Dark Souls, you only need to hear the title for gamers to recoil in fear or become delighted, it’s the marmite of modern games, but what makes it such a masterpiece of the modern age? Is it the franchises infamous difficulty? Is it the obscure, cryptic way of storytelling that the series uses to portray some of the most fascinating lore in RPGs to date? The back to basics roots of its gameplay? Or its fresh take on online play?
The answer is that it’s all of these things and more.
I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t the biggest fan of FROMSOFTWARE’s 2012 re-release of Dark Souls Prepare to Die Edition and I hadn’t even heard of the original release. My first exposure to the series was Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition, completely free with Xbox Live’s Games with Gold and after a few hours I gave up. The game was unforgivingly difficult, I didn’t enjoy the cycle of constantly dying all for what felt like nothing, there was no reason, no purpose to play. This was back in 2014, I’d not attempt the series again until I started college, when studying games design Dark Souls was often referred to as if it was the holy grail of good design, like an idiot I disagreed until I was persuaded to give it a second chance, by this time I played purely on PC, so I bought it during the usual Steam Sale fanfare and started up, the same as before: the cycle of dying, trying again and failing, until I took a different path.
There’s no hand-holding in this series, no real indication of where to go, but with the assistance of a friend talking me through where to go, how to play the game and advising me with boss strategy I began to see the appeal. My friend acted almost like some kind of mentor, having a real person be the Cortana (from Halo) character giving me instructions on how to proceed was certainly a unique experience. As instructed I kept on with the mad bonfire runs and boss fights until, finally, the penny dropped. I still remember the exact moment when I fell in love with the game, it was just after the bastard known as the Hellkite Drake on the bridge, the conversation with Solaire, how in this bleak horrible world characters could feel so alive, so motivated on their own path through this nightmare, after that moment something about the game clicked with me and I was hooked, it began to pull me in like the abyss itself.
The Sunbro gave me hope, I then proceeded to smash through boss fights and find secrets in a never-ending quest to ‘git gud’ like some Rocky training montage. I hit the dreaded Blighttown, an area which is a veritable maze filled with deadly drops, poison, and fire. I survived, barely, but I did it and felt proud of this. I knew I was on the path to victory when I could kill enemies before they got an attack in and solo bosses on the first attempt.
Solo-ing bosses were my only real option which undoubtedly added to the challenge of the game, I wasn’t even aware of the multiplayer until many years later, because like most things in Dark Souls, multiplayer is almost a hidden mechanic. In the first game certain conditions must be met, you had to human (when you die you lose your humanity, turning hollow, you can spend a stat also known as humanity to return to your human body) you had to be within a certain level range and your weapons had to be also within a certain upgrade level, this meant co-op for bosses was difficult, the real kicker was that you had to find another player’s summon sign, to ‘summon’ the spirit of the player to assist you, in my first playthrough of the game, the community was virtually dead and the specific conditions needing to be met made summoning a mere myth, of course, I had no idea that it even existed until years later.
There’s no map, but you don’t need one, by playing the game you know Lordran better than your own home town. Every shortcut, every invisible wall or skulking enemy. Everything is interwoven but each location remains memorable. As you progress you begin to understand how everything has a place, every surprise and obstacle changes from a nightmare to just another challenge to prove yourself. Your armor and weapons are only as good as your play style.
Every NPC feels unique. Helping Solaire seek his sun feels fulfilling, Assisting Siegmeyer even though every time you help him it destroys his spirit crushes you. Seeing Logan go from a renowned wizard to a raging madman is heartbreaking. Every character feels alive in this bleak world as do its bosses. Fighting Sif will forever be upsetting. Ornstein and Smough haunted my dreams for weeks and the surprise invasions from Players and NPC’s constantly offer an additional challenge. Summoning a phantom for help when times get tough makes the game a little more forgiving and playing through the game in Jolly Co-Operation transforms the experience entirely, even if the PvP community frowns upon it.
Simply put Dark Souls 2 was a mess, it lost its charm and spark, for me it was a failure to the series and the PC port was not good. It’s also the only game in the franchise that Hidetaka Miyazaki didn’t have a major role in because he was working on the phenomenal Bloodborne for the PS4.
Dark Souls 3 marked the return of Miyazaki and the game improved upon many aspects of the original, adding ‘password’ matchmaking, meaning the co-op requirements were replaced simply by having a friend use the same password as you. I played through a majority of it co-op with a friend new to the series, showing him the ropes the same way I was shown then, one bloody fight for you life at a time. Bosses got bigger and more advanced with 2 stage and even 3 stage health bars, the lonely bonfires were no longer a way to level up, they became a gateway for quick travel and a link back to a hub-world with friendly faces, giving you a ‘firekeeper’ to level you up and keep you sane as you traversed an unforgiving world. The community really took off for this game, invasions happen frequently – for better or worse.
Having another player come into the world as an enemy becomes a game of cat and mouse, never really knowing whos the cat. Low-level invasions are horrible, there no doubt about that, your gear is no match for the NG+7 twink builds with end game gear who’s come to just fuck your shit up. But Meta level invasions are often fun and respectful, there’s a sort of unwritten gentlemen’s agreement between the PvP players of Dark Souls 3 where at level 75-82 you stop your leveling and leave yourself on equal ground for invasions, it’s a strange concept and again one wholly unique to the Dark Souls franchise.
With the inclusion of weapon arts (special moves belonging to a weapon or family of weapons) and a dedicated magic bar, combat evolved from the first game, it became quicker paced and less focused on blocking and more focused on dodging and countering, to say the combat in the first game is the same as the third game would be only fractionally true, the same DNA is there however the sheer number of changes to speed, pacing and movesets means that switching from Dark Souls to Dark Souls 3 is comparable from switching from a slow car to its racing equivalent.
Dark Souls Remastered recently re-kindled my love for this series, with the remaster it was the first time I played through the original game entirely with a friend, adding the creature comforts of the third game like password matchmaking to the game didn’t water it down, it improved it vastly. It was just as fun as the lonely road playing the game solo. I’m sure it will always be referred to as a landmark in game design by those who gave it a chance. For anyone reading who didn’t give it a chance, I urge you to do so, grab a friend and the remaster, set a password to share and git gud through Lordran together if it works well, grab the third game and have fun in Lothric.