To enter the grim, magical (but not in the good way) and ruthless world of Dark Souls is a daunting experience. The hype surrounding FromSoftware’s “Soulslike” games is a now-legendary and quite honestly alienating reputation that leaves no doubts as to what the player’s letting themselves in for when they first hear those swelling notes in the menu screens. No matter what game you select, one thing will be made explicitly clear to you: these games will not hold your hand. Even the weakest of foes will absolutely annihilate your character if you’re not careful, and while the scenery, lore and character design for both friend and enemy are spectacular labours of love, what spawned the existence of the meme “Dark Souls of [insert genre here]” (as referenced in the title) is the merciless, brutal and unforgiving difficulty.
So how do you get into a game series that prides itself on weeding out the weak? How does FromSoftware balance out that precarious divide between “challenging yet rewarding” and “bashing your head against a brick wall, only far too aware of the metal one behind that, and the diamond one behind THAT”? The answer is surprisingly elaborate and intricate, and proves that for all of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s sadism the man does know what he’s doing when it comes to making getting your backside handed to you an overall positive experience.
First of all, with the exception of some bosses (yes, I am looking very hard at you, pre-nerf Old Iron King), dying in Dark Souls is actually not as maddening as it looks from the outside. The controls, universally, are tight and reactive, meaning the player has near-enough total control over their character’s movement across all three games. Dark Souls has mastered the concept of player accountability – when you die, whether it be to a castle-guarding monstrous drake or a boulder made of skeletons piloted by an extra-spooky wizard skeleton (I promise I’m not making that last one up), it is almost always your fault. Regardless if it was because of your lack of experience, or you messing up a roll, or you attacking when you should have blocked, YOUR death is YOUR fault. When you’re not playing the game, it’s easy to point at everything else and go “Well, that’s ridiculous! How are you supposed to react to that?” But when you’re in the driver’s seat, you know that the only way to survive is to have your mind sharp and ready at all times, which only serves to create a hyper-intensive and focused gaming experience unlike any other. Let that slip, and, well… YOU DIED.
Next, the Dark Souls series has an innate grasp on what makes a challenge rewarding. It could be saving the princess or defeating the lord of evil or even just making a good family life on The Sims – it’s all about the process, the road, the journey, the obstacles that you have overcome to get to your goal. When I was gifted Dark Souls I by a friend, I sat down, played for a few hours, and I swiftly came to terms with a harsh reality: I was not gud. I needed to git gud.
I took offence to the notion my skills were not satisfactory, and so I proceeded to try and brute-force my way to success. The repeated deaths to various, basic Goomba-level Hollows swiftly made me reconsider my strategy, and then I tried going slowly, slowly, slowly. Taking it one encounter at a time, doing my best to be careful and calm and relaxed and – YOU DIED.
So, my friend came over, and as he played I realized something – the way to advance deeper into the game was to, bluntly put, KNOW the game. You had to know how many strikes of your weapon would fell that enemy, how this one attacked you and was vulnerable from the back, how that one over to the far right had a crossbow, how far your roll would take you… And as I watched, jaw slackened, as my friend proceeded to take my character and blitz him through the game as easily as writing out a shopping list, I realized that there was a certain tipping point. A threshold, a barrier to break, a certain amount of painfully-acquired knowledge one simply had to have if one was going to get anywhere. There are no ‘pay to win’ mechanics in Dark Souls, unless you count the summoning mechanic, and even that required a specific item you couldn’t acquire for maybe an hour’s worth of play. The only reason I wasn’t progressing in Dark Souls was because I was mindlessly charging at it without trying to learn anything. I wasn’t taking it seriously. I, was not, gud.
And so, I got gud.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that the world of Dark Souls, the war of the gods against the Everlasting Dragons, the beautiful environments, the interesting and deep characters, and the sheer scale of the game had always kept me invested in the franchise even before I played any of it – the first time I played it was less than a year ago, while Dark Souls I had been released back in 2011, 8 years prior. It was purely, from my perspective, the asinine arbitrary difficulty of the gameplay that put me off actually playing it.
But when that moment hits? The instance of you sitting down at a bonfire and realizing that you’ve just torn through a level that’s been smacking you around for hours with the power of muscle memory, game knowledge, and understanding of the mechanics? It’s like you’re joining a secret club, you’ve entered the “zone”, you have acquired the reflexes of some sort of gaming ninja. Bosses that would have made you tear your hair out before are demolished with ease. Treacherous and terrifying areas crammed to the brim with enemies and environmental hazards are deftly navigated, neutralized and never-minded, and it feels GOOD. It’s a hard satisfying rush, the gaming equivalent of flexing in the mirror and seeing the results of your workout. The overall feel of the gaming world – you as this tiny hapless little Undead, Curse-bearer and Ashen One, versus all these far more powerful and legendary foes – adds to this feeling of utter triumph when you best each and every one, and the difficulty feels justified. You have no special powers to rely on, everything you can do is what everyone else in the world can do, and the only thing that can truly stop you is your own weaknesses.
The Souls series has gone from being one of my sorest spots of disappointment to one of my favourite game series of all time, and I will be the first to admit it’s not for everyone. But if you like spectacular bosses, amazing narratives, stunning levels and NPCs, incredible replay value – especially with friends – and a feeling of having EARNED that credits reel, then I can’t exactly sell Dark Souls enough. Don’t think of the difficulty as a wall to surmount, think of it as a dare for your attention.
Dark Souls I Remastered is relatively cheap right now, or just take the original if you’re looking for the OG experience. The other two games are naturally well-worth it, and the DLC add-ons for all three are damned good too. In short… from a former Dark Souls noob, it’s never too late to git gud.