It’s time for Ask Kotaku, the weekly feature in which Kotaku-ites deliberate on a single burning question. Then, we ask your take.
This week we Ask Kotaku: How do you rank the “Soulsborne” games?
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice: While not as “traditional” a Souls game as From Software’s other offerings, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is at the top of my list because, for a long time, it ruined its cousins for me.
Rather than rely on the careful manoeuvring and spacing seen in other Souls games, combat in Sekiro is a beautiful dance of blades that feels more rhythm game than action. I’ve never felt more accomplished in defeating a Souls boss than when I perfectly parried horse-riding spearman Gyoubu Masataka Oniwa, used my grappling arm to launch toward him as he retreated, and landed the killing blow.
And much like the other Souls games on this list, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice tells a story in hints and whispers. There’s so much hidden lore in this game that the end is simply a series of confusing, mounting climaxes if you didn’t pay attention along the way. For some reason, I love that.
Bloodborne: Similar to Sekiro, a few of the new gameplay additions in Bloodborne made it hard to go back to earlier Souls games, particularly the Rally system. I relished in the ability to regain health by simply attacking enemies who got a lucky swipe on me.
And don’t even get me started on the Trick weapons; while your arsenal in Bloodborne is much more limited compared to Dark Souls, the way every weapon can switch between two modes — many in the middle of a combo — doubled every new discovery.
Also, as a huge fan of weird horror, I loved Bloodborne’s dabbling in Lovecraftian monstrosities. The game slowly descends into madness, and by the end, you feel like you’re taking the whole universe on your shoulders.
Dark Souls: I didn’t get into Dark Souls until much later, but it still stands the test of time as the best entry in the original series. The interconnectivity of the world, the satisfyingly brutal combat, and yes even the jankiness of Blighttown combine to make a really special experience. It may feel a little dated now, especially with newer games like Sekiro and Bloodborne having arguably improved on the base Souls formula, but returning to Lordran in the 2018 remaster felt like coming home.
Demon’s Souls: I really only played Demon’s Souls by way of this year’s PlayStation 5 remake, but let me tell you, it was incredible. Bluepoint Games did such a phenomenal job recreating the classic PlayStation 3 game that I was able to navigate its world with ease thanks to my minimum knowledge of the original. It’s the best PlayStation 5 game on the market.
That said, once you get down to it, some aspects of Demon’s Souls really pale in comparison to the games that came after it. The breadth of weaponry is paltry, as is the collection of spells you’re able to compile. I had a great time during my first playthrough, but I don’t really see any reason to play it again as a different starting class.
Dark Souls III: I’m gonna be straight with you and say I don’t really remember much about Dark Souls III despite beating it multiple times. I recall really enjoying the game, but no significant moments are coming to mind. About the only thing that sticks out right now is that the worlds of Dark Souls and Dark Souls II converging was pretty cool.
Dark Souls II: Oh god, Dark Souls II. Where do I begin?
Let me start by saying that no Souls game is bad, not even the redheaded stepchild that is Dark Souls II. It’s more Dark Souls, after all, and that can never be a bad thing. The only problem is that it didn’t really carry over the soul of the original. Rather than being interconnected in smart, understandable ways, the world feels like a random mishmash of environments with no discernible continuity between them. The bosses are either boring or superficially difficult. None of the characters really stand out, either.
Dark Souls II was my first true Souls game, and for that it will always hold a special place in my heart. But after broadening my horizons, I can see why folks were disappointed with it at the time. Is it the worst game in the world? Not even close. But as a Souls game, it’s missing the heart, the essence, the (pardon me) soul of the pseudo-genre in glaring ways that can’t be ignored.
A confession: I’ve never really played a “Soulsborne” game. Will that stop me from ranking them? No way! Why should a prerequisite like “playing the game” prevent me from having an opinion? Seems unfair. So, without further ado, here is the definitive ranking of these games, despite what my ostensibly more-educated colleagues may tell you.
Bloodborne: When I say I’ve never played a Soulsborne game, that’s, like, 99.9999% true. At the behest of friends and colleagues (including two people weighing in on this post), I promised I’d give Bloodborne a shot. I did. Over the course of 90 minutes, I customised a true nightmare of a character — certainly more of a monster than anything you’d fight in the game. I then fought something that looked like a werewolf? And then I put the game down. I haven’t picked it back up.
Dark Souls III: Threequels are often the weakest entries of their respective franchises. For every Witcher 3, there’s a Mass Effect 3 or an Assassin’s Creed III. For every Skate 3, there’s an SSX 3. For every Halo 3, there’s an Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, a Fable 3, a Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (technically the third release, definitely the weakest), an XCOM: Chimera Squad. I could go on. Point is, it’s safer to assume a threequel is a stinker.
Dark Souls II: This game is just a tremendous missed opportunity. Darker Souls was RIGHT THERE! Unforgivable.
Dark Souls: This one goes in the middle because I’m scared of readers who will go all Dark Souls on me if I put it too low or too high.
Demon’s Souls (on PS5): By most accounts, last month’s remake of Demon’s Souls for the PlayStation 5 is a shining star of the console’s launch lineup. The original might be a thousand years old, but the remake feels like a truly new game — and also happens to be really, really, really pretty. Plus, Ian’s been killing it with Demon’s Soul coverage. I might have skipped out on the game, but I’ve still been able to read about players leaping off ledges, glitching past cryptic doors, and turning their custom characters into Kanye West. I’ve also been able to read about rubber ducks. If nothing else, Demon’s Souls remake has blessed me with a whole lot of great reading.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (on PS5): Let’s run it down. You play as a shinobi (cool) in 16th-century Japan (cool!) named the Wolf (cool!) with a tricked-out prosthetic arm (cool!!) and a grappling hook (can’t get any cooler!!). No, I haven’t played Sekiro. You better bet it’s near the top of my backlog, though.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order: OK, sure, deeming Fallen Order a Soulsborne game invalidates my initial confession. (I played and loved the game.) But screw it. I’ll fall on this lightsaber: Fallen Order is a Soulsborne game. And yes, it’s the best one. No further questions.
