In a time in which numerous video games hold the players hand and are generally easy, one game challenged the idea that difficult games were too frustrating and that mainstream games should stray away from challenging the player. That game was Dark Souls. This action-RPG was an industry-changing title, other developers realized that there was a market for games that did not coddle the player. The difficulty is far from the only factor that makes Dark Souls what it is, although its reputation of being hard is what everyone knows about Dark Souls, even if they have never played it. Dark Souls is also a bastion of success in level design, atmosphere, and world building, and I have yet to come across a game as impressive as Dark Souls in those departments. I consider Dark Souls to be one of the greatest and most important games of all time, rivaling titles like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid, and Super Mario 64. It has had a profound effect on the industry and will shape video games for years to come. That being said, I consider Dark Souls to be a flawed masterpiece. It is no secret that the second half of the game was rushed to reach a deadline. It also dangerously teeters on the line of “difficult but fair” and “frustrating”. While I consider the game to be “difficult but fair” a majority of the time, there are still a few moments that cross the line and enter “frustrating” territory. Despite these shortcomings, Dark Souls has quickly become one of my favorite games and its importance cannot be denied.
What makes the difficulty of Dark Souls so compelling? Part of its success is that Dark Souls is tough, but it rarely ever feels cheap or gives you an unwarranted death. Every time you die, it’s your fault. Every time I died, I learned something valuable and I could avoid dying the same way in the future. It is evident that nothing is too difficult to execute because on my second play-through I died extremely infrequently due to my prior knowledge on how to defeat all the enemies. There is a certain beauty to the challenge of Dark Souls. Many challenges seem insurmountable at first, but you keep trying and trying until eventually you figure it out. When you do finally overcome a tough area or boss, there is an overwhelming feeling of elation and pride at what you have just accomplished. There is something to be said in that Dark Souls mimics life in this regard. Dark Souls is not difficult for the sake of being difficult, rather it uses difficulty as a tool to make the player feel different emotions. The sense of accomplishment when you defeat a boss, the anxiety of not knowing what is on the other side of a fog door, the fear and tension of fighting a tough enemy, or the immense relief when you discover a new bonfire; these emotions are possible only because of the challenge provided by Dark Souls. Furthermore, I really appreciate when games are actually challenging, it is far more engaging and addicting. That feeling of wanting to conquer a genuine challenge makes me want to keep playing, and when I did finally defeat whatever was in my way I really felt like I had made significant progress.
While the difficulty is probably the most well-known feature of Dark Souls, there are many other categories which make Dark Souls master class. The most impressive feature to me was the brilliant level design. Each area in Dark Souls often loops in on itself and reveals a shortcut from the nearest checkpoint. This is genius for a couple of reasons. First, it lets areas evolve in a sense, and as you progress through the game an area is going to have more paths and shortcuts available to access. Since many paths are closed to the player initially, it allows the player to become familiarized with the level’s layout before further complicating it. This sort of circular level design also surprises the player, and makes you stop and think how you ended up back where you started. From a player progression standpoint, the looping level design is massively important. As you return to areas you have been previously, you can test how strong you have become. As gear, level, and player skill increase you feel much more powerful visiting areas that you were in just a short time ago. Lastly, this type of design also reduces tedium by a massive amount. The player will only have to get through a particular chunk once and can skip that chunk once a shortcut has been opened. So, there is very little tedium when running from a checkpoint to where you died.
The atmosphere, setting, and world of Dark Souls is also hauntingly beautiful. Every area is completely unique and memorable. Often, I just stopped adventuring and had to take in my surroundings. The world of Dark Souls mirrors the level design in the sense that it utilizes vertical layers to have areas loop in on themselves to create a compact and believable world. There are many instances of Déjà vu as you open a door or descend an elevator as you realize that you have been here before. Atmospherically, Dark Souls is in a tier of its own. The world is littered with viewing points from high places where you can gaze upon the areas that you have just conquered, or even look ahead to see your next trial. I often felt insignificant when gazing upon the wondrous land or Lordran, and fighting enemies that were magnitudes larger than me reinforced that feeling. Despite this, as I traversed the world and surmounted these creatures, I felt powerful. The world of Dark Souls is vast but compact, it is interconnected, and it is breathtaking.
Another aspect of world-building is the lore and the story. While the story of Dark Souls is fairly simple, it becomes incredible as you learn the backstory to the world. I don’t want to delve too deep into the lore, as I feel like people should attempt to discover it on their own. There is a real feeling of living in a dying world, and you are putting this worlds creators and gods to rest in order to preserve life for a little while longer. Fighting many of the bosses of Dark Souls becomes far more emotional once you learn their backstory, and often times it is profoundly sad as you put these old gods to rest. Speaking to all of the characters in the game gives you a sense that they are on their own journeys through this world, and don’t solely exist for the benefit of the player. The other interesting thing about the lore is that it is never explicitly laid out for the player. You must discover it for yourself through contextual clues, item descriptions, and character dialogue. This gave me the feeling of piecing together a puzzle, and even if some of the pieces were missing, I could still make out the overall picture. I really felt like an adventurer in a fantasy setting, discovering the world for myself.
