5: Dark Souls 3
Announced with a booming trailer at E3 in 2015, the third chapter of the successful saga of Hidetaka Miyazaki had rekindled the flame of enthusiasm after the lukewarm reception reserved for the second chapter. Taking advantage of the engine of the “cousin” Bloodborne, Dark Souls 3 had thrown us into the realm of Lothric in the most desperate hour, when the First Flame could no longer be bound and we, in the role of a predestined undead, were called to bring the Lord of Cinders back on their thrones for one last, extreme attempt to save a dying world.
The latter episode watched both in the past and in the future, recovering the focus mechanics from Demon’s Souls and introducing the weapon arts. The game system had also been speeded up overall, making the use of Estus flasks faster and our trusted “fast roll” almost mandatory in every battle. Perhaps thanks to this change of course it was possible to register a notable variety in bossfights of production, so much so that it is really difficult to find two similar ones. How can we fail to mention the sinuous movements of the elusive Dancer of the Boreal Valley or the unstoppable fury of Pope Sulyvahn.
Despite the overall value of the work, which stands at always very high levels of play, Dark Souls 3 was perhaps the title of the saga that least managed to conquer a space in our hearts. As lovers of Miyazaki’s courageous philosophy, which has always avoided fossilizing on a single universe, we have found that this episode winked at old fans of the saga too many times, without however adding something really interesting (except, of course, the fantastic revelation of the legendary firstborn of Gywn).
Even with the arrival of two expansions of excellent production quality such as Ashes of Ariandel and The Ringed City, the mood of the community has always remained very uneven, at least as regards the development of the lore of the saga. The very choice of putting Gael as the last boss of the saga of the souls has left us very dumbfounded, being a character considered mostly secondary, who did not contribute to building the cosmology of the saga. In spite of the warm welcome, on our part he loved this decision because we consider it in perfect harmony with the poetics of Dark Souls. The slave Knight represents perhaps one of the most emblematic manifestations of the essence of the dark soul of man, constituted by desire. It is only thanks to his strong desire to find a place in the world that Gael manages to survive until the end of time, to find the last pigment that will allow the little painter to create a dark, cold and kind world. A place he can finally call home.
Perhaps this is the curse that Dark Souls 3 is condemned to: being a conclusive chapter that had to satisfy too heterogeneous claims between them, and that in the end did not fully satisfy anyone. Despite all its playful solidity it remains unquestionable, and makes this title an excellent souls to start from.
4: Demon’s Souls
Sometimes the success of a video game work depends from timing with which this reaches the gaming market and, at least in part, the story of Demon’s Souls confirms this rule. The project starts in a period of strong creative crisis for the medium, during which the authorial vision was strongly frustrated by the spasmodic research accessibility as a means of expanding the audience.
As it is easy to think, such a situation could only lead to the inevitable conformism of the gaming industry, at least as far as high budget production was concerned. And here, like a bolt from the blue, From Software came with its exclusive for PlayStation 3, defying any economic logic or market law.
Not that the Japanese software house itself was sure about the outcome of its creative decisions, and in fact, before Miyazaki’s arrival “in medias res”, many were convinced that the project would reveal itself a total failure. The director himself had accepted the assignment with greater serenity knowing that, in the worst case scenario, the meager results would not have totally depended on him. Needless to say, these fears, although well founded, were totally wiped out by the great success that Demon’s Souls had in the years to follow.
As a good dad of all souls, the dark fantasy by From laid the foundations for those elements that would become the supporting structure of the trend “Soulslike”. Regardless of the level of difficulty of the title, so merciless as to become one of the symbols of the saga, we can only praise the choice to narrate the world in a passive way, taking advantage of the player’s curiosity and his willingness to find out what lies behind the horror that hunts him from every direction.
In a videogame landscape that often tries to satisfy, almost bulimically, the hunger for information from the public, Demon’s Souls teaches that it is possible to create a captivating setting and story respecting the will and times of its user. Also the particular way of telling the narrative arcs of the secondary characters, together with their side quests, is an absolute distinctive brand of Miyazaki, inaugurated with Demon’s Souls.
Thanks to the skilful inspiration of the Japanese creative, in the tormented lands of Boletaria you always have the feeling of meeting credible, human personalities, almost as true as the player himself. This is the case of poor Prince Ostrava, who despite his insecurities decides to throw himself into the jaws of darkness to find out what has become of his father, King Allant, or even the tragic story of Lady Astrea, which once discovered made the killing of the woman a gesture of incalculable moral weight.
Although they have never been re-proposed, perhaps due to their excessive infamy, the mechanics of the World Tendency and the system linked to death gave Demon’s Souls a unique touch, also for their interaction with the online component, which will give life to the concept of “invasion” in the other Souls. Very suggestive was also the concept of having a boss played by an opposing player in the fight against the old monk of the Tower of Latria, an element that will be taken up only by Dark Souls 3 in the Ringed City.
