On ranking the Souls games, or, which one is YOUR favorite?

I spent a decent amount of time banging out a piece on why Bloodborne isn’t a perfect game over at Diehard GameFAN, during which I made the observation that yes, Bloodborne is probably the third best game in the Souls series*, without really offering any context for that observation. Since I don’t really know how I’d turn that into a full DHGF column, I thought I’d just explain the point here, for those who are interested in this thing. The basic concept isn’t hard to understand, obviously: taking Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2**, and Bloodborne, order them from worst to best, and explain why they rank in those spots. It’s the why of that explanation that’s a bit more complicated, if only because people are going to rank their lists different ways for different reasons, which is the fun part (relative to your definition of fun). So, since I wrote three thousand plus words on why Bloodborne is essentially the third best game in the series, let’s take some time to explain how the other games stack up, and why.

4.) Dark Souls 2.

Why it’s in this place: This one probably isn’t surprising to most people; despite its generally high Metacritic score, most people find Dark Souls 2 to be the weakest entry in the series so far, for a lot of reasons. It’s certainly not a bad game, and few people will argue that it is, I’d expect, but in the same fashion, very few people will argue that it’s the best in the series, for a lot of reasons. I will note here that it’s still a solid game, mostly because it’s still mechanically solid on its own merits, and it’s hard to make a bad Souls game if you hold to the basic conventions of the series. It’s easier than the other games, as well, which could actually make it something of a decent stepping-on point, if one can accept the things that make it a bit problematic to play.

Why it’s not higher: The only change it makes that can charitably be considered an improvement is the swapping of a mostly pure Estus Flask healing system for one that uses Estus (in smaller amounts) and consumable curatives, which isn’t really better or worse in the strictest sense. Every single other change made, on the other hand, is mostly worse, from the enemies who stop respawning after a set amount of time, to the free repair costs along with rapidly deteriorating gear that makes wiping out enemies almost a necessity if one doesn’t want to speedrun to a boss, to the doubling-up of boss stats if you summon help, which completely fucking ruins the purpose of summoning help in the first place, to the nerfed difficulty and beyond. There’s just so much that’s wrong here, and with Scholar of the First Sin basically aiming to further crap on the game’s balance, from all the banter I’ve heard, I don’t see it improving its spot any with the rerelease, to be honest, and as of right now, Metacritic agrees. It’s still trending around a 90%, of course, because we all have a massive boner for Souls games, but even so, the point stands.

3.) Bloodborne.

Why it’s not lower: Well, Bloodborne is the most current release in the series, certainly, and benefits a bit from the technical improvements of the current generation, such as they are, but it also helps that the game manages to kind-of be its own thing rather than just another Souls game. The brand new setting helps a lot, as a Victorian-era Steampunk-esque London mixed with some good old H.P. Lovecraft gives the game a special feel that distances it from its predecessors just enough to make it special, and the fact that it segregates its PvP rather than integrating it into the core game helps as well. The originality of the game is its biggest selling point, honestly; the concept is new, the Trick Weapons are neat, the world is fresh and different, and there’s clearly a lot of room to grow here, which also helps. When you look at Dark Souls, you kind of assume it’s always going to be medieval concepts and systems, but Bloodborne exists in a world that seems like it’s aiming toward the Industrial Revolution (if it hasn’t gotten there already), so it’s entirely possible this franchise could vary wildly between games, which is exciting, and makes it a good jumping off point while retaining what makes the Souls franchise work. Combine that with the theoretically cool Chalice Dungeons, monster designs that are far and away better than Dark Souls II for the most part, and it’s not hard to see why it’s higher than Dark Souls 2.

