When a game becomes successful, pretenders inevitably follow. Such was the case for 2011’s Dark Souls, which was received rapturously by critics and audiences alike and instantly became a celebrated cult classic. The difficulty peaks and troughs of Dark Souls are simultaneously loved and loathed by gamers everywhere. Although there are many that love Dark Souls enough to write entire think pieces about its bosses, there are still some that aren’t too keen. Nevertheless, one thing is for certain: Dark Souls is an incredibly influential game if nothing else.
To understand the entire genre of games that sprang up after the release of Dark Souls, we have to understand why it was so influential to begin with. The environmental storytelling philosophy of the game has been well-documented by both critics and the game’s devoted fan community, but when looking at the Souls-like genre (for it is named thus), it’s the combat that seems to have been the biggest carry-over. The combat in Dark Souls is slow, methodical and deliberate, emphasizing careful stamina management and observation of one’s enemy. Frequently, players find themselves in single combat with oversized knights or monstrous fauna, watching for the moment said enemy becomes vulnerable and mistakes can be punished by counter-attacks.
Combat in Dark Souls harks back to NES games like Castlevania, in which enemy attack patterns must be understood and exploited if the player hopes to achieve success. The enemy placement in Dark Souls takes advantage not only of each enemy’s unique style but also of the environment. Poison rats, for example, which can easily be circled around to dodge their attacks, are placed on precipitous walkways, while blowdart snipers and crossbow-wielding undead are hidden away atop distant towers. Put simply, combat in Dark Souls is holistic, enemies working in tandem with their environment to challenge players in creative and interesting ways.
While it’s true that world design, online play, and exploration are all factors developers are taking notice of when developing Souls-likes, the crucial cornerstone of the series for many is definitely its combat. The central tenets of Souls-like combat can be identified by looking not just at what Dark Souls does, but what its imitators do as well. The idea of stamina management is crucial to the Souls identity; it’s been used before in other titles, but rarely with such weight or significance. Second is the notion of “commitment,” or starting an animation that can’t be easily finished or traded for another animation if a mistake is made.
This lends a sense of weight and realism to combat; after all, there is a point in reality beyond which momentum dictates we cannot stop swinging a sword. Similarly, drinking a healing Estus Flask or using some other item in Dark Souls can’t be canceled once players have started, which feeds into the idea of allocating time in battle to make sure your decisions are well-timed and executed well. Enemies in Souls-like combat are also capable of making mistakes (including, amusingly, drinking their own Estus Flasks at the wrong time), and these systems are almost always based around watching for the right moment when an enemy makes a mistake and exploiting it with a well-timed strike. These games also often feature blocking and dodging systems designed to create those openings and give players a chance to press an initiative.
The first actual, bona fide Souls-like is arguably Lords of the Fallen, developed by German studio Deck13, and it’s here that we first start to see the overt influence of Dark Souls exert itself on the gaming industry. Lords of the Fallen is, to put it charitably, very derivative of Dark Souls. Like its inspiration, Lords centers its combat around stamina management and enemy attack patterns. Enemies in Lords are slow and methodical, with main character Harkyn able to punish them should they miss him with a weapon swing or lunge. The crucial comparison to Dark Souls comes with the inability of Harkyn to cancel attack animations; when the player commits to an attack, they leave themselves open for punishment just as much as enemies do. It’s this trade-off that arguably characterizes Dark Souls combat: judging when to launch into an unstoppable attack animation and when to exploit an enemy that has done the same.
From Software’s own iteration and expansion of the Dark Souls formula would come in 2015 with Bloodborne. The DNA of Bloodborne‘s combat is similar to that of its sister franchise, based as it is around stamina management and observing enemy attack patterns. The crucial difference comes with the game’s speed. Dark Souls is methodical and slow, but Bloodborne is viciously fast, requiring much more precise reactions from players in order to dodge and punish far more aggressive and relentless enemies. Thematically, this fits: Bloodborne‘s rabid world of Lovecraftian horror is more terrifying than oppressive, so the combat shifted to match, with blocking completely removed (save for a joke shield and a magic shield added by the DLC) in favor of a system that allows players to regain health by attacking shortly after being attacked. At its core, though, Bloodborne is the same beast as Dark Souls, still based on watching enemies to exploit weak spots in their attack patterns, still based around having enough stamina, still structurally similar to Dark Souls. Thus, the formula can evolve and new concepts can be explored without changing the fundamental DNA of what the series stands for.
