Since the esoteric Demon’s Souls flew in the face of gaming trends, From Software has become the gold standard to emulate in the world of action/RPGS, providing desolate backdrops where unyielding challenges give way to unprecedented victories. So, how do all the games stack up against one another? Everyone has their tastes and preferences when it comes to Souls titles, and they all have plenty of reasons. Hell, you can go on YouTube and watch literally hours of discourse and analysis on minutia of each game.
The Souls games are about challenge, and they are about triumph. They are about defeating that which cannot be beaten. They are about testing yourself against the impossible and somehow still managing to come out on top. The first, second, third, and tenth time you get smashed under a giant’s maul is crushing; but when you eke out that victory against all odds, drop your controller and shout, “Not today, [expletive],” you’ve maybe found a piece of yourself there under the ash. That’s pretty deep for a series about slaying monsters, and a big part of what made me fall in love with it.
The list below is my current ranking of everything Souls. And yes, we’re going to include Bloodborne (which is pretty much a Souls game) and Sekiro (which isn’t, but we’re ranking stuff so we may as well get it in there).
6. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
It’s not really fair to rank Sekiro in the Souls echelon as it’s a significant departure in many ways, but still contains many of the same structural skeletal pieces From Software has refined to a science. You’re a fragile guy who takes on impossible enemies. Sound familiar? There are enough similarities to the philosophy of the Souls titles for me to include this game, even if it’s a broad comparison. I can only state that so many times, but Sekiro fans are sure to come after me anyway. News flash: Last place on a From Software game list is still light years beyond most games in my book.
Anyway, I love Sekiro dearly but I feel that it lacks many of the options and variety of other Souls games. No matter how you want to play, it comes down to mastering the sword. This is awesome, because after so many games where From Software kept putting cool parry stuff in that people were loath to master, it made a game where you had to perfect parrying to survive. The combat system is masterful, and there are some incredible boss battles to be had – including the best surprise of 2019. However, some environments and assets were overused, and the lack of RPG elements and choice bring our favorite wolf down to rank 6. Before I get piled on by the entire internet (and I will), I still gave this game a 9. It was really freaking good.
5. Demon’s Souls
I know a lot of Souls acolytes love this one, but it’s really a raw proof of concept for the other ideas that would eventually be mastered within the franchise. Tower of Latria and its bizarre, terrifying trappings is one of the moments where you get to see the atmospheric brilliance of the series shine. Not merely a string of gruesome bosses, encounters like Maiden Astraea will tug at your heartstrings as you deliver the killing blow. Demon’s Souls is great, but a lot of it is unpolished rock that was refined in later entries. Don’t leave home without max grass. All this said, I am definitely looking forward to the upcoming remake – maybe they’ll even add the sixth archstone.
4. Dark Souls 3
Dark Souls 3 is perhaps the most polished of the games, and certainly the best onboarding title. While still challenging, the ramp up to harder and harder encounters is more of a straight line, and concepts are laid out with a little more clarity than previous entries. Dark Souls 3 has beautiful locations, great bosses, epic secrets, and my favorite boss in the entire series: Sister Friede.
However, Dark Souls 3 veers a little too far into nostalgia land for it to achieve all-star ranking, playing incredibly close to the original Dark Souls for some of its inspirations. It also includes a largely forgettable chunk of DLC. Despite containing some truly epic boss fights, there’s also a lot of boring snow and annoying territory to traverse. Still, I highly recommend Dark Souls 3, and it’s my personal pick for getting players into the series. If you can get past Iudex Gundyr (and you can, trust me), you’re on your way to finding your way into a magical world.
3. Dark Souls
The uncut gem: Dark Souls is an amazing experience. A game I once bounced off of at release, after having wandered into the graveyard initially and dashed myself against the skeletons multiple times, is now one of my all-time favorites. The lack of handholding and mystery that surrounds everything you do transitions from bewilderment to intrigue as you make your way across the desolate land.
As you learn the game’s secrets, you start diving into more esoteric fare like wandering around in Ash Lake for fun or taking on the DLC against the legendary Artorias and Manus. While those bosses are not incredibly difficult compared to some of the titans that came after them, Artorias remains an absolutely incredible encounter today. Like the other games, the DLC is not to be missed. The game definitely struggles in the “third act” with horrible encounters like Bed of Chaos and cobbled-together zones like Lost Izalith, but the experience as a whole is a journey that should be taken. Just don’t stay any longer in Blighttown than necessary.
2. Dark Souls 2
Dark Souls 2 has an army of detractors despite its greatness. Whether they’re upset at the lighting changes that took place from development to release (you used to need torches to see in multiple areas), the fact that a fire castle is positioned on top of a poison-swamp windmill-base, or that the game was created by the “B-Team,” there’s always a gripe about Dark Souls 2. Turns out, Dark Souls 2 does have one thing worth griping about, and that’s agility. Players must invest some stat points into this area to get the game to “feel” like Dark Souls in terms of responsiveness and roll-invincibility frames.
Other than that, Dark Souls 2 is a sublime exercise, from the forgotten shores of Majula to the rain-splattered rooftop battle with the Looking-Glass Knight. Features like bonfire ascetics to challenge zones (not to mention bosses) were frankly ahead of their time. While the DLC for all of these games is often an essential addition, the Dark Souls 2 kit is among the very best, featuring epic clashes against the likes of Sir Alonne, Fume Knight, and the frozen, windswept bastion of Eleum Loyce.
Bloodborne is a compelling perfection between gameplay, atmosphere, and everything in between. With story and world flowing seamlessly into the mechanics, Bloodborne oozes flavor from the first slash to the final blow. While it may have one of the most bizarre beginnings, with front-loaded difficulty that may deter newcomers, as always, perseverance pays off with dividends. From Software has always excelled at creating terrifying entities, and the playground of horror that Bloodborne becomes lets them play a full hand.
Things begin as a traditional creature feature, a plague-ridden land beset by werewolves, ghouls, and other night gaunts, and the journey rapidly gets weirder and weirder until the player is completely immersed in cosmic horror. Every character and every encounter belong here, instead of playing like levels with foes placed at X, Y, and Z. It feels like there’s no developer pulling the strings and placing power-ups behind rocks or creating puzzles to solve, instead you play out a true existence in this grim and ghastly world.
From piercing the veil after the jarring battle with Rom to witnessing eldritch aberrations for the first time where they always were before, becoming a hunter in Bloodborne is the ultimate cohesion between all aspects of game design. While it includes many of the aspects that make Souls great, Bloodborne also eschews defensive play styles and forces the player out of their comfort zone, with battle often consisting of intense aggression that ratchets up the tension to new stakes. In other words, you must face your fears even while every bone in your body screams to run in the other direction from the slithering, quivering mass of flesh in your face.
The standard playthrough is a thing of awe, but the DLC is a must. With chilling environments and deadly enemies to navigate, The Old Hunters features memorable boss encounters ranging from epic fanservice to one of the most difficult fights in the From playbook. Bloodborne isn’t a game, it’s an experience, and one that begs to be explored.