Despite being founded in 1986, Japanese developer FromSoftware only recently reached its peak popularity with the massive success of the Souls series and its spinoffs (dubbed “Soulsborne” by fans). The first entry in the series, 2009’s Demon’s Souls, departed from industry norms by eschewing the needless hand-holding shoehorned into most major role-playing games, instead crafting a challenging experience that rewards players for investing time and patience.
Over a decade later, Soulsborne mechanics have made their way into every corner of the games industry, from artsy indie titles such as Hollow Knight to releases as broad as Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. Now, FromSoftware is currently developing Elden Ring, a new property in collaboration with “A Song of Ice and Fire” novelist George R.R. Martin. By combining Soulsborne’s unrivaled gameplay with Martin’s rich world building, Elden Ring promises to be another in a long line of stellar entries to FromSoftware’s catalog.
While some triple-A franchises such as Assassin’s Creed have grown stale after a few entries, Soulsborne stands out due to FromSoftware’s ability to innovate on top of a recognizable foundation. In each of the Soulsborne games, players are given minimal direction and are allowed to explore a massive, beautifully designed world that interconnects and twists back around on itself. When players die, instead of simply reloading at a checkpoint they leave all experience points behind. If unable to retrieve the points before dying again, players lose them forever. Death, in Soulsborne games, is therefore part of the tool set the player uses to learn enemy moves and explore the trap-laden, mazelike maps.
Despite their structural similarities, however, these FromSoftware titles feature enough variations on the formula to become unique gameplay experiences. Here, we’ve ranked some of the best entries in the Soulsborne series.
Dark Souls III (2016)
As far as high fantasy worlds go, Dark Souls III’s brooding, awe-inspiring environments are completely unmatched. Perhaps the most polished Souls game, Dark Souls III’s combat also is far more fluid and responsive than any of the previous titles. There are seemingly infinite permutations for load-out options, allowing players to use longswords, broadswords, axes, hammers, bows, magical spells and a multitude of gadgets. Because of its old-school difficulty, players are forced to experiment with every option made available, creating varied and well-rounded play styles.
The added mobility and the more precise hit boxes in Dark Souls III also make the difficulty feel less cheap. Enemies chain together strings of powerful moves, any of which are capable of killing players instantly, but players never feel incapable of navigating the obstacles — at least, with enough practice. The constant sense of slow-but-rewarding progression turns once insurmountable bosses into cakewalks after players have learned their tricks.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (2019)
For FromSoftware’s newest Soulslike game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the series’ medieval mise-en-scène is traded in for an entrancing, beautifully stylized feudal Japan. Unlike other Soulsborne games, which allow players to create their own unvoiced characters, Sekiro has a more complex protagonist in Wolf, a ninja who relies primarily on his katana in combat. While Sekiro doesn’t allow players to swap weapons, the posture-based sword fighting system is so engaging and the hard-won victories are so gratifying that Sekiro more than makes up for its lack of customization.
Each new boss has a specific strength that can be devastating if not appropriately mitigated by a player’s battle strategy. While Dark Souls rewards a strategy of dodging enemy attacks and periodically dealing small amounts of damage, Sekiro takes a different approach to fighting, instead teaching players to find a rhythm in battles. Instead of chipping away at enemy health, Sekiro urges players to stagger their enemies, take advantage of openings in posture and deal single, satisfying death blows.
The first spinoff to the Souls series, PlayStation 4 exclusive Bloodborne also brought the Souls formula to a brilliant original setting. Now in a Victorian England-inspired gothic urban landscape, players assume control of the Hunter. On a quest to find the source of a blood-borne virus, players battle werewolves, giant spiders and insane torch-wielding townsfolk as they navigate the dying city.
The combat, though reminiscent of Souls, is again tweaked to suit Bloodborne’s unique identity. In addition to a reskinned version of the series-typical healing item, players can quickly strike back after taking damage to regain some of the lost health. This simple change, paired with the ability to stun attacking enemies with a long-range weapon, makes for completely different gameplay. Faster-paced boss battles favor an offensive approach, and each melee weapon has an alternate state that allows players to dynamically adapt their fighting style midbattle.
Though music is stellar throughout the Soulsborne series, Bloodborne’s score is particularly vital in imbuing the boss battles with an epic dramatic quality. As a result, Bloodborne features some of FromSoftware’s most cinematic gameplay — all without the generic scripted set pieces that plague too many triple-A games.