In a world where games were seemingly becoming easier and easier, FromSoftware dared to challenge modern trends and go back to the roots of classic gaming. From their work, the incredibly challenging, meme-inspiring, and grotesquely beautiful “souls-like” genre was born.
With BluePoint Games’ next-gen remake of Demon’s Souls coming out in less than a month, now is the perfect time to revisit the Dark Souls franchise before coming back to the game that started it all.
If you’ve never played a Dark Souls title before or are a little fuzzy on where to start, we here at High Ground have you covered. We gathered up as many souls as we could, enjoyed a brief respite at the nearest bonfire, and listed the Dark Souls games ranked from worst to best.
Dark Souls Games Ranked From Worst to Best
Let’s be honest — all of the Souls titles are excellent games with in-depth lore and haunting stories that are well worth replaying time and again. Our rankings are based primarily on the refinement of the game’s mechanics (which remain relatively consistent throughout the series), level design, and impact on the overall franchise. Enough praising the sun, though. Let’s rank the Dark Souls series!
5. Demon’s Souls
- Platforms: PlayStation 3
- Developer: FromSoftware
- Release Date: February 5, 2009
First on our list of Dark Souls games ranked? The original Demon’s Souls.
There’s a good reason why so many fans of the Souls series are excited for the Demon’s Souls remaster. In many ways, Demon’s Souls acts as the first true Souls-like game, with a strong template and interesting mechanics that simply lack the polish of later installments. Much like the first Assassin’s Creed, it contained plenty of great-but-mismatched ideas that would find better footing in the sequels.
The game’s unrefined nature can be attributed to the aimlessness of its production. It took the creative mind of Hidetaka Miyazaki (the eventual creator of the Dark Souls games) to give the game the direction that ultimately led to its release. The lack of refinement also leads to certain aspects of the game’s difficulty — if we’d ranked the games by difficulty alone, Demon’s Souls would easily sit at the top of the list. The less-refined bonfire, combat, and meta systems make for a more challenging gameplay experience, and the enemies themselves only add to the stress.
Even with the development issues, Demon’s Souls successfully introduced difficult gameplay to a Western audience in a beautiful and memorable way. The game boasts some of the best bosses and emotional beats in the series, even if it’s not directly tied to the Dark Souls canon. It’s part of what makes this game so nostalgic for fans of the genre and what has us excited for the remake and the potential it offers to the series.
4. Dark Souls
- Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows
- Developer: FromSoftware
- Release Date: September 22, 2011
Ready for a fun behind-the-scenes fact? If Demon’s Souls hadn’t been a PlayStation exclusive, Dark Souls might never have been made. The team at FromSoftware wanted to make a true sequel to Demon’s Souls, but due to exclusivity rights and a shift to Bandai Namco as a publisher, the series license was firmly in PlayStation’s hands. In true From fashion, the team simply created another spiritual successor (to their other spiritual successor) in the form of a new IP.
The need to start “fresh” was a blessing in disguise, as the original Dark Souls quickly became known as one of the greatest games of all time. Much like its predecessor, it doesn’t even attempt to hold your hand — the tutorial itself thrusts you straight into the action and unforgivingly pushes you to experiment, die, and try again.
Dark Souls elegantly introduces a looping, layered, semi-open-world concept, encouraging exploration that uncovers shortcuts and hidden secrets. While its boss design seems somewhat quaint compared to the monsters found in later games, it masterfully sets the standard for these epic encounters.
Dark Souls is somewhat of a hidden gem in the series that ultimately gets weighed down by graphics and the power of earlier-gen systems. That said, it serves as a necessary and confident foundation in a series that’s well-worth revisiting.
3. Dark Souls 3
- Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Microsoft Windows
- Developer: FromSoftware
- Release Date: March 24, 2016
Dark Souls 3 is the so-called black sheep of the franchise, but it serves as the best entry point to the series. The difficulty is still there, but it feels more natural and forgiving, allowing for more mistakes early on without the same level of punishment. While this can be seen as a negative, we argue that it’s merely the culmination of From’s various approaches to game design.
It’s hard to directly compare Dark Souls 3 to earlier titles based on difficulty alone. The slower ramp-up in challenge level may seem easy compared to the harsh nature of its predecessors, but it’s also just tighter game design that makes for more intuitive combat and allows you to adapt. With this being the first FromSoftware game that consistently hits 60 fps, we also get a lot of performance elements that make for a better linear progression.
Many of the changes can be chalked up to Bloodborne. The combat is faster and encourages close-range approaches and experimentation to find the perfect loadout to run with. The grotesque aesthetic and labyrinthian level design makes an appearance in Dark Souls 3 as well. It’s an incredibly beautiful game to look at, and we hope it serves as a glimpse into what’s to come in From’s upcoming next-gen title, Elden Ring.
2. Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition
- Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
- Developer: QLOC, Virtuos
- Release Date: May 24, 2018
We mentioned before that the original Dark Souls is an often-overlooked gem in the series, and to be honest, it’s perfectly understandable. The elegant game design, incredible boss battles, and challenging-but-rewarding journey are shrouded by muddy visuals, less-fluid movement, and older hardware restrictions. Thankfully, there’s now a much easier (and arguably better) way to experience the game with the 2018 remaster.
Now, it’s best to temper your expectations if you loved the original and are expecting a full-blown refresh that matches your nostalgia. That’s not the case here — this is a tried-and-true remaster, not a remake. This means that most of the changes are quality-of-life and visual upgrades, with no additional fiddling to enhance the meta or improve the level design and combat mechanics.
While many reviewers docked the remasters for this lack of polish, it’s still a great game that now plays a bit more like the sequels. The combat feels tighter, the multiplayer component is easier to use, and you can finally see the environments as intended. Throw in the fact that it comes packaged with the excellent Artorias of the Abyss DLC, and this is far and away the best way to play the original Dark Souls.
Maybe avoid getting it on the Switch, though. It somehow looks even worse than before.
1. Dark Souls 2
- Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows
- Developer: FromSoftware
- Release Date: March 11, 2014
If Dark Souls 3 represents the natural progression in FromSoftware’s game design, Dark Souls 2 represents what happens when they throw out most of the playbook. It still feels like a Souls game and iterates on what came before, but it makes plenty of changes.
Many of these changes, such as lighting and even level layouts, were adjusted right up until launch. Fans were left frustrated at the gameplay tweaks — the stat system was more intricate, the bosses more uniquely challenging, and the overall direction felt more scattered.
Still, that’s what makes this game so unquestionably a Dark Souls title. This game, along with Bloodborne and Sekiro, proves that From isn’t afraid to experiment. The sidestep may have been better received if it had been released after Bloodborne — the RPG mechanics, bonfire alterations, and additional challenges were just a bit too forward-thinking for most fans of the Dark Souls series.
Thankfully, it’s those changes that make this game so easy to go back to now. It feels modern despite being six years old, and feels challenging without the frustration of the first game. Even the story, while somewhat unfocused, shows what From narratives have become — less of a direct plotline and more of a series of interweaving elements to observe and uncover. It’s both the epitome of the From’s design style and the launch point for future titles, making it the best and purest iteration of Dark Souls in the series and our #1 pick for best Dark Souls games ranked.
The Dark Souls of Video Games
At this point, it’s become pretty standard to use the phrase “The Dark Souls of ___” to describe any game that exceeds the traditional difficulty level of its genre. This trend has arisen because, a little over ten years ago, we didn’t have a go-to title like Dark Souls to describe well-designed, challenging games. It speaks to how much influence FromSoftware has had on modern game design, but they weren’t always so iconic.
The Road to Success
From’s journey to success wasn’t immediate. Their original RPG title, King’s Field, was limited to Japan and wouldn’t see a worldwide release until its sequel. It went on like this for a while — From would launch a new IP, generate a few sequels, and ultimately pull back due to a lack of international success. It wouldn’t be until their Armored Core series, which drastically diverted from their established formula, that they would find consistent success.
From’s love for dark fantasy persisted through most of their IPs in the early 00s, experimenting with the action-adventure model to critical acclaim but little commercial success. The release of Demon’s Souls in 2009 (and, even more so, Dark Souls two years later) finally turned them into the international sensation they are today.
Difficult by Design
FromSoftware took so long to catch fire mainly because of their dedication to a particular gameplay style. Throughout every title, regardless of their mechanics, they emphasized the need to challenge the player with difficulties baked into the game design itself. Their enemies, levels, and boss fights force the player to fully master the controls and hone their combat instincts.
A perfect example of this intricate approach to game design is the Dancer of the Boreal Valley in Dark Souls 3. On the surface, her moves feel random, difficult to predict, and somewhat unfair. In reality, there’s so much care put into this boss fight that takes the tried-and-true method of trial-and-error to uncover — the discerning player will eventually notice that (spoiler alert!) her moves are tied directly to the musical score. Once you get accustomed to the beat and start to predict her patterns, you’re better able to take her down.
Such is the case with many aspects of the Souls games — every death helps you learn something new. It’s what sets FromSoftware’s difficulty apart even in their earlier titles. As the gaming industry finally comes back around to an era of hard-hitting challenges, From delivers incredible game design and near-insurmountable obstacles that you can’t help but want to overcome.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our list of Dark Souls games ranked and found the perfect Dark Souls game to play before the release of the Demon’s Souls remake. Just try not to lose your cool (or your humanity) when the very first boss inevitably beats you down.
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