Special Galeotta fu: the "Soulslike" label

From Software has undeniably made school: but does it even deserve a sub-genre? Does it make sense to talk about Soulslike?

Several months ago, at the release of Nioh, we had in the review phase already touched the topic. A review, however - although the position of the two authors of this column is quite open to experiments of this type -, it wasn't the best format to dissect it: we talked about it anyway, but in relation to Nioh and how much Team Ninja had put on disc.

To learn more:
Nioh - Soulslike doesn't mean anything anymore (if it ever did)

We could have come back to this a couple of months ago, on the occasion of the release of the N. Sane Trilogy of Crash Bandicoot. But - again - we decided otherwise: it seemed more interesting on the one hand to discuss the criticisms of the game design of the Sonic's Ass Game conceived by Naughty Dog (and here yes, the review was functional), and on the other to understand if, aside from nostalgia, Crash Bandicoot deserved truly a place of honor in the history of video games.

To learn more:
Beyond nostalgia: was Crash Bandicoot really needed?

Those just passed, after all, were quite hot and "fiery" days. Not only for the temperatures that, in our country, are still far from Winter: Cuphead reported users on forums, social networks and comments on articles to decide whether or not it is a "Dark Souls of platform-games" when in reality the reference points of the genre are totally different. The term Soulslike has begun to pop up randomly around the web, often used by those who did not even know what he was talking about. And it is easy to understand the root of this phenomenon: “Soulslike” is often - erroneously - associated with “difficulty”, when in reality the question is much more complex. But it is fair to speak of Soulslike, and use Dark Souls - and its emulators and allies - as a yardstick when it comes to difficult experiences, pad in hand?

Answering this question is harder than playing a Souls. We will even give you two.

The Legacy of From Software

How From Software has reshaped a genre, according to Antonino Lupo


From Software between faults and merits

From Software he has many faults in this, but certainly as many merits. His legacy is evident: from Demon's Souls onwards, the software house has cultivated a policy of "difficult Action-RPGs", building an entire series on these principles. What From Software actually did was to retrieve the typical elements of some games of the past, proposing them in a modern key with their own, due and indisputable artistic originality. In these terms, From Software did not invent anything; but his work has become a source of endless discussions, leading his Souls to be a true mass phenomenon known throughout the videogame culture, and a reference point for users and the entire industry.

Fast-forward to today: Dark Souls III has been out for more than a year, and comes as a conclusion to the series. Expect a Bloodborne II at any moment, and the industry (both Triple-A and independent) continues to periodically churn out titles that are inspired - more or less openly - by the style of the Souls, and which are therefore defined, by industry or by 'user, “Soulslike“. From Lords Of The Fallen to recent (and mediocre) Immortal Planet, Via The Surge, Salt & Sanctuary and many others, From Software has somehow influenced the industry to the point of strengthening the ARPG genre, reshaping it in its own way with elements that are unquestionably "its".

The point is that the term Soulslike, fortunately, it is not always used "at random". There are some situations in which the comparison is particularly apt. In the opinion of the writer, for example (and I'm not Pietro, who will tell you his a little further down), NiOh it has soulslike elements: it is punitive, it requires deep planning and strategy, it has a system of experience points that are permanently lost with two consecutive deaths if not recovered, it has end-of-level bosses that must be faced, studied and deepened continuously, often distinguished from phases.

From Software has practically invented nothing. But it has certainly reshuffled the cards on the table.

Defining a sub-genre does not necessarily destroy the identity of a work

And as far as NiOh's Game Design is concerned goes much deeper than Dark Souls for several reasons (not least, a great depth of gameplay and a narrated plot, rather than suggested in the background), the starting point seems to be just that; and, playing first a game of Dark Souls and then a game of NiOh, it is impossible not to notice similarities. In other words, the developers may have done everything possible to "detach" from the legacy of the Souls, but the fact remains that they have adopted an unquestionably similar skeleton and structures. That they then managed to build their own identity for the title is undoubtedly another matter; but we are not discussing identity issues here. A soulslike is not necessarily less original or with a weaker identity than any ARPG, otherwise the same argument would apply to all roguelikes or metroidvania (we'll get to that very shortly). Even Immortal Planet e Lords Of The Fallen, for example, who draw even more heavily on the Souls legacy, make no difference in this respect.

