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Does this list really need to exist? Probably not. Is ranking the Soulsborne – a portmanteau of the Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and Bloodborne games – arbitrary and unnecessary? Almost certainly. Am I going to do it anyway? Is a bear Catholic? Does the Pope shit in the woods? Yes? Still for every cheap trashy listicle out there that the author slapped together to hit their click quota there’s at least one good one. Hopefully this is one of those.
The Soulsborne sub-genre didn’t come out of a vacuum. Dark fantasy games with challenging gameplay and exceptional level design existed long before Hidetaka Miyazaki ever thought of Demon’s Souls. But the games are undoubtedly the peak of that very specific but not necessarily niche genre. To play a game in either of the three series is to know tension and relief, victory and defeat, life and undeath. To play is to be cursed, to win is to rekindle the flame. Every step forward in a Soulsborne game feels like a victory and every step back feels like a victory. That’s why this list exists, so from worst to best here is HeadStuff’s definitive ranking of the Soulsborne games.
Dark Souls II
A good way to think about the Soulsborne games is to think of them as albums by experimental, risk-taking artists that still found great success. With that in mind Dark Souls II is the overstuffed concept album of the series. It has its fans but even they can see the cracks in the design. Dark Souls II was massive and often frustrating with occasional gimmicky bosses and a game world that felt as disconnected as its older siblings felt connected. With that said just because it’s flawed doesn’t mean it’s not good. It has its ardent defenders as HeadStuff’s own Eoin Carty will tell you.
The hub of the shattered world of Drangleic, Majula, is a gorgeous place filled with hidden secrets and mysterious residents not least the Emerald Herald whose calming Irish lilt reflects the serene Celtic vistas that make up Majula. Elsewhere things are far darker as hordes of rats, fifteen feet tall suits of armour and dragons seek to kill your feeble undead warrior. The cryptic story and lore of Dark Souls II were enhanced by making the ruler of Drangleic, King Vendrick, a red herring. “His shuffling corpse now acts as testament to the inevitable course of events”. The cyclical stories of the Soulsborne games are one of their best features and even though Dark Souls II falls down in some areas it never disappoints where it counts.
Further Reading | Get Busy Dying: Finding Hope in Dark Souls 2
If Dark Souls II is the double LP concept album than Demon’s Souls is the original demo before the band were signed. It acts like a hardcore punk EP that boldly, brashly states “This is what we can do with no money and no support, imagine what we could do with money and support”. Demon’s Souls is where everything really began: Hidetaka Miyazaki’s career as a games industry auteur, a new wave of hyper-difficult games and of course the Soulsborne genre.
The fog drenched world of Boletaria may not rank as one of gaming’s most iconic or even nicer looking areas but it had the bones of what would make its younger cousins truly great. Boletaria was divided up into five regions with a hub called the Nexus for levelling up. These regions were open-ended much like the worlds of the Dark Souls series as well as Bloodborne. Health bars, weapons and even enemy designs made the transition to From Software’s more successful games but it’s important we know that without Demon’s Souls we wouldn’t have any of this.
Dark Souls III
It’s a greatest hits collection and like every greatest hits collection it feels occasionally scattered. Dark Souls III has moments and designs taken directly from it’s long lost cousin Demon’s Souls, it’s older brothers Dark Souls and Dark Souls II and it’s second cousin, once removed Bloodborne. But it has moments of originality as well and they shine the brightest not least because of the splendor of a sumptuous game world and the kind of tight, challenging gameplay fans came to expect.
Dark Souls III may not feel wholly different from its predecessors but that’s not that big of a deal considering how good the game looks and feels. The Kingdom of Lothric in its grim-dark Medieval setting is probably the best area filled with dying dragons, massive insane knights and the fading shadows of a world that was once so beautiful. If Dark Souls III is the true end of the Souls series than it is a worthy one.
Bruce Springsteen has Nebraska. Fleetwood Mac have Rumours. Kanye West has My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It stands to reason then that Dark Souls is the game everyone associates with From Software’s golden boy Hidetaka Miyazaki. If Demon’s Souls is the demo tape then Dark Souls is the instant classic album that isn’t forgotten for fifty years. It might look a little worse for wear and it definitely doesn’t have the luster or visual quality it’s sequels and spin-offs might but I’ll be damned if there’s a game I’m more grateful to.
Dark Souls is a game with a world so interconnected and well-designed that you can’t help but get lost in it; until a giant mushroom man one-shot punches you that is. The world of Lordran is a dead one. No one lives there anymore. It’s only inhabitants are monsters, weary travelers and the undead. Into this broken, forgotten land enters the player, the Chosen Undead, a hollowed out husk of a person seemingly chosen at random to fight the undead curse. As Dark Souls progresses it teaches you and depending on how well you learn the game either rewards you or punishes you. It is never unfair but it is always unforgiving and it’s only ever been beaten by one game in the genre it helped spawn.
Bloodborne is the insane Lovecraftian nightmare that should never have worked. It’s a fever dream concocted in a lab powered by steam and some kind of ethereal fluid. It’s the love child of Stoker, Poe and Campbell. It might be the greatest game ever made. Bloodborne makes you feel small and big at the same time. Beating all three Shadows of Yharnam in one try made me feel ten feet tall and then I got my brains sucked out in the next area. Shit happens.
Set in the Victorian, Gothic city of Yharnam which is plagued by a kind of transformative beast curse players control a newly christened hunter. Created to hunt the beasts and imbued with Yharnam’s infamous blood treatments the hunter is a feeble first and last line of defense against the increasingly horrific nightmares stalking the city and its cosmic borders. Bloodborne, though created by a large team, feels like a singular vision.
It’s cosmic horror mythology, fast-paced combat and stark, austere world feel like they were all concocted by Hidetaka Miyazaki in a feverish drive to get all of this out of his brain and onto a console. Everything about the game feels entirely unique and enthralling from its towering spires to its deep, poisonous pits. In Bloodborne the pitiless, infinite horrors of the universe seem to ask why they should care about you. It’s your job to show them why.