Where to begin with FromSoftware (2024)

Why this might not seemsoeasy

Even for video games, the works of FromSoftware are highly focused on iteration – both their gameplay and their narrative built around cycles of recurrence. Each story tells of cycles of power that have been perpetuated until all that they represent has come to ruin, whether that’s the Ashen Lords of Dark Souls III, the Hunt of Bloodborne or the cycle of immortality in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Even before the moment the player steps into these games, their worlds have been dying and coming back and dying again. From that point, it’s yourturn.

In general these worlds have been defined by striking art direction – Bloodborne inspired by Victorian gothic and Lovecraft in equal measure, Dark Souls inspired by western dark fantasy as well as the late and commonly cited Kentaro Miura, author of the manga Berserk. There’s a sense of style and place that overrides any graphical shortcomings they mighthave.

The striking designs of castles and bosses are built into looping, interlocking maps not entirely unlike the metroidvania genre, but still distinct. These laid out the template for a modern day subgenre of unimaginatively named ‘Soulslikes’, built around bonfire checkpoints, which allow for healing and upgrades, but also respawn all enemies in thearea.

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This continues through to the upcoming Elden Ring, the result of each new FromSoft game iterating upon its forebear. The macabre labyrinths of their game worlds are this time incorporated within its first truly open world game (now with a map!). But, while they continue to change, there’s a unity to all of these games, built around the aforementioned checkpoints and boss fights, and an insistence on hellish poison swamp areas in everygame.

Not just that, but the brutal but satisfying gameplay loop overrides any potential quirks. The rhythms of each section of a level, each boss fight, are taught to the player under pain of swift, but most often fair, death (sometimes the deaths are completely unfair, but there is usually a dark comedy to it that alleviates the frustration). While this has lead to a reputation of inaccessibility, these aren’t entirely punishing games: they’re just built around precise timing and patterns, which are surprisingly simple to conquer once learned. There are also systems of help built in: many of these games coming with the ability to summon friends or helpful strangers for those particularly tricky boss fights. The recent entries are a little more friendly to newcomers than in thepast.

The best place to start – Sekiro: Shadows DieTwice

With the caveat that it’s the most unlike any of their other games,Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is probably FromSoftware’s most accessible game; the one where its patterns are most clearly laid out. Plus, there’s simply less intimidating choice when it comes to RPG mechanics, with no character builds or weaponupgrades.

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Playing as a shinobi known as Wolf, you’re taken on a revenge quest against a clan of samurai who kidnapped his child lord, the ‘Divine Heir’ Kuro. As well as taking FromSoftware’s art direction out of decaying medieval structures and into a more autumnal Sengoku-era Japan – populated with figures of folkloric monsters and Buddhist myth – Sekiro slimmed down the role-playing elements the company had become known for. Apart from the Wolf’s arsenal of shinobi tools (firecrackers, shuriken), you depend on your trusty katana (and your extremely cool grappling hookarm).

Additionally, it placed more focus on stealth and hit-and-run gameplay as well as newfound verticality, while its main combat is built around the exciting ‘posture system’. Rather than health, you wear down your opponents through continuous strikes and parries that build a meter, which, once full, allows you to kill your enemy in a single strike. This is the closest to a rhythm game that the studio has evermade.

Sekiro’s ‘resurrection’ mechanic essentially gives you extra lives, and there’s also a more direct method of storytelling than in the Souls games, which doled out information sparingly through item descriptions (though this does thattoo).

Still, there are enough returning elements from the past games – loss of XP upon death, checkpoints respawning enemies and so on – that it makes it a solid first step. Once beaten it will give even the most unsure gamer the realisation that these games aren’t quite the Herculean task that they’re made out to be, and the feeling of nailing the parry-and-dodge timing on a boss and working your way to victory is truly unparalleled. That said, the boss fight against Genichiro is a real test the first timearound.

What to playnext

Among the more recent FromSoftware games directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, Bloodborne marked a major step away from the decaying medieval kingdoms of Dark Souls into a world defined by Lovecraftianhorror.

