Ranking the Souls games by FromSoftware is a difficult proposition. Each game is a deeply personal experience; a player’s enjoyment depends entirely on their ability to navigate and understand each game’s rules to overcome its challenges. For many players, the first time a Souls experience “click” is likely to be the most memorable. There is nothing more satisfying than finally understanding how to play a Souls game.
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The following ranking of FromSoftware games is based on a few factors. Much of it is subjective, stemming from my own experience with each title. But I will also consider more objective factors, including the legacy of each title, and how much each list item lives up to the promise of the notoriously challenging “Souls-like” genre, which allows players to permanently upgrade their properties and stats, giving them the opportunity to tackle the increasingly difficult battles ahead.
The last part is especially important to keep in mind when looking at the lowest ranked title on this list.
7. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (2019)
“Sekiro” is an exemplary showcase for action design. Its parry-and-deflect system makes it probably the tightest and most beautiful sword fighting system in the video game medium. But its lack of flexibility also makes it the most difficult title from FromSoftware. It is without a doubt too difficult for many players. If a player can not get the rhythm and timing down when it comes to diverting lightning-fast katana attacks, they are unlikely to be able to advance through the game.
That’s why “Sekiro” is the worst Soul-like game. Contrary to many people’s beliefs, soul-like games are not only defined by their severity (usually in the form of a mechanic, whereby players lose experience after each death). They are also role-playing games at heart. In “Sekiro” there is no real way to customize the player character. They can earn skills and a few weapons, but the central gameplay with attacks and counterattacks simply can not be ignored. There are bosses meant to shield a player’s progress: If you can not resist and distract Genichiro Ashina, the boss who appears halfway in “Sekiro”, then forget about playing the rest of the game.
In terms of pure action games, “Sekiro” is a huge achievement and one of the finest ever made. Its roots as a reboot of the classic ninja series, Tenchu also introduced a grappling hook and jumping abilities that added a new verticality to FromSoftware’s level design, an idea that would reappear in “The Fire Ring.” But because it leads players toward one style of play, like a master ninja and nothing else, it’s hard to call this a role-playing game. Of all the games created by the studio since “Demon’s Souls”, this is the game that caters most to action game purists. However, it barely fits – if at all – to the definition of the genre FromSoftware created.
“Dark Souls 3” has very few new ideas to contribute to the Souls-like formula. Instead, the third and final part of the Dark Souls series is incredibly self-conscious: It’s a “greatest hits” collection of FromSoftware’s design concepts. The story itself even acknowledges how the Dark Souls experience can interfere. You can see that FromSoftware intended the third game to be a swan song for the series, fine-tuning many of the elements of the original “Demon’s Souls” formula to provide greater player customization, availability, and power. Its world design is a mixture of the twisted, fold-on-itself nature of the first “Dark Souls” and the linearity and breadth of the second game.
“Dark Souls 3” is such a comprehensive Souls experience that it’s easy to see why it might top many fan lists. But given the new ideas that every other game on this list – including “Sekiro” – contributes to the formula, this is the least important Souls game.
The first sequel has a bad reputation, and it is perhaps the most famous mismanaged of FromSoftware’s projects. It started out too technically ambitious (it famously had to avoid a complicated lighting system because it was too much for the seventh generation of video game consoles), and it’s the only game on this list not directly controlled by series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki. It lost one of its instructors halfway through the development, leaving co-director and longtime ForSoftware developer Yui Tanimura to not only direct the game himself, but save an incomplete project from the assets built for the initial, graphics-intensive vision . You can feel the strain in “Dark Souls 2” as it literally stretches across many regions; it hardly makes sense geographically. The game is filled with enemy encounters that push the boundaries of acceptable difficulty.
But “Dark Souls 2” can very reasonably be called “The Fire Ring version 0.5.” All the great ideas from the latest game are rooted in “Dark Souls 2”, including the scope and scope of its world, the mythology and the expanded usability of weapons and player buildings. It’s perhaps also the saddest game in the Dark Souls trilogy, if not the entire genre. It tells the story of the lost King Vendrick of Drangleic; when you finally meet the monarch, players are greeted with the loneliest image the series has yet to evoke.
