OP-ED: Not Every Popular Thing Goes with Every Other Thing – Or Why We Should Stop Shoving Dark Souls into Everything

This piece is going to aggravate a few people. I’ll state that up front because I know it’s going to aggravate them because I’ve already expressed this opinion elsewhere and had some people express very much that they disagreed with it.

But it’s a pretty straightforward opinion, and I’ll back it up as best I can. It basically boils down to a recent gaming experience (a rare reminder of one of my hobbies) that could be best summed up as “Stop shoving Dark Souls into everything, especially where it doesn’t fit!”

If you’re not familiar with the title offered there, I’m going to note that I don’t have a problem with the game itself. Dark Souls is a series (as well as a style) of game developed by FromSoftware that’s built around a very punishing, precise, methodical style of play. Your character is not agile and limber, but stiff and committed, unable to break free from an action they’ve committed to. Enemies are tough and on equal or better footing to the player. The result is a gameplay style where you must make very concise, clear, methodical choices—usually about when to roll, block, or strike—with a very limited window for error and even less leeway for actually making an error.

Effectively, every enemy is a sort of “trial and error” experience of learning when to strike and when to roll out of the way, with the message “you died” being a frequent companion to the player. You learn to watch every enemy’s tells, and you learn precisely when to counter, dodge roll for i-frames, or attack … or you’ll die. Again and again.

Here’s the thing: FromSoftware has devoted a lot of time to making this punishing, methodical style of gameplay work. It’s a game style that lends itself to a lot of rough edges, from cheap shots to badly designed combat encounters. And I make this bit clear: FromSoftware has worked very hard to make these rough edges as smooth as possible, taking out cheap shots, making sure enemies fall victim to the same physics that the player does, etc. The result has been a very successful series, to the point that a lot of players who are fans of it consider it the “original” hard game (to which those of us who played something like Ninja Gaiden Black just chuckle and roll our eyes). If you’ve heard anyone talking lately about Elden Ring, well that’s because it’s FromSoftware’s newest release in the market, and it’s tearing up the charts as it is a very well-realized evolution on the formula that’s made them such a success. Millions and millions of copies sold, the latest in a line of popular stylized combat games.

Now, I’ll state something up front before diving into the meat of this discussion: I don’t mind that these games exist. Dark Souls and the like are certainly not my cup of tea, with their slow, plodding combat, i-frame design (a practice I’ve never liked in almost any game I’ve played) and the design of being locked in whatever action you most recently set out to do. But I don’t mind that others enjoy the polished experience that FromSoftware provides. That’s fine. You play Dark Souls. I’ll play the liquid smooth, tough-as-nails Ninja Gaiden Black instead.

What I do have a problem with is every other developer out there going “Hey, this game is really popular. Why don’t we shove that gameplay into a game that has no reason to have it? It’s popular, right?”

It stinks of executive meddling or developers not understanding their own game, and I hate it.

Why am I talking about this right now? Well, it starts with the game I picked up last week while I was sick: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. It had been on my list for a while, I was sick, and it was on sale for $10. Perfect combo. Except that when I loaded into the game, I was soon reminded of something I’d very clearly forgotten.

For whatever bizarre reason the developer, Respawn, had decided to make the combat in the game a Dark Souls knock-off.

This decision is odd and ill-fitting for a number of reasons, the first being that Respawn is the studio that made the excellent Titanfall 2 as well as its predecessor, both titles known for liquid smooth and stylish FPS action that made every other FPS game sit up and take notice. Slides, wall-running, a grappling hook that still is the best grapple in any FPS game ever hands-down … Basically, Respawn made a name for themselves by taking a whole bunch of great mechanics and making them fast, stylish, smooth, and useful. So to go from that to a game about Jedi, the stylish, flipping, force-using laser-sword spacemen seems like a natural fit.

To then remove all that cool stuff we like about Jedi, then, and turn the experience into plodding, methodical, i-frame exploitation design? Well … that’s just weird. It’s like hiring Michael Bay and then telling him you want a movie that’s a serious character drama between two lovers, and there can’t be any violence, action, explosions, or anything else that Michael Bay is known for creating. Michael Bay, love his movies or hate them, is good at some very specific things, but hiring him to then immediately tell him not to do the things that he’s good at? Well … that’s what Fallen Order feels like with its commitment to Souls-style combat.