Although the weather has not been very merciful with this exclusive PlayStation 3, it is impossible to deny the seminal value that it has had not only for the luck of Miyazaki and From Software, but for the gaming market as a whole. Demon’s Souls has shown with enormous courage (and a hint of recklessness) that, in a world dominated by conformism, another way is always possible.
3: Sekiro: Shadows die twice
Everyone remembers the enigmatic phrase “Shadows die Twice”, which appeared in the first reveal trailer with which From Software had started speculation on what would be his next job after the closure from the successful Dark Souls saga. Born from an old rib Tenchu (retrieve the My Generation dedicated to Tenchu to learn more), and raised under the protective wing of the publisher Activision, Sekiro is perhaps one of the best examples of the creative eclecticism of Japanese software, which has never been afraid to challenge the market with unpublished IP.
With a turnaround from what we were used to, the Wolf of Ashina he revealed himself to the world as an agile, lethal and silent shinobi, capable of using his prosthesis to face exploration in ways that previously would have been unthinkable. Sekiro stands out for being one of the most punitive but at the same time most satisfying recreational experiences that this generation has given us: thanks to a refined system of saves and counterattacks, the team supervised by Miyazaki managed to create a technical and visceral gameplay structure, capable of reviving us the tension of the duels of feudal japan.
In fact, every crossing of blades in Sekiro turns into an exhilarating dance of death, in which one is aware that the slightest mistake can pave the way for a fatal blow. If memorizing the pattern of enemies was important in From’s previous works, here it becomes a crucial and essential aspect: learning the rhythm of the blows that we will have to intercept, totally immersing ourselves in the flow of the clash, is perhaps the one that comes closest to the practical teaching that Eugel Herrigel wanted to tell in the beautiful book The Zen and The Art of Archery. In this regard, the thought immediately runs to the exhausting but epic fight against Isshin Ashina the Saint in the final battle.
Even the artistic sector of Sekiro was particularly inspired thanks to a balanced mix of the canonical scenarios of the sengoku period and the folklore of the Japanese tradition, to which was added the typical eccentricity of Miyazaki. However, the narration of his universe is perhaps the least captivating aspect of the production, especially when compared with the other titles of From’s team. The interactions with the various NPCs, as well as the structure and content of the side quests that characterize their history, seemed to us uninspired and unable to outline truly memorable characters. However, a lance must be broken in favor of the dedicated narrative strand to the Sculptor of the dilapidated temple, in which it is possible to find that inevitable fatalism typical of Miyazakian poetry.
Behind an apparently seraphic expression, the old man actually hides an incandescent anger from which he cannot free himself, as demonstrated by the countless angry-faced Buddha statues that man carves to calm his spirit. A torment that does not leave him even in moments of prayer, where he is shown only visions of Ashina consumed by the flames.
Despite the eternal struggle to find inner peace, the Sculptor will eventually succumb to his anger becoming the Shura Demon of Hate. When we find out who is behind that beast, we understand that the only way to give our friend rest is to grant him the pitiful Death of the Shadow of the Shinobi. So, while we vibrate the fatal blow, in a last moment of lucidity words of gratitude will come out of the demon’s lips for his savior: “Wolf … thank you.”
It is a real pity that Sekiro has not been able to give so many moments full of the same drama that characterizes this sequence, although the overall solidity of the title remains undoubted, linked by a double thread to an original combat system and with excellent ludic value. We therefore have no doubts in stating that the latest From Software title has deserved, and with full rights, the title of game of the year during the 2019 edition of The Game Awards.
2: Dark Souls
If Demon’s Souls had laid the foundations of a winning recipe, it is certainly with Dark Souls that this formula takes on full concreteness. The title published by Bandai Namco in fact re-elaborates the strengths of its predecessor to bring them on a higher level. Whether it is the construction of the world or of lore, there is not a single area in which the first chapter of the saga cannot distinguish itself.
In fact, we owe the title to the creation of one of the most evocative dark fantasy universes of the videogame world, dominated by the typical fatalism of Miyazaki, The concept of death and rebirth becomes a warning of the sad fate of Lordran and of the poor undead personified by us players, condemned to a fate worse than death. Accomplice of the memorable memory that we all have of that setting is definitely the wonderful level design, full of interconnections that connected the different areas of Dark Souls to each other.
Passing through the dark ravines of the Infamous City until you get to the shining vault of Anor Londo, the world building of the first chapter still constitutes one of the highest qualitative peaks of the saga, a peak that has never been reached by any other title produced by From Software.
Even in a world constantly haunted by the shadow of death, Miyazaki has managed to tell us the story of incredibly deep and well-characterized characters. How can we forget the playful in this regard Solaire of Astora and his constant search for a sun that he could make his own or Siegmeyer, the knight of Katarina who behind his clumsy and sly way instead hid the weight of a human drama that broke the hearts of many. The NPCs pulsed with a life of their own, and their essence was so well delineated as to give the sensation that they existed outside the player’s choices and interactions.
Although the combat system may be a little plastered today, especially if resumed after trying more recent titles, it still remains of fine workmanship and excellent for those who prefer slower and reasoned clashes that retain the punitive brutality typical of Souls.
