A famously challenging game, Dark Souls is an effort that sets high standards of its own in various fields, and although difficulty and learning curve are among them, they are far from being the only ones; in fact, they might be the least important of the bunch
As one of the most iconic, praised, and popular games of its generation, not to mention of the entire decade during which it was released, it goes without saying that Dark Souls is not defined by one single element, but by an assortment of parts that come together in beautiful synergy to form a marvelous whole. Yet, based on popular culture, anyone who is unaware of the adventure’s smaller details and mechanics may be deceived into thinking that there is one sole reason why Dark Souls is so widely remembered: that would be, of course, its difficulty.
The relationship between Dark Souls and challenge is one that has grown so tight over the years that pretty much all games that have presented a tougher than usual path to victory since its release in 2011 have been compared to it, regardless of their genre, style, and gameplay. In fact, using the name Dark Souls as a synonym for brutal difficulty became so commonplace that the whole procedure quickly turned into a joke. Clichéd parallels aside, the link between the game and the concept of challenge is fair, because not only is Dark Souls truly hard, but its brutality is a major component of its greatness. However, that fame actually winds up working as a disservice to the property, as it happens to cloud its numerous other notable qualities.
Truly, though, and yet more gravely, the omnipresence of references to how difficult Dark Souls is does more than obscure its other good traits. If that was simply the case, the game would merely be a great quest that also happens to be quite hard. Dark Souls is, in reality, far more special than that, as it pairs up a noteworthy degree of challenge with other features that, beyond being simply good, show so much excellence that they set new standards in their respective areas.
The first of these components is lore. Through a brief introductory cutscene, Dark Souls quickly gives players the gist of its universe. Once, during a time called the Age of Ancients, the world was not fully shaped, with dragons ruling the land. Eventually, however, fire appeared in the form of the First Flame. This legendary element was key in the progress of history in two ways: for starters, it gave a more definitive form to the realm, creating a distinction between light and darkness, heat and cold, as well as life and death; moreover, it generated the powerful Souls of Lords, fragments of fire and life that were consumed by four beings (which would go on to be known as the Ancient Lords) who proceeded to used their might to drive out the dragons, forge kingdoms, and become rulers.
When the game begins, however, something is amiss; more specifically, the First Flame is fading. And as it does so, the established world begins to crumble: the once prosperous kingdoms have either fallen into disgrace or stand pretty close to total doom; the land is crawling with creatures who have been corrupted beyond belief; and, worst of all, humans start being randomly affected by a curse known as the Darksign. When the dreaded mark appears in their bodies, with the line between life and death slowly blurring due to the fading First Flame, they become undead, being destined to die and be reborn in an endless cycle that drives them closer to total madness every time they pass away.
In Dark Souls, players take the role of one of these undead, and like all of his peers he is (for reasons that are not made clear at first) captured and thrown into one of the cells located in the Undead Asylum. Standing completely isolated from the rest of Lordran, the land created by the Ancient Lords and where most of the quest takes place, the prison works as the starting point of the adventure. And as soon as they begin to break out of it gamers will find themselves on the way to fulfilling a fate that is deeply tied to the First Flame itself. That is, of course, if they are able to overcome that which lies ahead.
Even if certainly intriguing, the setup of Dark Souls is – on its own – not wondrous enough to be stellar; after all, the concept of impending doom and taking on the mantle of the chosen one who will save the world, as unremarkable as he may be, is pretty much par for the course. What drives the lore of Dark Souls over the hump are actually two details: its depth and the approach the game takes towards revealing it. This pair of factors walk hand in hand so tightly that it is impossible to mention one without nodding to the other.
Dark Souls has a whole lot of tales to tell: most of its locations have histories attached to them; a good slice of its bosses are more than big bad mindless creatures, for many of them are somehow tied to either the war against the dragons or the fading of the First Flame; and as they travel through Lordran, players will come across characters that, much like them, are exploring the ruins of the once proud kingdom for some reason, and if gamers decide to take their time to talk to these folks they are bound to get a better glimpse into the what the setting hides.
