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From King's Field to Bloodborne: the lineage of Dark Souls

Dark Souls 2 DLC and Bloodborne are on the lips of many gamers right now, but before looking to the future of From Software's Souls series, Dave Cook pays his respects to where it all began.


Harsh difficulty curves, purposely ambiguous world states and methodical pacing are just a few hallmarks From Software has etched into the fabric of its Souls series. Under the stewardship of series veteran Hidetaka Miyazaki, PS4 exclusive Bloodborne is set to carry the series legacy into 2015. Indeed it's an exciting time to be a Souls fan.

”Long before Miyazaki began work on Demon’s Souls the Tokyo-based studio had already established several of its core concepts in King’s Field.”

It's an upstart franchise that counters almost everything that makes games in the triple-a arena so popular. There is no instant gratifaction to be found in the realms of Lordran or Drangleic, no big explosions, or long bouts of exposition that clear up every narrative detail. They are ballsy projects that go against the grain, and it seems to be working. The series grows more popular by the month.

But where did the Souls concept come from, and how did it grow to this point? Back in 2012 I interviewed Miyazaki about the origins of Dark Souls and to learn more about his unique design philosophy.

He told me at the time, "What Dark Souls is offering is a feeling of accomplishment. That is the game concept of Dark Souls, so it looks a difficult game. Dark Souls is a game offering a feeling of accomplishment which may be relatively rare among other games nowadays”

“However,” he added, “this does not mean [the industry] lacks creativity, but a shift of values offered by games. If the game industry lacks creativity, this will result in a stagnation in value that games offer, but I believe that games are still a media providing players with new and diverse value.”

He's a humble man, that's for sure.


Dark Beginnings

Long before Miyazaki began work on Demon's Souls - the first in From Software's series - the Tokyo-based studio had already established several of its core concepts in King's Field. This lesser-known PS One title went on to spawn three sequels ending with King's Field IV: The Ancient City on PS2. It hit Japan in 2001, a full eight years before Demon's Souls launched exclusively on PS3.

Though separated by almost a decade, there are common threads between both franchises that have clearly informed not just Miyazaki's work, but that of Dark Souls 2 co-producers Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura, and recently, Lords of the Fallen producer Tomasz Gop. It's clear that this series has inspired many creators across the world to push for greater difficulty in their games, and inject their work with Souls concepts.

But what is King's Field? It's an obscure title that is both archaic in design, yet endearing thanks to its gruelling challenge and mysterious nature. It gives little away, yet invites players to dive deeper into its murky world to piece together what little insight is available.

You can see it in action here, thanks to a superb video walkthrough from wolfman11983. Thank you sir:

King's Field takes place in the land of Verdite, a realm once saved by a mysterious champion who disappeared into the fog of a nearby forest, never to be seen again. This so-called Dragon of the Forest will return one day to save the realm from a horde of beasts that have emerged from the Dark World, and it just so happens that's you. Much like the Souls games, King's Field ends on an ambiguous and bittersweet note.

”Though many of the NPCs remained largely ambiguous, they certainly laid the frame for memorable yet mysterious Souls characters such as Solaire, the Emerald Herald and the Maiden in Black.”

The player must slog through the dark, depressing land in first-person while methodically fighting brutal monsters as they go. Along the way they'll earn gold and gear, equip spells and die lots. By the end of the adventure, the Dark World door is sealed once more, but a final text crawl warns that it's only a matter of time before the passage opens again. It's a short-lived victory, just like kindling the flame in Dark Souls.

While the soul absorption mechanic isn't present in King's Field, Miyazaki did retain some of the game's essence when he crafted Demon's Souls. It takes place in a dark Medieval kingdom awash with beasts and death, offers very little in the way of sign-posting or exposition, and features a slow combat mechanic reliant on strafing and knowing when to back down. I already mentioned that you can die lots. I'm not sugar-coating that either.

Here's King's Field II:

Thanks teh2Dgamer.

From Software's second entry looks a lot better than the first, and includes a continuous soundtrack. The game was released in 1995 and casts players as Prince Alexander - one of the Verdite King's allies - as he attempts to find the Moonlight Sword. It's located somewhere on the isle of Melanat, and wouldn't you know it, it's also completely rammed with savage creatures that want to kill you dead.

