For close to a decade, I’ve played FromSoftware’s Souls games on and off, struggling to understand why I don’t enjoy them. For reference, I’ve tried Dark Souls 1, Dark Souls 2, Dark Souls 3, the original Demon’s Souls, Demon’s Souls’ Remake, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and Bloodborne. Further, I have beaten Dark Souls 1, Dark Souls 2, and Demon’s Souls’ Remake. I have not played Elden Ring.
Despite having played these collectively for a few hundred hours, progression never felt rewarding, and save for a few instances, never fun. So, why did I bother playing these for so long when I wasn’t enjoying myself? Well, at first, it was genuine intrigue born from finding the aesthetic of Dark Souls 1 engaging. However, it eventually shifted into trying to understand what it is about these games that makes me so demotivated and, ultimately, bored.
I can usually clearly identify why a game is not for me, such as for all mobile titles and pretty much anything multiplayer-centric. However, in the case of FromSoftware’s Souls games, I was never entirely sure. For a while, I believed I lacked the aptitude for action as a whole, even though it’s my preferred avenue.
After all, since I have always struggled with simply progressing in these Soulsborne experiences while seeing everyone else I saw beat them without much of an issue, what other conclusion was I supposed to perceive?
But, in January 2020, I had a realization when Kingdom Hearts III Re Mind was released. This realization would also pave the way for me to learn about how I felt about previous games I played (Cuphead & Ys Origin as a few examples). For those unaware, Remind is DLC for Kingdom Hearts III, comprising a plethora of content, such as 14 of the most challenging super bosses in the franchise. One, in particular, Yozora, is considered by many to be the most difficult battle in the series.
However, and I mean complete sincerity when I say this, fighting Yozora on the game’s greatest difficulty, Critical Mode, felt indescribably easier than anything I have ever done in a FromSoftware Souls game. Furthermore, to be completely, unironically, and verily truthful, the first bosses throughout all of the Soulsborne games I have played felt, at least personally, inherently more difficult than any of the Kingdom Hearts III Re Mind super bosses.
In fact, I fought each of these super bosses, including Yozora, on the Nintendo Switch Cloud port on Critical Mode and genuinely found the experiences easier than any FromSoftware Souls game. It took me less than a day to beat them since their telegraphs and patterns were immensely easier to understand.
Now, back when I won these battles and told people this, they thought I was memeing. No one took that assessment of mine even remotely seriously. And I was confused because I thought it was natural to see FromSoftware’s Souls games as more challenging, considering their reputation. But apparently, the consensus is that both the Kingdom Hearts III Re Mind super bosses and Kingdom Hearts II’s super bosses are more difficult than FromSoftware’s experiences.
Moreover, I found that because I knew of these bosses as characters beforehand, I felt an enthused fervor when battling each of them. While not directly tied to gameplay design, the storyline and characters of Kingdom Hearts made my learning of the bosses feel more personal and worthwhile. Unfortunately, the type of storytelling FromSoftware utilizes throughout its Souls experiences isn’t really my thing. It has its audience, and people love it. Still, there has been no vital, initial tether that compelled me in any way. I enjoy digging through worlds in games to discover more lore or character-related information, but moreso as a supplemental task rather than a requirement for baseline comprehension. It’s just not for me.
On to other games; Cuphead. I have gotten the platinum trophy for this on PS4 and have achieved S ranks on Expert mode for every boss throughout The Delicious Last Course DLC. Combined, that all took me around three days. On the other hand, singular bosses in FromSoftware’s Souls games have taken me weeks to beat, and I don’t even understand their combative designs afterward. In fact, as a specific example, I distinctly remember the Armor Spider in Demon’s Souls taking me a little over a week to defeat.
I should also mention that I’m not a fan of using the summoning system, whether they be AI or human companions since it feels like cheating. Of course, it’s an in-game aspect, so that’s not really the case. Still, like using the Summons in Kingdom Hearts III Re Mind’s super bosses, I find those practices to cheapen the experience since they invalidate the need to learn everything about a boss’ behavior. Now, why exactly did the Armor Spider take me so long to beat when it’s so early on in the game? I’ve learned that there are a bunch of reasons, but there are two primary ones; backtracking and movement.
In most scenarios throughout FromSoftware’s Souls games (sans Elden Ring, from what I’ve been told), dying to a boss leads you to a checkpoint not directly next to the boss itself. Players will need to backtrack to that location from their latest bonfire/equivalent, and if you die often, that can naturally make the process more time-consuming.
The repeated treks back to these encounters constantly sapped my motivation. In a sense, these treks themselves can be considered part of the boss experience. But, then again, I’ve frequently seen people who first-try these fights, so I’m clearly misunderstanding how these battles work from a fundamental level, which is admittedly pathetic after playing these for around a decade. Learning boss telegraphs across each death alongside backtracking also takes drastically more time compared to immediately retrying.
As for the other primary reason, I’ve learned that I have a far stronger affinity for swifter movement compared to the methodical likes of Dark Souls and Bloodborne. Sekiro is an exception to this since its movement feels sublime, but it also possesses that backtracking dilemma the other titles have.
