SoulsBorne: Birth of a Sub-Genre
When we think of definitive RPG subgenres we think the classics; MetroidVania, Roguelikes, Turn Based RPGs etc. This being said there is one newcomer to the RPG subgenre gang and that is the SoulsBorne franchise. Now having a fantastic ship name is only the beginning of what makes a franchise into a subgenre it takes a special kind of uniqueness to set the series and style apart from everything else in the market. SoulsBorne does just that.
In terms of gameplay, the SoulsBorne franchise works a lot like an Action RPG, with an active combat system incorporating dodges with invincibility frames, blocking and weapon swing speeds (or casting speed if you play a mage build). SoulsBorne has an encumbrance system for your equipped items, and the heavier your load (counted in a percentage in the top right corner of your inventory screen) the slower your dodges are. Your equipment slots include three left and right-hand slots, four rings, a headpiece, breastplate, greaves and gauntlets. With all sorts of goodies to carry you will find yourself desperately skirting the line of the fat roll, but you will find a style that works for you and you can invest levels in increasing your encumbrance.
Like many ARPGs the SoulsBorne franchise utilises a class system allowing you to define your play style from the very beginning of your adventure in Lothric, even allowing you to choose from classic classes such as Knight, Thief and Sorcerer. Though these starting classes ultimately decide how you fight the tutorial boss they do not define how you play from that point on. With a leveling system that allows you to customise your stats as you see fit beginning as a Knight does not mean you reach the end game in heavy armour with a sword and shield, not unless you want to, and you can quite easily add extras like pyromancy magic to your arsenal if you so wish. Having complete build customization is a definitive part of the SoulsBorne experience, allowing all players to play whatever they want. Find a cool weapon you don’t have the stats for? Level up and use it!
One of the most unique traits added in the most recent edition of the SoulsBorne franchise (Dark Souls 3) is the use of “Weapon Arts”. As with classic RPGs, you have three bars at the top of your screen. Red for health. Blue for focus (mana). Green for stamina. As you would expect getting hit costs red, spells cost blue and dodging, blocking and attacking cost green. With “Weapon Arts” even purely martial builds can make use of the focus bar, each weapon has a special skill that can be activated with L2 costing a small amount of focus per use. This extra ability on weapons makes for a more interesting style of gameplay as it gives your boring old greatsword the ability to launch people into the air like ragdolls or your shortbow the ability to make your opponent into a pincushion.
Now a point of much controversy in the SoulsBorne community is the multiplayer system. Like many RPGs SoulsBorne games allow you to play with up to two of your friends or complete strangers (three if you used an item called the Dried Finger) and join each other in jolly co-operation. Unlike most games, though, the system for doing this is by summoning people through signs that they leave in the world as phantoms. These phantoms will only stay with you until you kill the area boss or the phantom or the host dies. Now this co-operative scenario made it very difficult to play with specific people, often leading to hiding your signs under things for your friend to try and find before anyone else can summon you, but in Bloodborne and the subsequent game, Dark Souls 3, FromSoftware added a password system so only people with matching passwords can see one another’s signs making for much easier play with friends.
We all love a bit of jolly co-operation when it suits us, but as RPG players aren’t we all closet psychopaths who just want to ruin someone’s day and steal their hard earned resources? The invasion system is the marmite of the SoulsBorne franchise, you either love it or you hate it. With the invasion system, any player can use a Red Eye Orb and they search for worlds to invade. Once in a while, their job is simple; find the host and kill them before they get to the boss room. The invader doesn’t have to deal with enemies and will often use them to their advantage, weakening the player and making them use their precious healing items.
The invader only gets half of these wondrous healing items and thus is at a disadvantage from the outset. To make matters worse for the invader they can be counter-invaded by a blue phantom who has aligned themselves with a covenant that allows them to defend players who are in trouble on top of the phantoms that the host can summon normally. Invasion can require a lot of skill and quick thinking to pull off or if the invader is lucky and the host is alone and has had trouble with the area anyway, a little effort to pick off the rest of the host’s health leaving the invasion system a thing of great friction in the community.
Each title in the SoulsBorne series brings its community together with an abundance of secrets. Secret areas, secret bosses, secret items… It’s all there and the community works together to scour every inch of the game for them. With its own wikis, the SoulsBorne series sees its community working together to fill in the gaps in the communal knowledge by working out where everything is.
SoulsBorne games are more than just the gameplay, the aesthetic and feel of the game are equally important in defining it as a separate subgenre of RPG. An oddly important feeling in the game is the feeling of isolation. Now this seems odd considering that there are other NPCs and players popping in and out of your world, but whenever you get the help, you aren’t helped by a person you are helped by a phantom. This distinction between the host as a person and the help as a phantom causes the player to feel alone, like the only help available is from lost spirits who can only visit your world and who are lost once their duty is fulfilled. This coupled with the fact that half of the phantoms who appear in your world are malevolent creatures, distances the player and makes the isolationist feeling all the more intense.
Gothic architecture is a staple in the SoulsBorne franchise, making use of huge cathedrals and castles to make the player feel small and helpless in the face of such horrific monsters and giant enemies. The gothic theme doesn’t stop at the architecture though, the knights from orders long past, the hybrid monstrosities of gods who have abandoned their places of worship, all these thing and more add to the player feeling as if they are a stranger in a foreign land, watching the remnants of a dying world fall apart around them.
The theme that seems to be most important in a SoulsBorne or Souls-like game is the subject of cycles. Whether this is the cycle of rebirth, ages of fire and dark or the cycle of night and day, each SoulsBorne game has a cycle. This cyclical nature of each SoulsBorne game is reflected even in the act of being able to begin your journey again once you’ve cleared the game by proceeding to new game plus.
Finally, the most definitive attribute of a SoulsBorne game; how they tell their story. Storytelling in video games has been called a ‘lost art’ and if that is truly the case then this is just another notch in the SoulsBorne belt of uniqueness. Unlike conventional RPGs that tell you the story as you work along it, with NPCs telling you how they have discovered the Lord of the land is evil or the princess has been kidnapped etc. the SoulsBorne series tells its stories through more subtle means.
The beginning cutscene of each game only tells you the bare minimum of what you need to know, where you are. The story itself has to be gleaned from item descriptions and NPC dialogue which, considering that every NPC is so cryptic about any information about the world or the state of it, is more difficult than it sounds. It is so difficult in fact that many people have dedicated their time and efforts to deciphering the complex nature of the plot of each game.
SoulsBorne games are more than just ARPGs, they are complex and intricate worlds that rely on the tenacity and quick learning of the players to allow for successful exploring. A community that works together and opposed simultaneously. A quick and easy to learn but hard to master combat system. All bound in the gothic themes that we have come to love. The SoulsBorne series is more than just a twist on the RPG formula, it is the birth of something new. A fire first kindled.