The Soulsborne games are well-known for their difficulty and steep learning curve. While you’re fighting, dodging, and repeatedly dying to a myriad of nasty enemies, you also need to learn how to navigate the games’ interfaces, which can be especially confusing for new players. Even the control scheme is unlike most action games, but it starts to make sense after you’ve invested some hours.
Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Demon’s Souls (2009) pioneered the Soulsborne formula with an action RPG unlike anything else.
Dark Souls (2011) refined the formula and tightened up the controls, adding a sprawling connected world and a new bonfire system.
Dark Souls II (2014) was a bit of a departure, as it was made by a different director and team, but it was an opportunity for the series to try new things, some of which stuck around.
Bloodborne (2015), although not officially a “Souls” game, was another opportunity to try something different. Miyazaki took essential elements from the Souls games and distilled them into a faster, darker, gothic horror-themed game.
Dark Souls III (2016) pays homage to all of the previous Soulsborne games and similarly borrowed elements from all of them, resulting in the most cohesive and user-friendly game in the series.
This article won’t cover every last detail of each game, but it should serve as a general overview of how the UI evolved throughout the series. Keep an eye on how the size of text and overall UI changed over time (usually getting smaller), a result of higher resolution screens becoming standard.
The basic game HUD hasn’t really changed since Demon’s Souls. Each game has its own little twist, like the Humanity counter Dark Souls (to the left of the health/stamina bars), but at a glance they are all immediately identifiable as a Soulsborne game.
In all of the games, your health/stamina/magic is represented in the top-left corner as horizontal bars that grow longer as you level up your abilities. The visual style of these bars changes in each game but they’re structurally identical. However, the latest iteration in Dark Souls III is actually most similar to Demon’s Souls. Underneath those bars are icons for any current status effects (caused by rings or other equipment).
The bottom-left corner (top-left in Bloodborne) shows your equipment: currently selected item, magic spell, and weapons (Bloodborne only shows your item). In all of the Souls games, this 4-directional layout maps to the D-pad on a controller, making them intuitive to toggle (although in the heat of battle, panic often leads to user error!).
The bottom-right corner (top-right in Bloodborne) shows your current number of Souls (or “Blood Echoes” in Bloodborne), the game’s currency for leveling up and buying stuff. Dark Souls II and III both use the same icon to represent souls (although styled a little differently).
All of the Soulsborne games rely heavily on lock-on targeting for combat. The visual representation of this lock-on and the respective enemy health bars, have remained mostly constant throughout the series. Note that both Bloodborne and Dark Souls III use a glowing dot (instead of a hollow circle) as a lock-on indicator—a simpler and more elegant way to represent the same concept.
Managing your equipment, including your weapons, armor, and quick items, is a critical part of the Soulsborne experience, so it makes sense that it’s seen a lot of changes throughout the series. Demon’s Souls uses a very rudimentary and boxy layout for your items, with the size of the box varying based on the type of equipment. Dark Souls took a similar approach but removed the boxiness. Dark Souls II simplified everything to uniformly-sized boxes and is a bit more space-efficient as a result. Dark Souls III is basically an iteration on the Dark Souls II design.
Bloodborne handles equipment differently, showing your current gear on the “pause” screen, but because there aren’t rings to equip you only need to select your weapons (two in each hand) and your armor (head, body, hands, feet).
Similar to Equipment, the Soulsborne games throw a lot of different items at you to sort through! Most of the series uses a linear vertical list of items, with tabs above for different categories of items.
However, Dark Souls II and III both display their inventory on a square grid, which displays more items on screen and can make it much faster to navigate, but only if you can quickly recognize and recall what each of the item icons means. In all of the games you can toggle to a detailed display of each item, which provides background information and lore insight that can’t be found anywhere else.
Learning to digest the stats screen is one of the most overwhelming parts of learning the Souls games. There are multiple columns with lots of abstract numbers that may not mean anything to a new player.
Over time, the amount of information has remained about the same, but it’s now grouped into easier-to-digest chunks with padding between those chunks to make it easier to read. Although it’s still a lot of information, being able to snap one screen and share all of your stats with a friend is important, and appreciated.
Talking with NPCs is an important part of the Soulsborne games, and one of its primary methods of storytelling. Like the rest of the UI text, the subtitles (which can’t be turned off) have decreased in size over time.
Each game uses a distinct typeface for dialogue and they all have a similar tone, although the more fantasy-flavored text in Demon’s Souls feels dated and less elegant than the others.
Demon’s Souls’ loading screens show a variety of important characters from the game with rich illustrations that fill the entire screen. Dark Souls threw that all away and opted to display item descriptions, highlighting additional information and lore that most players might not otherwise read.
So much of the game’s story is revealed by reading these item descriptions, but few new players think to dig through their inventory and read the descriptions (or even know how to find them). This approach was so successful that it’s been repeated in every Soulsborne game since.
Ah, a screen that is all-too familiar to every Soulsborne player. These have remained largely the same since Demon’s Souls, although the placement of the words “YOU DIED” have varied throughout the series. Bloodborne also uses a similar-but-different typeface and lacks a dark band behind the text (instead, the entire screen darkens).
So now that the Dark Souls series is “done”, what will Miyazaki’s next game bring? Will it continue to iterate upon the UI structures from the Soulsborne games or introduce something completely different? In the meantime, I’ll still be playing Dark Souls.