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Players act as the ‘Hunter’, who steps into the Victorian gothic city of Yharnam in the midst of a hunt for beasts – part of the city’s bloodthirsty rituals. Where Sekiro’s storytelling is more direct, Bloodborne’s world building is no less immersive, as you interact with the deranged inhabitants of the dreamlike (really, nightmare-like) city. Additionally, this game maintains the multiplayer elements of prior Souls games, allowing for co-operative multiplayer as well as competitive play, where players can invade the worlds of others and try and ruin their day, or help them out with a particularly tricky bossfight.

While Sekiro was something of a step away from the studio’s raison d’être, Bloodborne also marked a departure from previous titles in its more aggressive action, with its mechanic of returning damage to recover health and its parrying system teaching players to press the offensive rather than play defensively like before. This element brings it in line with the pacing and rhythm of Sekiro. But more than that game, its RPG upgrade systems are more in line with Dark Souls, which makes it a solid second step while continuing to show the breadth of FromSoft’s visualimagination.

For those who would prefer to see From’s iteration in chronological order, the Dark Souls remaster is a solid choice. That said, I personally found it overwhelming, and found my route in by working backwards from Sekiro, dipping my toe in and getting used to Miyazaki’s patterns of gamedesign.

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A spiritual successor to Miyazaki’s cult hit Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls refined elements from that game into a galvanising formula that has become the foundation of not just FromSoft’s work to date but a wealth of other AAA titles, including the recent Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and Nioh and even indie games like HollowKnight.

Personally, I played through the Soulsborne games in a slightly different order to what has been suggested – I started Dark Souls III after Sekiro, and before Dark Souls (Remastered). This feels important to mention, because I was under the impression that 3 was the most difficult of the series – the bosses with more punishing second phases, with new combat mechanics lifted from Dark Souls II and Bloodbornealike.

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But, in fact, I found it a lot more accessible than the others, even though the boss fights were indeed unforgiving. The reason for its placing here, then, is story. While there aren’t truly any direct threads between 1 and 3, there are enough callbacks at play here in its storytelling and world-building that it’ll be more keenly felt as a finale to the trilogy when played in the right order. Acting as the Ashen One, tasked with rescuing a dying world by defeating the various ‘Lords of Cinder’, the world of Dark Souls III is even larger than those that came before, which can be intimidating for those unfamiliar with the series. Plus, going back to Dark Souls after getting used to the weapon art mechanics and more rapid movement of 3 can feel a bitdisorientating.

It’s a beguiling and moody game, one with a fascinating sense of existential doom hanging over it, as its characters attempt to postpone the world’s end with seeming futility.Yay!

Demon’s Souls, in part through restrictions of budget and development time, was an RPG that was sparing in every sense of the word, and found horrific mystique and compelling challenge through its somewhat opaque storytelling and other restrictions (no map, for example). It’s a classic that spawned a subgenre, now with prettier graphics for those who care – but note the character and boss designs have been made somewhat more generic in the search for higher graphicalfidelity.

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Still, it has an extremely satisfying feel to its gameplay, with new controller haptics and revamped sound design. It’s a primitive iteration of a now tried, tested and perfected formula. The player-unfriendly frictions, such as its expendable healing items, may remain, but various quality-of-life changes make it something of a smoother experience. If you’re a purist you may prefer the quirks of character design, art direction and lighting of theoriginal.

Where nottostart

Dark Souls II is far from a bad game, but it’s not recommended as a first go. It’s the middle entry in the series and one that’s more unfriendly than even its successor – with a cruel mechanic of ‘hollowing’ that recalls Demon’s Souls, where player health is reduced after dying and recovered with a rare expirable item. It has a niche group of fans that swear by it, and they’re often right about its merits, but save this one forlater.

Additionally, while the company has a longer history than just Demon’s Souls (For Answer, Déraciné), the games they made from this point on are those with the mostinfluence.

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