Spotlight on… Dark Souls

Shining a light on noteworthy titles of old. 
This time, FromSoftware’s peerless open world masterpiece.

A promotional image from Dark Souls showing the main player character walking towards what looks like a crowd of spirits or fallen knights.

Release: 2011
Developer: FromSoftware | Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Buy from Amazon: Dark Souls

Dark Souls has something of a reputation for being hard – and it’s true, of course – but a more accurate description would be that it’s difficult. “Requiring a lot of planning or effort to do, understand, or deal with”. The very meaning of the word offers perfect insight into exactly what makes Dark Souls so easy to give up on. But also what makes it so compelling and so rewarding in comparison to most other endeavours in gaming.

To fully appreciate the impact Dark Souls had upon its release, it is crucial to understand the state of the gaming landscape that it crashed into. Back in 2011, highly polished, large-scale mega-blockbusters were the norm. Games were focus-tested to within an inch of their lives; developers and publishers terrified that the slightest rough edge in their design would snag players and cause them to stop playing. The result was that games would bend over backwards to please the player and to ensure they could make it through to the end with minimal stress and resistance – without missing anything. Games were at risk of becoming bland; using low-risk, tried-and-tested designs in an attempt to please everybody.

Unsuspecting players who had grown accustomed to these games (and those unfamiliar with FromSoftware’s previous game Demon’s Souls) were given a nasty shock when Dark Souls appeared on the scene. Thrown into its world with little guidance or fanfare, the tutorial section alone left many players battered and reeling. The systems are complex, the enemies relentless and the world itself seems designed for no other reason than to make you hate it. To make you give up.

The controls seem complicated, the menus are convoluted, you have no clear objective and the first enemy you meet will likely fire an arrow straight into your face. Oh, and throw a cheap rolling-boulder trap into the mix within the first twenty minutes too. Each time you die your progress is reset, enemies are revived and you are forced to start again from the dank prison cell in which the game began.

An in-game screenshot from Dark Souls showing the stunning moment players arrive in Anor Londor. A huge cathedral can be seen with a beautiful sunset or sunrise in the background.

Dark Souls is a game where towering ambition meets masterful restraint

It was – is – a brutal introduction for the uninitiated. A stern lesson that teaches you exactly what you need to know about the game in less than an hour. The bare essentials to get you on your way. Not its systems, mechanics, weapons or magic – those you must learn on your own – just an introduction to what you’ll be up against should you choose to persist. A warning to be careful, to concentrate, and above all, to hold your nerve.

When you finally find your feet and can successfully navigate from your prison cell through to the end of the desolate asylum complex that makes up the tutorial, you will be confronted with a door cloaked in fog. ‘Traverse the fog?’ the game asks nonchalantly. “I did it!” you may think, as you confidently step through the fog expecting an exit from the area, only to plummet to a stone floor below to be confronted by the Asylum Demon; a huge boss wielding a club about three times your size. “YOU DIED”, the game says – again – as the demon crushes your hard-earned moment of joy along with your defeated warrior’s bones. Your progress is yet again reset, and many players turned their backs, walked away, and never came back.

Lots of planning and effort to do, understand and deal with.


But for those who gave it one more go… You make it back to the fog door again; heart pounding as you ready yourself for what you now know lies in wait. But this time you notice something you didn’t before; a message scrawled across the floor just in front of the fog. “R1 for plunge attack”, it says. So you step out onto the ledge for a second time, but instead of limply dropping off the edge to your doom, this time you unleash a devastating attack from above; plunging your weapon into the demon’s skull and removing half of its health in an instant.

This changes everything. Suddenly you have a chance. Suddenly, you can do this.

These moments are the beating heart of Dark Souls. Like the harshest of teachers Dark Souls punishes each mistake absolutely, but only because it wants you to learn. Over and over again you will be faced with crushing defeat and disappointment, only to return with a different perspective or tactic and use the game’s many systems and variables to turn the tables in your favour (which incidentally are never again quite so simple as “press R1” – this is the tutorial after all). Your reward? A short cut-scene in which you are swept away from the asylum and dumped unceremoniously into Lordran; the game-world proper.

An in-game screenshot from Dark Souls showing the player character sitting at one of the game's many bonfires. The spirit of another player is also resting at the bonfire.

Firelink shrine – repeatedly visited throughout the game – is accompanied by a melancholic, achingly beautiful score.