To make matters worse, it’s not a good knock-off of Dark Souls combat either. As I noted above, Dark Souls has a lot of room for rough edges and cheap shots, and one reason FromSoftware has been so successful is that they’ve spent a lot of time filing those rough edges off and understanding exactly where their system has flaws that need to be covered in order for the player experience to be a smooth one.

And Fallen Order, much like another game I’ve played that shoved Dark Souls combat where it didn’t belong, does not bother to do that.

Enemies that hide behind doors or in camera blind spots to pummel you without recourse unless you know they’re there? Check! Contextual autotarget abilities that never target the ideal thing but almost always target something completely banal (my “favorite” is the “force push” power always wanting to default to the nearest box or physics object while a rocket screams toward you, despite the rocket being the object the game tells you force push is for)? Check! Enemies that clip through one another with their attacks (which of course, they are immune to), meaning you can be grabbed by an unblockable ranged grapple that passes through several enemy allies and is therefore impossible to see coming?

This is the tip of the iceberg, sadly. We’ve got a difficulty system that, the higher you crank it up, relies more and more on dodge-roll i-frame abuse and does this by making some basic enemy attacks unblockable, even when the tutorial insists otherwise. Enemy attacks that always auto-home on the player’s position, even if that means a leaping enemy does a right-angle turn in mid-air so that if you’re not landing those i-frames from the roll perfectly, you’re going to get hit no matter what.

The list goes on. I’m not even going to talk about the “block meter” system and how frustratingly dull that is, but I’m sure someone has done a breakdown on how bland and poorly fitting it is. But those rough edges that FromSoftware carefully files away, with things like making sure enemy attacks hit one another so they have to play by the same stunlock rules the player does? Fallen Order didn’t do any of that.

The result is a game with a combat style that feels entirely opposed to the idea of what Jedi in Star Wars are, and on top of that is a poor system. It’d be one thing if they’d shoved Dark Souls into the title and it hadn’t fit the style but had still been a polished system with no rough edges. It’d be weird and out of place with the setting, but at least it the combat itself would still be smooth and a decent experience.

But instead, it’s a rough system that gets the basics behind Dark Souls right but then misses all the little details that make the system work. What results is a game that simply isn’t fun to play when the combat starts.

Which is a shame, because one of the best parts of Star Wars should be when the lightsabers come out. Instead we have a game where multiple reviewers suggested just turning to the difficulty down to “story” just so one wouldn’t quit the game over the absolute slog combat becomes. Where one reviewer, who noted he was a big fan of Dark Souls, put the controller down and walked away for several hours after a particularly “cheap” encounter with multiple enemies off-camera hitting with ranged attacks (that due to the clunky delay between blocking and doing literally anything else combined with a melee foe, result in you just being pummeled mercilessly until you figure out how to cheese the fight). A game where every time I see a combat-forced section start up, I let out a sigh because my enjoyment is going to stop.

This is made even worse because the rest of the game isn’t bad! The setting is great, along with the music (it is, after all, Star Wars). The exploration is fine and feels like a discount Tomb Raider (which is still pretty good given that high bar). The story is interesting. Really the only thing that’s gone wrong here is the combat.

All because someone looked at Dark Souls and said “Well, that’s really popular. We should do the popular thing and shove it into this game regardless of how fitting it is!” Which results in, at best, a game where the dev takes the time to file all the rough edges off and have a combat system that is functional, but ill-fitting for a game and setting. At worst, you get a game with a combat system that doesn’t fit, and atop that is full of cheap shots and poor design.

Let’s talk about Darksiders III for a moment, which I did not finish. I loved the first two Darksiders games. For those not in the know, these are Zelda-esque hack and slash games where you play as one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. A good comparison would be Zelda meets God of War. Whether you’re War in the first game, or Death in the second game, you’re going to face a lot of demons at once, because you’re going to slam their faces into the dirt and rip them in half with astonishing regularity. This is a game where the challenge comes from juggling the numbers arrayed against you and the number of waves that are coming.

So what did the developers do for the third title in this series where you’re supposed to be a Horseman of the Apocalypse? They decided that since Dark Souls was popular, they were going to shift the gameplay over to “be like Dark Souls.” And that you should be weak, unable to change up your tactics on the fly, and vulnerable to death from the single weakest lone enemy in the game. Like Dark Souls.

Yup. The series went from a game where you defeat a demonic dragon by punching it to the ground and tearing its wings off to one where you had to run away from single basic enemies so that the game could “be Dark Souls.” Better yet, these were basic enemies that in the original title were such a lackluster threat you could kill them with a single button press and were supposed to do so for health and bonuses during a regular fight.

