Here is my first article of the year for Heroes of Play. I haven’t written regularly for the site and I don’t know how frequent my contributions will be this year, but I’ll try to keep up where I can. I do have plenty of commitments this year which will get in the way.
I was first introduced to what is now generally known as the Souls series in early 2010. That title was Demon’s Souls, the PlayStation 3 exclusive that quickly developed an enthusiastic following as well as modest commercial success. At the time it was released, I didn’t yet own a PlayStation 3 and only became aware of it because of the enthusiastic fan base in the online gaming community. It was often recommended but I didn’t ever get around to playing it simply because the genre and style didn’t appeal to me. The success of Demon’s Souls led directly to Dark Souls, the title that has come to define the series.
After multiple titles and continued success, I still had little interest in the series even after an enthusiastic friend lent the game to me for 360 a few years ago. I played up to the first bonfire (checkpoint) one night and then it sat on my shelf for around two years until I finally decided to sit down and play it properly through January. Coincidentally, a remastered version was announced for multiple platforms including the Switch as I began my journey which also makes this article timely.
Something I’ve heard from many different people and expressed in many different ways about the Souls series is that overcoming obstacles and enemies creates a strong sense of catharsis in the player. In contrast to most games produced today, which are consciously designed to reward the player almost constantly; Dark Souls made you work for it. Dark Souls gives the player a much stronger sense of accomplishment with each area traversed and enemy defeated than most games do for playing to the end. This actually holds true compared to many older games too. After experiencing it for myself, I can now add my voice to the multitude in hearty agreement.
Another aspect often mentioned is the importance of learning the mechanics, the areas and enemy behaviour. When I first began the game, I went through what could be considered the tutorial area with little trouble. In this time, I got a basic grasp of how the game controlled and managed to overcome the first boss with little difficulty. Once arriving in the Firelink Shrine though, I was truly left on my own. This area is essentially the hub area of the game and from it, you can take multiple paths. I assumed I was supposed to move forward and found myself in a graveyard being attacked by skeletons. After being killed multiple times, I was able to enter a cavern beyond in which I was almost immediately killed . . . again. I stopped playing at that time and later found out I was fighting enemies far beyond my level and heading for an area that is best tackled much later in the game. In fact, it was very close to the end of the game before I finally returned there. While that experience, didn’t see me make any measurable progress, I did actually learn a lot from it.
Now, depending on who you talk to, some might recommend you play Dark Souls without guides, or help, stumble through the game on your own and slowly “git gud”. This is not what I did and not what I would recommend. To start, I found this beginner’s guide by Ben Croshaw very helpful and his observations about the early part of the game rang true for me. Something else that struck me about Dark Souls took me back to my school days. I’m sure that many like me remember going to school and discussing games with friends before class and during recess. I do and vividly remember exchanging tips, discoveries and share our experiences. Dark Souls is a game that I think truly benefits from being experienced in a similar way though in place of playground banter, you can make use of guides and message boards. I found myself often looking up different weapons, armour and items. I looked up upgrade paths, enemy item drops and secrets. None of the above took away from the experience of the game as I still discovered a lot for myself.
Something related and one of the most unique aspects of Dark Souls, is the way multiplayer is integrated. Other players can leave helpful or misleading advice and warnings. Other players are also able to enter your game world whether invited to help or invaded. The latter didn’t happen to me until later in the game and in an area where I least wanted it to happen. I did have a few players help me with one boss which made it much easier. I even managed to defeat the very first player that invaded my game. I soon found myself assisting other players where I could and sharing in their accomplishments though I never had the urge to invade another player’s world.
Making use of guides and message boards and bringing in other players won’t make the game easy because even traversing areas of the world can be difficult. Even if you know what is around every corner and if you have a partner to take down every enemy – there are still many difficult obstacles that nobody can help you with. There are ways to make certain areas and enemies more manageable but nobody who doesn’t actually learn how to play the game will get through it. A lot of recommendations from others I simply ignored. I ended up choosing the sword I wanted to use and the armour set I wanted to use. They weren’t the recommended sets, just what I liked using. I spent a lot of time doing things that I simply wanted to do. The senses of discovery and accomplishment was not lost with player assistance. So advice is good but I didn’t let it get in the way of what worked for me.
I have written a lot without saying much specific about the game and this is quite deliberate. An aspect of Dark Souls that I wasn’t aware of going in was just how absorbing the game world is. There are a few reasons for this and one is how well each area is connected together. Most areas of the game can be travelled to seamlessly and are separated only by a tunnel or an elevator ride. One of the most rewarding aspects of exploring the game world is finding new and sometimes secret ways to travel between these areas. You will often find that areas are much closer than you previously thought. Access is usually prevented by a locked door or a particularly powerful enemy. It was also at times thrilling to realise a new area I had wandered into was separated only by a wall or cliff from another I’d been previously traversing.
There is also a lot of variety to the world with medieval castles, dense forests, dark caves and ancient ruins. These areas all have unique enemies and obstacles and I was continually surprised when yet another massive area was opened before me after believing I was close to the end. By the time I actually got to the end, I was well aware that I still hadn’t been to every location or seen all the game had to offer.
It is certainly true that Dark Souls is designed to deliberately frustrate the player at times. The more notorious aspects include enemies that cause nasty status ailments, perilous platform sections and the various surprise attacks, falls and difficulty spikes that are littered throughout the game. It came to the point where I was surprised by finding an area relatively easy. After coming to the end, I wouldn’t criticise the game about any of this. The main issue I had was related to the technical problems. In some areas of the game, the framerate just drops with Blighttown being the worst. There are also the occasional bugs and glitches that can cause problems. Apart from this, Dark Souls is what it is and seems to play exactly as it was designed to be played. After getting used to this design early on, it came to the point where I could rise up to each challenge the world threw my way and even enjoyed it.
So would I recommend Dark Souls? I would say that if you were curious enough to the point where you keep thinking about playing it, that you definitely should. There are a few factors to consider outside of this though. It will definitely command a lot of your time and since you can’t pause, you will certainly need large chunks of free time to play it. I can’t imagine I’ll be playing any more games in the series any time soon but I could probably see myself going through it again at some stage. In short, I get why people love Dark Souls and now count myself among them. It can take a while but once you get into it, it is extremely engrossing.