The first game I’m trying to complete on my new computer is Dark Souls before the sequel comes out in March, and the more I play through it the more I become aware of the philosophies behind why it’s been received the way it has. This goes beyond its difficulty and becomes really more about the Japan/West divide a lot of people like talking about in the games industry these days.
I’ve already done other blog posts about some of the qualities of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls — they actually ask players to use their brains and give them the room to do so, as well as being meticulously-crafted in terms of level design and gameplay systems. It’s those gameplay systems I want to talk about but also the history of From Software in relation to other RPG developers.
To put it generally, a while ago I realized From Software had made possibly the best action RPG system to date — games that do the best job so far of reconciling the elements of role playing games and action games in one package.
People like to debate the western influence in the Souls games and whether they’re superficial, but we know Demon’s Souls is supposed to be the spiritual successor to From Software’s King’s Field series and we are just short of confirmation that King’s Field was inspired by Ultima Underworld. If you haven’t read my earlier post about that game, Ultima Underworld is basically the 3D dungeon-crawler that led to games like Elder Scrolls and BioShock. Its lineage leading up to some of today’s most popular games is well-documented, but I’m starting to think From Software’s history represents an obscure Japanese tangent that’s just recently come to the surface.
The Souls games share many of the qualities of this lineage with the sense of place they try to exude. Unlike most Japanese games they try to convey almost all their narrative through environments, codex information, and fully voiced dialogue, all occurring while you’re in control of your character. They go for a very unified narrative experience that’s uncommon in Japanese RPGs but more or less the norm in western ones. The reason the Souls games have been called oldschool however is because From Software maintained that approach to world building from its original early 90’s inspiration probably without any outside influence.
On the flipside, the Souls games are RPGs with very technical action combat. You build a character and manage stats, but unlike most RPGs, combat in a Souls game is still very much about knowing an enemy’s behavior and animations. It’s a technical approach that’s much more rooted in Japanese arcade games and character action games.
Almost every console game that calls itself an “action RPG” is essentially an attempt to reconcile RPG stat-building systems with action combat. Most fail because their developers are coming from just one side. BioWare is an interesting example: Dragon Age Origins and especially the first Mass Effect are RPGs trying to feel a bit like action games. The sequels to these games have gradually shed their RPG elements for an action approach BioWare is becoming increasingly comfortable with. I actually haven’t played much of From Software’s other games (outside Lost Kingdoms, which is an action-card battle mix) so I don’t know how they managed the balance.
Like right now, in Dark Souls I’m trying to grind levels in endurance so I can get my equip load high enough to where I can move more quickly with a new halberd I just started using. Stats like endurance, poise, and burdens affecting action game elements like movement is the kind of action RPG experience I’ve wanted to see for a long time. Honestly, one of the most impressive parts about Dark Souls when I first played it was when I found out it handles poison status with a meter, skillfully bringing the chance of poison from turn-based games into a real time system. The fact that you can beat Dark Souls with a level 1 character if you know what you’re doing signifies how important its action elements are.
From a cultural perspective, the Souls games are a near-perfect reconciliation between western RPG world-building and Japanese arcade game combat.
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