amrita, blood echoes, etc.) are dropped upon death (notice that I did not say lost). You then have one chance to get to wherever you were in the game world when you died to pick them back up. If you die before you do so they are gone for good.

This is one of the fundamentals where we have seen a little evolution. Lords Of The Fallen added a time limit by which you had to collect your dropped experience points or it would disappear, while in Bloodborne your dropped blood echoes can be picked up by any enemies close to where they were dropped, resulting in you having to kill said enemy to reclaim them.

4. Stamina-based combat
Stamina dictates the amount of actions your character can perform. Including sprinting and swinging a weapon. For each action you take a portion of your stamina is consumed before slowly regenerating.

As with the corpse run we have seen some evolution in this department. Nioh added the ki-pulse which if timed right would return a portion of your used stamina instantly. Bloodborne gave you the opportunity to regain some lost health by quickly striking back at the enemy and The Surge offered incredible options depending on what chipset you had plugged into your build.

5. Shortcuts
All of the games mentioned, to a greater or lesser degree, use maze-like level designs that loop back on themselves… normally providing a shortcut that once opened will remain open for the remainder of that particular playthrough, and they do not get reset by using bonfires.

6. Estus is bestus
This particular fundamental is a little looser as there are two distinct ways that Souls-likes manage health regeneration. Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne incorporate typical-to-gaming health items while the others use a variation on the Estus flask introduced in Dark Souls. It is an item (that can normally be upgraded as you play through the game) that has a max usage cap but is refilled when a bonfire is reset.

Dark Souls 2, strangely, uses both healing methods and is probably worse for it as a result.

Now I may well have missed some here (did anyone say difficulty?) but I feel confident that if any game has all of the listed core components it would be a Souls-like through and through. I’m sure there are loads of different games from loads of different genres that may well have one or even two of these building blocks but it takes a game possessing all of them to make it a Souls-like.

There are many debates online about this subject and for one reason or another it really seems to annoy some people. I think it comes down to all the people proclaiming various things the ‘Dark Souls of whatever’, just for being difficult (notice that I did not include difficulty in my fundamentals – it’s because once you truly understand the mechanics these games really aren’t that difficult at all) but to any member of the Souls community (someone who has played the vast majority if not all of the current Souls-likes) it is as clear as a sun(-praised) day.

By reader colonelkilgore69


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