Painfully Difficult: From Software’s 30+ Year Journey From PS1 to Elden Ring

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 company’s long history 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 worldwide were playing a From Software game, likely for the first time.
But to a more dedicated observer. The ‘overnight’ success of Dark Souls – a streak that continues 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 present… and summon the future of From Software…




Humble Beginnings

1986 was a good 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 be huge influences on the Souls series.

1986 was also when 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. It’s hard to think of a word 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.

King’s Field

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. 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. 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.

Even then, with its very first game, From Software’s esoteric design sensibilities were in evidence. Combat was simplistic and awkward. Players could equip various melee weapons and launch ranged magic from a first-person perspective. Such actions exhausted a stamina meter 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.

World of King’s Field

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.

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 symbolic light that lifts the darkness and beneficial high damage output for the end-game fight itself.


The Moonlight Sword

The Moonlight Sword, also known as the Moonlight Greatsword, has 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. Search the Scaleless himself is also a tribute to King’s Field, specifically a mighty white dragon who shares the name Search.

However, rather than either of these examples providing irrefutable proof of some 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 tremendous 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.

SEVEN Armored Core games

It spawned two sequels on the original PlayStation before moving 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. Still, 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. Demon’s Souls would begin similarly seven years later, its kingdom of Boletaria consumed by a deep fog.


Myth of Demons

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 stylish and exciting third-person action games. Murakami: Renegade Mech Pursuit was a simplistic, anime-inspired mech shooter that had none of Armored Core’s grit or attention to detail. 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. In comparison, 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 contrary to its famous 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 materialization. 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 mysterious world.

Demon’s Souls emerged from this deep fog, a dark fantasy action RPG with a design philosophy contrary to its famous contemporaries.

Demon’s Souls

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. Demon’s Souls was a startling and revitalizing shock to the system for those who had become bored of modern convenience by harking back to an earlier and more demanding era of games.

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.

If Demon’s Souls was the template, then Dark Souls was the finely-honed work of a master craftsman.


Demon’s to Dark Souls

With the transition from Demon’s to Dark Souls, From Soft followed a clear progression path, 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 most remarkable 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, 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 cooperative online play. At the same time, 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 avoided 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.

Shadows Die Twice

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, released in 2019, three years after Dark Souls 3, streamlined yet more of the RPG stats that buttressed a Souls game and focused its combat design on a relentless and rewarding parry system.

Bloodborne and Sekiro, like Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls, Armored Core, and King’s Field, emphasize a degree of deliberation in their design. Yet despite the step away from RPG towards action exhibited by both games. They still carry that methodical From Soft DNA. Whether monitoring your stamina consumption mid-combo or switching weapons to a more good damage type. Everything possesses a granularity that adds the kind of friction to the action that Souls players crave. Players must prepare for those minor extra steps if they’re planning to overcome the next obstacle.

It’s what From Soft does best and what so few other studios consider. 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 comfort 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 game style. Unlike the narrow, primarily one-way combat gauntlets of From Soft’s previous games, a sprawling network of plains, valleys. Cliffs is dotted with encounters you can approach from multiple directions. Or even bypass and return to later.

Elden Ring’s open world is a seismic shift for the Souls game style.


Souls games

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, you often don’t have anywhere else to go. Elden Ring feels like an attempt to solve that problem very From a 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 walk away and explore elsewhere. Discover some helpful 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 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 path. Only now, the wider industry is following them. In many ways, it feels like they have been content to do their own thing, making the kinds of games they want to drive without seemingly much consideration for broader industry trends.

Now that Elden Ring is finally here, the eyes of the whole video game world will be looking at From Software

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