For all these reasons, Dark Souls still remains an essential title for anyone who appreciates the work of From Software. It is a pity that the recent remastering work was really so superficial (retrieve the review of Dark Souls Remastered): we would really have wanted to return to discover Miyazaki’s masterpiece with technological standards from the current generation.
At the top of the podium we decided to place one of the best Sony exclusives, a title that helped make PlayStation 4’s fortune. Bloodborne, originally presented as Project Beast, had the ardor of unhinging the certainties on which the Souls saga had settled, throwing us players into that dangerous nightmare that is the city of Yharnam.
First of all, the elimination of shields as a defensive element it made the gameplay more frenetic, as our hunter could only count on dodging to avoid the blows of the enemies. A choice that went hand in hand with the replacement of the classic roll with a quick dash, which allowed you to counterattack quickly after evading an attack. Another innovative aspect was the introduction of firearms as a tool to perform parry from a distance, thus triggering a deadly visceral attack.
The most juicy feature, however, was the rally system, which gave us a window of time to recover lost hit points by turning our thirst for blood against the beasts of Yharnam. All small but brilliant incentives designed to push a souls veteran, perched behind a more defensive approach, to break ties with the past and throw himself into the fray.
The flagships of the Bloodborne play structure remain without a doubt the trick weapon, the ingenious tools of death of the Chiesa della Cura able to change shape to multiply the offensive abilities of the hunter. The PS4 exclusive is therefore the title with the highest ratio between the quality of the combat system, the number of weapons and the variety of moveset: how can we forget the powerful Sacred Blade of Ludwig, which from a manageable short sword became a giant claymore, or even the versatile Simon’s Bowblade, which turned from an agile saber into an arch. The ability to move smoothly from one fighting approach to another is what makes Bloodborne’s gameplay the most advanced and also the most solid in terms of quality. To further expand the variety of the offer, From had added the possibility of embedding blood gems within the game, which could increase their effectiveness, and there were also procedural dungeons where it was possible to find them as a reward. Although i Chalice Dungeon have significantly increased the longevity of the title, we agree with the prevailing opinion that this aspect of the experience could be better explored.
Even in the artistic sector, From Software’s work marks an important break from the dark fantasy imagery to which he had become accustomed: the imposing and pointed constructions of Yharnam are the perfect mix between the Gothic period of the early twelfth century and the Victorian era, an excellent setting for orchestrating the ruthless night of the beast hunt. Magisterial in Bloodborne is also the tenuous but incessant transition to the indescribable cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, which with Miyazaki’s direction becomes terribly concrete thanks to the monstrous and enigmatic Great Beings.
Although the construction of the lore is more evanescent than the previous titles, Bloodborne hosts some of the most memorable characters among those conceived by From, and when these then integrate with the playful element of the production, the title reaches incredible levels. We refer, for example, to the epic confrontation with Ludwig the cursed in the DLC of Old Hunters, in which we deal with the grotesque and deformed version of the legendary hunter of the Church of the Cura, whose deeds are narrated by Gherman and by the description of some objects.
There are few titles capable of maintaining high standards in all their aspects Bloodborne is definitely one of them. The only real flaw that can be attributed to him concerns the mechanics of the healing vials, made less tedious after a few patches, but otherwise Miyazaki’s Lovecraftian work represents, in our opinion, the highest qualitative peak reached by his creative genius .
An honorable mention for Dark Souls 2, the excluded
With the ruthless competition that we have seen, it was really impossible to find a space for Dark Souls 2, a chapter considered apocryphal by most of the community. A title whose defects, perhaps due to Miyazaki’s lack of initial direction, have undermined the merits of an unfortunate production but full of clever flashes.
Let’s take, for example, the mechanics of ascetic bonfires, which allowed us to increase the difficulty of the individual zones in order to increase the challenge level, obtain more souls and increase the drop rate without having to get to the new game plus. In this regard, Dark Souls 2 had one of the best new game plus in the saga, which combined the simple progression of difficulty with the addition of new enemies.
Also from the thematic-narrative point of view, we appreciated the desire to change register with respect to the first chapter of the saga in order to propose something new, although it is reasonable that this change of course has not touched everyone’s emotional strings. It was indeed interesting how the incipit Dark Souls 2 wanted to tell something personal, and instead leave aside the perhaps overused fate of the world.
The opening lines of the game are in fact focused on the curse of undead and its distressing consequences. “You will lose everything once marked. Your past, your future, your inner light. Nothing will make more sense and it won’t even matter to you,” the old woman tells us during the introductory film. It almost seemed that the dying world of Drangleic spoke directly to us players, as a warning of the fate that awaits those who let themselves be crushed by adversity. Perhaps this is the meta-narrative meaning of some of Shanalotte’s most famous phrases, the emerald herald. “Carrier of the curse, seek despair. Because despair will lead you to more powerful souls.”
A pity that the direction of this second chapter has lost its focus going forward, and although the defects of Dark Souls 2 are undeniable by From standards, in general it remains a game of excellent workmanship.