Tanimura would continue to direct the best downloadable content for “Dark Souls 3” and co-direct “The Fire Ring”, his vision was finally fulfilled. “Dark Souls 2” is the game that helped define the “Elden Rings” journey, both in the development and the final product’s experience of crossing a wide area of dungeons and castles.
Souls of the Demon (2009, 2020)
“Demon’s Souls” is a milestone that defines the subgenre of Souls-like video games. Some of the best, most enduring ideas in the series can be traced back to this exclusive PlayStation 3, which was originally commissioned by Sony to compete with Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series. Instead, series creator Miyazaki decided to sharpen his focus on the most engaging aspects of a role-playing adventure, including the feel of each combat scenario and the density and details of the surroundings. There is a purity in its design, modeled after “Super Mario Bros.” approach to having levels within levels, marked by epic, sometimes puzzle-like battles. Thanks to its innate focus on a player community that would exchange tips and experiences online among the franchise’s growing fan base, the Souls genre was able to survive and grow large enough to encourage its legendary spiritual successors.
“Demon’s Souls” was unlike any role-playing game that came before. Even Sony thought the market would not embrace it. But once it found its audience, it never let go of the audience. It is a game driven solely by vision and faith in its players. It is still, today and forever, the purest Souls experience.
While “Sekiro” is a pure action game, this exclusive PlayStation 4 is the successful marriage between the role-playing elements of the Souls formula and fast-paced battles. It is also home to probably the most connected world outside the first “Dark Souls”. It’s the only game that offers “trick weapons”, tools that have dual features that you can access at the touch of a button. A sharp stick can turn into a chained whip, while a saw can stretch into an ugly, long spear. This tool gives the player some power of action in how to tackle one of the more difficult games on this list.
In addition to its game design, “Bloodborne” is perhaps unsurpassed in its ability to frame its matches. Throughout the base game, players will hear the whisper of Ludwig the Holy Blade, a great but misguided warrior who waged the futile battle against the night creatures. In the downloadable chapter “The Old Hunters”, players finally face Ludwig, the “cursed” sacred blade, and find him fused with his horse and deprived of his mental abilities. It is not until he realizes that his trustworthy sword was inside his body all the time that he regains one last appearance of humanity and defends himself against the player. Moments like these – among the most memorable in the medium as a whole – drive “Bloodborne” to the top of this list.
“Fire Ring” is any idea in the FromSoftware series of Souls games that is brought to its maximized potential. It’s more comprehensive than “Dark Souls 3.” Its world is wider than it could have ever been in “Dark Souls 2”. Its focus on vertical spaces expands the roof-bouncing ingenuity of “Sekiro”. While lacking the contemporary versatility of trick weapons, “Elden Ring” calls for a mix-and-match approach to playing styles, allowing players to create characters with seemingly limitless opportunities to attack and defend.
It is also true that the game was much almost too big for FromSoftware. Since its launch, the game has seen several updates that fixed missing quest lines and destroyed weapons and abilities. The game is so gigantic that it’s clear that FromSoftware has struggled to keep it a balanced, complete experience. It is to the enormous credit of this game that many of these problems were barely noticeable at first due to the many different experiences offered. Each new, handmade area offers new creatures to fight and new types of challenges to consider. While other games feature enemies in different colors with varying degrees of difficulty, “Fire Ring” spins completely new creatures and races up every few seconds. “Elden Ring” has set a new standard for adventure games.
Yes, some areas in the last half of the original “Dark Souls” have not aged well. But each game on this list has a few areas that in hindsight could have been adjusted. The error steps from “Dark Souls” pale in comparison to what it achieved. Its world design remains the most articulate and coherent of all the games in the series, even in light of the giant “Fire Ring”. It is still a trick that is still not repeated, despite the best efforts of the studio.
It’s the cohesive design, the interrelationship, that gives the world of “Dark Souls” an empathetic feeling that not even “The Fire Ring” can match. While “Fire Ring” extends further, “Dark Souls” is the only game in the series that offers a tangible sense of travel. While many may criticize its decision not to allow players to travel quickly until halfway through the game, it is important to point out how crucial this decision was to let players understand the world they have been forced to navigate. All this, while still giving players the freedom and choice that remained unsurpassed until “The Fire Ring”. This is the game that popularized the genre – and FromSoftware – and it remains the studio’s greatest creative triumph.