A Starter Kit for Getting Into Soulsborne Games Before Playing 'Elden Ring'

Your training wheels for this year's highly anticipated open-world RPG.

Elden Ring
Bandai Namco
Bandai Namco

Video game genres aren't exactly set in stone, but it's still a once-in-a-generation event when an innovative new game makes such a splash that it spawns a completely new sub-genre. That's exactly what happened with Dark Souls, the game series known for punishing difficulty, obscure narratives, and an obsessive fanbase. The game spawned the "Soulsborne" series, named for the games with "Souls" in their names, as well as the 2015 entry, Bloodborne.

By developer FromSoftware and designer Hidetaka Miyazaki, the Souls series had humble beginnings in 2009's PlayStation 3 exclusive Demon's Souls. With an inscrutable story, tons of hidden features, labyrinthine environments, and a control scheme that seemed to fight back against the player, it was unlike anything else. As is often the case with something brand new, it took a while for players to "get it."

But with the 2011 release of Dark Souls, gamers finally caught on that something special had been created. Since then, the series has spanned sequels and spinoffs by the original developer, as well as countless imitators, many of which are worth plenty of their own salt. And with FromSoftware's next entry, Elden Ring, releasing February 24—and currently the number one most wish-listed game on Steam—this feels like the perfect time for a primer on getting good with one of gaming's most hardcore series.

Here's your starter kit for getting into Soulsborne games.

Dark Souls
Bandai Namco

Dark Souls (PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC)

As is often the case with Souls games, you begin your journey as a powerless cretin pitched against overwhelming foes right from the start. Although there are many paths that lead outward from the first iconic bonfire checkpoint, the game not-so-subtly steers you onward by bludgeoning you mercilessly when you venture down the wrong one. You advance in fits and starts, dying over and over as you explore undead burgs, decrepit castles, dank sewers, and lava kingdoms ruled by giant spiders (don't ask). All the while, you'll learn important lessons like "conserve your health items," "use a shield," and "anything that looks like it can kill you, will, in fact, kill you."

Dark Souls has everything for which Soulsborne games are beloved, from an intricately layered world filled with secrets to white-knuckled boss fights that will test every ounce of your skill. It will also introduce you to the series' signature dichotomy between melee- and magic-oriented builds, both of which have distinct advantages and disadvantages—a balancing act that will play a big role in Elden Ring. It's the perfect introduction to the genre; just watch out for Ornstein and Smough.

Demon's Souls
Sony Interactive Entertainment

Demon's Souls (PS5)

On the other hand, you might want to start at the beginning. Although there were bones of the Soulsborne in FromSoftware's earlier King's Field games, Demon's Souls is the genre's true origin. And with the 2021 remake by Bluepoint Games available on PS5, there's never been a better time to play it.

This game seemed unbelievably weird when it was released back in 2009. Combat against even the most basic enemies could result in death, and death was shockingly punishing; you'd drop your accrued experience points in a puddle on the ground and have to return to pick them up—a dangerous proposition with checkpoints few and far between. Each level was filled with deadly traps, and the game seemed to get harder every time you died. Your world might even be invaded by another player out for your blood, under circumstances the designers never deigned to make clear. On the flip side, you could also summon other players to lend aid in your world—a unique feature that helped define the Soulsborne series and would carry on through most of the entries on this list (more on that later).

With the gorgeous new version, Demon's Souls is a great place to jump into the series—as long as you don't mind consulting a guide now and then.

Bloodborne
Sony Interactive Entertainment

Bloodborne (PS4)

Bloodborne is another fantastic entry point into the world of Soulsbornes. For one thing, it's the source of the second half of the portmanteau "Soulsborne" (obviously). And there's good reason for that: This 2015 PlayStation 4 exclusive saw the series' developers upgrading familiar elements of their signature formula in unexpected new directions, while staying totally true to the genre they'd created.

Rather than the Souls games' dark fantasy settings, Bloodborne transports players to a bloody gothic city that begins as the setting for something like a werewolf hunt and gradually transforms into full-on cosmic horror, H.P. Lovecraft style. It also simplifies the series' combat, doing away with shields and a large variety of weapons in favor of combo-breaking blunderbusses and steampunk, transforming scythes—which makes it a great start for new players who might want to learn what Soulsbornes are all about without needing to learn everything about a dozen different weapon types and armor sets.

Dark Souls 3
Bandai Namco

Dark Souls 3 (PS4, Xbox One, PC)


For those wanting the flavor of the main Souls series, but in a more contemporary package than the original, Dark Souls 3 is another great starting point. This is the game in which FromSoftware perfected the formula, as lead designer Hidetaka Miyazaki was back at the helm after taking a backseat during development of Dark Souls 2 to focus on Bloodborne.

Dark Souls 3 mixes together everything that made the series great up to that point, from the dark fantasy setting to Bloodborne's faster-paced combat. It certainly isn't the easiest entry in the series, with some of the toughest boss fights ever committed to code, but it's also the most polished of the bunch, and easily accessible on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.

Sekiro
Activision

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (PS4, Xbox One, PC)

Of all the Soulsborne games that FromSoftware has developed, Sekiro is easily the most far-out. This was Miyazaki's biggest departure from the Souls series, even including Bloodborne. It shook up the formula in ways that newcomers won't quite be able to appreciate, but its setting within a fictionalized version of Japan's historic Sengoku period should draw players in regardless.

Sekiro has the most accessible story that the developers have crafted yet, with a linear series of narrative events that you can actually more or less follow while you're playing it (as opposed to needing to watch hours of YouTube videos to explain what's going on, as is usually the case with these games). It also mixes up the gameplay significantly with more fast-paced movement and stealth-related capabilities, making it a blast to play.

On the other hand, Sekiro is the first FromSoftware Soulsborne game since Demon's Souls in which you can't summon other players into your world for co-op play, forcing you to explore its lethal world as a lone wolf. Feel free to start here—as long as you don't mind an even greater challenge.

Hollow Knight
Team Cherry

Hollow Knight (PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC)


The last game you should check out if you're looking to get into Soulsbornes might actually be the best place to start, although it won't really impart the skills you'll need to tackle Elden Ring. With Hollow Knight, it's more about mood than any concrete connections with the Souls series.

There are plenty of Soulsborne imitators made by other developers, many of which are excellent (Nioh, Lords of the Fallen, and even Jedi Fallen Order come to mind). But Hollow Knight, from developer Team Cherry, is notable for what it borrows from the Souls series: intricate, oppressive level design, an enigmatic but intriguing story, tough (albeit very different) combat, and even specific mechanics, like dropping your experience on the ground when you die. And it does it all in a two-dimensional, sides-scrolling format akin to Super Mario.

Hollow Knight might not be a traditional Soulsborne game created by FromSoftware, but it really nails the feel of playing one, and it's a must-play adventure on its own merits.

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Mike Rougeau is a Los Angeles-based contributor for Thrillist. Follow him on Twitter at @RogueCheddar