If I asked anyone a decade ago if they knew FromSoftware or Hidetaka Miyazaki, most would reply with a shrug. It’s not until Dark Souls was released to the world which gave them the recognition of revolutionising action role-playing games (aRPG) to include rogue-like punishing difficulty.
Aside from Dark Souls, they’ve continued to release other successful games such as Bloodborne and the recent Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. It’s known that these games share a very distinct formula that kept gamers to play more, even months or years after the games were released. Other developers took inspiration from this formula in hopes to replicate it in their own productions, but only a handful succeeded. Fans dubbed these games as “Souls-like” due to its similarity to FromSoftware’s own.
Like any good origin story, things did not start out as an overnight success at FromSoftware. Here’s their story; from a cast of unknowns to creators of a beloved aRPG franchise that took the world by storm.
FromSoftware: The OG Git Gud-ers
FromSoftware was originally founded in 1986 and started out as developers for productivity software. That was only until 1994 when they released King’s Field, their first ever rpg-themed game, is when things changed. King’s Field was a first person dungeon crawler which featured melee and magic combat that drain dedicated stamina meters, with no further action possible until the meter refills. The game was noted for its high difficulty by its fans (sounds familiar?), and would later be succeeded by sequels and spin-offs. Even though King’s Field was technically a success, it was considered a cult hit and failed to cause an impact outside of Japan.
After King’s Field, FromSoftware’s other major franchise back in the late nineties and early noughties was the Armored Core series. The franchise was beloved by a minority of hardcore fans, but were mostly ignored by the majority. Reason being that it featured complicated controls and mecha customisations which weren’t friendly to newbies. Only those who stuck around to master it grew to appreciate the game more (sounding even more familiar?).
Of course, mecha arena battles weren’t everyone’s cup of grease. Despite having a loyal following from its small number of fans, FromSoftware was yet another developer that fell into mediocrity. The developers even tried their hand at creating non-Armored Core games which included two ninja-themed games; Shadow Assault: Tenchu (based on the Tenchu franchise) and Ninja Blade. The former received mostly negative reception while the latter was more of a mixed bag. It was only until February 2009 when FromSoftware finally got their big break.
The Birth Of “Souls-like”
With little to no marketing or hype, FromSoftware debut the PlayStation 3 exclusive and the first ever entry to the Souls series with Demon’s Souls - under the direction of Hidetaka Miyazaki.
Miyazaki’s involvement in Demon’s Souls included the then-unique control scheme, invocation of strong visual and environmental storytelling, minimal player guidance, an indirect multiplayer approach, and a rogue-like high difficulty gameplay. On paper, these points would usually spell disaster for a typical game release, but in Demon’s Souls’ case, it became the game’s primary attraction and a staple to future FromSoftware games.
The game’s progression system is another feature that kept players glued to it. When you defeat enemies, you’ll be rewarded with souls - a currency required for you to purchase items and for levelling up your character. If you die, you’ll lose all of it. It’s frustrating, but it’s an awareness given to the player that the stakes are always high. This was further intensified with a wide assortment of enemy types, environmental traps, confusing maps, and unexpected PVP invasions by other players. Yes, other players can vent out their frustrations by giving you hell.
The unforgiving difficulty actually pushed players to go beyond the idea of button mashing. It taught and encourage them to be more cautious, use situational tactics, and utilise their defense and counterattack abilities to avoid the worst possible outcome. For players, this grew from determination to obsession. Instead of taking it lying down, they come back in hopes to prevail. This form of sadistic and masochistic relationship between game and player made Demon’s Souls an unexpected success.
At that point of time, the developers didn’t even imagine that Demon’s Souls would later spawn a beloved franchise known for its punishing difficulty and high replayability. A franchise that would later coin the term “Souls-like” to other games that try to emulate its gameplay and/or difficulty. To FromSoftware’s benefit, this franchise was introduced to a wider range of players through multiple platforms thus giving themselves and Miyazaki a notorious yet well deserved recognition. This franchise was called Dark Souls.
