I sort-of want to refuse using the recent colloquialism, “Soulslike,” because it veers a but over the “reductive and lazy” edge, but I need to talk about Dark Souls, Nioh, and the like and having a nice catch-all for the super-popular, hardcore action-RPG genre will be helpful. It’s important that these games are important now, because that attention means iteration and derivatives. You can say a game is “like Dark Souls,” and be talking about more than a handful of games in both AAA and Indie spaces. And because we’re starting to see likeminded developers settle into these little recognizable rhythms and mechanics, we’re starting to see more playing around in surface areas, such as aesthetics and subgenres. What I mean is, the swords, armor, monsters and settings are starting to diversify. Which means we’re about to see Dark Souls… in spaaaaace! And everyone might hate it.
Deck13 is the tip of the spear in this situation. If that doesn’t ring any bells, the name Lords of the Fallen might. A smaller, but not unnoticed release, Lords of the Fallen was a Dark Souls-inspired action game that was a little on the more accessible side. It had issues related to its smaller team and budget of course, but was received well enough that the game got a second chance as a recent PlayStation Plus freebie and Deck13 is following it up with a new game in the same style.
Deck13’s next game is called The Surge and is also a “Soulslike” game in a similar vein to Lords of the Fallen. But there’s a twist: instead of the familiar, dark fantasy territory of a Dark Souls or a Nioh (Japanese dark fantasy, but still), The Surge is thoroughly a science-fiction affair. Looking at recently-released gameplay videos on Focus Home Interactive’s YouTube channel, it looks exactly as advertised. A man in high-tech, mechanical armor is fighting other man in high-tech mechanical armor and some robots, Dark Souls-style. The Surge has that same plodding, methodical combat where each individual enemy encounter can be the player’s last, but it looks more like a recent Call of Duty game than something from a longstanding Japanese developer or indie studio. Both are sources more prone to swords, sorcery, and demons than flashing lights and robots.
Taking the Soulslike to the fictional future could open a lot of doors for this style of game. No longer bound to the fantastical, but historic means Deck13 can really mess around with the other end of hyper-reality. Just watching those gameplay videos show me many familiar styles of combat, mostly involving large, blunt weapons, but those weapons are intimidating masses of metal and machinery, often pulsing with some sort of kinetic energy. Blue and red lights fill the screen with each encounter. It both feels familiar and unfamiliar, as the setting matches plenty of modern AAA fare, but the combat almost seems jarring and out of place.
That may be the issue. I watch footage of The Surge and expect the hulking space army man to whip out a huge machine gun and start pumping lead into his foes. It makes me wonder who else feels this way, and if this intersection of themes will or won’t alienate the rabid Soulslike fanbase. After all, while these games are popular, they are still niche; the more casual end of the mass videogames market can not and will not play a Dark Souls game, let alone a more obscure Dark Souls derivative.
The dark fantasy aesthetic, the creepy atmosphere of ruined castles and dark caves, and the nasties lurking within are a key part of the Soulslike’s appeal. Take the dragons, demons, and myriad skeleton variations away, replace them with robots, and risk losing a dedicated chunk of audience. These people like what they like and reject anything else, for better and for worse. Many will see a spaceman with a short haircut and retreat back to the anime section by reflex. If that audience doesn’t accept it, will enough fringe players be attracted to make it worth it?
This is all conjecture of course, but we’ve all seen niche genres pick up steam, make moves to appeal to more broad audiences, and fail spectacularly. The inverse has also happened, of course. Can Deck13 keep this ball rolling into moderate success, enough for us to see the Soulslike explore further, weirder territory? Maybe The Surge, Dark Souls in space, will blow up and, in three years, we’ll be playing all manner of variants across time and space.