One of the most important features of an action-RPG is obviously the combat. At first glance, the combat of Dark Souls seems pretty rudimentary and slow, but looking deeper into the game one can see that this is not the case. Every action that the player takes has a significant wind-up at the beginning and some down-time at the end, this is to encourage the player to only make an action when it is safe to do so, otherwise you will get hit. Enemies hit hard in Dark Souls, even the weaker enemies in most areas can kill the player in a few hits, so you better be sure that you have a big enough window to attack, or you will pay heavily for it. The combat is actually surprisingly deep in a sense, as the player learns the ins and outs of all the combat systems. Learning how to use stamina, poise, staggering, shields, rolling, light attacks, heavy attacks, shield breaks, back stabs, parries, and efficient use of the estus flask are all essential as you get further into the game. The combat is heavily focused around risk and reward, for example: you can shield an incoming attack to guarantee your safety, but you’ll lose stamina, or you can parry the attack and riposte for massive damage, but if you mess it up you will get hit hard. That is just one example, and the player is encouraged to test out all of the combat options available to them. The other interesting thing is that all the enemies abide by the same rules that the player follows. Enemies also have stamina, poise, wind-up animations, and down-time after their attacks, and they also die from a few swings of your weapons. You can always expect the enemies to behave in a similar way to the player, which is immensely important. If enemies did not have to follow these rules, they would feel cheap and unfair. There is a feeling of weight and permanence in the combat of Dark Souls, every decision must be carefully calculated because the stakes of getting hit are so high.
Do you remember being a kid and huddling around the playground with you friends and telling each other about all the cool secrets you found in a game? Most of what was said in these discussions ended up being wrong, but it was still neat to imagine all of the hidden features in a game. Dark Souls does a great job of recreating this feeling. Players can leave messages for each other, telling of illusory walls or how a great item is waiting for you if you jump off this cliff! This harkens back to the playground discussions, as these messages are mostly jokes. But occasionally you will find a tip about a hidden item, or a how a trap is waiting for you up ahead. These messages can also be likened to adventurers swapping tips and stories around a bonfire. There are also bloodstains scattered across the world and you can view exactly how other players died in that spot, which can be pretty humorous. Not only can you communicate with other players, but you can also summon players to play alongside you and engage in jolly cooperation. Be careful though, some of the crueler players can invade your world and fight you one on one. I don’t consider the multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls to be one of the main features of the game, but I definitely did get a few chuckles out of the goofy messages and bloodstains.
It is clear that I adore Dark Souls, so why did I call it a “flawed masterpiece”, what is wrong with the game? One of the issues is that there are definitely some moments that are more frustrating than they are difficult. Luckily, these moments are not too common, but they still sour the experience a little. This was a risk the developers took when creating a challenging game, every encounter must be extensively tested to make sure that it is tough, but not so hard that it makes you want to smash your controller. While it is a shame that some of these types of moments made it into the full game, I think it is remarkable that these frustrating moments are so few and far between and it shows how much care what put into this game. Also, the game can often be a little too cryptic for its own good. While the DLC areas and bosses are some of the best in the game, accessing the DLC is so confusing that I doubt most people figured it out without looking it up. Unfortunately, these are not the sole issues of Dark Souls, the most important issue is that the game is just not finished. In order to meet a deadline, the final areas in the game were rushed and are nowhere near the quality previously demonstrated. The level design falls apart as it no longer loops in on itself, and the same can be said for the world design. There are a few separate paths that lead to dead ends, there are no grand revelations of “I know exactly where I am”. Furthermore, many of the enemies, bosses, and the areas themselves are clearly rushed. I think the other big issues with the final 4 areas in the game is that the developers attempted to let the player tackle them in any order they wanted.
While some fans claim that one of the biggest strengths of Dark Souls it its open format, I have to disagree. Sure, you can go to a variety of different areas at the start of the game, but you are clearly pushed into one path. To me, that is the beauty of the pseudo-open world of Dark Souls. The developers trust that the player is intelligent enough to avoid tougher areas early on and instead come back when they are better prepared. At the end of the game, there are 4 paths all laid out for the player to go in any order they want. The issue with this is that as the player progresses through these paths, they will become more powerful, so it is immensely difficult to balance these 4 paths. They all must be about roughly equal in difficulty so that the player can choose to go to whichever one they want first. What ends up happening is that the first area you go to is going to be the hardest, and then each area you visit gets progressively easier as you level up and get better equipment. I think the developers realized this issue, and since difficulty is such an important factor in the game they attempted to combat the problem that subsequent areas get easier and easier. In order to fix this, the developers made each area difficult by adding a gimmick. These gimmicks remain relevant regardless of the players level. The pitch blackness of the Tomb of the Giants, the lava of Lost Izalith, the invisible platforms of the Crystal Caves, and the ghost enemies in New Londo are all gimmicks. They are cheap tricks meant to make the game more difficult and I feel like they damage what could otherwise be decent areas. These gimmicks could actually be pretty interesting twists to these levels if they were implemented better, but as they stand now they are just annoying to deal with. Despite this, I still think that most of these areas are decent, they just don’t adhere to the brilliance that was the first half of Dark Souls.
Even though it is undeniable that Dark Souls is flawed, it is still an immensely important game. It has redefined level design, world building, and atmosphere in games. I have struggled for a while to write this piece. It is not easy for me to put into words my opinion about Dark Souls, and as such I believe that it is a game that everyone needs to at least try. Do not be intimidated by others boasting about how hard the game is, as I think it is entirely accessible to anybody decently experienced at video games. Dark Souls is a truly wonderous and unforgettable experience, and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I highly recommend that everyone should at least give it a chance.