I think Dark Souls is a solid game. Punishingly difficult at times, but well structured and balanced with a focus on smart hit box usage. I think this model existing with Ninja Gaiden prior, and personally preferred the flow of that game. The campfire mechanic (healing in exchange for enemy respawns) is certainly the twist that pops out the most, yet the open world nature is also a highlight. It really bears mentioning that DS games are somewhat slow, gameplay-wise, as choices are deliberate.
From a design perspective, giving the player a choice to respawn enemies in exchange for healing allows for a challenging design that has some safety net. It moves from the prior design choices of checkpoints everywhere and auto-generating health. The former rewards skill, while the latter rewards speed. So sure enough, plenty of games have tried to emulate this new design model.
I wouldn’t say that this has been terribly successful overall, though there are some standouts. Jedi Fallen Order is the closest to this model with widespread success, if you look at games outside of FromSoftware. The Surge (and sequel) are closer mechanically, but don’t really work as total game packages (not bad games mind you). There are others, Steam has enough curated lists.
One I picked up on sale on the Switch is Blasphemous. It’s a merger of the Metroidvania (think Symphony of the Night) with a campfire mechanic. It’s a weird game, where it exchanges planning for this healing mechanic. In a more standard Metroidvania game, enemies will respawn if you leave 2 screens or if you die – and those games are about getting around rather quickly. Blasphemous does not respawn enemies until you die or use a healing lantern (which are not exactly common). And the low use of those lanterns means that you’re rarely ever presented with an actual choice of respawning enemies in order to heal. Like you won’t go 2 screens, take so much damage that it’s worth backtracking and trying again with enemies back. You’ll go one screen more, die, and then proceed along the same steps as if you did heal.
I wouldn’t even say that the difficulty is on par with Souls games, where you should aim for semi-perfection in order to progress. Death here is often related to knockback effects rather than outright damage… or the odd pit trap for insta-kill effect. That seems like a negative take, and in terms of advertising as a ‘dark souls-like’ game doesn’t really work when meshed with the Metroidvania genre. It already has those mechanics built-in.
Where Blasphemous does work, is in the exploration aspects and multitude of hidden quests. Each zone has a particular flavor with somewhat unique enemies. The lore is obscure enough to give a sense of foreboding, without being confusing. There is a lot of backtracking as you unlock more and more movement skills (extra platforms, higher jumps, poison immunity, etc..) The downside to any game based on exploration is the discovery phase. There are breadcrumbs of a sort, if you look at the item and the lore. But even then, there’s a whole lot of guesswork and no in-game ability to track the 2 dozen odd quests here.
The combat does bear some note. You’re only ever given your sword, which gets marginally more powerful as you go through the game. There are (very few) magic attacks, and you’re open to attacks while casting, which truly negates most of the benefit. There’s a block/parry feature, but the logic behind it is somewhat inconsistent. The dodge/poke attack however… that doesn’t get old!
I guess I could talk about the lore, but frankly, that’s best experienced in-game. Clearly inspired by Catholicism a few hundred years ago, what with the constant references to ‘guilt’. But it’s a sort of grotesque take on it all, which given the material, is towing a tough line on ironic. I will say that it’s consistent in tone, which is more than I can say for Dante’s Inferno.
The game’s foibles are primarily quality of life items, which from a small dev-team perspective aren’t exactly deal breakers. That said, there are (free) DLC items for the game, the last of which will launch in December that address some bits. And a sequel in 2023. I’d expect that given the solid bones here, that the sequel will find a way to add these items and therefore broaden the appeal. It’s an interesting experiment that somehow works.