“It’s the Dark Souls of Dark Souls!”
That phrase gets thrown around all the time now when new video games are hyped, and it has come to be synonymous with any game that is difficult. With games being commonly designed to appeal to mass audiences now, it can be a little hard to find games in this day and age that appeal to the “hardcore” gamer, games that offer challenging experiences that can only be beaten by those who dedicate the time and effort required to learn them. Dark Souls is certainly not the hardest game ever made, hell, it isn’t even the first game in the series (that title goes to Demon Souls, but that game is far more niche and not nearly as well-known). However, it is arguably the most famous, and when people hear Dark Souls, they immediately associate it with difficulty, so in a way it’s almost a cult classic. The series is more or less mainstream now, with Dark Souls 3 being released in 2016, so at this point everybody is familiar with the franchise. Recently, Bandai Namco, the company that publishes the series, released a remastered version of the game that started it all, the very first Dark Souls, featuring a graphics upgrade, frame-rate increases, and some other small changes. Now this review isn’t going be a review of how good a remaster it was, this is going to be a review of the game itself, and this is mostly because I didn’t play the original. The basic premise of the game, and to an extent the entire series, is that the in-game universe is going to shit, and it’s up to you to save it. The irony is that to save the world, you end up killing 95% of its living inhabitants, but that’s beside the point.
As far as the technical aspect of the game goes, it’s great. It runs smoothly at 60 FPS, and I haven’t run into any game-breaking bugs or crashes in the course of my entire first play-through. I have no complaints about the controls as well; the game is intended to be played with a controller but the flexibility in customizing key-binds has allowed me to get through the game perfectly fine with mouse and keyboard. I did attempt to play the original game, but the PC port for that version was beyond atrocious. Even after installing a mod designed to fix it and using an AutoHotkey script to help with key-binds, I ran into some issues running the game and gave up on it, so I was happy to see none of those issues in the remaster.
On to the gameplay, and a big part of that is going to tie into a discussion about the game’s difficulty reputation. Before I address that though, the actual gameplay itself is solid. Your character’s movements feel like they have real weight to them, and that combined with the stamina mechanic makes you think about what moves you want to make. It can feel a little clunky at times, especially if you’ve played the sequels (3 in particular), but other than that I don’t have anything really bad to say. You also have freedom in customizing your character’s level progression, so you can build your character in any way you want. You can be a swordsman, a mage, a cleric, or some combination of any of them, anything you want. I played through the game as a swordsman as I enjoy melee combat, but feel free to be a sorcerer if magic is more of your cup of tea.
So just how hard is this game? It’s pretty difficult, and that comes from a few factors. The first comes from its lack of a “real” tutorial. It tells you the very basic things to know, like how to move and attack, but it does not really teach you much beyond that. A lot of the mechanics and features this game offers usually have to be discovered via trial-and-error (or through the Internet), which does not make it very beginner/casual-friendly. Another part stems from its non-linear level design. There are many different ways to progress through the story, but the game does not tell you much about where to go next, so most of the time where your next destination is something you have to figure out for yourself. That can often result in players wandering into areas that they are too low-level for, and then getting annihilated by the enemies because they’re too strong. Dark Souls also does not allow you to pause and reload, so you can’t “save-state abuse” either, and if you die, you lose all your souls and have to go back to the area you died in to retrieve them.
All of those factors mentioned make the game seem daunting, but that’s where the game shines. Yes, it’s hard, but it also rewards those who learn and have patience. You will probably die a lot, but as long as you pay attention to why you died, you’ll learn from your mistakes. Get killed by a weird attack from a boss? Well now you know the boss has that attack, so you’ll know next time to dodge it. The non-linear level design makes it punishing for those who do not know it, but at the same time, it offers a ton of freedom and choice. For example, there are some areas that are completely skippable if you know how to bypass them. Dark Souls is a game that is (usually) not difficult just for the sake of being difficult, it is hard but rewards those who take the time to “git gud,” as the player-base likes to say.
While playing this game, it’s easy for one to be caught up with learning boss move-sets and trying not to die, and completely forget that a story exists. Now, this game does have a story, and it introduces the basic premise via the opening cinematic. However, it does not reveal a lot of information via exposition. Aside from talking to some NPC’s, you have to figure out a lot of the story from paying attention to the environment and doing some digging on your own like reading item descriptions, and even then you won’t necessarily get the whole picture and will have to extrapolate a few things. However, the basic story is (spoiler alert) is that the world was once ruled by dragons and nothing happened, until fire randomly appeared. Some beings came from the fire and took some powerful souls from it, and fought against the dragons for rule of the world, and won. However, as time passed, the fire faded, and things began to go south, so your job is to retrieve those souls and “re-kindle” the fire to make Dark Souls great again. I personally don’t care that much for the story as I find parts of it to be way too convoluted and vague (people argue that it leaves a lot of room for interpretation, but I honestly find it to be just lazy storytelling). The game is that good that you can have fun just killing things without ever giving a damn about what’s actually happening story-wise.
Another cool feature about the Souls series is that it has a multiplayer part to it. You can co-op with other players, invade other players’ worlds to mess with them, or fight other players in organized duels. There is a lot of fun to be had in playing co-op with friends, but if you’re going to play the game with some help, expect to be invaded by other players who will try to impede your progress as a way to provide additional challenge (after all, it’s much easier to beat the game with 2 people than with 1). If by chance you do not care for multiplayer at all, you have to option to play the entire game solo, by not becoming human or by playing in offline mode.
This game isn’t perfect though (and no game is), with a few flaws that I personally found with it. The story features side quests with some of the NPC’s you interact with, and completing them usually gives you rewards and/or sheds light on the overall story. However, because the game’s narrative is vague and confusing, there are very few hints given to you on how to complete these quest lines. It is extremely easy to screw up an NPC quest line, and once you screw it up, you won’t be able to attempt that quest again until the next entire play-through. Another gripe I have is with the PvP portion of the multiplayer. Since the game is primarily balanced around a solo perspective, there hasn’t been as much thought given into balancing weapons/builds from a multiplayer perspective, and that can make PvP pretty chaotic and at times annoying to deal with. Finally, not all areas were designed equally. While most of the game has great level design, there are a few notable areas that are just a chore to go through that I didn’t find fun at all, just frustrating and tedious (looking at Tomb of the Giants and Blighttown in particular).
All in all, Dark Souls is an incredible achievement in gaming, and proof that there is still a big market for hardcore gaming. While its reputation for difficulty may have preceded itself and turned off a few potential players from discovering it, I strongly encourage anybody who truly enjoys video games to give this game a shot. It is hard, yes, but it will reward you for sticking through it, and soon enough you’ll be praising the sun with all the other people who enjoy this franchise. Now that the remastered version is out, there isn’t really an excuse to not play this game.
Rating: Worth it at retail price. If you already owned the previous PC release it’s already going to be at reduced price. That said if you already played the original PC version, and aren’t going to be interested in the multiplayer activity that the Remastered version will bring, then the worth is more questionable.