Today From Software is best known for birthing and leading the charge of the Soulsborne genre, a portmanteau named after its Bloodborne and Dark Souls series. But the longer history of the company reveals a more chequered past, a timeline populated by minor hits at best, alongside curious novelties, intriguing failures, and more than a few outright duds.
In some ways, From Software emerged out of nowhere in 2011 with the release of the original Dark Souls, the studio’s first genuine smash hit. Suddenly, almost overnight, millions of PS3 and Xbox 360 owners around the world were playing a From Software game, likely for the very first time.
But to a more dedicated observer, the ‘overnight’ success of Dark Souls – a streak that continues to this day with the magnificent Elden Ring – was an arduous journey 25 years in the making. Was the success of Dark Souls the culmination of two and a half decades of honing their craft? Or was it a mere fluke… a case of the stars aligning and From Software accidentally being in the right place at the right time?
Join us as we rekindle the past… sit down to rest at the present… and summon the future of From Software…
Every IGN FromSoftware Game Review
1986 was an auspicious year for video games, particularly in Japan. It saw the release of The Legend of Zelda, the original Metroid, and the first Castlevania, all for the Famicom or NES. All three games can lay claim to being huge influences on the Souls series.
1986 was also the year in which From Software was founded, on November 1, in Tokyo, Japan. Although we don’t know the exact meaning behind the From Software name, it’s possible that it was chosen to represent the company’s original focus… productivity software. To be honest, it’s hard to think of a name that better captures the bland, business-like and–dare we say?–soulless experience of accounting software and spreadsheets.
By the time the company had smartly transitioned into making games for the Sony PlayStation some eight years later, the name From Software had stuck.
The first game from From Software was King’s Field, released within two weeks of the launch of the PlayStation 1 in Japan in December 1994. King’s Field saw From Software embrace the PlayStation’s strength as an early pioneer of 3D graphics, rendering its environments in real-time with a first-person perspective. Although primitive compared to the 3D engines powering PC games of the era, such as Doom and System Shock, King’s Field’s technology was unusual for a console game.
King’s Field also stood out from the crowd of racing games, fighting games, and arcade ports that defined much of the PS1 launch lineup by borrowing gameplay ideas from Western role-playing games. In the 1980s, PC RPGs developed in America, like Ultima and Wizardry, had gained something of a cult status in Japan. And it was these games, rather than the more popular JRPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, that From Software looked towards when designing King’s Field.
Combat was simplistic and awkward. Players could equip various melee weapons and launch ranged magic, both from a first-person perspective. Such actions exhausted a stamina meter in an effort to constrain players, forcing them to adopt a more considered, thoughtful approach–a foreign concept amid the more brute force-focused action games of the time, but an idea very familiar to players of the Souls series and From Software’s other more recent output. Even then, with its very first game, From Software’s esoteric design sensibilities were in evidence.
The world of King’s Field was depicted in muted colors and told a tale of an ancient kingdom fallen to ruin, dragon gods, and a cycle of royal succession, motifs that now reoccur throughout From Software’s games.
From Soft likes to have fun with these connections between its games. Throughout the King’s Field series, which saw two full sequels on PS1 before King’s Field 4 was released on the PlayStation 2 in 2001, the Moonlight Sword serves as the player’s primary aid to triumphing over evil. Acquiring the sword is the quest; equipping it delivers a metaphorical light that lifts the darkness, as well as a very useful high damage output for the end-game fight itself.
The Moonlight Sword, also known as the Moonlight Greatsword, has subsequently appeared in every Souls game as a tribute to King’s Field. “This sword, one of the rare dragon weapons, came from the tail of Seath the Scaleless, the pale white dragon who betrayed his own.” reads the item description for the Moonlight Greatsword in Dark Souls. The sword is only acquired by cutting the tail of Seath during the boss fight in the Crystal Cave. Seath the Scaleless himself is also a tribute to King’s Field, specifically a powerful white dragon who shares the name Seath.
However, rather than either of these examples providing irrefutable proof of some sort of consistent From Software Cinematic Universe, they are merely cheeky references between games. A little wink and nod to their fans.
While King’s Field and its sequels got From Software off to a sound, if unspectacular, start… the studio would find greater success with its fourth game, and the first of what would become its most popular series until the arrival of Dark Souls.
