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FromSoftware's beloved 'Soulsborne' series has arguably never been bigger; while titles like Dark Souls and Bloodborne have built up massive fanbases over the years, few could have expected the astonishing commercial success of Elden Ring, the spiritual successor to those franchises. But what if we told you that one of the foundational titles in the evolution of this franchise was a Japan-only Xbox title from 2002 which most people have never heard of?
There's long been the school of thought that the Soulsborne series was sired by FromSoftware's King's Field franchise, which began life on the 32-bit PlayStation. While there are definitely similarities and there's no doubt that a common lineage can be charted between them, another (non-FromSoftware) outing has been largely ignored over the years, yet it appears to have influenced many of the design choices made in the likes of Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne and Elden Ring.
The game in question is Drihoo, which launched on the original Xbox in Japan in November of 2002. Developed and published by Highwaystar Co., Ltd, the game has very little recognition outside of its homeland, but it has one vital connection to the Soulsborne series: game designer and director Kaikō Arima. Arima joined FromSoftware soon after Drihoo was released and has worked on all of the studio's major games since – right the way up to Elden Ring, where he was one of the staff responsible for gameplay direction.
Drihoo never got a western release and is actually quite hard to play if you don't understand Japanese, but Delisted Games founder Shawn Sackenheim is looking to change that. He's been working on an exhaustive translation of Drihoo and is hoping his efforts will bring this underappreciated title to the wider attention of FromSoftware's growing fanbase.
"I'm a sucker for an offbeat game and the mystery of an overlooked title," replies Sackenheim when asked why he has taken the time to translate this obscure Japanese Xbox exclusive. "The equally overlooked Dinosaur Hunting is what led me to Drihoo around 2012. Back then I was into the burgeoning roguelite/like trend and was surprised to see some of that same randomness and obfuscated design in Drihoo that was already a decade old at that time. There's also the concept of digging in a dark underground realm and going on these repeated runs where you're balancing the risk/reward of pushing ahead versus losing everything you've found. It felt very similar to Minecraft, which I was also really getting into around then."
It's fair to say that Sackenheim became a fan quite quickly. "I think the game offers a lot of mystery, intrigue, and open exploration that we didn't see back in the early 2000s. It's a bit slow and plodding and doesn't hold your hand telling you exactly what to do. It also isn't a typical dashing-hero-saves-the-world story; instead, you're just some guy motivated by finding all these scraps of antiquity and piecing together why there are monsters running around. The story runs parallel with a lot of 'real' Egyptian mythology which is something else we don't frequently see featured in games. And finally, there are a lot of interesting little mechanics around the analogue triggers and sticks that I've realized gaming jumped right past without really exploring."
However, the connection between Drihoo and the Soulsborne titles has been a very recent revelation to Sackenheim, and only occurred to him well after he started working on translating the game and creating his guide. "While FromSoftware's own King's Field series was well established by 2002 and is a more direct link to the Souls games, I think you can still see some influences in Drihoo via the involvement of co-designer and director, Kaikō Arima," he explains. "Similarly, some of the design choices in Drihoo could be seen to carry forward after he moved to FromSoftware right after Drihoo's release."
Sackenheim continues by highlighting animation priority as one of the key connections between the two. "I thought it was simply a kludgy old game at first, but there is a deliberate decision to make your attacks slow and drawn out, and your dodge roll to always leave you stunned for a second," he says. "Even blocking and unblocking is a commitment as there is animation attached to it. This isn't a Devil May Cry or a God of War with dazzling attack animations, they really want you to commit to each swing and feel the punishment of every mistimed attack. This choice makes levelling-up feel fantastic as your speed slowly increases and you outpace most of the enemies you encounter. It has the familiar Soulsborne effect of going back to early areas and gleefully trampling the same enemies that destroyed you hours and hours before."
