Action games used to have a decent amount of variety. Not just your Devil May Crys either, but all manners of third-person adventures. You had Activision pumping out interesting takes on Marvel’s line-up before superheroes were cool. Capcom shifted between stylish action, slick shooters, and the singular experience of Okami. Then, there was Lucasarts, mastering the Star Wars power fantasy with The Force Unleashed. While it hasn’t aged as well as some of its contemporaries, its novel twists on the lore make it stand up as a solid part of the Extended Universe. It will certainly age better than today’s crop of also-rans, all chasing after a single bonfire lit long, long ago. And, yes, this bonfire is straight out of Dark Souls‘ Blighttown.
Dark Souls action games | Breaking the Code
What was once a vibrant genre in the previous generation now boils down to a single subcategory as the Souls-like has influenced an entire crop of games trying to cater to a single audience. These games are obscure and difficult by design; the same traits that made Dark Souls so popular initially. They feature limited saving, methodical combat, and long, drawn-out boss encounters. From Darksiders 3 to God of War, an ever-growing crop of action games have decided that this is the one true way forward. These aren’t bad games by any stretch, but it seems rather shortsighted to flood the market in the same way that Activision marketed plastic guitar games into the ground.
It’s not as if these games are all hitting it out of the park either. Recent release Code Vein saw praise from many reviewers (including our own) about how it strips the frustration out of the experience, but frustration is also noted as a definitive quality of the Souls-like game. Games should be accessible to all, but it seems like lowering the difficulty of purposefully difficult games is the backwards solution to the issue. If you want to make a game of this type for a wider audience, there are plenty of ways to do it and sanding off the edges this much shouldn’t be it. Just doing that and not much else is not how to push a genre forward and doesn’t allow for as much healthy variety that a genre needs to evolve. Genres and subgenres exist for a reason, and developers would do well to remember that rather than copying what’s already there. There’s probably room for a less difficult Souls game but it’s a bit creatively disappointing if that’s one of the few aspects it offers to the genre.
Dark Souls action games | Where the rubber meets the Road of Sacrifices
Take the similarly stale category of racing games. In today’s market, the only big-name car games on the market try to split the difference between pure simulation and pure arcade. There are spectacular outliers, but they just don’t breach the mass market in a way that ensures their long-term survival. Racing games also used to show much more variance than they do now, with Burnout and Gran Turismo being two extremes in a spectrum of interactive racing. Over many years, the competitors whittled down, the market shrank, and what we have now is a genre that appeals to one very specific audience rather than one that can serve everyone.
However, unlike with racing games, character action titles have recent shining examples that try to buck the trend. The recent Devil May Cry 5 is almost a defiant stand against the current trends, presenting a fast-paced hack and slash adventure that captured a big audience. Sure, it’s an iterative sequel to a beloved franchise, one big enough to get onto Xbox’s E3 stage so a complete failure wasn’t truly in the cards. Although, Devil May Cry still shows that there’s room in this genre for more than the slow-paced boss gauntlets we have now. These other Souls-likes should follow suit.
Dark Souls action games | Fallen Order‘s fallen expectations
Going into this year’s E3, Respawn’s Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order was positioned to join alongside Dante in this defiant stand. And the short gameplay presentation at EA Access’ press conference/media gathering/hype tribunal was pretty impressive. The gameplay showed an adventure that honored the prior work with Force Unleashed, bringing it forward into the current generation. It was promising. Then, as the week progressed, more began to come out about it.
From both people who were able to play the game and the developer’s interviews, it was clear that the trailer failed to showcase Fallen Order‘s Souls inspirations. Lead Combat Designer Jason de Heras mentioned that the game lacks a stamina bar, evidence that it’s another step away from what Souls is at its core. By the same token, the team wants methodical one on one battles, counters, parries, rolling around for a backstab. Looking at the demo again with that in mind, you can see all the pieces fall into place. It’s yet another one of those games to put on the pile.
Make no mistake, Fallen Order doesn’t look bad by any stretch. After Titanfall 2 and Apex Legends, Respawn is the golden goose in EA’s coop of middling hens. It’s just a little disappointing that the team behind the startlingly original Titanfall 2 follows things up with two games that clearly want to follow trends rather than shake things up, even if a Sekiro-like Star Wars is a bit of a shake up for Star Wars. It could, and plausibly will, come into its own when it comes out like how Force Unleashed proved to be more than a God of Star Wars game. But judging what has been shown, it’s part of a trend of action games that closely follow From’s work, which is disappointing given that genres were a lot more varied during previous generations when the audience was a lot smaller.
Dark Souls action games | Old man yells at cloud gaming
A few generations ago, games that shook up the industry didn’t have so many pretenders. The titles following on from big hits were usually licensed games or releases from small-time outfits. Corporations did tend to jump onto the genre of the last big phenomenon, but that was enough similarity. The breakthrough success of Halo spawned a wave of first-person shooters, but they had range. There was the horror-themed F.E.A.R., Tron 2.0, Free Radical’s fantastic TimeSplitters, even Midway’s Area 51 reboot. There were some creatively bankrupt games too, but there were plenty of options for any FPS fan.
We’re living through a golden age for third-person action games now, but I’m not in the same boat as the early 2000s shooter fan. Everyone has seen how big a game can get and they want a piece of that pie. Risk-averse business strategies have led to a genre revolution that feels like a touring rock festival full of nothing but Metallica cover bands. No one is going to deny that “Enter Sandman” is a good song, but you want some variety. Similarly, nobody is going to deny that Dark Souls has its place in the industry, but more companies should take a ride with Dante and take a stab at something — anything — just a bit different.