In 1997, From Software released Armored Core for the PS1. An action game where you pilot a mech, drawing on designs from notable anime artists, Armored Core would be called a third-person shooter today.
It spawned two sequels on the original PlayStation before making the move to a new console generation with Armored Core 2 on the PS2. All told, From Software put out an incredible SEVEN Armored Core games and spin-offs on the PS2. In terms of quality, it was very much a case of diminishing returns, but at the same time, the Armored Core series demonstrated From Software’s capacity to serve a hungry, if niche, audience and cemented its reputation as a developer who worked outside the mainstream, seemingly immune to prevailing industry trends.
While the consistent sales of Armored Core sustained the studio through the 2000s, it wasn’t for want of trying to branch out. From Software threw a lot at the wall during the PS2 era–even making a few tentative forays into the Xbox and Gamecube market–but few of them proved commercially successful.
Early PS2 action-RPGs such as Evergrace and Eternal Ring were clunky and poorly received. Lost Kingdoms and its sequel was another middling action-RPG. A notable aspect of Lost Kingdoms, at least in retrospect, is the plot device of a deadly fog that has shrouded the land. Seven years later, Demon’s Souls would begin in a similar fashion, its kingdom of Boletaria consumed by a deep fog.
On the Xbox, From’s games took on a more action-heavy slant with the excellent Otogi: Myth of Demons, and its sequel, Immortal Warriors, both of which were stylish and exciting third-person action games. Murakamo: Renegade Mech Pursuit was a simplistic, anime-inspired mech shooter that had none of the grit or attention to detail of Armored Core. And Metal Wolf Chaos was a silly satire of American militarism in the guise of an endearing–but not very good–third-person mech shooter.
But by the end of the decade, From Software was in trouble. Attempts to attract a new audience on the Xbox 360 floundered as fantasy RPG Enchanted Arms and slow-paced mech sim Chromehounds failed to set the world alight. While Ninja Blade tried in vain to revive the over-the-top action of Otogi with the unwelcome addition of lengthy cut-scenes full of quick-time events. On the PlayStation 3, Armored Core 4 had at least modernized that series with slicker controls and online play, but it was still preaching to the choir.
However, in February 2009, From Software released Demon’s Souls, and…look, for a while, nothing changed.
The Game That Changed Everything
Demon’s Souls had been through development hell. Originally envisioned as a spiritual successor to King’s Field, the ill-fated project was eventually helmed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, previously a designer on several Armored Core games and the director of Armored Core 4. Miyazaki has said that he knew the game had been internally branded as a failure- primarily citing an uncompelling prototype and that’s why he wanted to work on it. “I figured if I could find a way to take control of the game, I could turn it into anything I wanted,” he told The Guardian newspaper in 2015. “Best of all, if my ideas failed, nobody would care – it was already a failure.”
Demon’s Souls emerged from this deep fog, a dark fantasy action-RPG with a design philosophy that ran contrary to its popular contemporaries. This was at the height of the Wii phenomenon and the industry at large was pursuing every non-gaming grandmother who could waggle a Wii remote as if it were a bowling ball. Even on the PS3 and 360 front, big new releases could often feel heavy-handed in their tutorialisation. For seasoned players, recoiling at too many games beating them over the head with what to do next, found perverse refuge in Demon’s Souls and its indifferent and inscrutable world.
In the months that followed the initial Japan-only release, the reputation of Demon’s Souls grew by word of mouth. When it eventually was localized for North America, it proved a surprise hit, finding an eager–yet still modest–audience appreciative of a game that rewarded players for paying attention to everything. The poignant environmental storytelling of its ruined world; the precise timing of enemy attack animations; the scant but evocative lore gleaned from item descriptions. By harking back to an earlier and more demanding era of games, Demon’s Souls was a startling and revitalizing shock to the system for those who had become bored of modern convenience.
The next two-and-a-half years following Demon’s Souls proved a relatively lean period in which From Software developed only a few minor games, none of which received a release outside of Japan. Then, in September 2011, From Software and Bandai Namco launched Dark Souls.
If Demon’s Souls was the template, then Dark Souls was the finely-honed work of a master craftsman.
