It’s really easy to call any action RPG with challenging combat and layered mechanics ‘Souls-like’. For some of these games, it’s not hard to see why. In many ways, they try to evoke the same reaction using a similar approach to that which Souls took.
It wouldn’t be accurate or fair to call Monster Hunter World a Souls-like, but there’s an undeniable flow to the combat in World that Souls players will know very well, and it’s what’s ultimately going to make it easy for Souls players to get into.
When Demon’s Souls first came out it offered RPG players a particular style of tough, rewarding combat and a hands-off approach to presentation. Many players weren’t ready for a game like that, but it found an audience nonetheless. It was enough to warrant making another one, but not enough for the Souls brand to hit it big.
That wouldn’t happen until the release of the first Dark Souls, and it’s then the series found an even bigger audience. Along the way, its continued success shook the foundation of what players expect from RPGs.
You could feel it gaining a foothold because it was hard to miss the dissenting opinions from many who were perplexed by this success. How can a game this obtuse, and this punishing be liked by so many? Others simply disparaged Souls’ combat mechanics, and you’ve no doubt seen the “swinging a sword feels like you’re doing it under water” criticisms and others like them.
But Souls’ deliberate combat felt weighty, and required commitment and finesse. Mastering this style of combat was satisfying, and it’s what got people hooked. The more of the games audience came to appreciate it, the more Souls’ “clunky” combat wasn’t frowned upon anymore; it was asked for. This process took years, of course, but slowly and surely, Souls turned from a niche Japanese game into one of the biggest and most beloved series in the genre.
Without realising it, engaging with and enjoying Souls mechanics all those years have been preparing Western players for the arrival of Monster Hunter World. Sure, longtime fans have been shouting about Monster Hunter’s likeness to Souls for years, but the games were never big enough here to attract the sort of core community that kick-started Souls.
I was told many times over the years that I should really check out Monster Hunter, because of my love for Souls. I even considered buying a 3DS and a Monster Hunter game at one point, but seeing how it controlled on a handheld was a big turnoff.
It wasn’t until I started playing Monster Hunter World that it hit me; I’ve been training years for this without realising.
If you ignore Souls’ colourful enemies and excellent level design, what you do in a typical Souls boss fight is not at all unlike what Monster Hunter demands. You go in, get hit a few times and realise you can’t just brute-force your way through the fight. So you start observing the boss movements and figure out its tells. When you think you’ve got it, you go on the offensive until a new phase kicks in and you take a step back to learn the next set of moves.
While that’s going on, you still need to be mindful of your placement, and be ready to dodge out of the way at a moment’s notice. Whenever you take damage, you’ll start putting some distance between you and the monster while you frantically tap the D-pad for health items and boosts, scrolling past bombs and throwing knives, and maybe even accidentally throwing one because you scrolled a block too far in either direction.
This routine will sound familiar to players of either game because it applies to both. You have to go in with the same commitment, and you’re never really not in danger. To a Souls player, this feels natural, in a way that it will not to someone completely new.
Of course, Monster Hunter builds an entire game on top of these mechanics. Where Souls boss fights are occasional skill checks and progression gateways, the entire point of Monster Hunter is tracking and fighting bosses.
The gear, crafting, and the rest of Monster Hunter’s many systems are in service of The Boss Fight. You want good gear to be able to handle big monsters, which in turn nets the necessary materials needed to make better gear and tackle even bigger monsters.
Think about how much slower weapon swinging and potion drinking animations are in Monster Hunter compared to, say, Skyrim, The Witcher or some other popular RPG. Animation priority is what fans call this, and it prevents you from spamming attacks or chugging boosts ad nauseam, conditioning you to only do those things when you think it’s safe.
If you overcommit, you’ll pay for it. In fact, I’d argue that Monster Hunter is more forgiving in this regard than Souls because you have a bigger health pool, a wider range of healing items, and pre-fight buffs to fall back on.
Both games use the same framework for their combat, then. Souls is about finesse whereas Monster Hunter is a test of your stamina.
The similarities don’t end there. Weapons in Monster Hunter rely on combos that are – mostly – easy to execute. Souls games do, too, even if the game never exposes combo inputs. Most weapons in Souls have distinct light and heavy attacks, and this is expanded further when you combo them together in different ways. The Weapon Arts system in Dark Souls 3 expanded this even more.
Monster Hunter’s version is deeper, no question, largely because it treats weapons as its own version of classes, but there’s no denying the many things they have in common when it’s you in a room against a big bad monster.
My first few hours of Monster Hunter World wouldn’t be this exciting had I not been playing Souls games for years. Many of the habits I picked up playing Souls served me well in Monster Hunter, and allowed me to appreciate the game’s depth without taking hours to acclimate to how it plays.
Had Monster Hunter World been released in a world where it was the first Demon’s Souls, it wouldn’t have generated anywhere near as much interest. A large part of that is thanks to the success of Souls. Players don’t write off games for being slow, clunky or obtuse like they used to.
It reminded me of the response the shooter audience on consoles had to Titanfall and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Players wouldn’t have embraced the freedom of movement these games offered if the genre hadn’t been stuck in the – comparatively more static – boots-on-the-ground rut for years.
In the first case, Souls gameplay informed our appreciation of Monster Hunter World because of how much alike they are. In the other, Titanfall was seen as the cure to a stale formula. But in both cases, our experience with the former is what shaped how we perceived the latter, and both genres are better for it.