Game-related ramblings.

I Finally Played Dark Souls

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I bought Dark Souls when it first came to PC in the form of the Prepare To Die Edition in 2012. I fully intended to play it, but I never did. I suspect this was because I found it intimidating. The press about it made it sound like a fascinating and compelling game, but also a game that is very difficult and obtuse, not to mention huge and all-consuming. There were heaps of praise, sure, but also those who claimed its difficulty was punishing rather than fun. And the horrid behavior of hardcore fans who respond to any criticism of the game (or, indeed, requests for advice from struggling players) with derisive shouts of “git gud”, positioning themselves as gatekeepers who insist their way is the only way to play. A particularly awful example of toxic game culture. Worse, I read about Dark Souls’ online components, which let players “invade” other players’ games, implying I might be minding my own business only to have one of these “git gud” assholes show up and kill my character, like the worst possible griefer.

And yet… Dark Souls sounded fascinating. It launched its own sub-genre of “soulslikes“, not just from original developers FromSoftware but from numerous imitators. None received as much acclaim as FromSoftware’s own successors, of course, be they Dark Souls’ direct sequels, the gothic flavored Bloodborne, samurai tale Sekiro, or last year’s smash hit Elden Ring. There’s no denying that Dark Souls had a huge impact on games as a whole, and I wanted to see what all the fuss is about. So, at long last, I have played Dark Souls, in the form of Dark Souls Remastered since it’s easier to run these days. I now know that all the praise Dark Souls has received is well-earned: it is indeed compelling and fascinating. It’s also not quite what I expected.

A little background first, for those few readers who may not already be familiar with the game. Dark Souls is an action role-playing game, in which players create a character and explore a mysterious (and, yes, rather dark) world, battling enemies and giant bosses from a third-person perspective. Defeating enemies absorbs their souls, used as a currency for everything from new items to equipment upgrades to level ups (in the form of boosts to different character stats). Die, and any accumulated souls are lost, but players respawn at the last bonfire visited and have one chance to recover the lost souls from the spot they died. Fail in that, and those souls are lost forever. But since all enemies respawn whenever players rest at a bonfire, it’s always possible to obtain the souls again.

With all the talk about Dark Souls’ difficulty, I was fearing an incredibly punishing gauntlet that would force me to react to threats with perfect split-second timing. Something like Furi, which is all about intense and frantic boss duels. But that’s not at all how Dark Souls feels. Dark Souls is slow. Almost shockingly so. Every enemy, from the lowliest undead soldier to the most terrifying massive beast, announce their attacks with huge windups, giving players multiple seconds to decide what to do. Perhaps a dodge roll is called for, or some other tactical repositioning. Or maybe it’s as simple as raising one’s shield. Blocking an incoming blow often staggers the attacker, opening them up for a counterattack, but the player character’s attacks are slow too. Attacking without thinking leaves one defenseless, and even weak enemies can dish out a lot of damage to the careless.

This slow pacing makes for a very different kind of difficulty. The true enemy in Dark Souls is impatience. Trying to rush things, to take out a group of enemies quickly out of eagerness to get back to that spot where one’s character died, will end poorly. Players must be cautious and careful at all times. Take things slow. Attack only when they’re sure they have an opening, and keep their defenses up. But maybe don’t keep them up all the time, since a raised shield means slower stamina recovery. I’d heard about the stamina system in Dark Souls, and it felt natural immediately. Attacks and other actions take a big chunk out of the stamina bar, but it recovers quickly, and as long as there’s even a sliver of stamina in the bar players can swing their swords or roll out of the way. What players can’t do is just launch attack after attack without stopping to recover, nor can they just defend forever, since blocked attacks still take off a bit of the stamina bar. Players are forced into the slow tempo of the game.

This rhythm was easy enough to figure out early on. Blocking an attack or two and then launching a counterattack is often enough to completely empty the stamina bar, which means taking a breather to recover before blocking will be effective again. There are some trickier aspects to fights, though, like timed parries and backstabs. It’s possible to design a character around those moves, but I got the impression that it’s harder. One’s choice of character class at the start may not actually be that important, since players are free to develop characters in any way they please, but the starting picks imply different playstyles that could be much harder in practice. I chose the Knight, because it simply felt appropriate. The cover art for Dark Souls Remastered shows a figure encased in bulky plate armor, and the Knight starts the game in such a set, and quickly finds a shield sturdy enough to block all incoming physical damage (fire, magic, or other damage types are another story). As I played and leveled up I went all in on this heavily armored approach, carrying a big shield and an even bigger weapon.

But what if I’d started with a Thief? Being a quick and agile fighter in this slow game might be fun, but blocking attacks always seemed easier than dodging or parrying them, and I worry that a single flubbed dodge would mean getting flattened by a single smash of a boss’ giant hammer. And battling with ranged magic as a Sorcerer, instead of melee weapons? How would I defend myself? Don’t get me wrong: players have made such characters, and even found them to be very effective. But they seem harder to learn than a big, slow fighter, and perhaps more reliant on understanding the mechanics of the game and the best way to invest in better stats. And don’t get me started on the Deprived, who starts the game with no equipment at all, and just has even stats across the board.

