FromSoftware's Soulsborne series has earned both the love and frustration of countless gamers around the world for their uncompromising approach to difficulty, esoteric background lore, and satisfying gameplay loop. While games inspired by the series tend to draw on the combat and mechanics, many tend to forget that half of what Soulsborne games are, they owe to the level design and lore of their worlds. Over many years developing Soulsborne games, FromSoftware has created some incredible settings indeed.
From Boletaria to the Lands Between, FromSoftware whisks the player off to a variety of fantasy worlds where their mettle is tested – but which is the greatest of them all?
While Dark Souls 3 is held in high esteem by fans, its setting, Lothric, suffers somewhat from being literally built upon the world and lore of the first Dark Souls title. While some of the fan service can lead to exciting payoffs, the land of Lothric can sometimes feel like it's trying too hard to please fans after the mixed reception of Dark Souls 2.
Despite all the nostalgia-baiting, Lothric doesn't feature much of the attention to detail and interconnectedness that made Lordran really stand out, and thus can feel shallow and linear at times. It isn't all bad though — the game certainly makes the best use of our nostalgia for Lordran, and the polished, fast-paced gameplay makes Lothric feel more threatening than other settings. As a result, the epic DLC content and conclusive endings feel earned in the Dark Souls series' dramatic finale. Unfortunately, it doesn't change the fact that Lothric has heaps of missed potential and cut content due to rushed development, so it can't help but feel disappointing. And let's not even mention the color palette.
While the original Dark Souls was lauded for the ways its areas were connected through secret passages, shortcuts, and loops back to previous areas, the world of Dark Souls 2, Drangleic, has a strangely fragmented layout, with areas seemingly disconnected and isolated from each other.
Gorgeous set pieces and backgrounds rich in lore still exist, but the absence of a world that *clicks* together comprehensively and follows some vague semblance of logical geography is definitely a deal-breaker for some fans. Where Drangleic excels, however, is scale: the land is positively sprawling, with paths branching from its central hub like a starfish that contrasts Lordran's design, but increases the sense of enormity. This difference arises from the design decision to allow players to fast travel from the beginning of the game, creating less pressure for Drangleic to be designed in such a way that enables easy exploration. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it doesn't change the fact that the world of Dark Souls 2 is detailed, intricate, and vast in its own way.
The world of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is unique among the settings of Soulsborne titles in that while it is a mystical fantasy kingdom as per usual, it does not exist within an entirely fictional wider world. Instead, the game is set within an imagined region of Sengoku Period Japan called Ashina. While many of the same themes found within other FromSoftware games also exist within Ashina, it is a setting with ties to a very real period of history in the world, albeit while still leaning heavily into mythology and fiction, which make for an interesting change.
With the addition of a jump and grappling hook which encourage greater verticality, the areas of Ashina feature an unprecedented level of non-linearity for the genre, empowering you to explore and make your own way through the fascinating world. Unfortunately, Sekiro has the misfortune to be attached to Activision, a company that has faced multiple accusations of abuse from current and former employees.
Boletaria, the world of Demon's Souls, is where the Souls games began, and revisiting this decaying kingdom is uncanny after seeing so many of its themes and design elements run through every Soulsborne title released since. Boletaria has Yharnam's thick atmosphere, Lordran's bleak majesty and area diversity, and is similarly reflected in subsequent settings.
The areas of Boletaria may not connect together as Lordran's do, and the design of the world is surely a lot more linear than the Lands Between, but each game's world owes much to Boletaria's legacy. The sheer amount of recurring themes, homages, and direct references to the more memorable moments of Demon's Souls are a reminder that later titles were created with the benefit of hindsight, and could not exist without Demon's Souls. Thus, while many of the ideas recycled from Boletaria are better used in future titles, it still stands tall on its own merit, inspiring some of the most immersive and engaging worlds in video games.
The land of Lordran is the first world many fans of Soulsborne games will have found themselves exploring. The wonderfully dingy and grimy areas of Lordran immerse you into the world of Dark Souls as few other games do. While the desolate, isolated atmosphere of the game's presentation plays a large role in this immersion, the map's habit of connecting its areas with one another in topographically logical ways is a feature commonly praised by fans, and goes the extra mile to make the world feel genuine. As a result, you usually know where you are in relation to the other areas of the game at any given time, and the various hidden passages and unlockable shortcuts are your rewards for thorough exploration.
Combine this unique method of engaging the player with the world with a mythic, mysterious backstory behind the land of Lordran and the civilization that calls it home, and you'll experience a journey through a world you'll be hard-pressed to forget.
The dark and gloomy streets of Yharnam are as impressive as they are claustrophobic. The great city draws from real examples of gothic architecture to construct an aesthetic that sets it and its satellite areas apart. The atmosphere cultivates an oppressive, foreboding grandeur that warns of the horror lurking beneath the surface, reflecting the themes of Bloodborne from the start. The level design is second to none, with the Cathedral Ward being a particularly famous zone for its surprising hub-area status, and shortcuts that are more satisfying than any items you might find in the haunting city.
The areas of the game aren't quite as diverse as in other Soulsborne games, but they're hardly one-note either. And what variety there is remains careful to adhere to the visual aesthetic that makes the world feel so comprehensive: from Forsaken Castle Cainhurst to the haunting Forbidden Woods, everywhere you find your poor overworked Hunter slogging through looks and feels of a piece, and is populated with copious amounts of clutter that makes the world feel gritty and lived in — even if it has to kill your PS4's frame rate to do it.
1 The Lands Between
FromSoftware's most recent Soulsborne title boasts the most impressive setting to date. This probably won't come as a surprise, considering A Song Of Ice And Fire creator George R.R. Martin collaborated with FromSoftware to create the world. As a result, the Lands Between feel as fleshed-out and believable as they are ancient and mystifying.
The world is so rich in fascinating mythology that when its legends are uncovered and experienced in-game, they feel like genuinely monumental experiences. Elden Ring is unprecedented in its level both size and detail, managing to feel simultaneously overwhelmingly large and intimately connected. Exploration is encouraged in an entirely new gameplay loop that is a breath of fresh air for veterans of the series. It might be the obvious choice for the best world that FromSoftware has created, but it can't be helped — the Lands Between steals the show.
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