”Only you have the power to take the object into the old city and break the curse before it’s too late. Almost sounds like the cursed hero travelling to Drangleic in Dark Souls 2, doesn’t it?

The clip above really shows just how similar the combat mechanic is, even in first-person. Alexander's slow, heavy sword swipes recall many weighted melee weapons from across the Souls series, and the range of status effects are certainly something to be feared. Those poison attacks look fierce.

Kings Field 3 followed a similar format as its predecessors, but with an expanded cast of characters each with their own backstory and relevance to the plot. Though many of the NPCs remained largely ambiguous, they certainly laid the frame for memorable yet mysterious Souls characters such as Solaire, the Emerald Herald and the Maiden in Black. Their true motives are never concretely spelled out, but there are enough threads in each game to draw reasonable conclusions about who they are.

This insightful and slightly mind-blowing video connects the dots surrounding Solaire in Dark Souls, in an attempt to figure out who he is, and how he's connected to the darkness smothering Lordran. It's genuinely incredible and I'd advise any fans of the series to watch it:

Thanks VaatiVidya.

Next up: King's Field 4 and Shadow Tower.

Into the Abyss

In King's Field 4: The Ancient City (above, courtesy of lockedine), you can clearly see a few of the Souls staples we know today shining through, most notably a stamina bar that depletes with each swing of your hero's weapon, and a similar status HUD. The menu sounds are even similar when buying and selling items at vendors, and there are save points found in safe areas, much like bonfires.

The similarities to Dark Souls - specifically the second instalment - run deeper still thanks to the game's plot. In ancient times a cursed idol once destroyed a whole civilization, and it has arisen from the darkness to repeat the process. Only you have the power to take the object into the old city and break the curse before it's too late. Almost sounds like the cursed hero travelling to Drangleic in Dark Souls 2, doesn't it?

”There are several similarities to the Souls games in Shadow Tower, but none are as profound as the soul mechanic. Players can even find Soul Pods that can be used to top up their stats quickly.”

However, King's Field only has so much in common with Dark Souls. In fact, it could be argued that From Software's Dark Tower series was Miyazaki's true influence when designing Demon's Souls. The first entry launched on PS One in 1998 and rather than reward players with experience for killing demons, slaying specific creatures will raise certain stats over time. This is very similar to the souls mechanic in Miyazaki's PS3 debut.

As you can see in this video from wolfman11983, Shadow Tower has a similar aesthetic style to Demon's Souls, not to mention gauges for stamina, health and magic points. It takes place in Zeptar, a city that has been swallowed into the underworld, prompting your hero Ruus to take up arms and descend into the sunken structure to fight back against the demons within.

The inventory system is very different to that of King's Field, but you can already see similarities to the Souls series in the way that different limbs can be equipped with gear, hands with weapons, and fingers with rings. Equipment weight is also important to combat:

Shadow Tower Inventory

Messages can be found on the city's walls written in blood, much like the player-created messages in Demon's Souls, along with a similar combat mechanic that demands the player blocks and attacks with discipline. There's even the option to restart upon completion in New Game+ mode, and in something of a Dark Souls 2 twist, players can also light torches in darkened areas to help them find their way.

There are several similarities to the Souls games in Shadow Tower, but none are as profound as the soul mechanic. Players can even find Soul Pods that can be used to top up their stats quickly, much like consuming Soul of a Proud Knight items in Miyazaki's entries:

soul pod

The parallels grew even deeper with the release of Shadow Tower: Abyss in 2003. This RPG successor sees players ascending the tower from the first game some time either in the present day, or at a point in the future. We know this because one of the weapons obtained near the start is a handgun.

It's at this point that the similarities between the Shadow Tower series and Demon's Souls become stark. The PS2 title features a staggering amount of weapons - 500 according to the Wiki page - a slew of friendly and hostile NPCs, a soul harvesting progression system and more. You can even hack limbs off enemies - or wings if they're flying - to tackle them strategically.

Here's Shadow Tower: Abyss in action, courtesy of wolfman11983:

Next up: Demon's Souls and the seeds of legend

Thanks James Ferris.

Enter the Nexus

Developed over two years under the stewardship of Hidetaka Miyazaki, Demon's Souls launched in Japan on February 5, 2009. There was a time when the game wasn't considered for Western release, but a strong reaction from import fans across the world convinced Sony and From Software to bring the game to foreign shores. Arguably, the main draw was the RPG's fabled, notorious difficulty, with many theorising it to be the hardest game ever made.

