Yep, Elden Ring looks a lot like Dark Souls. Even though it’s not a direct sequel or even set in the same universe as previous Souls games, it sure sounds like George R.R. Martin was brought on to write the mythos for one, saying “[Elden Ring is] a sequel to a game that came out a few years ago called Dark Souls” in a recent radio interview. The latest gameplay trailer seals it too: there’s a dragon, ruined cathedrals, a grim narrator, an apocalypse event, sad knights, and an immorality curse. If only we were playing bingo.
People have been quick to point out that Dark Souls and Elden Ring look and sound exactly like one another, at least at a glance. I was also surprised as I processed that E3 trailer, but after watching it a few times I took a breather and remembered that this is what FromSoftware does. Every new Souls game is a spiritual sequel to the last, a reinterpretation of FromSoftware’s favorite doomy motifs and signature game design. That repetition would only be a problem if the similarities weren’t so intentional (or just so goddamn cool).
Here be dragons
It’s easy to glance at FromSoftware’s last decade of games and call the studio a one trick pony. It’s always the same tragically immortal player, the same third person combat, the same broad themes and monsters. But rather than a lack of imagination, I see a focused, disciplined imagination. There’s a reason that so few of the Souls-likes sprouting up in FromSoftware’s wake don’t stick with me. They might feature a depressed knight and a backstabbing dragon, but FromSoft’s interpretation of these motifs is sharper and more memorable than the rest by a mile. Hollow Knight’s ability to make me care about cartoon bugs is the closest any game’s gotten.
Take Dark Souls’ Gaping Dragon, for instance. I look at most dragons and think: OK, cool, badass. Dungeons and Dragons, sure. I look at a FromSoftware dragon and think: Jesus, what happened to their fucking life?!?! (I catch my image in the OBS stream monitor.) What happened to my life?
The same new way of seeing follows a person through every From game after their first Gaping Dragon moment, and so Elden Ring’s mountain-sized, crimson lightning-tossing dragon doesn’t just read as a dragon to me. It reads as its own novella written in scales, and even a couple seconds of trailer footage has my mind racing. Unless FromSoftware has failed us all, I will be watching 20-minute dissections of every dragon in Elden Ring 10 years from now. All eyes on you, VaatiVidya.
From’s dragon-making skills aren’t preternatural either. The studio’s obsession with dark, sparse fantasy settings goes way back, long before Hidetaka Miyazaki took charge of the flailing project that eventually became Demon’s Souls.
Resurrect your darlings
The Rule of Cool can carry each dark fantasy From game on its lonesome. Every scene is fit for the finest proggy, stoner metal album art. Even the simple polygons of FromSoftware’s first game, King’s Field, evoke a barren, sinister world much bigger than its dark hallways and truly strange monster models.
I played a good chunk of King’s Field via an emulator recently, and while it’s been made much clumsier and goofier by time, it maintains the basic essence of a Souls game. The catacombs are massive and seemingly infinite, the NPCs soft-spoken and isolated, and the monsters are genuinely creepy. I get a transdimensional contact high looking at King’s Field. It’s where From’s implicit mission to make rad dark fantasy began and the inspiration for so much rad fantasy to follow. So many bong rips rippling through spacetime trace back to King’s Field.
The studio would go on to take big departures from dark fantasy, creating horror games in the Echo Night series and branching out the furthest into mech warfare primarily via the Armored Core series. But it always eventually comes back with a new spin on ruined cathedrals and mad magicians.
FromSoftware’s fantasy games
- King’s Field
- King’s Field 2
- King’s Field 3
- Shadow Tower
- Eternal Ring
- Forever Kingdom
- King’s Field 4
- Lost Kingdoms
- Lost Kingdoms 2
- Shadow Tower Abyss
- Enchanted Arms
- Demon’s Souls
- Dark Souls
- Dark Souls 2
- Dark Souls 3
- Elden Ring
Nearly 30 years of development history over 17 games (out of 60 total) is enough collective time spent to safely say From’s mastered the art of dark fantasy in videogame form.
Elden Ring could be Dark Souls 4, sure. Throw in another onion knight, another Patches trap. I don’t care how similar it looks or whether it carries the same name with a number attached. I don’t think anyone at FromSoftware cares much either. I think of mainstream open world games and I think of villages, NPCs, simulated societies and ecosystems, but Miyazaki says nah.
What it’s called doesn’t matter as much as what it does. When asked about whether Elden Ring would have towns, he said, “…it would become a bit too much, so we decided to create an open world-style game focused on what we are best at.”
This is a studio resisting mainstream trends, stubbornly and admirably focused on doing its thing. Clearly, the team at FromSoftware is making what they want to make. Elden Ring looks like Dark Souls because it basically is Dark Souls. It’s Dark Souls like Dark Souls is Demon’s Souls 2, or Demon’s Souls is King’s Field 4, and so on.
Ruined monuments and pitiful creatures are FromSoftware’s Mario and Luigi. If FromSoftware stops playing around with dark fantasy and cosmic apocalypses, we lose a team of masters still gathering momentum, and that’s a fire we don’t wanna see go out. So here’s to another decade of slaying dragons in the ruins of civilization and feeling guilty about it days later.