6. Ashen (2018)
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Ashen is a lighter, softer souls, but it retains just enough of that toughness you probably like. Veterans of Undead Burg will drop in comfortably. This soulchild hugs FromSoft’s skirt so close it’s hard to spot its face among the folds. That might be because it doesn’t have a face. The characters in Ashen have fluffy moustaches and hair, but no eyes or mouth. Nevertheless, these whimsical villagers will join you as an NPC on your journey across the landscape to protect a light-bringing god from an ancient evil. Occasionally that NPC will start acting weird. That’s because a real player is controlling them now. Surprise!
There’s no summoning ritual or faffing with soapstones, the game just throws people together in pairs without so much as a blink. And it works. When your new pal is a decent, helpful adventurer it feels like meeting a new friend by a stroke of luck. You can help each other up ledges and enter special two-player dungeons. In a lot of ways this is the most gentle sorta-souls on this list. There is a map, there are recognisable RPG quests, and the presence of a constant pal (computer-controlled or otherwise) makes your adventure across dark lands less foreboding. There is also a constantly growing village and some wonderful local wildlife, including a big flying animal that looks like a friendly sky whale. If the Buddha were a mythical creature, he’d be this thing.
Notes: The fleeting crossing of players is inspired by the Japanese concept of “ichi-go, ichi-e”, studio director Derek Bradley told us, which can be loosely translated as “for this time only, never again”.
Where can I buy it: It’s exclusive to the Epic Games Store at the time of writing, but that will change.
What non-soulsy games should I be playing if I like this: If you like ruined worlds and skinny heroes but prefer punching to mace-swinging, you could take a punt at Absolver. If you’re intrigued by the prospect of meeting a gentle soul on a long trek through strange lands, try Journey.
5. Nioh (2017)
Developer: Koei Tecmo
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Nioh is one of two samurai souls ‘em ups on this list (bet you can’t guess the other) and it is all about that loot. There’s a fabulous array of trousers and stabbing implements to stuff into your pockets as you slice through Sengoku Japan (and a bit of London. Don’t ask). Your murderous missions are taken from an overview — basically a level select screen. So the mines, castles and snowy mountains aren’t woven together in the criss-crossing way of the Souls series. But they are just as infested with spiky-shouldered demons and corrupted samurai bandits. Don’t worry, you can kill them by, let’s say, catching their katana between your bare palms mid-strike and turning the blade back on them. Nice work.
The bosses too, are horrid yokai fiends. There’s a blood-sucking bat lady with a fashionable umbrella and a fondness for chucking spikes at you. There’s a colossal skellington with six arms and all the requisite glowy weak spots. And a massive, chatty cat with two tails and a pair of vulture wings. While a lot of this game is following the soul train, it has its own moments of inventiveness. You know the illusory walls of Dark Souls? Well, there are hidden secrets behind some walls in Nioh too, but here these walls sport tell-tale eyeballs, and far from simply dissolving, they come alive and fight back when you try to slice through them. What’s more, if you make a certain gesture to them, like bowing, they might let you pass without a bust-up. Politeness goes a long way.
Notes: There is a badgerlike creature of folklore in the game who wears its own ballsack as a hat. I’m not joking.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
Read more: Our Nioh review said it “throws swords, guns, bows, trousers and hats at you as if it’s trying to make up for a lifetime of missed birthdays”.
What non-soulsy games should I be playing if I like this: If you wanna perfect the art of curvy swords, you could try quickfire slice ‘em up Katana Zero or dumbass demon slayer Shadow Warrior 2. Or if you fancy something more strategic set in feudal Japan, try Shadow Tactics.
4. The Surge 2 (2019)
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Some of these games have so much in common with their shared ancestor, you can see the Capra Demon looming over them when you squint. When Deck13 made Lords Of The Fallen the studio was criticised for slicing a little too close to the soul. Their sci-fi follow-up The Surge also kept the soul monies and tough bosses, but it experimented admirably with new angles. You could chop off limbs, for example, and plug in implants for special RPG-style bonuses. But they kept the most important thing from the soul catalogue. The shortcuts.
So when The Surge 2 came out, with it’s choppy-limb combat much improved and grim cyberpunk city of overlapping disaster zones, it was a delight to see that shortcut mentality ramped up to ridiculous levels. The city is a concrete warren of magnetic lifts and secret doorways. Even at the tail end of the game you’ll be finding new pathways back to the starting area, and the metroidvanian accrual of helpful new devices only expands the map you draw inside your head. At one point an electric drone upgrade lets you unlock previously sealed doors, and later a flashy hook lets you ride the locked-off ziplines you’ve been gazing at in anticipation for twenty hours. It’s lattice-like level design more pleasing than a hot cross bun. Deck13’s games still fight in the cold shadow of the Capra Demon. But they innately understand the reassuring warmth of Firelink Shrine. And that’s great.
Notes: In the first Surge the primary medical bay you call home plays this folky number over and over on a radio, forcing you and main character Warren to listen to it an absurd amount of times. In The Surge 2 you meet Warren again, and he hums and whistles the same tune.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What non-soulsy games should I be playing if I like this: If you want to explore cool environments, chop off limbs, and collect armour, all in a solid third-person action RPG, then Monster Hunter: World might be the game for you. Failing that, uh, Dead Space?