”Demon's Souls is a rare experience that challenges the status quo of instant gratification, intrusive sign-posting and a heavy reliance on exposition to explain absolutely everything to the player.”

That curiosity led to an eventual North American release, and later, a limited print run in the UK known as the Black Phantom Edition. I bought it on day of release and never looked back. What struck many critics was the game's sense of achievement when felling its hulking boss creatures, and the way players help each other collectively finish the quest by leaving tips for each other in the environment. These messages are comparable to the blood stain scrawls in Shadow Tower.

It takes place in the realm of Boletaria, where a thick, colourless fog is causing the people to lose their minds and spawning hideous demons. The use of fog as a source of evil is similar to themes found in the first King's Field title, and of course, the soul collection mechanic plays centre-stage. It is the glue that holds your progression together, driving you forward through each miserable location until you slaughter every beast that stands in your path.


The combat mechanic that slowly evolved through both King's Field and Shadow Tower had finally gone third-person, but the old methodology of strafing, striking carefully and defending when needed remained. Like Mega Man or other difficult games reliant on pattern memorisation, Demon's Souls demanded that you learn the habits of its enemy creatures so that nothing was left to chance. Without proper discipline and a willingness to learn, only repeated death awaited you in Boletaria.

There is also a welcome solitude to be found throughout Miyazaki's world. There is no music, save for boss encounters and what few cut-scenes there are, and almost everything in the game exists to kill the player. That's isolating in a positive way only fans of the Metroid series and a few other franchises will understand. As hard as it is, I've spend many chilled out nights with a beer by my side and some music on, simply grinding souls in the Storm of Shrines (you know where I mean).

I even made a Vine of this exact location last year:

That death noise.

Demon's Souls is a rare experience that challenges the status quo of instant gratification, intrusive sign-posting and a heavy reliance on exposition to explain absolutely everything to the player. Miyazaki and his team purposely left most of the plot to imagination, so that whatever you thought was going on actually was the true answer. This allowed for a great degree of personal investment and ownership over the quest the likes of which are rarely seen these days. That's a little sad.

”Dark Souls had its fair share of memorable battles, such as the warped form of Queelag, the reality-check brutality of Ornstein & Smough, and the haunting sadness of Gwyn's last stand.”

You'll know what that personal investment means each time you pass through a boss fog gate for the first time, unaware of the horrors lurking on the other side, or the sting that comes with losing tens of thousands of souls because of a foolish error. You die, you learn from it, and you improve. It's a simple premise, but one that captured the adoration of critics and players alike.

As such, a successor was inevitable, and Dark Souls was born under the working title Project Dark. It launched in 2011 and proved to be an instant smash with the games press, with high praise championing its deeply embedded mythology, gruelling difficulty and overpowering sense of achievement. Although it drastically improved upon the old Shadow Tower template, Dark Souls replaced that game's save points with bonfires that could be lit and used by players to level up, store or repair items and more.


This mechanic proved to be Miyazaki's master-stroke. Bonfires were safe havens players constantly struggled towards through hordes of savage foes and lethal environmental traps. Hearing that comforting sound of the flame or seeing its glow on the horizon resulted in an overwhelming sense of relief, and that speaks volumes about how rewarding this game could be. Even levelling up a basic sword - a task made simple in some games - became a lesson in persistence and skill in Dark Souls.

Miyazaki's creative team also made sure that - like Demon's Souls - each boss encounter was a true event, and even he admits that the bosses themselves are not the hardest part of the Souls games if you know their patterns. Rather, it's the journey to the encounter that proves most daunting. Dark Souls had its fair share of memorable battles, such as the warped form of Queelag, the reality-check brutality of Ornstein & Smough, and the haunting sadness of Gwyn's last stand.

But like the once prosperous kingdoms depicted in King's Field, Shadow Tower and both Demon's and Dark souls, the series lost its way a little, only to re-emerge from the darkness once more.

Lastly: Dark Souls 2 and Bloodborne.

Thanks TheTimePlayed.

Miyazaki played only an advisory role in the developmnt of Dark Souls 2, leaving co-directors Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura at the helm. We now know that Miyazaki turned his attention to Project Beast, which was unveiled at E3 2014 as PS4 exclusive Bloodborne, but we'll get to that in a moment.