As my knight, however, I had an easier time than I expected. It wasn’t long before I could dispatch most normal enemies in a single hit, and even the dreaded boss battles I’d heard so much about weren’t too bad. I bested most after a few attempts, and surprised myself by defeating many of them on my very first try. This was doubly surprising because Dark Souls is the first game of this type that I’ve played with a gamepad, having stubbornly clung to mouse-based camera control in the past. The slow pace was perfect for adjusting to the controls, and once I got the hang of when to block, when to attack, and when to back off and drink from my Estus flask (a brilliant item that’s basically a multi-use healing potion, refilled at bonfires), I did even better. It didn’t hurt that my giant sword took off big chunks of a boss’ health bar with each lumbering swing, of course.

Later, I learned that I’d gotten lucky, finding this powerful weapon early on that is not guaranteed to appear. I wasn’t strong enough to use it, but that guided me towards wise investments during level ups, where I may have otherwise spent valuable souls on other things because I wouldn’t know what was best. Dark Souls, to its detriment, doesn’t explain its own mechanics. What do all the different character stats affect? What do the item stats mean? What the heck is “humanity” and what does it do? None of this is obvious without checking fan-made wiki pages, which is a shame. In my case, the big sword I found had a strength requirement… but it turns out that’s the requirement to wield it one-handed, whereas I could heft it in both hands with lower strength. Other weapons always looked much weaker in comparison, but that’s not really true, because there’s a complex upgrade system for weapons that means nearly any weapon can become viable through the end of the game with the right investment. Each weapon has its own set of moves, from the basic light and strong attacks to running and jumping attacks, and sometimes a little less raw damage is worth it if the moves are faster or more widely useful. Without knowing about weapon upgrades, however, I never really tried anything other than my big sword, and if I hadn’t found that I’d probably have been using a much weaker weapon without realizing I could (and should) upgrade it.

That’s unfortunate, because in other ways the air of mystery in Dark Souls is fantastic. It doesn’t really explain its world, or offer much in the way of guidance, which made exploration that much more fun. Where other role-playing games would have NPCs nattering at players about all sorts of history and lore, Dark Souls has only a few friendly faces, and most of them just offer some cryptic hint followed by an evil laugh, making me wonder if they were even telling the truth. All I knew going in was a vague story about an ancient age of dragons and gods, and the First Flame which brings life and light to all. I’m not sure what happened, but it seems something went wrong with the First Flame, and now everyone is cursed with undeath, returning to life when they die, but undergoing something called hollowing in the process. This explains how my Knight is able to respawn after every death. Most others I encountered had died and returned so many times that they’d become hollow, overcome by madness. Indeed, I began the game in an Undead Asylum, but managed to escape, and followed dubious legends of an undead savior who might undo the curse that binds everyone in this place.

I love this premise. Dark Souls may be the only game I’ve played that does something interesting with the concept of undead. So many games feature animated skeletons and zombies, without really thinking about why they’re there. I generally find these foes boring to fight, and it’s weird that any fantasy setting seems obliged to include them, whether it makes any sense or not. Here, the idea of undeath as a curse of immortality is central not only to the story and the world, but also how Dark Souls plays. It’s excellent, and a great match for its weird mishmash of European medieval influences. I didn’t realize until I started playing that Dark Souls was always in English, even in the original Japanese releases. I’m used to finding games made by Western developers that borrow Japanese cultures and themes, starring ninja or samurai, but here I found the reverse, a Japanese developer running with imagery and concepts from Western history and myth. Dark Souls is full of castles, towers, cathedrals, knights, dragons, giants, demons, and more all spun together into a surreal whole that holds together through sheer force of mood.

Exploring this strange place was the highlight of Dark Souls for me. I’d read about how its world intertwines in weird ways, with shortcuts to earlier areas opening up as one progresses, but it hadn’t sunk in just how brilliantly this is done. Dark Souls is an open world game, but not in the way that most think when hearing that term. It’s not some wide open countryside like Skyrim or The Witcher 3. Any given place in Dark Souls feels like a level in a videogame, be it the ramparts of a castle, the dingy tunnels of a crypt, or even an outdoor garden, bordered by walls and cliffs. These places are not miniaturized as so often happens in open world games. Each is just as vast as it should be. But each is also connected to the others, seamlessly. And crucially, in three dimensions.

