Cue the Souls-like: arguably a crude, reductive description that has permeated the gaming landscape in the wake of FromSoftware’s leviathans. But there’s no denying that the Souls DNA – whether the mood, mechanics, or just a shorthand for daunting combat – is etched into the codes of many games that have been released in the past few years.
Dark Souls is a ridiculously high bar to measure against, though, and one that many titles don’t even come close to matching.
That is why trying to find the best Souls-likes on PC is like trying to find the best replicas of the Mona Lisa – it ain’t easy, trust us. Here are our picks, however.
SEKIRO: SHADOWS DIE TWICE
What better place to start than with the latest game from FromSoftware’s stable? Sekiro is stunning, but a real change of pace from the usual Souls fare. Combat can feel a little bare until you unlock new moves, but that’s for the best: being forced to master the fundamentals reveals their depth, and is crucial training for the rest of the game. Unlike Dark Souls, there’s not really a crutch to lean on – Sekiro is a traditional single-player game, so you can’t summon a friend for a little jolly cooperation.
FromSoft has also jettisoned the RPG-style level-up system. Your character – a ninja known as Wolf – does get stronger, but in a much more controlled way. You improve health and posture by collecting prayer beads, and improve attack power by contemplating the bosses you’ve killed. These resources are both finite, so you can’t farm souls to overwhelm enemies with raw strength. An overwhelmingly good game.
Let’s start with the best. Long before Dark Souls, Team Ninja cut themselves a reputation for hardcore melee action from the Ninja Gaiden series (sadly never released on PC – just forget Yaiba ever happened). So their game about slicing up mythical beasts and spirits from Japanese folklore while rubbing shoulders with historical figures from Japan’s Sengoku period shouldn’t immediately bring Souls to mind.
In fact, Nioh shines precisely because, despite a few familiar mechanics – shrines acting as checkpoints, levelling up with Amrita that you can also lose if you die – it’s a very different beast. Chiefly, the Ki pulse makes stamina management a whole new challenge for both you and your enemy, while the ability to change stances adds extra tactical depth to the flow of combat.
SALT AND SANCTUARY
This is essentially Dark Souls on a 2D plane. There’s the gloomy aesthetic and salt substitutes souls as a currency from defeating enemies (which you also lose upon death). There’s an opaque story delivered through a handful of cryptic dialogue and even messages you can leave for other players using preset words and phrases (“Praise the salt!” being a popular one, naturally). And, of course, unforgivable bosses are included, with names like ‘The Sodden Knight’ and ‘The Bloodless Prince’, whose weaknesses and attack patterns you’ll need to learn, coupled with wearing the right gear and executing well-timed dodge rolls, in order to defeat them.
That might read like a checklist of all things Dark Souls, but despite being overly derivative, Salt and Sanctuary is also lovingly made so that it feels more like a fan tribute than a cynical clone.
This is arguably more Metroidvania than Souls-like (but hey, isn’t Dark Souls in many ways a Metroidvania in 3D?). Nonetheless, it’s definitely Souls-ish with its gloomy atmosphere, benches offering respite, and the need to revisit the spot you died to retrieve any lost items. But rather than a world of doomed knights and terrible dragons, this subterranean world is one literally crawling with bugs.
It might not sound very inviting but it is, thanks to the wonderful, cartoony hand-drawn visuals and slick animation. Hollow Knight also gives you plenty of secrets and optional challenges so you can keep exploring its world, going deeper and deeper if you wish.
To be honest, the only Souls-like aspect of Titan Souls is in the title. This is more of a top-down boss rush, with the unique hook being that both you and the boss only have one hit point – though that’s relative when those bosses have multiple barriers to their weak spot. If it sounds gimmicky, but that’s because this started life in a game jam, a great place for coming up with ideas.
Titan Souls trades on this one trick throughout, and the steep challenge – and inevitable repetition – will likely only appeal to the most ardent adventurers. Speedrunners will relish the sizeable challenge.