The Souls series and its progeny are less its own genre and more of a change to action game trends
During the 360 and PS3 era, third person character action games were everywhere. Games like Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden started a trend on the PS2 and Xbox for fast paced, third person character driven combat. New series took the core concepts, light RPG mechanics with various weapon choices, and copied them into a variety of settings. The character action genre reached its nadir through licensed games, such as Spiderman licensed games like Web of Shadows, and underwhelming sequels, such as Ninja Gaiden 2 and 3. This gave way to a sort of genre burnout as the number of character action games on the new consoles became limited. Besides Ninja Theory, it seems like the genre’s sole proprietor is Platinum Games who have served up some of the genres highest points (Bayonetta 2) and lowest (Ninja Turtles Mutants in Manhattan) for the new console era. During that time though, a new type of action game began to be immensely popular among enthusiasts. The Dark Souls games became a household name as people became engrossed in their rigid combat system and immense difficulty. Games that incorporate similar design choices (such as slow, deliberate combat) have become known as “Souls-likes” or simply being called Dark Souls clones. But both labels miss the point: these types of games simply indicate a new direction for the third person character action genre.
Something that gets lost when looking back at the third person action game genre was just how hard those original games were. Ninja Gaiden required split second timing and precise controls as even regular enemies could take you down within seconds. Devil May Cry (especially the original version of 3) required rigid skill to make it through the combat arenas and platforming puzzles. These games were known for being only for masochists, a torch that has since been passed on to the Soul’s series. The most important aspect of this difficulty though is that it is rewarding for the player and not just randomly punishing. Both those original games and the Souls games are extremely rewarding for players when they can conquer their systems. What is telling though is that Ninja Gaiden and the aforementioned Devil May Cry 3 released versions of the games that lessened the original games difficulty. Ninja Gaiden Sigma for the PS3 was seen as a step back for genre purists while also inviting (slightly) more casual players to try the game. This intense difficulty of the genre was watered down as it passed off to different developers and series. The same direction could be headed for the Soul’s series as well. Nioh, while still containing difficulty, has been said to be more forgiving with its twists on the combat system and a better entry point for players looking to jump into the genre.
While the Souls games carry the difficulty found in the best of the past generations character action games, they vary considerably when it comes to combat systems. Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry both require twitch reflexes to make it through their fast paced combat interactions. The Souls games however are on the complete opposite side of the spectrum with very slow and deliberate combat. Both do require precise dodging and striking enemies during attack openings, but a very different speeds. Missing enemies is a detriment in Dark Souls not because of their quick movement and attacks but because your character’s slow attack speed leaves you vulnerable. Soul’s characters are limited by a stamina meter, preventing continuous attacks that could be performed in Ninja Gaiden. Stamina also limits dodging as a depleted meter takes away the players escape.
While these limiting systems define a Souls-like game, I would argue that they more reflect a change in taste when it comes to character action games. The overabundance of fast paced action games wore out audiences with their similarities in playstyle. The Dark Souls games inadvertently satisfied a need for a change among the genre. The Dark Souls game design does not exclude the more traditional design of the character action game but rather adds variety to a fairly derivative genre. As more Souls-like games continue to be released, I believe it is time to end that specific terminology and view them as a new, integral part of the character action game genre.