Many of Dark Souls’ shortcuts work because areas snake above and below each other. Player characters are (generally) unable to jump, so even a short little wall or parapet is enough to block progress, until one finds a path leading up there. A player might spend hours climbing a castle’s ramparts, battling its undead defenders, before activating an elevator that leads back to the bottom. Or perhaps there’s a door that can only be opened from one side, and after navigating a maze of dark tunnels one realizes that they’re now on the other side, and can open it up and get back to the bonfire they started from. This is so well done, each “long way around” acting like a level to explore, but then linking back up to the wider world. It’s masterful, and I was constantly drawn to explore further, trying different directions and paths. Everywhere I wandered seemed to host another huge area to delve into, all somehow interconnected to someplace else. I never lost a sense of wonder as I explored, and found myself wanting to keep playing Dark Souls at the expense of all other games. I haven’t felt that absorbed by a game in a long time.

In fact, Dark Souls reminded me of an older style of game design. Playing early console games for this blog has reminded me how compelling these older games could be, containing worlds dense with things to find, but with fierce guardians that players slowly learn to defeat or circumvent. Often these contained devious secrets that players were meant to work out together, sharing hints and clues. Dark Souls feels like that, but adapted to modern times. At the beginning of this post I mentioned invading other players’ worlds through the multiplayer aspect of the game, but there are also more passive ways to interact. Certain items let players leave notes on the ground for others to find, written from a limited vocabulary. “Hidden path ahead”, one might say, or “I did it!” to celebrate besting a gigantic boss monster. Sometimes these were jokes, or misleading, but most of the time they were genuinely helpful, guiding me towards secrets I may not have found otherwise. A lovely sense of camaraderie came through these messages. We’re all slowly tackling this game together. Er, we were. I’m late to the party. But still.

I knew that Dark Souls is a spiritual successor to FromSoftware’s own Demon’s Souls, and the King’s Field series before that. What I didn’t know is that the King’s Field series dates all the way back to 1994 on the original Playstation. That means that there’s a real, direct connection to those older game designs, and FromSoftware have been honing their style ever since. It feels like a parallel evolutionary track to the one the rest of the games industry followed. Where other games became friendlier, removing frustrating elements and offering adventures that most players would complete, FromSoftware’s games clung to worlds that require effort and persistence to understand and conquer, but are all the more rewarding for it.

By all accounts, Dark Souls is their first game to feature a world that’s so intricately interconnected, which I assume is a culmination of years of earlier designs. It really is remarkable how this huge world is navigable without ever needing a fast travel system. Until it does. There’s a point far into the game when I gained a (limited) ability to teleport to different locations, and it felt like an admission of defeat. For the first time, I was given clear instructions on what to do next, and it basically came down to finding and killing several more bosses. Most of these lie at the end of areas that are more linear and less interesting to explore than what came before, and I had the sense that the development team ran out of time or resources to design these with the same intricacy as the rest of the game. It didn’t help that, by this point, I was starting to grow weary of my giant sword, which I used throughout the whole game. Sadly, switching to a different weapon would have required such a heavy investment in upgrades that I never bothered. I just cut my way through the shorter late-game areas and their bosses. The Artorias of the Abyss DLC, which is included in Dark Souls Remastered, recaptures a bit of the magic, but is also really easy to miss completely (I’m glad I remembered to check!), and I was ready for Dark Souls’ ending when it came.

This, however, is barely a complaint. It’s easy to forgive a few weaker sections near the end when I enjoyed the rest of the game so much. The parts of Dark Souls that I feared aren’t nearly as bad as I thought: I did get invaded by other players a few times (I lost every duel, although I should have won one of them), but it’s also possible to summon other players as temporary allies to tackle a particularly tough boss, and avoiding multiplayer altogether is surprisingly easy. Dark Souls’ combat is not as punishing as I expected, manageable with a little patience (and some knowledge of the weapon upgrade system), and more rewarding than I anticipated. And exploring this dense, tangled world is sublime. I’m already tempted to play again as a mage or a speedy thief, to see how that feels, but I’m more likely to tackle the rest of FromSoftware’s catalog next.

I’m glad I finally played Dark Souls. Now I know what all the fuss is about, and I have so many successors — and predecessors — to play. Praise the Sun.


Backlog Roulette: XTHRUST


Scratching That Itch: EGO


  1. seyda neen

    fun post to read! cheers. definitely a game whose lede of oddness and intricacy is buried under difficulty discourse and annoying fans.

  2. I bought Dark Souls in 2014, not knowing much about it, and bounced right off. I didn’t enjoy it at all.

    I went back in January of this year and I played it through to completion twice! Something clicked for me this time that didn’t before, although I don’t think I’ve got any better at computer games in the intervening decade.

    I still think it’s a bit janky, and I dread to think how anyone understood anything about it in the early days before there was a detailed wiki, but I have grown to appreciate the gameplay, and as you say, the level design is wonderful, although it’s clear this is a rough first draught of what would be perfected in later Fromsoft games.

    I played on PS3 and I still have a handful of trophies to collect, but I don’t think I will play it again. I’ve come to appreciate it, but I don’t love it enough to play it to completion again. But maybe in another nine or ten years…

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