It is not a Soulslike, instead (in the most absolute way), a Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy, just as the recent one is absolutely not a Soulslike either Cuphead. Both are inspired by completely different genres of reference, have a different purpose and different structures, and it is undeniably out of place to compare them to Dark Souls and related only for their difficulty. The problem here is rather purely semiotic and linguistic: when we talk about Soulslike, in fact, we do nothing more than an operation similar to that already carried out by other terms - only that, in the specific case, Dark Souls has become a much more "mass" and known phenomenon, leading to an uncontrolled abuse of its reference term. We will not bore you with beating about the community's need to establish a common code, but that is precisely the point we want to achieve.

The need for a code
Between roguelike and metroidvania: there is so much to learn

Finally, there are the terms roguelike and metroidvania as examples. The speech is substantially similar, if not identical: a roguelike title (how can they be a The Binding Of Isaac or  Rogue legacy, for example) is inspired by Arrogant, born in 1980 and today identified as the progenitor of a small sub-genre of reference. Floor exploration, dungeon-crawling, permadeath, treasure and secrets are the keywords of the Roguelike, along with procedurally generated levels. We also remind you, for example, of the recent one Brut @ l.

And then there are the metroidvania: titles belonging to a sub-genre of action-adventure games (generally horizontal scrolling), with interconnected worlds and a mixture of platform and action mechanics. The name speaks for itself: all the titles belonging to this category are the result of the progressive fusion of the mechanics of Metroid with those of Castlevania (especially from Symphony Of The Night onwards), a merger that led to the birth of a real sub-genre known to a large number of industry professionals, be they critics, users or real-life developers.

Both examples just reported are, in fact, subgenres. Both refer to a macro-category of reference (that of action-arcade, broadly speaking, but not necessarily and with the due exceptions), a category that they reshape in their own way to build a discourse. Rather than describing all the characteristics of the games belonging to these sub-categories, critics and users have coined new terms to understand each other better - a code, in fact, that could help them to communicate and understand each other, both in the creative and simply colloquial phase.

Both Roguelike and Metroidvania refer to a sub-genre of reference, identified in one or more progenitors. A code, nothing more: it simplifies the conversation, and does not take away the identity of the work.

The usefulness of the code

When I pronounce the term "roguelike", I expect that whoever is at the other end of the conversation will understand perfectly what I am talking about, and that the conversation will be understood, simplified and perfected by the introduction of such a concise term. Similarly it happens with soulslike, when and if it is used properly: in itself, the term includes a series of elements common to all the reference games (although, of course, each with its own original variants), and allows you to infinitely simplify the conversation. Similarly to what has been explained above, the soulslike has a reference macro-genre - the Action-RPG - from which it draws elements to construct its discourse. Whether it is potential loss of experience points, constant exercise of reflexes and planning, punitive game design and so on, all titles that are defined as “soulslike” generally have all (or most of) these characteristics, which are at the same time used to build their own independent, autonomous and more or less original identity compared to the Souls series.

In this sense, From Software has left a substantial legacy to the market: a “different” way of understanding Action-RPGs, according to a model that an industry niche is already following in abundance. Not only are Soulslike all categorizable and identifiable according to a common matrix - they are also a reality of the contemporary video game, easily circumscribed to a new trend in making some Action-RPGs. As long as the term, a code so useful in a conversation between experts, enthusiasts or even in the marketing phase, it is absolutely not used at random.


Doom has (already) been through here

Why “Soulslike” can't even aspire to be a code


The need for a code, therefore. This is what would justify - indeed, legitimize - the existence of a label like Soulslike. And, as a computer scientist (but also as a guy who writes articles on the web) I can only agree on the usefulness of codes, because they shorten the barriers that are created between one individual and another when one has the need to express a concept.

The problem - and the other bell has already pointed this out, between the lines - is that Soulslike simply doesn't work as code.