Further, the Dragonrot disease afflicting NPCs amplifying the more you die felt like it was actively going against me learning bosses at my own pace. Each attempt felt indescribably stressful. I have read that you can cure this disease, yet that knowledge doesn’t deny the reality of death enhancing its efficacy. It is ironic in a sense, given that the Soulsborne game that would compel me the most based on how it feels would also push me away the farthest because of a specific mechanic.
Sekiro is also an interesting exception of mine for another reason. While not a dealbreaker, I tend to dislike custom characters since they fail to immerse me, compared to playing as an actualized character with a personality of their own in the setting. I know that custom characters, like in MMOs, are supposed to make you feel like you’re the one within the world and immerse you, but I’ve never felt that way with any usage of this idea. Therefore, Sekiro having a pre-defined protagonist excited me. Unfortunately, the Dragonrot implementation and the backtracking turned me off from progressing far.
It is honestly fascinating how stressful I find the Soulsborne boss experiences to be compared to not only Cuphead and Kingdom Hearts, but also Ys and Furi. The former is the most obscure of the series I’ve brought up here, so without diving into a history lesson, for the purposes of this piece, it’s only worth knowing about two of the three Napishtim Engine games, Felghana and Origin. The Ys series has had three main playstyles, with the Napishtim Engine being my personal favorite, primarily thanks to its challenging yet fair boss design.
Felghana’s boss design was stellar, but Origin truly mastered it. It remains at the apex of any action title I have played with the other non-Soulsborne games I’ve discussed throughout this article. Every single boss has memorable encounters, telegraphs, and patterns, even as the multiple characters you play as. Additionally, the movement, especially as Toal, makes the process of learning all the more delightful since he’s swift, thanks to Godspeed.
When accounting for those factors with the lack of any backtracking for bosses, it became one of my defining gaming experiences. In fact, completing the Boss Rush on Nightmare with all characters remains my proudest gaming accomplishment. I really should just write an article about this title…Regardless, like with Kingdom Hearts III Re Mind’s super bosses and all of Cuphead’s bosses, every boss in Ys Origin at the highest difficulty felt easier than any boss I have ever fought in a Soulsborne title.
I remember how, across my 400 hours of Ys Origin, when perfecting it on all platforms, I never grew frustrated at the game or myself. I just had a blast learning. The same can also be said for Kingdom Hearts III Re Mind and Cuphead. Dying just once in a Soulsborne game and having to backtrack feels far more demotivating and miserable than dying to a single boss in Ys Origin, Kingdom Hearts III Re Mind or Cuphead 100 times. It’s simply always thrilling, and I never grow tired since the boss is my sole focus. I never have to concern myself with spending time reaching them again.
Furi is the final title I’ll bring up, though only on a minor level, since I can only assess brilliant boss design in a general sense so many times. However, its music provided the needed tension for its bouts to instill impact. Of course, Kingdom Hearts, Cuphead, and Ys all boast masterful soundtracks too, but Furi’s imparts a simultaneously serene yet disturbing ambiance that defines the battles.
Depending on who’s involved, this might be egregious to say, but I haven’t enjoyed any of the songs I’ve heard throughout the Soulsborne titles. This point isn’t one I can truly explain as someone who has never studied music; I simply don’t feel anything when hearing these games’ tracks. I know it’s probably bizarre, mainly as someone who regularly listens to plenty of video game music, but it’s just how it is. I find excellent songs in boss battles almost necessary for the context to work effectively, so that’s likely another reason why FromSoftware’s bosses have missed the mark for me.
You know, there is one Soulsborne boss I wholeheartedly enjoyed, King Allant from Demon’s Souls. He is the only boss battle I’ve found myself thoroughly understanding in any of these titles, and I’m not entirely certain what about him is so different for that to have happened. If only I found every boss as enjoyable as him…
Of course, Soulsborne games are also about exploration. Still, as much as I’m intrigued by the world design, I can’t ever truly appreciate it when these boss conflicts ruin the experience for me. I admit that I’m curious about Elden Ring since, based on what I’ve been told, it mostly rids the backtracking issue when dying from bosses. My other areas of distaste, such as the movement, story, and the music, will probably still be present. Although the backtracking was an undeniably significant factor impeding enjoyability, so having it mitigated may be what I need. Who knows.
FromSoftware is a developer I don’t see myself ever relating to others’ appreciation of. They have tons of fans, and, hell, Elden Ring won Game of the Year. That alone should say how fantastic their games are. Even though I’m incapable of finding their games fun, and I don’t understand what about them is great, I can at least respect the fact that their work has been transformative for many players.
I would like to say that I’m excited to see them seemingly departing from this genre, at least for the time being, given their return to Armored Core. But, uh, well, I find robots pretty boring. Mecha stuff isn’t really up my alley. A lot of people are almost overwhelmingly thrilled, though, and given the developer’s countless successes, I have no doubt that Armored Core VI will be yet another one.
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