I never finished Darksiders III. I became so disgusted with the change in style that after a few hours I put it down and never went back, later uninstalling it. The switch to “Dark Souls is popular, we gotta be Dark Souls” came at the cost of everything that made the series’ power fantasy work.

Again, this is a game where you are one of the Horseman of the Apocalypse. A figure that literal armies of hell are supposed to be afraid of. And in the third game, they changed this to the Dark Souls model of “you are the weakest of the weak, a shambling corpse that can barely lift a blade” (the in-setting reason for Souls‘ style of combat).

No. Just no.

Darksiders III and Fallen Order are far from the only games that have found their systems and setting hamstrung by this sudden insistence of “Dark Souls is popular, we gotta make our game Dark Souls.” Yes, Dark Souls is popular … but that doesn’t mean making your game into a cheap knock-off (yes Darksiders III, I see your crappy i-frame execution and love of cheap shots) is going to draw in all those Dark Souls players. After all, as one person I know put it (roughly) ‘Yes, I could play Fallen Order, but I have Elden Ring, and I don’t want Souls in my Star Wars anyway.’

Basically, devs need to stop chasing a popular thing they’re only going to halfway mimic, especially when it doesn’t suit everything else they’re trying to accomplish, and just learn to do their own thing.

And yes, I know investors are part of the problem here. Doubtlessly there were folks at Respawn who noted what a poor fit Souls combat was for Star Wars, only to be shouted down by suits going “Look how much MONEY Souls made! We need that money! We need Souls!” We see the same thing in Hollywood, where one great film being based on a YA book means that we’ll see a flood of knock-offs in the following years. We see the same thing from big book publishers, chasing after whatever thing became hot, and record labels ordering bands to “sound like this hit song.”

But all it does is create cheap, quickly forgotten schlock. At best you create a product that gets remembered for being “the one” to do it right. More commonly, you create a product that’s remembered for being a shameless and poor knock-off, like those Divergent movies that only stay in the collective unconsciousness because of how bad they were and how shamelessly their studio tried to make them “the next Hunger Games.”

Dark Souls is fine on its own. People love it. But stop taking that love and excusing it as a reason to shove Souls combat into games and settings where it has no place. There are settings and stories where a slow, methodical gameplay style works. If you really want to make a Dark Souls clone, then go make a setting where that fits.

But stop shoving it into games where it has no place. Please. Not every game needs to have a counter system, or a parry system, or a heal that takes several seconds and makes you both motionless and completely vulnerable. There are games where that works and fits in with everything else.

Star Wars is not one of them. Not as a Jedi, anyway. Darksiders isn’t either. Not as a horseman.

Stop shoving Dark Souls where it doesn’t belong. Stick it where it fits. Not every popular thing needs to be mashed into every other popular thing. Some things just don’t work well together, like orange juice and toothpaste.

Fine on their own. But not together.

Now please stop putting Dark Souls in games where it has no place. You want a tough as nails combat system for your Star Wars title? Make a Ninja Gaiden knock-off. At least that would fit!

Leave the Dark Souls where it belongs.

2 thoughts on “OP-ED: Not Every Popular Thing Goes with Every Other Thing – Or Why We Should Stop Shoving Dark Souls into Everything

  1. I have noticed the same thing with there being more are more dark souls clones with the exact same combat system with a different coat of paint. Also with the success of elden ring I have been seeing a ton of people saying that other companies should learn from it. The problem is that I think they are going to “learn” the wrong lesson. What they should learn is that releasing a fully completed game with a lot to do and no micro transactions and having an open world that encourages exploration is good and makes money. But I fear that they will just take the game formula and slap there new coat of paint. I predict we will see a ton of hard for hardness sake games that have no real quests and a giant open world with enemies randomly scattered around since if the game is supposed to be hard you don’t need to balance the enemies. I recently started playing a game called tunic that looks like a Zelda game and is going for that look and I thought the combat would be like that but it has the dark souls combat while I feel like it having Zelda style combat would fit it better for what it is trying to be a puzzle game. It has gotten to the point where I have seen game trailers and thought that they looked interesting until they revealed the combat and it was dark souls combat and that made me decide not to buy it. The only non fromsoft dark souls like game that I have actually really enjoyed was revenant from the ashes because it tried to something different with its mostly gun based combat.


  2. And now we find that Ark 2 is doing a souls combat mechanic also, another game it no way fits and just reduced my excitement to play from pre order to maybe on a sale if at all


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