A label that is not clear in the head of no, and for which it does not make sense as a code

Because that label no longer indicates only the emulators and presumed such of the work of From Software, but in general any more difficult than average title manages to become mainstream and reach the general public. And here at the release of the aforementioned N. Sane Trilogy more than someone called Crash Bandicoot “the new Dark Souls” - don't worry, it came out only those twenty years in advance, it was easy to misunderstand. This is because undoubtedly From Software products have made themselves the name of a truly hardcore challenge (even exaggerated, according to who writes to you: the difficult titles are quite different - let's take a Ninja Gaiden at random - the Souls are "only" quite punitive), going to revive in the twenty-first century an attitude that was crazy in the era of cabinets and practically up to a good part of the fifth generation, that is, before video games were aware of being able to offer more beyond the simple challenge. But for this very reason, we are talking about a label that has one strong suggestion on the new generation, but that doesn't appeal to all those longtime players grown up in the arcade. The concept of universality, which is fundamental for being able to talk about code, is no longer valid.


Doom has already tried to describe a genre in his own image and likeness. The result was translated into a series of duplications, until the arrival of the true Messiah


But even assuming that the "older" players are the usual noisy minority, it must be admitted that it is not yet clear what Soulslike means: again, we had an example above, with the undersigned who, having examined Nioh, claimed that it was not related to this presumed sub-genre, while our Antonino - on the contrary - inserted it fully into the corpus of productions in the wake of From Software. Two opposite opinions, on a question that if it were really codified precisely it should not not even exist. Nioh in common with a chapter of the Souls series has the nastiness and the few regards with which it treats the player, in a market studded with self-rescues and other simplifications, but the good or bad points of contact stop there. A Dark Souls it is not rigidly structured in missions and grants one more free exploration, where Nioh is much more "western" from a role-playing point of view and displays the micro-areas not connected between them except through the menu. Dark Souls - you know better than us - does not follow a traditional narrative, but relies on more subtle and less defined elements, whispering and suggesting rather to explain. Proposes a Lore, as everyone now defines it. Or one Mythology, as we translated it (because, as much as Lore sounds better, very often it happens that the interlocutor gives the term a meaning that is not exactly exact). Nioh instead focuses on Folklore - more closely linked to tradition and very clear within a culture - and stages a real story. Then from the point of view of the mechanics, it is in both cases of Action-RPG, and here neither From Software nor Team Ninja can take credit for inventing the genre. Nioh therefore has all the features to be plugged out from the presumed sub-genus Soulslike. Yet more than one continues to do so.

The reason? Players go on a frantic search for reference points, in an industry that is increasingly blurring the boundaries between one product and another.

the story is destined for repeat - and this time the impact is also on a very small scale

And it is a problem for those who produce content of a certain type, because it risks literally irritating part of the user because it strays too far from the basic concept - it takes too many licenses, as one would say in literature. Licenses that can become gigantic targets to be demolished, whereas instead strengths should be considered, since it is precisely those that give identity to the product (again, we refer you to what has been said about Nioh). There is a risk of standardization, that is the closest equivalent to death when it comes to the creative process. Ed it already happened, in the early 90s: after Doom, every first person shooter was labeled - and with good reason - as Doom Clone. And products that deserve that label there are hundreds of them, even among names that were illustrious at the time such as Duke Nukem. To get out of the impasse there was a need for a certain Half Life, which completely rewrote the rules of the genre and proposed something in very strong countertrend with the stencil with which products of that kind were being packaged: extremely narrative where "the plot in video games is like the plot in porn movies", not very hectic and much more focused on solving puzzles (and stimulating the player's thinking skills) rather than relying completely on violence, blood and reflexes.

To learn more:
10 years waiting for Half-Life 3

And that's how you give Doom Clone it has come to first person shooters, and this is how today anyone who approaches the genre is spoiled for choice: from Arena titles strongly marked by celodurism of the single - but to show off against others - to choral shooters to live in a team, passing through titles that want to tell their story. and titles that instead focus on the single player but in the same way push on the mechanics, rather than on the narrative. There is something for everyone, and it is more than can be said for the Soulslike label. Label that in brackets basically includes only titles produced by From Software, a couple of meh titles packaged by Deck13 (Lords of the Fallen and The Surge, both enjoyable but forgettable) and little else. Even from the point of view of quantity, therefore, the label would seem have no reason to exist, even more so if you think back to Doom and the impact it had on our culture: if not even the sacred monster of id Software was worthy - in the long term - to see a sub-genre named after him, it would not be fair to grant it to From Software. Rather, let's limit ourselves to the label of Soulsclone, more intellectually honest and less limiting from a conceptual point of view (because if a developer wants to do something else, he doesn't have the need to follow the Dark Souls lead).

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