Get ready for some thumb cramp.
You know a game did something well when it spawned its own genre definition. Dark Souls wasn’t the first game to combine bone-breaking difficulty with permadeath and the chance to recapture your old loot on your next run, but it certainly brought the mechanic concoction to the masses.
The term Souls-like has since been attributed to the titles that take inspiration from the Dark Souls canon and play with these core mechanics in brand new ways. Here we take a look at the indies who took on the challenge with our list of the seven best Souls-like indie games!
Fancy some Dark Souls action, but not completely on-board with human characters? DarkMaus is for you. While certainly not a subtle redirection of the Souls-like genre, DarkMaus offers the exact thumb-sweating action you’d expect from a game so heavily influenced by the combat classic.
A sparse top-down aesthetic introduces players to the world of Hazath, a post-apocalyptic collection of beiges and dark browns with one mouse in the centre of the action. While it’s not much to look at, you won’t be spending much time admiring the scenery. True to its genre, DarkMaus is full of blindingly difficult combat and enemies with far higher skill levels than your lowly rodent. With a tactical approach to every fight, and some carefully timed campfire rests, you’ll be able to grunt your way through every explosive battle and that eye-watering difficulty curve.
In essence, DarkMaus is everything a Souls-like should be in its mechanical complexity but is stripped back in terms of narrative and visual design – perfect for action junkies.
6. Death’s Gambit
For some reason, Souls-like games tend to flourish in the shadowy gothic realms. Perhaps it’s the crushing difficulty or gritty approach to death and health, but fantasy horror is still one of the most widely used settings for games of this bloodline. Death’s Gambit is no different.
Following the trials of Sorun, an undead soldier who has been resurrected by the Grim Reaper himself, Death’s Gambit takes players on a quest-filled journey through the monster-infested badlands of Siradon. Character and enemy design fans take note, because Death’s Gambit looks strongest in its ability to incite fear and dread with just a glance at whatever’s heading over the horizon. The pixelated world doesn’t skimp on the detail, instead offering gorgeously constructed designs from the get-go.
Combat is, of course, more of a dance than a competition of brute force, utilising a small supply of stamina to pull off last-minute dodges. And there’s no grunt work here. Rather than rewarding grinding for extra strength boosts, Death’s Gambit comes into its own when its controls are mastered… though you will need to put the time in for that.
5. Titan Souls
Well, it has ‘Souls’ in its name, that’s got to count for something right? It does also have huge, punishing bosses and relatively difficult gameplay to boot. Similarities aside, Titan Souls could be described more like a boss rush – in many ways it resembles Shadow of the Colossus more than it does Dark Souls. Which begs the question, is Shadow of the Colossus a Souls-like? Let’s not go down that rabbit hole, for the sake of everyone’s sanity.
Titan Souls drops you into an ancient, ruined land as a solitary hero armed with only a single arrow to defend yourself. Your goal is to explore this pixelated 2D world in search of the Titan Souls, the spiritual source and sum of all things. Standing in your way are the Titans, colossal beasts of immense power sworn to guard the souls.
Your battles with these giants hinge on fast-paced and brutal combat. Death comes often but as any Dark Souls player knows, it doesn’t mean the end, only the beginning. Between the cute, Zelda-esque graphics and punishing, boss rush level design Titan Souls finds a comfortable space between challenging and fun. And, let’s be honest, difficult or not that’s always a great place to be.
Every step in Below could be your last. By this point, you’ve probably come to accept that from souls-like titles, but the careful approach to exploration, combat, and death employed in Capybara Games’ 2018 release goes against the traditional run and gun nature of roguelike genres.
The cycle of travelling further down through variously themed dungeons before dying and returning to the top is one you’ll likely get used to. But each dungeon is designed in such a way as to obliterate any assumptions over its contents, making each run a new discovery as you finally reach a new bizarre location just below your previous death.
Though there’s a fair bit of repetition, and only a minimal amount of procedural generation going on in each dungeon, Below makes everything deliciously difficult with no tutorials or hand-holding along the way. It’s the kind of game you’ll rage quit before begrudgingly retrieving your computer from the pavement below and starting all over again.
3. Dead Cells
Big boss battles? Check. An array of deadly weapons? Check. Challenging gameplay mechanics resulting from death? Check. I guess you could say Dead Cells is a lot like Dark Souls, in some ways at least. I mean, you also start the game as an undead immortal prisoner – ring any bells?
As a self-described Souls-lite, Dead Cells offers a similar ‘tough but fair’ combat system most Souls fans have applauded since the genre’s inception. It’s also a game designed to give you multiple approaches to victory. No one weapon set or spell is dominant, offering you a unique gameplay experience full of hidden and deadly offensive combinations. Don’t worry if things get tough though, as you can always emergency roll to safety – just like in Dark Souls.
Then there’s the setting. The gothic buildings, direct castles and undead filled causeways scream of the ancient land of Lordran. Of course, there are lots of games with castles out there but coupled with the intense difficulty it’s easy to relate the experience back to everyone’s favourite die-’em-up. That’s not to take anything away from Dead Cells; its refreshing blend of Metroidvania and roguelike gameplay set it apart from anything on the market.
Like many Souls-lites or Souls-likes, it asks you to master its combat systems and memorise its maps. It’s that discipline that is the main appeal for partakers of the genre. A challenge worth overcoming offers, for some, a reward greater than the experience of playing, or beating a game alone. Is life even worth living if you’re not suffering? Dead Cells doesn’t think so.
Folks, you’re not going to want to venture into the dark, unforgiving dungeons of Necropolis alone. This Dark Souls-inspired dungeon crawler takes difficulty just as serious as its gothic cousin. Permadeath is always around the corner as you face off against the hordes of unrelenting creatures inhabiting this underworld. The beauty of it all, though, is that you don’t have to go it alone – in fact, unlike Dark Souls with its obscure online multiplayer options, NECROPOLIS actively encourages you to team up.
Like many other Souls-likes, the gameplay centres around dying, a lot. Through these deaths you grow your character, their abilities and your resilience to the undead, or otherwise horrors you face lurking around in the dark places nobody else wants to go.
Loot plays a huge role in your ability to push ahead in this challenging environment, as you always seek a sharper sword to do away with the nasties that block your progression. A great spacial memory isn’t going to help you here, as procedural generation scuppers any chances of you sneakily memorising enemy placement or shortcuts. And, the best thing is that you’re encouraged to bring friends for four-player drop-in, drop-out co-op or online play. So you don’t have to suffer alone.
1. Salt and Sanctuary
The indie golden child of Souls-like games, Salt and Sanctuary has had its fair share of press over the three years it’s been out. With ports spanning PS Vita to Nintendo Switch, it’s clear Ska Studios’ 2D RPG has lasting value for a range of gamers. While borrowing heavily from the Dark Souls series, Salt and Sanctuary has managed to toe a line between inspiration and originality often untraversable by derivative titles. In fact, to call Salt and Sanctuary derivative is an injustice to the carefully designed world and mechanics at play here.
There’s every piece of Dark Souls goodness you could imagine in here, with some healthy Bloodborne and Castlevania thrown in too. Mix it all together with a gorgeous art style, a mechanical attention to detail that can only come from a sincere love for a genre, and an atmosphere crisply defined from the get-go, and you’ll find yourself at the top of the Souls-like genre barrel.
For such a well-defined genre, there really is something for everyone in the Souls-like canon, whether you’re travelling through awe-inspiring castle ruins in Dead Cells, or scaling down to a rodent’s world in DarkMaus. If you’re looking for something a bit easier on the thumbs, why not check out our top picks for this month!