According to legend, Dark Souls is a relentlessly brutal video game experience that will punish the player for the slightest error. People shudder in fear at the thought of losing all their currency by dying once and failing to get back to the same spot…almost as if they’ve forgotten that many other video games completely wipe your progress since the last save. While the future games by FromSoftware may have gone too far with skill-based gameplay, the true genius of the original Dark Souls is that it finds challenge through knowledge.
I need to start this with a controversial claim. Dark Souls has an awful gatekeeping community that has decided for whatever reason to shame people for using summons, telling them that doing anything other than solo play is robbing them of the ‘true’ Dark Souls experience. This is a core element of the design which is actually quite revolutionary – why would FromSoftware put in the effort to make this system if not to be used? It’s like if the Pokemon fanbase developed the Nuzlocke challenge during Red and Blue and spent the next two decades chiding new players for not releasing their Pokemon upon fainting.
I say this because part of the ingenious design behind Dark Souls results in it being two games at once. Alone, this is a brutally challenging action RPG. With a summon or two, this transforms into an accessible dungeon crawl. Dark Souls gets away with not having difficulty options because the difficulty slider is built into the mechanics. As someone who believes the true genius of the game largely lies in its level design, these options are key in making this a truly universal masterpiece.
The other side of summoning is being summoned. The obvious reward for this is humanity if you assist in beating the boss, but the true benefit of the system is being able to safely get a sense of the level ahead without risking your own souls. The game also provides the option to invade another player, which can also go a few ways. Some want to be honorable duelists, while others want to ruin someone else’s day. The fact you can only summon by also opening yourself up to invasions gives the mechanic a sense of risk – a reasonably skilled player is more dangerous than any enemy, especially if they can trick you into an enemy’s aggro range. Despite the relatively straightforward narrative progression, this game offers tons of ways to play. The best option is to play the way which results in the most fun.
Let’s cycle back to the game itself. The opening level is a work of art. You start down in a cell and work your way out, finding your first bonfire easily enough. You walk through the nearby door and suddenly the first boss leaps down. You have virtually nothing at this point. You might assume this is a trick, one of those annoying fights where you’re expected to lose, only to have a cutscene play out of your inevitable defeat. If you stick to this, you find yourself back at the bonfire. Hopefully, you’ll eventually notice the open door in the back corner. This leads to the rest of this short area, where you will arm yourself with a proper weapon and shield. A dying man will give you the estus flask, which allows the player to heal a few times. Going up will lead to a ledge where you can attack the boss from above, dealing a significant chunk of damage – but going down opens a locked door back to the bonfire.
This opening is a microcosm of the game at large, subtly teaching everything you need to know. That first encounter with the boss encourages spatial awareness. When the game starts hiding enemies behind corners, you need to maintain a sense of all possible openings. That next stretch is a proper tutorial, teaching the player how to fight a few common enemies while avoiding obvious traps. And then there’s the fork in the road, which suggests heading straight into the boss chamber might not be the best idea. This game is loaded with shortcuts, encouraging the player to explore every inch of the level to make sure they can’t reduce the length of the bonfire run.
The first main area of the game, Firelink Shrine, has a few possible exits. You will likely stumble into the graveyard and be slaughtered by some surprisingly strong skeletons. You might also stumble into a submerged city plagued by ghosts – I imagine most of us turned back as soon as we saw this intimidating sight, but a brave player might stumble across an upgrade for their healing for their troubles. This introduces another often overlooked feature – this is a game which encourages running as much as fighting. Though you lose souls upon death, you keep whatever item you find – it can be worth it to make a mad dash through a high-level area to get a rare item.
Running is a consistently strong strategy in this game – anyone who thinks there’s too much time between bonfires and bosses is too caught up in the mindset of a traditional RPG, where you should fight every enemy for the experience. This is what I mean when I say this is a game based more on knowledge than skill – once you learn an area and get stuck on the boss, you absolutely should be sprinting past the common enemies. You still need the skill to avoid their attacks, but this is typically a better strategy than forcing yourself to fight a dozen enemies before the boss. Yet the genius of the level design is that you can’t really sprint the first time through – these levels are filled with little alcoves, and one wrong turn might leave you surrounded by enemies.
Fighting, sprinting, summoning – the game is loaded with options to overcome these challenges. In fact, during the first playthrough, I think the real challenge is learning all the possibilities – even better than summoning a strong ally is finding a powerful sword and mastering the upgrade system. I absolutely tore through the back half of the game my first time through after making this investment.
There are two major reasons any of us bothered to stick with this despite the initial challenge. One, this world is beautiful. Every location has a striking sense of detail, from the visual design to the level layout – this is one of those games where every inch of the world has a purpose. Though this is not a Metroidvania, there are several moments where you will take a shortcut and realize this seemingly distant location was right next to something familiar. This creates a feeling of containment, that you truly are exploring a single massive location. The lore also manages to be both richly-detailed and vague, which helps form the foreboding atmosphere.
Secondly, this is sword and shield gameplay at its finest, like if The Legend of Zelda was consistently challenging. While sprinting can be important in navigating an area, combat itself is methodical. Yet the game rarely allows the player to simply hold up their shield and wait for an opening. The stamina system punishes too much defensive play, and some enemies require a quick dispatch. This game is all about adapting to the current situation, making every new enemy a new experience. And a major reason I prefer this to the follow-ups is that these enemies never feel particularly cheap (except for one particular stretch in the back half; this probably would be my favorite video game without Lost Izalith and the Bed of Chaos) – boss fights in Dark Souls III seem to involve relentless attacks with few obvious windows to strike back. The later games feel as though From really bought into the public perception of the series, and their focus on challenging combat has also let the world design slide.
The original Dark Souls stands as a rare game to be both challenging and accessible – victory truly feels like overcoming the odds, yet the methodical design means most players can eventually adapt if they only have a little patience and pay attention. This is a game most of us will struggle through, but the genius is revealed if you ever start again – that same opening which you spent hours conquering will likely go down without a fuss, all because you now understand the strange new language this game has laid down.