Git Gud: The Art Of Punishing Players
“Git gud” is a bastardisation of the phrase “get good”, a fan created slander that’s mostly associated with Dark Souls which encourages players to do better. It is commonly used by the audience during a livestream of the game, mocking the streamer everytime they die in-game. Players themselves would also use it to mock others who fell by their sword in Dark Souls’ PVP sessions to signify their triumph. It was another unexpected culture to rise thanks to FromSoftware’s sense of sadistic game design found in their current releases. While the company itself or Miyazaki never actually embraced the phrase, just as with “Souls-like”, the phrase “git gud” would always find itself close to their names.
This was made apparent with the release of their newer games post-Dark Souls. The Dark Souls sequels also carried their successful game design formula, and were still considered challenging thanks to their unpredictable progression, new enemies, boss fights, and new mechanics. Souls veterans took kindly to the sequel's difficulty, but could easily master most battles thanks to their familiarity with the series. Fans, new and old, loved the sequels but Miyazaki wanted to blow it all out of the water… in a good way.
Fast, Furious, and Vicious
Familiarity is what FromSoftware wanted to take out of the equation when they released Bloodborne exclusively for the PS4. All of their winning formula is present, but the combat system was given a massive overhaul to encourage players to throw their Dark Souls experience out of the window. Of course, FromSoftware is known to barely tutor their players on how to actually play the game.
Parrying and dodging were the essential approaches of combat in Dark Souls, but the most beloved move was blocking. Blocking was a major lifesaver - it absorbs damage while players study enemy attack patterns, assume a defensive stance when exploring, and is extremely crucial when things start to get ugly. In Bloodborne, blocking exists… but as a joke. Not only because the only item that allowed that ability was a damaged wooden shield, a single strike would immediately knock players off balance.
Right off the bat, Bloodborne was much faster and more aggressive compared to its cousin. FromSoftware expects you to timely use your dodges, utilise your firearms to counter enemy attacks in order to stun them, and use your trick weapons to deliver high damage blows. Bosses would even switch to a different phase when certain thresholds in their HP are reached, thus changing the entire flow of the fight altogether. Players found themselves learning everything from scratch and left their Dark Souls experience at the door, just as the developers and Miyazaki had intended.
This tradition of changing the core combat mechanic is also present in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. This time around, FromSoftware took advantage of the player’s pre-programmed combat familiarity from their previous Dark Souls and Bloodborne experience, and slapped them in the face with it. Yet again, players find themselves facing enemies (especially bosses) that could barely be defeated by traditional FromSoftware means. Enemies now have access to unblockable attacks in forms of thrusts, low sweeps, and grabs. Though unblockable, they can be countered and will deal major posture damage. Decreasing posture is Sekiro’s main gameplay mechanic, and FromSoftware and Miyazaki’s tip-of-the-hat to their fans.
Basic attacks will cause sufficient damage to lesser enemies, but could only chip a small chunk from higher-tier ones. In order to actually effectively deal damage, the player must first reduce their posture to a breaking point which leaves them vulnerable to finishing blows. Achieving this requires players to aggressively attack the enemy, use certain prosthetic arts, countering their unblockables, and deflecting their attacks. Deflecting is very crucial in combat as it causes major posture damage, but will require precise timing. Fans considered this mechanic to be the “git gud” aspect of Sekiro. This time, FromSoftware’s ninja-themed video game is a hit.
What Lies Ahead
Miyazaki and his FromSoftware team has proven yet again that their excellent game design formula with a touch of sadism garnered them success and kept fans satisfied. It’s going to take a while until the team would grace us with a new game under their banner, but until then, we have the challenges in Sekiro to completely overcome and keep us busy. If that’s not enough, players could always revisit their older games to test their battle hardened experience. As much as every FromSoftware fan would likely yell “F**K THIS GAME!” in every release, they always come back for more. Fans don’t give up, they git gud.