On a shortlist of the most terrifying things in life, a Dark Souls invader comes second only to the jolting sensation of slipping in the shower, or perhaps a high school trigonometry exam. Much of the fear generated by FromSoftware’s now-signature PvP mode comes from the studio’s deep relationship with horror. From Demon’s Souls, to Bloodborne, to Elden Ring, director Hidetaka Miyazaki has always playfully toyed with fear, and home invasions are among the scariest things imaginable.
The scenario is even more frightening when that invader knows your house inside out. Soulsborne PvP veterans often return to hunting grounds they’ve already mastered; locations where they know the position of every cliff they can push you off, every dead-end they can trap you in, and every drooling monster they can lure you towards. Nevermind the top weapons in the meta, a good invader knows how to weaponize the very world against you.
But hold on. Those sneaky tactics sound more like the sort of thing employed by an undercover assassin rather than anyone with a skyscraper-sized sword. Committing map layouts and AI patrols to memory, all in aid of tricking enemies into lethal situations, is Splinter Cell 101. And this overlap between the tenets of horror and Hitman may be the very reason why it’s not other action-RPGs that are embracing Souls’ invasion mechanics, but stealth games.
Within the last 12 months, we’ve seen both Deathloop and Sniper Elite 5 lift Dark Souls’ PvP almost wholesale with their Invasion modes, but stealth games have been toying with the system for years now. Ubisoft recontextualized the idea in 2014 as a cat-and-mouse chase for Watch Dogs’ Online Hacking mode, in which an invader must download precious data from another player’s phone while remaining unseen. A year later, Hideo Kojima stripped the concept back to its bare attack/defend essentials for Metal Gear Solid 5’s FOB Invasions, which sent invaders off to infiltrate other players’ forward operating bases and steal valuable resources.
It’s easy to see why these action-stealth games have all found fascination with invasion modes. Like FromSoftware’s games, stealth games are primarily solo experiences, but their single-player systems are ones that can be easily hijacked by a rogue player. For instance, in Bloodborne’s Nightmare of Mensis there is a distant tower manned by a creature that can cause Frenzy, a status build up that gradually causes your brain to overload and burst. Avoiding its lighthouse-like gaze is vital to navigating the Nightmare, which produces a fascinating traversal puzzle when played solo. But, unsurprisingly, this is a popular location for invaders, who find fun in forcing their prey into the creature’s lethal line of sight.
There’s no direct comparison to the Nightmare of Mensis in the stealth genre, but each developer has found its own interesting methods of flipping solo mechanics on their head. In both Deathloop and Sniper Elite 5, for instance, your knowledge of the single-player objectives help inform your ambush locations; if you know the mission, you can easily be three steps ahead of your target.
But, as the invader in these two games, you also have the benefit of belonging to the solo player’s enemy faction (the Eternalists and Nazis, respectively). This means you are automatically allies with a whole map’s worth of AI soldiers. These NPCs act as your eyes and ears in the world, using their already-existing behaviors to find where your target is and then inform you of their location. But the real fun comes in being able to usher your AI henchmen into battle. There may be no Frenzy tower on Blackreef Island, but sending a dozen gaudy thugs to kill your target for you (or create a distraction for your own elaborate kill) is the next best thing.
Chasing a ghost
In Watch Dogs and its 2016 sequel, the pedestrians that crowd the streets of digital Chicago and San Francisco are not your allies. Fundamentally, they exist for little more than authenticity and atmosphere. But, during an invasion, every single face in that crowd becomes a threat. A good Watch Dogs invader will blend in with NPCs, replicating AI movements and recreating ambient scenes as part of their gradual approach towards their target. It’s another excellent example of how elements of a world built for a solo player can be reinterpreted during invasions, a concept FromSoftware wrote the original playbook for.
Deathloop also toys around with this kind of social stealth. When playing as Julianna, the invading adversary of hero Colt, you can use the Masquerade ability to disguise yourself as any other human in the world. Blending in as a background thug is a method of observing Colt largely unnoticed, anonymously orchestrating his downfall from within the crowd. While there’s an obvious link here to Dishonored: Death of the Outsider’s Semblance skill, it’s likely Masquerade also pulls from Dark Souls 3 (which was required reading for Arkane staff during Deathloop’s research phase.)
In Dark Souls 3, an invader’s bright red appearance betrays their intentions immediately. But artefacts known as Untrue Rings can be worn to change your appearance during PvP sessions, turning you into a much friendlier-looking spirit and disguising your bloodthirst. The Chameleon sorcery is another sneaky entry in the Souls toolkit, transforming you into inconspicuous items like urns and bushes. These very mechanics were the spark that lit the fire beneath upcoming stealth PvP game Deceive Inc., but it’s unsurprising that so many other stealth developers have tapped into Dark Souls as a rich source of inspiration; they were quite literally already working with those ideas, just with a purely single-player mindset.
Traditions of the trade
But the strongest link between FromSoftware and stealth is more in concept than specific mechanics: the hunt. Starting an invasion in a Soulsborne game transports you to another player’s world, and you must first seek them out before you can duel them to the death. That hunt doesn’t just translate to the stealth genre, it’s the exact same language. The likes of Deathloop, Metal Gear Solid, and Sniper Elite all cast you as hunters seeking prey in locations that you shouldn’t be in, and so it makes perfect sense for a PvP player to be given the same mission.
In fact, invasions can be seen as the stealth genre in microcosm. They provide the entirety of a traditional stealth gameplay loop but in a short, session-based format. The mode may have started as a horror-tinged duelling contest, but it required surprisingly minimal alterations to find its natural home among the shadows of stealth games.