With the transition from Demon’s to Dark Souls, From Soft followed a clear path of progression, extending the game’s scope and ambition to attract a larger audience without sacrificing the core tenets that underpinned the original success. The most daring change in Dark Souls would also prove its greatest achievement. Instead of the discrete worlds and signposted levels of Demon’s Souls, the land of Lordran in Dark Souls was a truly seamless, interconnected space you could–with one or two exceptions–travel the length and breadth of without hitting a loading screen. It wasn’t an open-world exactly, but it demonstrated how From Soft and Miyazaki’s vision for meticulously staged combat challenges could thrive when given extra space to flourish.
Neither direct sequel opted to overhaul Dark Souls to the same degree. Dark Souls 2 pushed harder into RPG territory with a dazzling array of build options for your character, and a firmer grasp of integrating competitive and co-operative online play, while Dark Souls 3 adopted a more action-oriented stance, taking cues from the two other Souls-adjacent games From Soft was working on simultaneously. While nowhere near as revolutionary as the original, Dark Souls 2 and 3 still managed to avoid the studio’s trend towards diminishing returns that afflicted earlier games like King’s Field and Armored Core.
But if the Souls series had begun to feel safe by its third iteration, From Soft was busy experimenting with the Souls formula elsewhere.
Bloodborne, released in 2015, in-between Dark Souls 2 and 3, saw From Soft step out from behind the safety of its shield and go wildly on the offensive. By all-but-removing the player’s ability to block attacks, Bloodborne doubled down on a specific mode of playing a Souls game: rapidly dodging the enemy’s attacks and furiously countering with your own.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, released in 2019, three years after Dark Souls 3, streamlined yet more of the RPG stats that buttress a Souls game and focused its combat design on a relentless and rewarding parry system.
Yet despite the step away from RPG towards action exhibited by both games, they still carry that methodical From Soft DNA. Bloodborne and Sekiro, just like Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls, Armored Core, and King’s Field before them, emphasize a degree of deliberation in their design. Whether it’s monitoring your stamina consumption mid-combo or switching weapons to a more advantageous damage type, everything possesses a granularity that adds the kind of friction to the action that Souls players crave. Those little extra steps players must take care to prepare for if they’re planning to overcome the next obstacle.
It’s what From Soft does best, and what so few other studios consider, and it’s what we have been finding in Elden Ring.
We knew Elden Ring would offer an expansive land to explore more in line with the scale and freedom of its open-world contemporaries. Anyone worried about how the traditional Souls encounter design might be undermined or diluted by an open world should take comfort in how From Soft so skilfully managed the shift to an interconnected world a decade ago. The seamless world of the original Dark Souls demonstrated From Soft always possessed a keen sense of what was essential to preserve, and how it could benefit.
Elden Ring’s open world is a seismic shift for the Souls style of game. Unlike the narrow, mostly one-way combat gauntlets of From Soft’s previous games, here a sprawling network of plains, valleys and cliffs is dotted with encounters you’re able to approach from multiple directions. Or even bypass and return to later.
Souls games always offered a degree of choice over how you progressed, but for the most part, it boiled down to which of the couple of bosses you have unlocked do you want to fight next. The problem with that is in a challenging game, if you get stuck on a particular boss fight then you often don’t have anywhere else to go. Elden Ring feels like an attempt to solve that problem in a very From Soft way.
Elden Ring’s expansive open-world invites you to advance as far as you can in almost any direction. And when you find yourself worn down by an impossibly stubborn boss, you can simply walk away and explore elsewhere. Discover some useful gear that might give you the edge. Track down some stones that let you upgrade your weapon. Find a boss you CAN beat. Or go hunting for the materials from which you can craft the tools you want to use for the job. And all the while you’re leveling up, gradually improving your character and, more importantly, honing your own skills. Elden Ring’s open-world lets players move forward at their own pace in a way other From Soft games haven’t perhaps accounted for.
For nearly three decades now, From Software has forged its own path. In many ways it feels like they have been content to do their own thing, making the kinds of games they want to make without seemingly much consideration for wider industry trends. Only now, the wider industry is following them.
Now that Elden Ring is finally here, the eyes of the whole video game world will be looking at From Software. What they see will be surprising, delightful, and uniquely From Software.
David Wildgoose is a freelance writer for IGN.
https://www.ign.com/articles/painfully-difficult-from-softwares-30-year-journey-from-ps1-to-elden-ring Painfully Difficult: From Software’s 30+ Year Journey From PS1 to Elden Ring