In recent few years, the souls games are getting more and more popular every time a sequel came out. More and more people get to know this unusual game series. Not only the players but also game developers noticed it, then we have “soulslike” as a new game genre now.
But it seems most follow suit developers don’t know what exactly charms players in original souls games. As a result, a lot of soulslike games are just terrible superficial imitations. In the meantime, there are also some players who misunderstand souls and soulslike games. So, what makes a good soulslike game, and why are they so fascinating?
Hard but fair
When people talking about DARK SOULS, the difficulty is always one of the main topics. In a souls game, you may die easily at any moment. You may be killed by a skeleton, a mad villager, or even an oily slime. All the enemies above are the weakest types in other RPG games, but unfortunately, it’s DARK SOULS. Our characters are weak, we can’t move as we like for the stamina bar is never enough, and the armors can’t guarantee your survival from enemies, sometimes it’s just the difference between one hit and two hits. The protagonist in a souls game is never a natural hero, only another nameless hollow zombie or a poor outsider.
On the other hand, souls series set no limitations in every combat you can encounter. In souls games, you can fight with any enemies and bosses, and no limitation mechanics even when you choose to fight the final boss with beginner status and equipment. Technology is always more important than high status and powerful items. But don’t worry if you are not good at action games, status growth is fast at the beginning, the lack of technology can be afforded by status. You can also find some “easy mode” ways to pass the game. Souls games are harder than other 3A games, but it will be much easier if you change your playing style and practice a little.
But some soulslike games only see the hard aspect, and they prefer to use high-status enemies rather than enemies with changeable attacks. If a souls game is challenging, then a bad-designed soulslike one is frustrating (like the recent Mortal Shell). There is a fine line between challenge and frustration, but some developers didn’t see it. The difficulty is one aspect of playability, challenging games attract players who never give up. But high difficulty shouldn’t become the top rule for making soulslike games.
Level and environment
Levels are obstacles and challenges, it’s connected to your gameplay, decide things like where you can go now. And the environment is about architecture and space, you can also call it “stages”, it’s what you directly see in the game. The combination of these two is an important part of the success of souls games. Developers need to build an area not only with challenging obstacles, but also fits the game world.
I believe every player who has played DARK SOULS I would be shocked by its 3D world map: a world with an amazing top-down structure. What’s more, there are many shortcuts in stages for you to find, and those hidden paths are surprises from the designers. The whole world is designed as a giant complex maze where different areas are connected in many ways. It’s not an easy thing to imitate such design, but level and stage design are necessary for a soulslike game.
Developers often will focus on either level or environment, and didn’t realize that making a good soulslike needs the two be in one at the same. Guiding the player to pass through the world and enjoy the progress is an example of masterclass game development and there is much to learn for soulslike developers.
Lore and story
The souls games might be the first one to do a different kind of storytelling than the traditional ways. And players are no longer the hero who will save the world. Souls games do not care about player characer, the world is dying and everything gone dark and lost. Unlike other famous 3A RPG games that your character can affect the world and the story is all about the protagonist. However, in souls games, the game world is the actual protagonist, players only have the chances to witness how the world fades.
In souls games, most of the plots and stories are not from dialogues or cutscenes. Item texts are the most important source for lores and stories. And even stage details, NPC appearances or special enemies can be as informative as the item texts. Those pieces of plots and stories are hidden in the game world, waiting to be discovered. There are countless discussions or videos about them, all the myteries and secrets can be explained differently through different people, and that’s also one more highlight point of souls games.
At the end
Making a soulslike game seems to be an easy way to attract fans of challenging games and cover developers’ shortage of abilities (like some roguelike games) . But I really don’t some crappy indie game jump out from nowhere and declaim itself a “soulslike”. I love the souls games and so do the soulslike ones, so I hope more soulslike developers can try to learn and understand the secrets behind souls games’ success.