Recently I finished a play through of FromSoftware’s dark fantasy role-playing game Dark Souls, and I have to share my thoughts on how great the game is. This isn’t an uncommon opinion of course, but Dark Souls does so many things correct that I think the games industry should learn from.
Dark Souls released in 2011, following the release of FromSoftware’s cult hit Demon’s Souls. Having changed publishers, FromSoft had to develop a spiritual sequel to Demon’s Souls. Many players enjoyed how the games were refreshingly punishing; death has consequences and you hand isn’t held the whole time. The games’ director Hidetaka Miyazaki is often asked to comment on the difficulty of the games, and his answer is always that the difficulty was never the point. The games aren’t hard for the sake of it, this is a tactic used to draw you into the world and be cautious. It can also be used to punctuate big moments, like the fight with Ornstein and Smough.
Dark Souls begins with the player character waking up in the Undead Asylum, and getting freed from their cell by Oscar. This gives an in-game reason for you to listen to his request to fulfil the Undead Prophecy- dodgeroll some powerful beings to death and link the fire. This brings up one of the things that Souls games do very well, which is the fact that they try to have in-game explanations for everything. You have to suspend disbelief about magic, and demons and all that, but otherwise things in the world behave in a sensical manner.
Once the player arrives in Firelink Shrine, the beauty of the design begins to show itself. The game isescribed as “metroidvania”, which stems from Metroid and Castlevania, which emphasize an open world structure, and often opening up shortcuts or new ways to traverse the world. The level design in this game is really commendable and something I think any aspiring level designer should experience. Firelink is your hub, and most of the areas in the first half of the game are connected to it somehow. All a continuous world, unbroken by loading screens. Early on in the game, it is impossible for the player to warp around, meaning, when you want to get somewhere you have to walk there. This is why those of us who play the games go on and about the level design. Another part of the genius of Firelink is the way various npcs found around the game return to Firelink for a rest. But most of them return for a while, but then leave and can be found elsewhere in the world. This gives an amazing feeling of realism. Their function as a vendor to the player isn’t the only reason they exist. They have their own goals, outside of helping the player.
Punishing but fair. This is the best way to describe a Souls game. Upon discovering a new boss, you’ll probably die a few times but once you get their attack patterns down, you’re ready stomp some demon ass. There is a rush when you finally beat a boss that’s been giving you a hard time that not many games can accomplish.
The Lord Vessel, guarded by the game’s hardest bosses Ornstein and Smough. This functions as a bottleneck in the game. If the player can overcome Ornstein and Smough, the designers know they can throw tough things your way. Admittedly, after the Lord vessel (which allows the player to warp around) the level design takes a step down. Since the player can warp out of most areas, this means that the levels tend to end in ways that force the warping.
Games always fall victim to deadlines, of course, but it would be great to see what might have been if Dark Souls hadn’t been forced to rush its release. The later levels, that people find lackluster, might have been some of the best in the game. Overall, people play a souls game for an experience greater than the sum of its parts. The combat is very satisfying, but it’s not deep the same way a Devil May Cry is. The attack animations are slow and uninterruptible. Bosses can be very frustrating, but a massive relief to finally overcome. The atmosphere is very bleak, which helps benevolent characters like Solaire shine even brighter.
My rambling point is: go play the fucking game. It’s great and everyone should experience it for themselves. Get past the wall of difficulty and you’ll have yourself one of the best gaming experiences ever.