And what a world. Arguably the best the medium has ever seen. While at first utterly daunting, it is truly one of the most surprising, coherent and consistent worlds in all of gaming. That it so often invokes feelings of true hopelessness and bewilderment, followed by such revelation and familiarity continuously throughout the game’s length is a true marvel of design. A world of staggering depth and complexity, but one which the average player could draw from memory come the end. You are living in this world, you are part of it, and your knowledge of it increases with every step.

The lack of any kind of world map is pivotal in achieving this. You need to learn it – and you do – simply by exploring it. Similarly, the complete removal of Demon’s Souls’ already loosely defined level structure and the relative safe-zone of its Nexus hub area is a masterstroke. This is a seamless open world. The game gives no indication of your progress as you continue to discover yet more doors, ladders and passageways at the end of areas you were sure couldn’t possibly go any further. You will never really be sure how far into the game you have ventured, or indeed how much there is left to find. Catching hazy glimpses of previously visited landmarks and areas in the distance and looking forward towards unfamiliar ones further cements your place in this world, and the feeling that you are perpetually right at the centre of it.

Each new area, at first incomprehensible, becomes wholly familiar before long. Familiar, but never friendly. Nearly all of the in-game characters (the ones that aren’t trying to outright kill you that is) treat you with disdain, ridicule or just total indifference. You are another nobody, and they just don’t care. Each and every one of them is memorable however, and special praise must go to the vocal artists for providing their unique, mocking, and brilliantly delivered dialogue and laughter.

An in-game screenshot from Dark Souls showing the player character in battle with the Taurus Demon, he is being helped by a summoned character.

Other players and NPCs can be summoned into the game to help with bosses, but even this doesn’t guarantee victory.

Fighting your way through the multiple enemies and bosses of the game enables you to upgrade the stats of your character using the souls that they drop (die, and you have one chance to make it back to the point you were defeated to reclaim them – otherwise they’re gone for good). Dying is common practice in this game, meaning you will inevitably repeat sections of the game multiple times before progressing. Assuming you collect your dropped souls each time, this allows you to upgrade your stats regularly.

The beauty of dark souls though – unlike most games in which levelling is involved – is that skill always trumps level. The real upgrading that is happening during this game is with the player. You are learning, your skills are improving, and the satisfaction of returning to an earlier part of the game that seemed so far past your skill level at first, only to plough through with nary a scratch using the tactics you have honed and weapons you have collected since, is immense.

You’re progressing. You’re better. And it feels wonderful.

These upgrading opportunities come via bonfires which are dotted throughout the landscape. These bonfires become beacons of hope and progress, literally providing a feeling of warmth and comfort in a world mercilessly devoid of either. You’ll long to see its unmistakable silhouette as you delve further into a new area, so much so that your mind will begin to trick you into thinking you can see one in the distance that, upon inspection, is revealed to be nothing more than innocuous scenery detail.

The game saves your exact progress every few seconds, but death always results in a trip back to the last bonfire rested at, and the resetting of all previously bested enemies to their original location and state. The game’s very structure and design aligning perfectly with the lore of the game. Of an inescapable nightmare that you are slowly and painfully inching your way out of.

An in-game screenshot from Dark Souls showing the player character facing up to the game's enormous red Drake which is looming aggressively from atop a ruined castle.

From’s enemy designs are consistently impressive – Imposing and always consistent with their part of the game world.

There’s no doubt about it, if you let it this game will get under your skin, and it will haunt you whether you are playing it or not. There’s a strong chance that it will consume your thoughts even when you are far away from your console; at work, or even while you sleep. And if you are lucky enough to know somebody else battling the game at the same time, there will be few topics able to replace it.

Dark Souls released with little fanfare at first, but it caused waves throughout the industry that are still felt today. It proved that games didn’t need to be watered down and over-explained for players to stick with them, and was confident enough that if it provided a compelling enough reason to do so, they would persevere through the harshest of challenges in order to see it through.

The sense of achievement felt by those who make it to the end of Dark Souls is immense, but upon completion the game delivers its cruellest trick. As the mystery fades, the sense of triumph gives way to a feeling of emptiness, a feeling that there is nothing left to discover in this remarkable world. Thoughts inevitably turn to which game is next, but after Dark Souls, nothing else is the same. Nothing else is as good. New Game Plus it is then, and just like the game’s hopeless protagonist, you could be stuck here for a while.

Dark Souls was a sucker-punch to a stagnating industry, and the most influential title of its generation. It is not a perfect game by any means, but for those lucky enough to connect with its fiction, it is an utterly unparalleled experience.

Buy from Amazon: Dark Souls

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