Released on: October 4 2011 (PS3, XBOX 360), August 24 2012 (PC), May 25 2018 (PS4, XBOX One), October 18 2019 (Nintendo Switch)
Available Platforms: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch
Price: $54.99 CDN ($39.99 US)
When the topic of challenging games comes up, most people nowadays will think of the Dark Souls series. At the time of Dark Souls’ release, I remember a lot of people complaining that video games had become too easy as a whole. While I do agree that I wouldn’t call games released around 2011 overly tricky, I always felt difficulty was subjective. I also felt that, with the rise of indie games, players who wanted a decent challenge could find one in their select niche if they looked hard enough. That wasn’t enough to satiate challenge hungry gamers, so they still called out for more. From Software heard that call, and answered with the second game in the Souls series: Dark Souls. Touted as being an arduous action-RPG, Dark Souls help cement the need for tough-as-nails games, even inspiring some of the best indie games today. Is Dark Souls genuinely worthy of its influence on the video game industry?
In a time where dragons ruled, known as “the Age of the Ancients,” a mystical fire, known as “the First Flame,” materializes itself onto the world, being the representation of life and death. Four beings find this fire and gain immense power. Three of these beings use their power to destroy the dragons and regain control of the world, thus ending the Age of the Ancients, and beginning the Age of Fire. Over time, however, the First Flame begins to fade. The fourth being sacrifices himself to extend the Age of Fire. At this time, humanity is affected by an undead curse, which causes humans marked by a symbol to perpetually resurrect until they lose their minds, known in this universe as “hollowing.” The player wakes up at the bottom of a dungeon in an undead state thrust upon a perilous journey to rid themselves of this curse. While doing the research necessary to write this review, I stumbled upon a surprisingly thick synopsis of the opening. I’ll admit, when I played Dark Souls, I missed all of this info at the beginning. Thankfully, the game is still enjoyable without any knowledge of the backstory, but it does add a lot of flavor and purpose to the player’s journey.
The “dark” in Dark Souls is appropriate, as the game uses a gloomy color pallet like dark brown, grey, black, and the shadowy hues of colors. While I do like bright and colorful games, I like dark and somber games as well. Dark Souls excels at presenting creepy areas, horrific monsters, and the rotten madness that is the hollowed with its disturbing art style.
Upon creating a new save file, Dark Souls asks the player to create their character. Players get to decide what kind of character they want to play as well (rangers and spellcasters for ranged combat, knights and warriors for up-close brawling, and the depraved for those who want to start at level one to get more freedom on their build later on). Those who spend a significant amount of time creating their character might want to lower their aesthetical expectations (more on that shortly). Dark Souls does its best to instruct new players on how to play the game. That said, the player will quickly realize what they’ve gotten themselves into when they encounter the tutorial boss. That’s right; Dark Souls pulls no punches with its infamous difficulty from the very beginning. Defeating enemies will award the player with souls to level up the player’s character, buy items, weapons, armor, and shields and even repair their equipment at the blacksmith. Combat is simple enough to grasp; the player has access to a light attack, heavy attack, block, parry, and dodge, which all require stamina. Stamina management is critical, as running out of stamina at the wrong time can result in death. At the same time, Dark Souls’ gameplay is a tad archaic, the level design and formidable enemies more than make up for it.
I guess it’s time for me to address the elephant in the room: Dark Souls’ difficulty. Everything people say about Dark Souls’ challenges is true. When the player meets their unfortunate end, they will lose ALL OF THEIR SOULS AND THEIR HUMANITY. Not only that, but dying also makes the player’s character “hollowed,” giving them less maximum health, reduced defenses, and makes their character look like a zombie. The player has a chance to get their souls and humanity back if they can make it back to where they died, but if they die again before retrieving their souls and humanity, they are lost forever. What makes it worse is that enemies in Dark Souls deal significantly more damage than other action-RPGs. If the player wants to restore their humanity, they will need to use an item (appropriately called “humanity”). My readers might think I’m crazy for what I’m about to say next, but I love Dark Souls’ approach to challenge. Being able to claim victory over Dark Souls’ challenges is an intoxicating thrill that not many games of that era offer. Dark Souls’ trials may be mighty, but they are not impossible.
If the player finds a particular boss or section of the area too cumbersome to face alone, they can elicit the help of other players to tackle these tougher spots (it is worth noting that the player needs to be human to summon other players). I usually like to take on challenges solo, but it never hurts to have the option to ask for help.
By now, it may be evident that Dark Souls’ motif is to emit a constant sense of dread over its foes, and its environment. The way Dark Souls compounds this feeling with its music is brilliant. Usually, I have issues with games being mostly silent in the soundtrack department, but with Dark Souls, it’s thematically appropriate. Most of what the player hears in the background are environmental sounds (drops of water, crows cawing). When the player encounters a boss, however, that is when the music swells to epic proportions.
Ok… that was a lot of positives to unpack, now for the criticisms…
The first time I tried Dark Souls was on the PC. I couldn’t get into it for some reason, and, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why. After looking into it, it turns out the PC ports of the Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2, and Dark Souls Remastered are infamously flawed. After realizing this, I got the Switch version and had a much better experience.
Speaking of the Switch version, I found it strange that the “B” button is accept, and the “A” button is cancel. While it might sound like a nitpick (and in the grand scheme of things, it is), it does make it feel like they forgot to change this to fit the “A” as accept standard.
While I did compliment the use of dark colors in Dark Souls, it does make Dark Souls very difficult to play on a reflective screen during the day. Turning up the brightness does a lot to mitigate this, but for the best experience, I would recommend playing Dark Souls on a non-reflective screen, or when the screen isn’t as reflective.
The biggest issue that most people will run into with Dark Souls is the difficulty, as mentioned earlier. When I first played Dark Souls, I felt that it was too exhausting for me. I got stuck at the Taurus Demon (an early game boss) and dropped it for a long time. It wasn’t until I beat Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, that I decided to try again. Dark Souls’ barrier of entry is undeniably huge. People who claim they can’t get into Dark Souls because of its difficulty, I fully understand, I was there once.
As if the game could get any harder, if the player is human, they are susceptible to being invaded by other players (if they choose to play online). I’ll be honest; I played the majority of Dark Souls hollowed because I didn’t want to deal with the chance of being backstabbed by a random person (some of who cheat). Some will say this is part of Dark Souls, and to an extent, I agree, which is why I recommend those who share my view of invaders play the non-boss sections of Dark Souls as a hollowed, then regain humanity for boss fights for the extra health and defense.
On the surface, it’s easy to dismiss Dark Souls as a “try hard” game. It’s punishingly difficult, the combat isn’t flashy, and sometimes, it’s even hard to see. Those who stick with Dark Souls, however, are treated to an immaculately designed game ready to reward the player with a visceral sense of satisfaction video games can offer. For those looking to challenge Dark Souls, I would recommend getting the PS4, XBOX One, or Switch versions of Dark Souls Remastered, as the PC port, while moddable, feels like an inferior port of the latter.