In spite of the thickness of its lore, however, Dark Souls is pretty nonchalant about it. At no point in its quest – which should last for around forty hours – does the game stop to feed players extra information. In fact, if they do not pay attention to their surroundings, spend a good time talking to characters (as well as tracking them down, given some are cleverly hidden), and make a conscious, active, and continuous effort to connect the dots that pop up, all one will ever comprehend of the story are the four narrated and brief paragraphs that open the game.
Dark Souls is obscure, mysterious, indirect, and unfriendly. It is true that its hands-off approach to storytelling is not new. Retro Studios, for example, did one amazing job at presenting the plot of the entire Metroid Prime trilogy in such a way, and all of those games came out long before 2011. But here, FromSoftware seems to take the method to another level on both fronts, because besides being massive, the lore of Lordran is hidden behind a lot of silence and vagueness.
The extreme nature of the approach employed is, of course, a double-edged sword. On one hand, the fog that surrounds the events that both precede and accompany the quest works to give character to Dark Souls and enhance its aura of mystery, two factors which go a long way towards maximizing the immersive heavy atmosphere that permeates the game; in addition, it creates a constant feeling that there is more to the walls and people encountered around Lordran than the bricks they are made of and the words they utter, which naturally keeps curious minds hooked.
On the other hand, it is arguable that the title can be a bit too obtuse at times, as a considerable part of its audience will be unable to decipher its plot without external help, a reality that has materialized in the form of the hundreds of virtual discussions over the script and a phenomenon that also happens to prove the allure of the tale.
The draw of Lordran, however, goes beyond what it has to say; it also comes from how beautifully constructed it is, and such beauty is found in a couple of formats. The first is architectural: a land of castles, towers, walls, and other buildings of medieval inspiration, the kingdom is filled with stunning constructions that are put together in awe-inspiring details, and Dark Souls is so aware of its own gorgeous settings that it frequently pushes the main character towards massive open vistas that give a flooring overview of the areas that are explored, neatly flexing its visual prowess. Furthermore, even when it abandons man-made structures for more natural or surrealistic scenarios, like in the untouched paradise of Darkroot Garden and in the nigh psychedelic Crystal Caves, the game manages to be equally impressive.
The second type of beauty that Lordran boasts is structural. Dark Souls is, in terms of genre, properly qualified as an action RPG, because aside from being focused on real-time combats, it has an underlying system of leveling and stats. It is surprising, then, that the game is actually wearing the shoes of a Metroidvania. Once they are done with the quest’s opening act, which entails getting out of the Undead Asylum, gamers will arrive at Firelink Shrine with no clue regarding what else they are supposed to do. A character sitting by the local bonfire will, however, explain that – as yet another undead making some sort of traditional pilgrimage to Lordran – they should try to ring a pair of bells: one that lies way up high and another quite down below.
It is an absolutely vague explanation, but such is the nature of Dark Souls, and with those clues as their only guide, gamers will have to start exploring their surroundings in order to figure out how in the world those objectives can be reached. Whether at that point or a little bit later, one is bound to realize that Lordran possesses the maze-like structure and non-linear progression of the genre dubbed by both the Metroid and Castlevania series: for starters, walking around Firelink Shrine will reveal exits – very much open from the get go – to at least three other areas; additionally, somewhere down the line, they are likely to discover the regions of Lordran seamlessly connect to one another via a series of shortcuts, elevators, caves, and other features that can cut traveling short.
Dark Souls is, though, a Metroidvania with a few twists, and most of those quirks seem to be very much dedicated to feeding the game’s most famous trait: its difficulty, of course. Besides having a complete shortage of clues and hints, the game is also extremely wide open; although three of its five acts – its introduction and conclusion, as well as a middle portion – are linear segments that only have one goal, most of the quest’s meat can be done in any order whatsoever.
