We Rank the Souls Games From “Worst” to Best
By: Steve Dixon.
The Souls series is easily one of my favorite video game franchises. The gameplay is weighty, packed with strategy, and immensely satisfying. The exploration is awe inspiring, addicting and horrifying, all at once. The lore is buried under layers that require careful excavation and curation; it will suck at your mind (sometimes literally) long after you put the controller down. This is to say nothing about the distinct atmosphere that each game manages to make its own, and the colorful range of memorable NPCs who subtly guide your journey.
With four iterations now officially released and mulled over (yes, for the intents and purposes of this article, we are counting Bloodborne as a Souls game), we can see the degrees of separation between titles now that the dust has settled. Some tweaks have been minor, some have been major, and others have completely changed the tone of the series.
If there is one thing these games all have in common, it’s that they are all fantastic and are pinnacles of the action/RPG genre. Just because I’m forcing them into a list doesn’t mean any of these games are bad.
Just that some are better than others…
#4) Dark Souls II
Dark Souls II is the black sheep of the Souls series. Immediately stigmatized for the departure of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki (so he could work on some other game), it’s clear that the game’s scope and imagination just doesn’t reach the same height as literally every other game on this list.
The thing is, Dark Souls II is still a phenomenal game. Despite the world’s linearity, the exploration is just as tempting as ever and the individual level designs are really gorgeous to look at, even if the way they are connected makes no sense (riding an elevator to the top of a regular ol’ windmill does not usually lead you to an iron fortress sunken into a volcano’s caldera).
The biggest issue with Dark Souls II for me comes down to its aforementioned stitched together level design and lackluster boss fights. The big baddies this time around were just not that interesting to fight, made superficially harder, and recycled way too often within the span of the vanilla game. Couple this with some wonky hitboxes and you have a great game that comes with with too many buts for the game to achieve the near perfection of some other games on this list.
As an aside, the three DLC expansion packs are excellent and, in many ways, better than the main game. The labyrinth of the Sunken King, verticality of the Iron King, and the interconnected design of the Ivory King are all stand out additions that brought some much needed freshness to the game.
Back at the helm, Hidetaka Miyazaki did with Bloodborne what he did with Dark Souls – explore a completely different direction than its predecessor. And what a horrifying direction it was.
Stripping down the mechanics of the series to a few key components, this blood soaked journey through the streets of Yharnam is certainly more accessible than its predecessors, but requires no less patience, skill, or practice. The game is also smaller in scope, focusing tightly on the city of Yharnam and surrounding areas and featuring less graphical diversity.
What Bloodborne lacks in scope it more than makes up for in density. Every single aspect of the world feels exhausted and explored. There are a plethora of shortcuts that give the levels a strong feeling of cohesiveness that was so lacking with Dark Souls II, and the limited weapons have alternate forms that are all useful in various situations. It’s a streamlining of a formula that still makes the game feel like the director’s vision was fully realized.
That vision is a terrifying gothic narrative that combines personal loss, grotesque beasts and cosmic terror into a tightly wound theme. Once you start exploring the nightmare, it’s hard not to be sucked into and impressed by the greater implications of everything you are doing. This is backed up with wild creature and boss designs that are some of the best the series has ever seen.
It wasn’t until I played Bloodborne that I realized many of Dark Souls II’s flaws might have been a result of trying to be a direct sequel. Bloodborne is a great example of a simultaneous evolution and refinement of a series that keeps the experience fresh while innovating. The faster combat and aggressive health regenerating mechanics changed the gameplay in a way that isn’t better or worse than previous iterations, just different.
Horror has always been a part of the Souls games, but Bloodborne honed in on how to make a continuously evolving experience that never ceases to surprise, amaze, and terrify right up until the very end.
#2) Demon’s Souls
And now comes the controversial part of the list. Sure, it’s a cop out, but Demon’s Souls and its follow up Dark Souls are indeed virtually interchangeable depending on some very specific personal preferences, but we’ll get to that later.
Demon’s Souls was the definition of a cult classic when it first hit store shelves back in 2009. Its difficulty quickly became infamous among gamers, who hailed it as a return to the old school titles of yesteryear. Learning from repeated dying wasn’t just a side effect of a more challenging experience, but a core gameplay mechanic that taught players the rules of the world through a very brutal first hand experience.
While many might have been turned off by the required patience and steep learning curve, those who stuck it through were rewarded with a rich, brooding world, dark secrets, and tight, fair gameplay. The levels were smartly designed, featuring shortcuts that promoted exploration and gave you a real sense of accomplishment when you finally found one. Still, nothing matches the feeling of conquering one of the many difficult bosses in the game that were often as interesting to look at as they were to fight.
Also striking new ground was the innovative multiplayer experience that allowed you to summon other players for help, as well as be invaded by them. It was a brilliant way to counter-balance the difficulty for newer players, while also creating a unique community that many games following would seek to emulate.
Perhaps the best example of the game’s prowess is during the Old Monk boss fight, which expertly blended both world, lore, and multiplayer. After hours of prepping you by fighting large dragons, knights, and otherworldly obscenities, the game makes you face another real player, buffed by the Old Monk, in a tense dance that is easily one of the series’ hallmarks. (Dark Souls II would later attempt to copy this very premise with the Looking Glass Knight.)
Above all, Demon’s Souls was a breath of fresh air in a stagnating genre that has already inspired countless game developers to come.
#1) Dark Souls
At the time, it was almost impossible to comprehend how a follow up to Demon’s Souls could be better than its predecessor. I rolled my eyes when I heard it was going “open world”.
How wrong I was.
What distinguishes Dark Souls over Demon’s Souls for me comes down to world design. The metroidvania level design is brilliantly connected in ways that are logical and surprising, making exploration a treasure of its own. Never before has a game felt so interconnected and well thought out. Being able to see castles, ruins, and forests from a distance, knowing eventually I would find a way to get there, is still an exciting prospect to me, even after I’ve sunk countless hours into the game.
The world structure is also backed up with unique lore. While the goal of Demon’s Souls was made fairly explicit and straightforward (fleshed out by the inhabitants and their individual stories), Dark Souls was more ambiguous. You knew you had to lift a curse and you knew the path you had to take, but the way in which details were disclosed made future encounters absolutely hair raising. Playing Dark Souls is akin to becoming an archaeologist, reading item descriptions, paying attention to details in the level design, and speaking with NPCs all allow you to weave together the narrative that gives meaning to your journey.
The pinnacle of this experience were the boss fights, which were diverse, fun, and often times had major ties to the lore. The unforgettable Ornstein and Smough were the bane of many broken controllers, but still manage to crack the top 10 list of favorite Souls bosses for many players. The DLC was also an exceptional package that brought us the likes of Artorias himself, as well as Black Dragon Kalameet, which is the only fight against a dragon in any video game that I’ve felt was a realistic fight against a dragon.
What ties it all together is the final fight against Gwyn, Lord of Cinder. Just when it feels like you’ve been battered, broken, and can’t fight another big boss, the game pits you against an equally broken man. Gwyn’s aggressiveness is only matched by the melancholic tone that pervades both the soundtrack and the setting. It’s a fitting fight, easily one of the best in the entire series, that blends everything that makes Dark Souls so great.
Then you’re given a final farewell with one of the most memorable credit songs of all time.
Steve Dixon is a bona fide dragon slayer. You can see what he is up to on Twitter.
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