A Souls-like is a third person action video game, usually in a fantasy or science fiction setting, known for its difficulty, intricate melee combat mechanics, looping level design with unlockable shortcuts, and stat-based character growth. They’re also the Big Thing™ now. The Demon’s Soul remake and Elden Ring helped launch the current generation of consoles, and even Legend of Zelda is taking pages out of the Souls-like book these days.
Over the course of the last five years, I’ve gone from a person who couldn’t stand them to someone who plays them religiously. Because the genre is so overwhelmingly popular, there are some recurring aspects and trends that have become needlessly cemented as standard. Here are some of those that need to be jettisoned in the name of better game design.
5. Stop Disabling Pause Function
It’s a staple of From Software games that you can’t pause them. This is supposedly to keep the player from disengaging to look at strategy guides or swapping equipment mid-fight. From an aesthetic point of view, it’s kind of neat, but as a busy dad it’s just plain unfair.
Fond as I am of the white-knuckle play style of Bloodborne, it doesn’t stop my kid from spilling their hot dinner on the dog or the million other things I may have to pause a game to take care of. I can’t remember the number of times I thought I’d parked my character in a safe place, only to hear the distant death scream while I was cleaning up a sudden mess. Thankfully, this mechanic does seem to be phasing out of popularity in the genre as a whole, if not in the flagship titles of From Software.
4. Stop Reusing the Same Settings
I’m making my way through Thymesia right now. Good as it is, it’s also literally just Bloodborne with the serial numbers filed off when it comes to the setting and story. The demo for Lies of P is no better. That’s not even counting the endless parade of crumbling castles and derelict tombs I’ve crawled through.
One of the reasons I like The Surge so much is because you finally get to explore something different. There’s no reason a fight can’t take place on the executive level of an office building or in a well-tended garden. Souls-likes are typically grim, but that doesn’t mean everything has to be a rotting Arthurian setting or a broken steampunk one.
3. Stop Trying to Do Dodging and Parrying Equally
The eternal evasion debate: to dodge or to parry. Both have their advantages, but trying to shoehorn them in as equal choices rarely makes a game better.
Combat in a Souls-like is a conversation between the player and the enemy, a back and forth that builds to a crescendo. Like a conversation, a game has to know what it is saying and why it is saying it.
Going back to Thymesia, the parry mechanic is the best thing about it. Each attack must be parried individually, but they also drain enemy life bars, so it is another attack, even as you defend. Coupled with the game’s enemy healing mechanic health, the low pool of recurring monster types, and the recovery on execution buff, the intended way forward is clear. Learn all the parry windows and you’ll go far.
But it also has dodging, which you can buff with stat growth, and which is nearly useless. While it can get you out of a bad situation in a pinch, most enemies don’t have enough stall after attacks to make a successful dodge worth the subsequent punishment. Plus, with no backstab mechanic, there’s little point in getting behind the enemy.
Some players like a dodge, some like a parry, and you’re going to alienate one base by focusing on the other. While that’s unfortunate, it’s better than doing one badly.
2. Stop Denying Players a Chance to Re-Spec
My favorite terrible Souls-like is Lords of the Fallen, and it’s the best example of why being able to reconfigure your character’s stat growth is important. For most of the game, the best weapon builds are staves or daggers, but the last level is almost impossible unless you use heavy weapons to defeat the many armored foes. Just for funsies, the slow, armored build is also terrible for the final boss.
Re-speccing a character should always be an option. Elden Ring does this perfectly by having an early-midgame boss give you the ability and tying that ability to a moderately rare resource. So, you can re-spec only a handful of times, but it’s easy enough to do it once or twice to try out a new style if you’re hitting a wall.
Because so much of a Souls-like is based around character builds, players deserve a chance to experiment without starting over.
1. Stop Killing Every NPC
Again, these are usually grim games. People are eaten by pigs, or turn out to be cannibals, or are just murdered as soon as you agree to do a favor for them. I get that this is part of the charm.
But it doesn’t have to be every damn character. It wouldn’t kill these games to have a few questlines where some characters end up happy. At one point in Elden Ring, I just stopped talking to people because everything I did seemed to make their lives worse. Same for Bloodborne, The Surge 2, Lords of the Fallen, Dark Souls, and more.
It’s become an affectation of the genre, largely because the Dark Souls series is probably about suicide, but it’s not an inherent necessity. Many games just do it because From Software did. Sometimes, a player can bring a little light to the world, even if the rest of the game remains dark and dismal. Little happy endings make interacting with the world more fun.