It is worth noting here that many of the core concepts crystallized in Dark Souls actually originated in its predecessor, Demon’s Souls. Demon’s Souls was released back in 2009 for the PS3 and features pretty much the exact same combat as Dark Souls, albeit with slightly less smooth animations. The core tenets of Souls combat are visible in Demon’s Souls. Like its spiritual successor, Demon’s Souls encourages careful forward planning and observation of enemies before attacking. Attacks in Demon’s Souls can’t be canceled, so when players make an attack they must be absolutely sure it’s the right decision. Equipment choices feel distinct in Demon’s Souls as they do in Dark Souls, with heavier armor leading to slower attack and dodge animations and lighter armor making players more dextrous and less resilient. Weapons, too, resemble their Dark Souls counterparts, with huge greatswords doing more damage but taking more time to swing.
It’s not just in the 3D space that Dark Souls exerts its influence. Plenty of 2D Souls-likes utilize a similar template, with games like Unworthy and Salt and Sanctuary replicating the dodge-and-poke Dark Souls gameplay loop to varying degrees of success. 3D isn’t crucial to the look and feel of Souls combat; all that’s needed are unique enemies with memorable attack patterns, dodge and block mechanics, and different weapons which alter players’ attack animations in such a way as to make character classes feel distinct.
Elsewhere, in the triple-A sphere, developers are starting to sit up and take notice of Dark Souls (customarily, the triple-A space seems to be slower to adopt trends than indie gaming, probably thanks to its size). Nioh, a triple-A offering developed by Team Ninja, is strongly influenced by Dark Souls but carries with it echoes of games like Ninja Gaiden (for which Team Ninja is responsible) in its weapon stance system and unlockable weapon skills. Still, the core combat is centered around blocking and dodging, watching for enemy weak spots and exploiting them, and committing to an attack without being able to quickly course-correct if things go wrong. According to Kotaku’s Jason Schreier, for a while Blizzard was working on a Diablo-related project codenamed Hades that would derive significant influence from Dark Souls, taking that game’s third-person camera perspective (as opposed to Diablo‘s usual isometric camera angle) and challenging dungeon-crawling gameplay loop. How the game would have actually turned out, we’ll never know, since Schreier’s source says Hades was “not shaping up” and was canceled. Recently, Darksiders III traded the series’ God of War-inspired combat system for a more Souls-esque take on fighting, with replenishing health potions, careful enemy observation and more punishment for failure than the series has previously featured.
So, where next for Souls-like combat? From Software’s own answer appears to be the upcoming Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a ninja game that looks a bit like Dark Souls but clearly takes cues from franchises like Tenchu and Ninja Gaiden too. Sekiro is keen to establish itself as its own entity, with combat gaining a vertical dimension thanks to the main character’s grappling hook. Stamina (and, indeed, health) are less important forces in a system that director Hidetaka Miyazaki has described as a representation of samurai combat. It’s still possible to see the series’ DNA in Sekiro—enemies with predictable attack patterns, commitment to attacks—but this seems to be where From Software wants to take its vaunted formula next. In the realm of Souls-likes, we’re starting to see games based around ranged weapons rather than melee, which (successful or not) asks new questions about how much this formula depends on close-quarters fighting.
In the end, however different the world design and general goal of Souls-like games is, the combat is what characterizes the genre and defines it. That system based on the triple prongs of stamina management, attack animation commitment, and enemy pattern observation is crucial to the feel of a Souls-like game. It’s what gives these titles their methodical feel and sets them apart from combo-based stylish combat systems like those in Devil May Cry or Bayonetta. Salt and Sanctuary, Nioh, and even Bloodborne revolve entirely around these core combat values. Deviating from them results in a system that just doesn’t “feel” like a Souls game.