The game has entire locations and a handful of bosses that are entirely optional; the two bells that need to be rung are reachable, through lengthy treacherous roads, from the beginning; and later on, when the collection of four special items is required to unlock the final stretch of the adventure, that search can be equally done in any sequence. To make the proceedings a tad more complicated, there are so many branching paths and open ways that one may even get rather close to one of the pieces of that quartet of coveted assets while trying to ring the bells, only to find some closed doors that are impassable at the moment.
There are, though, a few caveats to that openness, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the ringing of the bells. Sure, players can get to them in any order they like, but one is so much harder to reach than the other that almost everybody is likely to take a certain road. And, in many ways, that is how Dark Souls tries to clue gamers into the fact that maybe they should try another path: by beating them down mercilessly. As such, even though Firelink Shrine has three exits from the start, one will eventually emerge as the most appropriate choice because the enemies will be more manageable; likewise, in spite of how – at any point in the game – various yet unexplored areas will be accessible, the starring undead will probably be pushed to the most welcoming ones through sheer trial, error, death, and misery.
But that is not the only way in which Dark Souls turns itself into a very special Metroidvania. The game also presents a total lack of one of the genre’s most essential features: a map. It seems crazy to think an adventure that is made up of more than twenty distinct areas of decent size that come together in a maze-like interconnected fashion gives players no option to pause the action and open a map to check out where they are, what new paths there are to be explored, and how they can get to where they want to go, but that is just the way it is.
Surprisingly, and in what amounts to a major victory in terms of design, Dark Souls actually does pretty well without that element; in fact, being forced to slowly learn the details of the world with no external aid generates a good deal of satisfaction when players realize they are able to navigate from point A to point B by only using their brains.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly why it succeeds in a matter in which so many of the genre’s games would fail if they tried, but some aspects of Dark Souls certainly contribute to that achievement. Firstly, there is how its regions, although mostly gloomy and medieval-looking, are quite visually distinct from one another. Secondly, there is how they tend to possess grand architectural structures that make their organization easy to remember. Thirdly, there is how Firelink Shrine works as an unofficial hub of sorts, from which paths to several other regions originate, sometimes forcing players to go through a few areas before reaching their destination. Fourthly, there is the fact the locations that make up Lordran, despite being decently large and somewhat open, usually have a pretty linear main path through them. Finally, there is how the game, thanks to its difficulty, only allows players to advance via a very mild pace, which gives them plenty of time to memorize how the world is set up.
But the factor that perhaps contributes the most to Dark Souls being able to get away with the absence of a map is its very constricted warping system. Once again, this is an instance in which the game goes completely against the grain; after all, not only is it a generally accepted rule that titles with large worlds need a map, but it is also a good practice that they offer plenty of warping opportunities to cut down on backtracking and speed up traveling. But Dark Souls does not care, and, like it does with its act of shunning a map, it actually turns yet another initially puzzling decision into one of its major qualities.
There is warping in Dark Souls, but aside from being limited to a just a few of its bonfires, which work like the game’s checkpoints, it also only becomes available halfway through the game, a point by which most players will have explored a very solid percentage of Lordran. Consequently, before they gain the ability to do so, gamers will have done a great deal of walking, backtracking, and cramming the structure of the land in their brains. It may sound somewhat tedious, but it is in fact greatly engaging, because a huge chunk of the charm in the way Lordran is designed has to do with the dozens of shortcuts that abound in the place.
The first time one goes through any of the areas of Dark Souls, it is likely they will take the long arduous path, the one that sends them through hordes of enemies, traps, and other challenges. As players advance, however, they will inevitably find ways to cut the trips short on the next go around, be it by ladders that can be kicked down, doors that only open from one side, elevators, tunnels, and more.