The game's dark and claustrophobic setting – which takes place in randomized ruins – also calls to mind the dimly-lit environments of Boletaria, Lordran and Yharnam. It's also worth noting that the game employs a third-person camera – a switch FromSoftware would execute when it made the transition from King's Field to Demon's Souls – but there's another aspect of Drihoo which feels like a true inspiration on the Soulsborne series: the way in which your character revives their health. "It's not exactly an Estus Flask equivalent, but Drihoo does put an emphasis on its health system," Sackenheim explains. "Your energy is essentially the amount of beer (or BEEV) in your belly, and you refill it by drinking kegs of the stuff. Each one takes up an inventory slot, and they are rarely found out in the world so using it is always a decision. It's also unique in that pulling the analogue trigger lightly drains less from your reserves but takes longer to refill your belly. So you can chug it in a pinch, but you really feel the waste as your keg drains almost instantly. It's another very deliberate system just for the act of replenishing your health."
The levelling system in the Soulsborne series is the stuff of legend; you earn currency from killing enemies and can use this to purchase items or level-up your character, but, if you're slain before spending said currency, you run the risk of losing it (and all your hard work) forever. Drihoo's system isn't the same, but you can still see the slight connection. "Drihoo's currency and experience points use the same commodity: Gold," Sackenheim says. "You pick it up from defeated enemies or earn it by selling treasures you carry back from the ruins and then bank it when you go to the tavern to save your game. Not quite like "souls" or "runes"; you can't lose it and then go on a corpse run to retrieve it, but you do get the decision to spend it at the shops or put it all towards levelling-up."
The final link is the fact that, like the Soulsborne games, Drihoo seems to take delight in being as obtuse as possible, never guiding the player explicitly. "After translating the dialogue, I can still say that the game is obtuse on purpose in that Soulsborne way," says Sackenheim. "It never puts a waypoint on the horizon or fills out a quest log. Characters never say exactly what's going on. It's up to you to decide where to go and how far into danger you feel comfortable pushing before running back to safety."
Again, the game's story feels like a precursor to the Soulsborne series and its famously vague storytelling. "The story of the game isn't told in cutscenes or flashy events like other games," Sackenheim continues. "The town's scholar translates the 'Mystery of History' artefacts you bring back and literally tells you the story as he reads it himself. His dialogue is also the only hint you get as to where to randomly start digging and what to look for next. Although it's my shortcoming that I still can't edit the text of the artefacts which are in kanji and hiragana in the game, it feels appropriate that only the Professor can decode them and relay his interpretation to you."
If you keep looking, it's easy to make comparisons between Drihoo's controls and those of the Soulsborne games; for example, you can dodge roll forwards, back, and sideways, and there's a focus on 'stunlocking' – either you being stunned or you stunning enemies, or trying to break through their guard stances. The weapons you use have to be built with components found in the wild at a Smithy, too. None of these elements could be seen as the 'smoking gun' which directly links Drihoo with FromSoftware's game, but there are enough of them to make a convincing argument – especially when you factor in that Kaikō Arima worked on both. Drihoo arguably plays more like the first Dark Souls than any of the King's Field games; it really does feel like the missing evolutionary link between FromSoftware's two famous franchises.
So why go to all of the effort of translating the game now? Sackenheim explains that Drihoo is so difficult to tackle without understanding the language that he would be doing potential fans a disservice if he didn't at least attempt to make it more approachable. "It really would be an impossible task of blind luck and brute force to get through this game without being able to read its dialogue. But using Google Translate for Japanese back in 2012 basically turned everything into an omelette of English you then had to unscramble. It was slow and confusing for me, and I never felt like I had anything right. A decade of improvements later, with translating Dinosaur Hunting a recent success, and the revelation that I could more easily edit the character dialogue in Drihoo, I decided it was finally time to start."
So how can you actually play Drihoo? Well, Sackenheim says he's currently working on a means of patching the original game files to factor in his translation work, which means that non-Japanese players will finally be able to experience the game properly. While few would argue that it's in the same league as FromSoftware's sterling efforts, it's fascinating to see how such an obscure title can have an influence on far grander adventures.