Wednesday, September 22, 2021
For the past few weeks, I’ve been binging my way through the Souls series, from Japanese developer FromSoftware. After finally breaking through the wall I’d hit in Demon’s Souls back in December, months after the gorgeous remake from Bluepoint launched alongside the PlayStation 5, I quickly hungered for more. The games of Hidetaka Miyazaki will often have that effect on players - they can be obtuse, unforgiving, and frustrating, but by the time you reach the end of them you’re left wanting more. More of that thoughtful combat, more of that melancholy world design, and more of that challenge. People sometimes compare FromSoftware’s titles to a bizarre form of torture, but for fans of Dark Souls or Bloodborne, we don’t crave punishment for our mistakes, but instead want to be rewarded for taking our time, learning, and improving.
So it was only a few days after beating Demon’s Souls that the withdrawal symptoms began to set in, and the only solution I could think of to offset the shakes was to dive back into Lordran, in Dark Souls Remastered. This felt particularly fitting, given how Dark Souls turns ten years old this month - a decade spent preparing to die. Previously, I’d gone into most FromSoft games with little idea of what to expect, taking it on pretty much blind. This time, though, I was going to have a plan. I created a new character, dug into the Dark Souls wikis, and started fresh with a little self-made roadmap for a strength build - a road which led to me wielding a humongous hammer fit for a demon, making mincemeat of bosses that had once caused me trouble, and breezing through the game about fifteen hours quicker than I had done my first time. It was tremendous fun, and it allowed me to appreciate the intricate world design and interlocking systems of Dark Souls all the better.
But, despite all that, this second playthrough just didn’t hit quite the same way. I’ve since started a third playthrough of Dark Souls, this time as a Pyromancer. I’ve also created a new character in Dark Souls 3, and, I assure you, I’d be knee deep in Bloodborne for the fourth time if I wasn’t holding out some small hope for a PS5 upgrade or patch. And in each of these games, the second playthrough is arguably more fun, and more rewarding, with my newfound knowledge allowing me to engage with more of the different systems and stats that I’d ignored before. I’m lobbing giant fireballs at Ornstein and Smough, or knocking out Pinwheel in two hits of the Demon’s Great Hammer, and grinning the entire time. But it doesn’t hold the same place in my heart as my very first playthrough, scrabbling in the darkness with an underpowered spear and just about finding my way.
There’s something special about that first time going through Dark Souls, a feeling that’s hard to recapture. Super fans of the series will tell you that it’s not actually difficult at all – that Dark Souls is easy if you just pay attention and take the time to ‘get good’. But I think it’s all too easy to forget just how obtuse Dark Souls can be. It doesn’t just refuse to hold your hand; it chops it off, drops it down a pit, and asks you to fight a giant in order to get it back.
The menus are a strangely complicated affair, offering several overwhelming screens full of numbers for weapon damage, stat scaling, secondary effects, damage reduction, durability, weight, and more. I can only imagine how many other players accidentally chose a shield based on its attack damage, thanks to some easy-to-miss stats hidden away in a submenu. And even if you do spend the time working out what the numbers mean, so many of Dark Souls’ systems aren’t explained - there’s nothing to suggest that reducing the weight of your load makes your roll faster, beyond the animation itself. But for a new player clad in heavy armour, what reason do they have to take it off and try, especially if they’re already getting hammered by some tough foes?
My first time playing through Dark Souls was much the same. I didn’t see the allure of the game ten years ago, when it first released - I was far too busy trying to improve my K/D in Call of Duty: Black Ops, or gliding across the sky in Batman: Arkham City. But a few years (and one Bloodborne) later, I began my journey at the Undead Asylum, and I found myself feeling lost almost from the off. Running into the graveyard next to Firelink Shrine, and suddenly being overwhelmed by an army of skeletons; taking on the Taurus Demon, getting peppered with arrows and rolling myself off the bridge multiple times while attempting to dodge it; or beating my head against the Bell Gargoyle boss, only to discover that I would actually be fighting the Bell Gargoyles, plural - it was a true baptism of fire.
These were some of Dark Souls’ earliest roadblocks, for me at least, but it made overcoming them all the sweeter. Without knowing which were the right stats to spend my souls on when levelling up, or understanding that I’d accidentally created a rubbish ‘raw’ version of my sword, finally taking down that tough boss I’d been stuck on (I still despise Nito), or making it through a group of particularly deadly enemies (fuck the New Londo ghosts), were triumphs that still live long in my memory. I relied on my reflexes, some brute force, and a little bit of luck. I vividly remember getting that final hit on Smough in Anor Londo during my first playthrough, watching him fall to the floor as I had done so many times in our previous bouts, and the euphoria that followed. But right now, I couldn’t tell you anything about my most recent fight against the gold-clad duo, and that was only a week or so ago.
In many ways, the first Dark Souls is as flawed as it is genius. Subsequent releases, such as Dark Souls 3, have ironed out a few of the kinks, and made things more accessible. I’m sure Elden Ring, FromSoftware’s next game, will continue down that path. But those rough edges make the first Dark Souls game so, so memorable. And even though I’m still having a great time with Dark Souls Remastered on my third playthrough, a part of me will always miss being lost in the dark of the Catacombs, wielding an underpowered Lightning Spear that I can’t work out how to upgrade, and hoping to spot the glorious glow of a bonfire around the next corner. Here’s to ten more years of players discovering Dark Souls for the first time, and embarking upon their own challenging voyage of discovery.
Wednesday, September 22, 2021 @ 04:02 PM
Thursday, September 23, 2021 @ 06:35 AM
Thursday, September 23, 2021 @ 12:53 PM
Sunday, September 26, 2021 @ 05:40 PM