Back when Demon’s Souls first came out, I was still in school and found out about it when I saw my online friends talking about this new Western-style Japanese-made RPG that was so hard it would make you want to smash your controller.
At that moment, I had a feeling that can be easily described through the words of Calvin J. Candie from Django Unchained: You had my curiosity, but now you have my attention.
10 years and 6 games later, I am still a big fan of this sub-genre that Dark Souls helped popularise. Along the way, I fell in love deeper with these games and even found myself liking some of the other games that take inspiration from them, often called Souls-like.
So this is my attempt at organising these From Software-made games which have hurt me so much (in a good way). Perhaps you can use this list as a recommendations list in case you’re looking for new challenging games to play. Also, Code Vein recently came out and I’m itching to talk about the game that started this trend of third-person action RPGs.
Let’s rank the Soulsbornes first, starting from my personal favourite…
The two most noteworthy aspects of the Souls series are difficulty and atmosphere. To me, Bloodborne perfected the Souls formula by introducing a balanced level of difficulty that encouraged fast and aggressive combat rather than hiding behind a shield.
In terms of atmosphere, the Dracula-inspired Victorian Gothic setting coupled with elements of Lovecraftian horror made Bloodborne one of the most immersive experiences I’ve ever had. From the foggy streets of Yharnam to the flooded Fishing Hamlet, every step I took felt like I was trudging deeper into a nightmare.
Everything I love about Souls games was multiplied in Bloodborne. It employed the same vague method of storytelling but this time, there were enough clues to piece the story together without referring to wikis. Boss battles were brutal with some of them forcing me to redo them more than 40 times. Yes, I counted, because I loved every moment of it.
2. Dark Souls
After Demon’s Souls was showered with praises for its brutal difficulty, From Software knew that that was exactly what people wanted more of. Dark Souls took every mechanic that worked in Demon’s Souls, applied more polish, and cranked up the “this game will hurt you” marketing.
Thankfully, the marketing didn’t lie. Dark Souls was brutal. Enemies would hide behind corners, jump down from ceilings, and even shoot giant arrows from afar while you try to cross small bridges. There were times where I’d put down the controller and didn’t touch the game for days.
Whenever I came back, I’d have renewed confidence and sometimes would easily overcome the challenges that held me back for days. I remember losing to Ornstein & Smough for more than 70 times. I stopped playing the game for an entire week, came back, and beat them in two tries.
It’s one of those games that breaks you down and then lets you build yourself up for some of the most satisfying victories you’ll have in life.
3. Dark Souls 3
I have to admit that a lot of my love for Dark Souls 3 comes simply from the fact that it felt more familiar to me than Dark Souls 2. Hidetaka Miyazaki had just finished directing Bloodborne and his return to Souls was definitely made obvious in Dark Souls 3.
It felt like a return to form. A lot of the sluggish combat and movement animations from Dark Souls 2 were thrown away and the level design now mirrored the first game, complete with a coherent storyline that tied into the plot of Dark Souls. I was praising the Sun for days when I got to play Dark Souls 3.
Acting as a conclusion to the series, the plot of Dark Souls 3 gave me a satisfying conclusion. Although it didn’t have as many surprises as the other games, it still had its moments.
That final boss fight and its accompanying music will forever be one of the best boss fights I had ever experienced in my entire life. Bravo, From Software.
4. Demon’s Souls
Ah yes, the OG Souls game. In case you missed out on it, don’t feel too bad. It was basically a prototype for Dark Souls and had a lot balancing issues that made it easy to exploit once you got into New Game Plus.
In terms of difficulty, I’d rank Demon’s Souls to be the second hardest Souls game behind Dark Souls 2. I’m only talking about New Game and not NG+ because the magic system is broken as heck so once you figure it out and relocate your stats accordingly, every boss becomes a joke.
I call it the second hardest because there were some really nasty bosses in this one. If you thought Ornstein & Smough was tough, imagine the same boss fight but on a bridge and both of the bosses have a charge move that can knock you right off the bridge.
Look up “Maneater boss fight” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
There was also that one boss battle where if you were playing online, another player would be summoned to be the boss. Almost everyone would use a Scraping Spear which was a weapon that would break your opponent’s equipment in just a few hits. Many deaths were suffered and many “laugh” taunts were used.
5. Dark Souls 2
Looking back at my experience of playing Dark Souls 2, I’m not sure if the game was actually bad or that I was simply disappointed by how different it was compared to the first game.
The extremely punishing difficulty was still there and most environments still oozed a sense of dread and cautioned me to be careful at every step of the way. Yet, it all felt like something was missing. A Soul, perhaps.
What ticked me off the most was how sluggish everything felt. It always felt like the game was stretching the animations of my attacks as a way to make the game harder. Artificial difficulty isn’t a term I’m fond of but that’s definitely what it felt like.
With that being said, it still had a few fun boss fights. I think is worth a revisit now that I no longer have high expectations for it.
Honourable Mention: Best Souls-like…
As how people like to call Code Vein anime Dark Souls, Nioh was often called samurai Dark Souls and that’s actually quite misleading. Out of the many Souls-inspired games out there, I believe Nioh is actually one of the most original ones.
Combat in Nioh is a lot more nuanced when compared to any game in the Souls series. Instead of just backstabs and parries, you have a multitude of skills and moves to unlock for each weapon types. For example, pausing at a certain point during a combo and then attacking again could let you perform an attack that would knock down or incapacitate enemies.
Once you enter New Game Plus, you start realising that Nioh is less about stats and more about loot. The game presents the usual rarity tiers but getting the best stats on a piece of equipment will require you to reforge it and pair it with matching sets for stat bonuses. In NG+, most bosses will one-shot you so instead of depending on skills, your priority is on creating a build that can one-shot bosses.
From Software is currently working on Elden Ring which is set to be a “natural evolution” to the Dark Souls series, according to Miyazaki. Nioh 2 is also on its way, scheduled to be released in early 2020.
In the meantime, the Souls-void is being filled by two recently released games: Code Vein and The Surge 2. Not sure if Code Vein will be the kind of game you want to play? Check out our review here.