Other than coming off as major reliefs and providing an unshakable rewarding feeling, these paths turn Lordran into a land whose fabric is believable and organic; and thanks to how it teaches one little by little to navigate through its dangerous settings, the game transforms the act of finding a shortcut or discovering that two places that seemed very far away are actually neatly connected by a cave into events as satisfying as beating a boss. And walking through Lordran ends up being an action so fulfilling that some may argue the warping actually detracts slightly from the whole experience when it shows up.
Navigation challenges and extreme openness do contribute a whole lot to the legendary difficulty of Dark Souls, but the most influential elements in that regard are by far the combat itself and the way in which enemies are placed around the world. The game leans so much towards battles that it is possible to look at its quest like one lengthy sequence of combats, forming a gauntlet set up over a maze-like world, because, sure, puzzles do come up once in a while and navigation is key to finding one’s way around Lordran, but it is in battles that players will spend most of their time.
The combat system of Dark Souls is yet another area in which the game excels enough to establish standards of quality. The whole proceedings are ridiculously simple. First of all, players use the equipment screen to define what items will go in which one of the character’s hands, with weapons being designated to the right and shields to the left; up to two of each can be equipped at any time, with the possibility of using the correspondent directions on the D-pad to switch between them.
After doing so, only a handful of basic actions are possible: with the shoulder buttons of the right, weapons can deliver either a faster weaker blow or a longer stronger hit, both of which leave the character briefly vulnerable; meanwhile, with the shoulder buttons of the left, the shield can either be lifted or used to perform a bash, in which case – if timed correctly with the incoming attack – a parry will happen and players will temporarily stun enemies, allowing them to deliver an undefended sequence of hits; finally, rolling away from attacks can be triggered with the A button.
The twist that propels the system over the top is the stamina bar. Any action that is done, with the exception of moving around, depletes the green gauge to some degree: the weaker attack as well as the shield bash spend less energy than the stronger hit and rolling; at the same time, blocking blows, which a lifted shield will invariably do, will use stamina according to the offensive power of the move that is stopped.
Running out of stamina is pretty much impossible given it constantly regenerates, but holding little of it obviously has bad effects. For starters, players will likely not have enough energy to attack; furthermore, although lifting the shield will still be possible, trying to absorb a move that requires more stamina than what the bar possesses will cause the character’s defensive stance to be broken, lead part of the damage to leak into the undead’s health, and make them briefly flinch, an opportunity that the bad guys will certainly use to their advantage.
The combat of Dark Souls is, therefore, one ballet of stamina management. Defending at all times is simply not an option, because the stamina bar will not hold; for that very same reason, attacking relentlessly is equally impossible. To make matters even more interesting, the green bar will regenerate at a much higher rate when players are not holding the shield up, which means that if they want to be able to attack as well as defend with a good frequency, it will be absolutely necessary that they spend a good slice of the battles in a state of total vulnerability, having to rely on moving around the terrain and getting away from the hits with their footwork while they regain that much desired stamina.
In such a way, Dark Souls completely avoids the pitfall into which most action games fall, because it is nigh impossible to find an easy way to win combats. Players are effectively forced into strategizing when they will defend, when they will attack, when they will rely on their movement, and when they will be able to stop for a few seconds to drink some healing potion without getting hit.
There are no automatic victories, regardless of how strong one is and of how minor the enemies they are facing may be: trying to tackle a sequence of foes too quickly can mean running out of stamina and becoming a sitting duck to their hits, which will cause the health bar to go down pretty fast; running headlong into an area with more than one bad guy without thinking too much will give them a great opportunity to gang up on the protagonist, which makes the chance of dying go through the roof; and trying to dispose of a little guy by slashing away mindlessly is a recipe for disaster, because enemies know when to defend and when to attack. And these are mistakes that are easy to make, especially considering backtracking is common and so is having to replay sequences of enemies over and over again because one is dying before reaching the next bonfire.