Why it’s not higher: Mostly because, for all of its potential, much of that goes untapped. The play mechanics are far too limited structurally; the game shoehorns players into a set mechanical style of play with minor variations based on weapon alone rather than allowing them the free-range play mechanics other Souls games offer, and it suffers for that, especially when players generally tend to rely on a set number of weapons (Chikage, Ludwig’s, etc) rather than going all out with what’s here. The variety is minimal as well, as there are far less weapons, armors, accessories (well, none in that case but they subbed in runes which are… similar?) and tools to work with, and the game largely feels underdeveloped for it. The Chalice Dungeons are another concept that sounds cool but never works as well as it could; it’s mostly just repetitive dungeon designs for days that you run around in to collect materials so that you can make more Chalice Dungeons, with the end result being to either find gems so powerful you’ll never need them (for PVP or those NG+++ runs), weapons with slightly different gem layouts, or to fight one boss that has a Trophy set up for her. Bloodborne, even once its glitches are mostly patched, is a game that tries too hard to expand its post-game without developing its main game enough, and the end result is a game that’ll probably be fun for PVP and the diehard fans, but doesn’t have a lot of meat on the bone*** for anyone who loves the story content exclusively.

2.) Demon’s Souls.

Why it’s not lower: Because it’s the progenitor of the franchise, essentially.  Admittedly, it’s kind of odd to give a game a pass based solely on it being “the one that started it all,” but Demon’s Souls was honestly a game no one but Atlus thought would succeed in the US, and almost certainly not to the extent that it did. Not only that, but a lot of the core framework that Dark Souls and Bloodborne use were pioneered by Demon’s Souls, and it had a lot of the basic ideas down pat from day one, which helps a lot. Much of the concepts created here show up in later games, from the Souls/Blood Echoes players use to level up, to the hub zone, to the safe zone landmarks that can be interacted with and beyond, and the game pioneered a lot of really great ideas. When you can get so much right in your first game, that says a lot about the strength of your franchise, and thankfully fans saw that as much as anyone, as it carried the franchise into three sort-of sequels and a bunch of DLC, which is a hell of an improvement from what From Software was used to, if nothing else.

Why it’s not higher: One of the major points I’ve made a bit recently is that Demon’s Souls still feels like it’s casting off the shackles of King’s Field instead of becoming its own real thing, and that’s a big reason why it’s not the best in this list: it’s still beholden to what came before instead of striking out on its own path. You can see how the game was influenced by King’s Field, and it took another name change and refinement of the concepts to a further degree before the franchise really became its own thing, which hurts Demon’s Souls a bit in the long run. Also, the fact that the game uses actual separate zones rather than one interconnected world doesn’t do it any favors, nor does the fact that the game is an absolute chore to get through leveling-wise due to its meager payouts of souls relative to the amount of work you put in. Oh, and the consumable health items (which Bloodborne brought back for… some reason) also aren’t great, honestly, and the game is also very much a heavy loader, to the point where it’s almost worse than Bloodborne at times.

1.) Dark Souls.

Why it’s not lower: Well, frankly, because Dark Souls is the one game in the franchise where almost everything works. The plot gives you just enough detail to make sense of the core concepts while also leaving enough vague that you can puzzle your way through it. The horror aspects of the plot are really effective, but also interweave very nicely with the fantasy elements, and nothing really overpowers anything else in this regard. The game features an amazing variety of enemies, locations, weapons, armor, spells and more to play with, and everything really works very well, even if it’s not something everyone is going to use. It’s also worth noting that the game really pays homage to its King’s Field roots without needing to tread that ground again, via Seath and the Moonlight Greatsword (among other things), giving fans the connections they’d want but allowing the games to go their own way. There’s also a distinct change in the structures of the game from Demon’s Souls that make this an improved experience; linking the world together as one (mostly) connected world is helpful, but the Estus Flask system, the Humanity system and the purging of the reduced health bar on death all really make the game a big step up from its predecessor. It also didn’t hurt that everything you wanted to do could be done directly from the bonfires, so that you weren’t forced into teleporting to a game hub to get things done, and the fact that there wasn’t a hub to go to also kind of reinforced the solitary and lonely feeling of the game. Put simply, while players might like certain things Bloodborne or Dark Souls 2 do over what Dark Souls does, it’s harder to justify what those games do as being a universal improvement over Dark Souls. It’s much easier, in comparison, to point to Dark Souls and acknowledge that it’s universally an improvement over Demon’s Souls, unless you’re really in love with finite healing items for… some reason.

