In a recent IGN article, there is an interesting paragraph:
Bloodborne, released in 2015, in-between Dark Souls 2 and 3, saw FromSoft step out from behind the safety of its shield and go wildly on the offensive. By all-but-removing the player’s ability to block attacks, Bloodborne doubled down on a specific mode of playing a Souls game: rapidly dodging the enemy’s attacks and furiously countering with your own.
The implication behind what is said here is huge: Soulslike games feature such diverse play styles and combat system that a specific way of playing them became a whole different game altogether. Understanding this diversity is the key to understanding why From Software raised the standard of RPG combat to a whole different level.
Before we get to that, a brief history lesson. No, don’t let your mind wander off. It’ll be over soon.
The point of RPG games, ever since the ancient days of Tabletop role-playing, has always been to provide an opportunity for the player to customize their experience by the class they choose and the items they equip. For a long time, this diversity remained at a reasonable level: if you’re a fighter, you get close and personal with the enemy; if you’re a mage, you throw spells from afar, if you’re an archer, you do the same thing as the mage, but instead of your mana bar, you manage your ammunition.
But then, in the year 2000, a game was released that some how changed everything. That game was Diablo II. What Diablo II did was show everyone how deep the rabbit hole goes when it comes to the depth of RPG combat. Diablo II has 7 classes (2 were added in the expansion pack) and each class has a skill tree with three different categories. David Brevik, the guy who came up with this idea, said he thought of it while he was in the shower, thinking of Civilization II’s technology trees. So we shall add ARPG skill trees to the long list of shower thoughts that changed the world.
In your first play-through of Diablo II, it’s impossible to fully master one category, let alone the whole skill tree. So the player is forced to choose a certain play style and stick with it. In other words, in Diablo 2 not only do you have a player who’s a Druid expert, but you also have a Druid expert whose expertise is summoning. Thanks to the online features of the game, and the extreme challenge of the higher difficulty levels, Diablo II became the ultimate way for players to express themselves through their class/build or even show off their specific skills to other players.
Blizzard realized that they hit the jackpot with Diablo II’s class/skill tree system and they made a game that used the potential of this system to the fullest. You know what game I’m talking about; the equivalent of the 1980s cocaine epidemic in the 2000s: World of Warcraft. This MMO became the ultimate RPG for people who wanted the class they chose and the items they built to make all the difference in the world. The feeling of having the exact class/build that people needed for a big raid was incredible. It made you believe what you decided to be good at truly mattered.
In a way, Soulslike games belong to the same tradition that Blizzard established for RPGs. They provide different classes and builds that each radically changes the way the game is played. The huge difference is that Diablo II has an isometric point-and-click combat system and WoW has the “spam abilities on your Hotbar” combat system that is typical for MMO games. But the combat system in Soulslike games is as dynamic and exciting as a kick-ass hack & slash game, and as deep and varied as a class-based action RPG or MMO. In other words, a soulslike combat system has the best of both worlds.
There is a Youtube channel by the name of Crozyn. The guy behind the channel has published ۲۵ videos about different Dark Souls 1 builds. In each one he explains how it works and then tries it in PVP. What I personally found interesting in his explanations is that in each build, even the weapon you choose can have important consequences. So if you’re going for a pure Strength build, one heavy weapon is not interchangeable with another when it comes to strategy. Just imagine the level of nuance.
Another great aspect of Soulslike combat is how the game low-key rewards you with a smoother game-play if you manage to… for the lack of a better phrase… git gud. For example, there are two different approaches you can take to defense: dodging and blocking. Blocking is the more reliable, but slower way of defending yourself. If you make yourself a full tank (like wearing full Havel Armor) and equip a nice shield, there’s not much that can stand in your way and with enough patience, you can overcome most of the game’s challenges. But the keyword here is “patience” because as a full tank, you’re like a turtle made of rock.
But all the cool kids on Youtube, the ones who make these crazy videos that make you feel insecure about your skills – like Finishing Dark Souls without taking a hit – don’t bother with shields and blocking. Hell, they don’t even bother with armor. They know the patterns of enemy attack so well, they are so confident in their rolling and strafing skills, that they just pick one high-damage weapon, hold it with both hands (which makes it do more damage) and go around Lordran as a butt-naked zombie, one-shotting every monster that comes along their way. Dark Souls makes playing as a glass cannon look like the most badass skill ever.
This is ultimately the main attraction behind Soulslike games, and more generally, “git gud” games, like Cuphead, Ninja Gaiden, and the new DOOM games on a higher difficulty. Contrary to popular belief, git gud games are not simply hard. They can be very hard or very easy depending on your skill level. When people praise the difficulty of Soulslike games, they are not being elitists. If difficulty by itself was a praiseworthy quality, then we would all be worshippers at the altar of 80s arcade games. But the intention behind the difficulty of those games was to persuade kids to feed the arcade machine with more coins. While on the other hand, the difficulty of “git gud” games is calculated and skill reliant.
Dark Souls popularized the notion of “git gud” because it combined RPG depth with flashy hack & slash combat. This combat system didn’t wholly rely on stat-checking; well-timed reactions never became unnecessary as you got stronger. You will always get punished for being careless and making glaring mistakes.
This combat system became even deeper and more satisfying with the addition of “weapon arts” or “skills” in Dark Souls 3 and Elden Ring. In Elden Ring, which is the apex of everything From Software has learned about designing combat systems, every single weapon type (of which there are 31) and every single skill (of which there are around 100) creates a whole different feel to the combat. What makes this more impressive is that by using items called “Ashes of War”, you can change the skill of a weapon, creating an even bigger variety of the ways each weapon works. Add all the game’s weird weapons to the mix, and you’ve got yourself all the RPG depth you need in the world. Honorable mention goes to Ghiza’s Wheel, which is technically a Chainsaw reimagined as a sword/spear, and Hand Ballistas, which temporarily turns Elden Ring into a tank simulator.
And that wraps it up. As they say, all those who reach greatness stand on the shoulders of giants. And Soulsborne games owe their greatness to a lot of giants, from so many different fields. One glaring example of that is the combat system of these games, which takes inspiration from the best possible sources, from the way they look to the way they work.