Bloodborne: Of all the Soulsborne games, I’ve only played Bloodborne. For some inexplicable reason, I ignored every one of my personal aversions to the Souls games, and decided I wanted to play one so I asked my partner for his suggestion. He suggested, since I had never engaged with that kind of “it is intentionally hard” kind of game before, that I would most enjoy Bloodborne and holy crap was he right. I was immediately sucked in. The world, the fighting mechanics, the weapons, I loved everything about that game. While I did not like the constant dying and resetting (fuck you Father Gascoigne!) it was never so frustrating that I wanted to quit. When I beat the game, I wanted to recapture that feeling of awe and problem solving. I asked my partner again what he would suggest and he told me to try Dark Souls III.
I quit because I couldn’t beat Iudex Gundyr and never picked up another Soulsborne game.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice: I know I just said I never picked up another Soulsborne game so how could I rank Sekiro if I’ve never played it? Well, I watched my partner play a majority of the game and based on what I saw, if I were ever to pick up a FromSoftware game again…it’d be Elden Ring, but considering that will never happen in my lifetime it’d be Sekiro. The combat looks interesting and challenging but above all: it has a story.
Everything else: Yep.
Dark Souls: The first Dark Souls is my favourite overall. It’s notoriously imperfect — the drop-off around Anor Londo is all too real — but Dark Souls gets far more right, and I cherish my memories of struggling to conquer its wild mysteries on that eventful first run. Another reason I rank it highly is because this game has legs, not least of all because of its tremendous mod scene, which has disassembled every atom of the base game to learn how to rebuild it into increasingly elaborate, and often shockingly high-quality, new adventures. (On a personal note, I made the ninth most-endorsed Dark Souls mod. My little claim to fame.) I look forward to diving into one of the total overhaul mods sometime.
Demon’s Souls: Long before the first human tongue uttered “Soulsborne” there was Demon’s Souls, and holy shit was it a breath of fresh air, as has been documented extensively over the past 11 years. I was glued to the PlayStation 3 as I slowly clawed my way through the decayed beauty of Boletaria.
It’s funny, out of all these games, Demon’s Souls probably has the most areas I find unpleasant to play through — god damn that swamp — but this first game’s unique combination of atmosphere, lore, and naked innovation still feels fresh in 2020. Going back to Demon’s Souls reminds me how electric and bold Souls games felt before they inevitably got distilled to a formula. A high-quality formula, but a formula nonetheless. For all its rough edges, this first batch still retains its potency. (Fuck world tendency, though.)
Bloodborne: Of all the Souls games perhaps Bloodborne does the most things right, to the point you could almost objectively call it the best of the lot. Freed a little from the conventions of prior entries, From’s experiments with faster, more aggressive action, procedural generation, larger weapon movesets, and a compelling new backdrop paid off handsomely. But while Bloodborne is superb on paper, I don’t quite love it, and I’ve yet to push all the way to the end. One factor is Souls fatigue. Another is that this is the first Soulsborne game I’ve had to play on console since Demon’s, and the iffy performance (that framepacing!) and load times bum me out. PS4 is not my jam. Still, I’m due for a return.
Dark Souls II: I had the strange experience of reviewing Dark Souls II before it launched, so every aspect felt super mysterious. While I enjoyed it enough not to pan it, I also wondered “is this really it?” The jokes about Dark Souls II being developed by a “B team” felt distressingly apt. I’m still appalled over how badly your character controls if you don’t fix the input with mods, and that it took From several years to patch the aggravating 60 fps weapon degradation bug.
The most obvious cracks come in the world and level design; the tight, interlocking paths of the prior game give way to random-feeling sprawl. Dark Souls II feels like fast food: It tastes ok in small doses and will do in a fix, but it’s mostly an imitation of something better. (Unless you like Souls PvP, then this game rules.) On the bright side, some cool mods are coming out — alas, my own was not successful — and they’ll be a good opportunity to give the controversial Scholars of the First Sin revamp a shot. Not to mention the well-regarded DLC, in the off chance my interest can persist that long.
Dark Souls III: Dark Souls III proved conclusively that even full-fledged Souls games guided by Miyazaki could succumb to formula fatigue. I was bored. It never clicked. I stopped fairly early in. I’ll return sometime, and hopefully appreciate it more, but it left a bad impression.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice: I’ve always been a dodger and a blocker more than a parrier, so a game that focused on deflects? Yikes. I played about two-thirds of Sekiro, and while I enjoyed the world and exploration, I never felt I truly learned how to play properly. Maybe my reflexes are too far gone, but I found the rock-paper-scissors aspect of deflect/dodge/special counter endlessly frustrating, and whenever I beat a boss I felt like I’d stumbled through instead of mastering what the game intended for me to master. This developed into a huge complex to the point that I dreaded each successive boss encounter’s battle of attrition. Ah, dread. Just what I look for in my leisure time.
How About You?
Kotaku’s weighed in, but what’s your take? What’s your personal tier list for From Software’s unexpectedly influential action-RPGs? Have your say! We’ll be back next week to deliberate and debate on another nerdy issue. See you in the comments!