What could be improved, even so: Well, I’ve said it before but I’ll clarify it here: almost everything wrong with Dark Souls can be summed up in a single word: Blighttown. To be fair, there are about three sections of the game that aren’t great structurally speaking (the run-up to Anor Londo and the Tomb of the Giants are also questionable), but Blighttown is far and away the worst for a lot of reasons. It’s a shantytown sort of zone full of tiny walkways that require combat with enemies that have auto combos that hit for heavy damage, a bunch of enemies that hit you with the Toxic effect, and a ground floor that’s basically made of poison and slows movement without a specific ring. It’s also one of the few zones that constantly hits performance rates on the consoles, so it’s not only maddening and rife with death and bottomless drops to your doom, but it also tanks the framerate at times. If we’re being honest, I’ve never loved the idea of “here’s a zone where you drop off of cliffs or walk across tiny platforms” in the Souls series because, while it teaches you positional awareness, there are better ways of doing it, and these sorts of zones showcase the technical flaws of the game more often than not. If you can get past the zone (and the run across the rooftops in Anor Londo not too far after this), the rest of the game is mostly smooth sailing, but man, if you gave up on the game in Blighttown, I don’t blame you, more or less.


* Which it is totally a part of, even without the name attached, shut the fuck up.

** Specifically the original releases of Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2, and not the Prepare to Die Edition or Scholar of the First Sin specifically. With Dark Souls it’s because the Prepare to Die Edition kind-of counts because it’s the only version PC players have, but you basically have to ignore the Artorias of the Abyss DLC, or I do anyway, because I don’t have a good frame of reference for it, since I played through it on NG++ and it basically handed me my ass, so I don’t feel comfortable ranking it as a standalone, or as the definitive version of the game. Scholar of the First Sin could probably count as a separate version of Dark Souls 2, since according to a bunch of people it changes enemy counts in the normal areas and breaks some speedrun systems on top of adding in extra content, so it could count as its own thing, but it literally only came out this week, and I haven’t played it so I can’t comment.

*** Comparatively speaking, obviously; while I’d never say that Bloodborne is too short or limited in its own right, it is shorter, and less meaningful, than Dark Souls or its sequel. Without getting into a big exposition dump on this concept, because this piece will be long enough already, one point I do want to mention is that I feel like Dark Souls also had a much better handle on its world and what that meant than either Dark Souls 2 or Bloodborne. Basically, each of the later games is focused on being a specific thing, while Dark Souls tried to mesh those concepts together, so in Dark Souls you had horror and fantasy in equal measure, which branch off in the later games. This doesn’t help either game conceptually, though. Dark Souls 2 is a weaker game when it’s just sword and sorcery, conceptually, because it loses a lot of what made the game meaningful by ditching a lot of the horror aesthetic. Bloodborne, in contrast, focuses almost exclusively on horror, but it presents it in the way a slasher film might rather than in a truly horrific way, so instead of getting real fear from the experience, it’s more about blood and the grotesque, which is fine, but doesn’t really do the concept justice.

One thought on “On ranking the Souls games, or, which one is YOUR favorite?

  1. I occasionally think about how fucking scary Dark Souls was on your first playthrough. I stared in disbelief at a lot of the bosses, thinking – “Am I supposed to fight THAT!?”
    Like you say, Bloodborne is more grotesque than anything and Dark Souls 2 is just fantasy. I miss being awestruck like I was when I reached Ash Lake the first time or when I realised Lost Izalith was below Tomb of the Giants. Dark Souls really is ALMOST perfect. Hmm, where’s my copy…?

    Like

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