It’s incredible, really, that in seven short years the devilish Dark Souls series has spun five games from its web. Each entry is brilliant in its own distinct way but when you’re treated to so much effortless quality, it’s easy to take them for granted. The temptation is to nitpick, to square them off against one another, to single out subjective preferences.
One of the great joys of Dark Souls is the debate it inspires. Taken as a whole, the series has transformed the landscape of our hobby forever with standout boss fights, locations, lore and downloadable content that extend the life of these games. Moment after moment, etched in history. Demon’s Souls started it all. Dark Souls followed, and two more sequels refined the experience, while the gothic horror Blodborne illustrated just how much ground there was to mine.
On a granular level, Soulsborne (as fans like to call them) has managed to change the way we play. Take a trope like dying. In lesser titles, dying yanks you back to a previous checkpoint where you faithfully repeat the exercise until you get a combination of button presses right. Nothing lost, nothing gained. Not so here.
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While the message ‘You Died’ is splashed self-knowingly across the screen – and is so omnipresent it has written itself in to folklore – the purpose of death takes on far greater import. Death is a cycle of life, an act of regeneration, and the repercussion for risk-taking in the ultimate cat-and-mouse experience. Each time you die, you lose souls, the currency that underpins every transaction in the game. Progress is impossible without pushing forward, but with it, you run the risk of losing your hard-accrued cash. What ensues is a delicate balancing act where no step is taken lightly.
This week marks the release of the Ashes of Ariandel DLC for Dark Souls III, the first of two packs dedicated to extending the ‘life’ of the final chapter in the franchise. You can read what I thought of the game in my review here, but playing through it inspired me to go back through the series and rank them all from worst to best.
In a sense, I’m playing devil’s advocate, but to be different, I’ve decided to include third-party titles that copy the Souls playbook, too. One of these games successfully copies the risk-reward dichotomy that sits at the heart of Dark Souls while the others largely miss the mark. Can you guess which is successful? Read on to find out.