Dark Souls, naturally, uses that characteristic to its advantage, leading players into various traps. It hides plenty of enemies in unexpected corners as well as blind spots; it sprinkles almost every area, especially those towards the beginning of the game, with stronger than average foes that are usually standing guard in front of alluring items; and it has a lot of rooms where attracting the attention of more than one bad guy at once – which in Dark Souls equals almost certain death – is a considerable possibility. It efficiently and quickly teaches gamers that its world needs to be explored with extreme caution, because any sort of rush will lead to failure.
Consequently, Dark Souls is a pretty tense experience, and not just because danger is always lying around the corner. Many other mechanics of the game also play a role in that regard. Pausing, believe it or not, is just not possible. Bonfires – the game’s equivalent of checkpoints, not save points, as progress is recorded automatically – are mostly fairly placed (save for a few instances when they could have been put closer to bosses) but stand pretty far apart nevertheless, so dying leads to a good loss of progress. The quest’s sole item dedicated to healing can, quite cleverly, only be replenished to its current full amount by the bonfires themselves, meaning players are always surviving on a limited supply and have to manage it carefully. Sitting by the bonfire and resting will cause all enemies, with the exception of bosses and a few other major foes, to respawn, making the road that has just been cleared perilous once more. Finally, there is the constant looming possibility of losing souls, which are the adventure’s most valuable resource.
Souls can be picked up from corpses and earned from defeated bosses in a consumable form, with the caveat that, in the case of the latter, they are unique and can also be employed in the forging of special weapons. However, the main way to acquire them is by beating enemies, which turns them into the game’s take on experience points. Souls, though, are more than score that can be exchanged for an additional level when by bonfires so that gamers can then choose which stat they want to raise by one point; they are, actually, also the game’s currency, as repairing or upgrading equipment, which is a must, as well as buying items is done through them.
The quirk with souls is that, if the heroic undead dies, he will be returned to the last bonfire in which he rested and the counter will reset. The souls, however, will not be lost for good. They will in fact be waiting to be picked up in the location where the protagonist was beaten down, giving gamers one shot to recover them, since – at all times – only a single dropped batch of souls can exist on the map: the one representing players’ most recent death.
Such trait benefits the quest in a few ways. To begin, it diminishes frustration because it awards gamers with a chance to reduce the losses caused by a mistake. Besides, it challenges players to, when trying yet again to get to the next bonfire, at least reach the location where they died the last time around. Finally, it forces the protagonist to sit down by bonfires as much as possible – hence triggering the respawning of enemies – because accumulating souls is jut not a good idea.
In spite of the obviously elevated degree of difficulty that stems from the many areas of Dark Souls, the fact it gives players a whole lot of helping hands if they want to is an often unsung feature of the game. Part of that aid comes from the title’s creative use of online features. Thanks to those, it is possible to leave notes on the ground as well as visualize and rate (negatively or positively) those written by other players, and even if the vocabulary that can be put into them is limited, they are quite helpful when trying to find one’s way around, uncover secret areas, or acquire particularly powerful items that are neatly hidden.
In addition, Dark Souls also has a summoning system that can greatly help those in trouble beat down the mean gigantic bosses it is famous for. In that scenario either other players or NPCs can be called upon to turn those epic struggles into more manageable affairs, the former broadcast their availability to be summoned by leaving a rock on the floor and the latter are reached via predetermined marks that show up in specific locations. Many of the battles, in fact, can become quite a cakewalk if partners join the fight, but the game puts in place certain limitations so that the whole feature is not abused.
Most importantly, the undead who is requesting aid must be in his human form. And that is a requirement that happens to be quite smart: firstly, because to become human one must spend at least one humanity by a bonfire, which means that despite the fact the item is relatively plentiful, the opportunity to summon somebody is somehow limited; and secondly because being human means players can be invaded (in other words, attacked) by NPCs that are programmed to pop up once in a while or – of course – other gamers who are willing to do some one-on-one battling, meaning the possibility to get help comes with a risk. Moreover, a few NPCs can only be called if certain actions are performed, such as saving them from some trouble; not all bosses are preceded by summoning signs; and a player can only see rocks left behind by gamers who are within a reasonable level range.