Early on in Dark Souls 2's development, it surfaced that the game was going to be more accessible than its predecessor, a claim that sent alarm bells ringing. Many assumed this to mean that the game was created to be easier in order to secure a wider audience, but that fear was downplayed by From Software and publisher Namco. It is by far an easier game than both of Miyazaki's works, but no less valid for it.

The game retains key components threaded throughout all the games I've listed in this article so far, yet manages to feel simpler thanks to readily-available fast travel between bonfires, the ability to make enemies extinct after killing them ten times, and the convenient positioning of vendors and a blacksmith in Majula. These features were clearly welcomed by many gamers but for me, personally, I didn't feel like as rewarded by the end credits to the same degree that I did in the first game.

But after starting New Game+ I started to notice subtle differences that caught my eye, like the appearance of more-detailed item descriptions that offered more insight into the realm of Drangleic, the hero's curse and the fall of King Vendrick.

Once again, VaatiVidya has laced all the threads together to offer an intricate theory as to what was going on throughout Dark Souls 2. Much of it is open to interpretation, but I think he's nailed it. The video is heavy with ENDING SPOILERS, so beware:

It's all just so incredibly well-thought out and embedded within the world itself, that you can't help but applaud From Software's dedication to mystery and self-exploration. I can forgive the easier, mostly-uninspired boss battles, the limp final encounter and the lack of distance between fog gates because this still 'feels' like a Souls game at its core. It firmly belongs to the lineage started by King's Field, and its difficulty can often catch players off guard if they're getting too cocky.

Gamers often call this series out for delivering inadequate visuals compared to the likes of - say - Battlefield 4 or other triple-a juggernauts, but I'd argue that graphical power alone is redundant here. The world itself is depressingly, intricately designed, right down to individual armour sets or building architecture. The long walk up Castle Drangleic's steps is both intimidating yet beautiful, as those jagged tower spires loom over you, thrusting high above the murky sky.

So although Dark Souls 2 is arguably easier than its predecessors, it still retains several key elements of the series while injecting new ideas into the mix. We'll have to wait until From Software's expansions drop before assessing whether or not they're harder than the core game, but I'm certainly excited to get stuck in again.


Welcome to Yharnam

Bloodborne was announced at E3 2014, and marks Miyazaki's return to the series he spawned. Though this PS4 exclusive is only a spiritual successor to Demon's Souls, it - like much of From Software's output before it - retains several key elements. It takes place in the city of Yharnam and its surrounding areas, a place overcome by a terrible curse (can you see a pattern forming yet?). The hero has journeyed to the city to remove a curse of their own, but finds only monsters and death within its walls.

Many didn't think it possible, but Bloodborne is a darker, more savage experience than the Souls titles, thanks to the game's almost horror slant and the truly gruesome nature of it creatures. In something of a twist, Myazaki has opted to speed up the game's combat, offering players a morphing blade that allows for rapid swipes and the ability to flip it up into a shield. The hero also wields a shotgun that can be used during combos.

In several E3 interviews Miyazaki stressed that he wants to encourage players to go on the offensive, rather than enter into that familiar Dark Souls cycle of standing back with a shield, while goading enemies into letting their guard down. He's got a point, we've done that for three games now. From gameplay shown behind closed doors in Los Angeles last month, it seems that the Soul harvesting mechanic will remain, but it's not yet clear how players will be punished when they die. Many questions remain.


But as you can see by looking back through Dark Souls, Demon's Souls, Dark Tower and the King's Field series, you can trace back Bloodborne's DNA across some of the most obscure, uninviting yet utterly magnetic titles ever to grace the annals of game development. These games aren't for everyone, but the dedicated gaming culture surrounding them suggests there exists a genuine warmth and admiration among the darkness.

I count myself as a part of that circle, a group that has spent tens of hours on each of the Souls games, only to come away exhausted and rewarded for it. I've appreciated every conversation we've had, and it's genuinely nice to know that I'm not alone in my fondness for the series Miyazaki has helped popularise.

Praise the sun.


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Dark Souls

PS3, Xbox 360, PC

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Dark Souls II

Video Game

Demon's Souls

PS5, PS3

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About the Author
Dave Cook avatar

Dave Cook


Dave worked on VG247 for an extended period manging much of the site's news output. As well as his experience in games media, he writes for comics, and now specializes in books about gaming history.