On February 5, 2009, Demon’s Souls made a quiet but significant market entrance. What began as an underdog action role-playing game grew into an industry-wide phenomenon when the spiritual successor, Dark Souls, released just two years later. Since then, we’ve seen multiple editions of Dark Souls, Dark Souls II, and Dark Souls III, as well as the successful release of Bloodborne in 2015. But they are far from perfect and it’s time to put Souls-like games to rest.
Before we go any farther, let me be explicitly clear that I am an avid fan of the Soulsborne series. I own the original Dark Souls on Xbox 360, as well as the Prepare to Die and Remastered editions on Steam. I own Dark Souls II on Xbox 360 and Steam, and Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin on PS4 and Steam. Likewise, Dark Souls III has made its way into my library on both PS4 and Steam. And while Bloodborne is only on PS4 I regularly try to convince myself that Bloodborne: The Card Game couldn’t possibly be as bad as the reviews suggest. I love FromSoftware and would be content to play their Soulsborne games until I’m in my grave.
But they need to do better. Incredible boss design and difficult combat gets watered down by cheap exploits. One of the most fondly remembered boss fights throughout the series is The Great Grey Wolf Sif. His story is fairly central to the franchise’s evolving plot, and even more tragic. But he can be easily defeated by staying at his feet, out of his attack range, as players spam attack the poor sod to death. For a battle so significant, shouldn’t we earn the victory in a more significant manner?
Again, I’m not arguing that Dark Souls is a bad series. I’m obsessed with it. The Way Too Many games team knows that I’m the one who will review Bloodborne 2 when it finally releases. God save the soul who tries to take that from me. But for a franchise that’s so carefully and masterfully crafted, there are some big holes.
First and foremost, the game is known for its difficulty. “Difficulty” is a generic term, so let’s take a second to talk about what makes a game difficult. FTL is a hard game that requires players to anticipate effective strategies for a series of randomized scenarios. Ninja Gaiden is tricky because of how quickly enemies move. Super Meat Boy is hard because timing needs to be so precise.
But Dark Souls is hard because of its steep difficulty curve. Can’t beat a boss? Grind a bit. Baddies in a new area too overwhelming? Take time to memorize their location. Still stuck? Upgrade your gear. And there you have the formula for succeeding in the Dark Souls campaign: time and memorization. Any challenges in Soulsborne can be defeated with the aid of some extra leveling up.
This is where Dark Souls really stumbles. For a franchise that boasts such incredible design in environment, enemy, and mechanics, Soulsborne relies far too heavily on traditional RPG leveling systems. As a result, players’ success is often defined more by how much time they’ve put into level grinding and memorizing enemy move sets than mastering new skills. As much as I personally enjoy it, five games later, it’s time for FromSoft to add some more variety to their near decade old formula.
That’s where Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is going to shake things up. As indicated by Miyazaki, the classic RPG leveling system has been replaced by “something totally different.” Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice will be putting a heavy emphasis on Sekiro’s replacment arm, the Shinobi Prosthetic. Steering away from leveling up stats and gear drops, the new system will be focused on upgrading Sekiro’s prosthetic and uncovering new abilities forcing players to rely more on skill than high stats.
As players progress through Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, they’ll unlock new modifications to the arm. The primary attachment that we’ve seen so far has been the grappling prosthesis. But press release images have also revealed to us the fan shield and flamethrower modifications that will be integral to navigating From Software’s strategic new combat system.
Personally, I’m lead to believe that Sekiro’s left arm prosthetic will act more as support/secondary weaponry than anything else. Much like the way that Bloodborne‘s primary arms were the trick weapons supported by firearms, I believe that the katana will be Sekiro’s main weapon. However, it’s possible that each prosthetic mod will have its own support move set, not unlike the stance system from Nioh.
A Full Narrative
The Soulsborne games all have excellent stories to uncover beneath the surface of the game’s events, but players who don’t actively seek those tales won’t find them. Most of the stories are communicated to players just a few lines at a time within various item description, or simply through environmental clues.
But Nioh managed to prove that this structure of storytelling can still work when the game focuses on a singular character. So now, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice will be moving forward to tell a singular tale heavily based in Sengoku-era Japan. But that doesn’t mean that From Soft is stepping away from their trademark method of hiding their narrative within their detailed worlds.
Hidetaka Miyazaki said, “It’s a character-driven story this time, but it’s not a story-driven game. The player isn’t going to be led down one linear path and have the story spoon-fed to them by many many cutscenes or anything like that. That aspect of From Software’s previous games, of gradually picking the pieces up of a fragmented story and building those layers, building that depth, figuring things out for yourself, that’s still very much intact in this game.” What this means is that character customization will be limited, if it’s present at all. No more are the days of the Wanderer, the Sorcerer, or the Deprived. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice will be about a samurai, and that’s all.
Historically speaking, the Dark Souls games have been lacking in player mobility. Undead warriors who can slay the greatest foes with ease are stopped dead in their tracks by the smallest of ledges. Treasure galore lies impossibly out of reach, all because there’s a small rise in the path that our fatty hero can’t jump over.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice will not only include the grappling hook, but also a dedicated jump button. Since the early days of Nintendo, jumping has been such a common game mechanic that there has always been a button dedicated to the action. It’s only recently that we’ve seen the emergence of top-tier games that decided to forgo that standard. For franchises such as Gears of War and Hyrule Warriors it’s become expected, but there was a loud uproar from fans who were initially disappointed by the absence of a jump function in God of War.
Dark Souls has some marvelous level design with intertwining regions that connect to each other through narrative clues and hidden shortcuts. As players ascend out of the notorious Blighttown, they have to scale up a labyrinth of rotting wooden scaffolding and ladders. It’s a tedious and drawn out process that can prove fatal after even the slightest misstep. But what if we could simply grapple to the top? What if we were able to leap over the dragon riding Nameless King in Dark Souls III? What if we could take to the skies and strike from the air like the Survey Corps of Attack On Titan?
From Software’s combat mechanics have evolved very little over the years. In Dark Souls, players can succeed in almost any situation simply by blocking with an effective shield until there’s an opening to attack. Bloodborne built upon the the Dark Souls combat system but introduced a bit of variation by nerfing shields and replacing them with firearms that would stun enemies when timed correctly. The new approach encouraged more aggressive combat strategies, rewarding players for offensive plays with small portions of restored health. With Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice adding airborne traversal, it’s possible that this will add a new layer to combat. While we might see something like this in Sekiro, it’s more likely that we’ll see something like this in future From Software IPs.
At this stage, little is certain. We won’t get the chance to play it for ourselves until next year, but there is plenty to speculate about Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and how it will impact future From Software titles.
Anything we missed? Give us your thoughts below!