Dark Souls, therefore, although obviously not for everyone, does try to be as inclusive as possible, offering multiple ways for somebody to overcome its challenges. A similar nature is in fact seen on the game’s RPG elements, because regardless of their depth and their massive amount of options, players can take whatever approach they want and it will click. All of the different kinds of weapons – be it swords, lances, javelins, axes, and others – are viable independently of their rarity as long as they are upgraded; and the same applies to the hundreds of pieces of armor and shields the game boasts. Likewise, even if they have to choose a class when the game starts, players are free to construct their character as they see fit, elevating the stats they want and making him use the build they feel like parading around at the moment. Finally, in spite of a deep magic system that has the hero joining a covenant and doing a task to increase his rank within the clan to boost his spells, sorcery is pretty much an optional feature.
There are, of course, problems with Dark Souls. Its obtuse nature can be too extreme at times, and it will leave even some of the most attentive players occasionally scratching their heads, whether it is because they cannot grasp the plot, cannot comprehend some of the game’s most advanced systems without checking a guide, or have no idea where to use a key they just got.
On another completely different front, there is, disappointingly, a visible drop in the level design quality of the locations that need to be traversed towards the end of the game, since they do not display the same magnitude of intricacy found in those that precede them. And speaking of that final stretch, given that sequence of the adventure has players clearing four objectives that can be done in any order, the lack of a visible gap in difficulty between them actually causes the goals that are tackled later to come off as being far easier than the first ones.
Finally, even though it does one marvelous job of being rather hard without being cheap, as the deaths that take place will mostly be the fault of players themselves, which will then be able to use the ordeal as a learning experience, there are a few moments when Dark Souls disintegrates into unfairness. One boss, for instance, is fought in a room so tight that if players do not execute a specific series of actions as soon as they walk through the door, they will be murdered without knowing what hit them.
As another example, a few areas have enemies that use very poisonous weapons, triggering the toxic status after a couple of hits. Given the condition depletes health at a frantic rate for a handful of minutes, being afflicted by it without having a healing item means an automatic death, which is very frustrating considering these foes are snipers hiding in locations that are nigh impossible to spot without knowing where they are in the first place. At last, a specific creature and a boss have the power to curse the protagonist, and this status – which will be triggered very quickly – not only cuts the hero’s maximum health in half (a massive blow in a game like Dark Souls), but can also only be cured by traveling very far from the locations where those bad guys are to buy a healing item that cannot be purchased in considerable bulks. Once more, that is a case when the game could have dialed down on the punishment.
Although emerging like moments when the game takes its brutality a bit too far, these few instances of exaggeration are proof that Dark Souls has a quest that is not afraid of pushing its audience to the very limit. It is, therefore, perfectly understandable why the title is so closely related to the idea of difficulty that its name has pretty much become a synonym for tough challenges. The heavy focus that is put on that relationship, though, masks the fact there is much more to the adventure than that.
Sure, Dark Souls is quite hard, but it keeps players coming back for more regardless of how much it drives them to the edge of breaking, and such a balance is only possible because the game thrives with such intensity in so many areas: its combat is simple, but stunningly clever in how it turns even the most basic battles into affairs that require calculation; the design of its labyrinthine world is unparalleled; its lore is mysterious and alluring; its atmosphere is heavy and gripping; its lack of linearity is daunting; and even its smallest details hold originality, as matters such as death, punishment, as well as saving are approached from unique angles. The conclusion is that Dark Souls is not yet another great game that only happens to be extra famous because it is very tough. Dark Souls is a game that sets high standards of its own in various fields, and although difficulty and learning curve are among them, they are far from being the only ones; in fact, they might be the least important of the bunch.