I’m a gigantic Dark Souls fan. I tried playing the first game a few years ago but didn’t give it enough of a chance. It’s crushingly difficult, especially as a first time player. I gave up on it the first time I tried it (much like the Malazan series), but picked it back up again a couple years later on a friends recommendation. When I stuck it out and really gave it a fair shot, I discovered an incredible game that rewards patience and skill like nothing else I’ve ever played. On top of that, the world the game is set in is incredible well realized, with a storytelling style that is completely unique.
The game is an action RPG, and the combat is designed around character animations. When you commit to a swing of the sword, your character is committed to that animation until it’s completed. This means that if you’re fighting an enemy and you time your attacks wrong, your character is locked into an animation for a second or two, leaving you vulnerable to counter attack.
The first few hours are incredibly difficult. Many action games encourage and even reward button mashing. The focus in these games is to empower you the player through fantastic abilities, to make you feel unstoppable. Dark Souls takes the exact opposite approach. It rewards players who play with patience and precision. Instead of giving you a giant skill tree to mess around with and a bunch of cool abilities, Dark Souls strips you down to your inventory and a few character stats.
Your progression through the game is entirely dependent on your own skill level. If I died fighting to the Capra Demon, I have no one to blame but myself. I over committed to an attack, or I wasn’t patient enough to wait out one of his attack animations completely. This fosters a sense of fairness in the game, and once it got its hooks in me I was addicted. I played through the first game several times, and I’ve played each subsequent game in the series multiple times as well.
The combat is still fun even years later. I still play Dark Souls from time to time, it’s the first Souls game I ever played. The other games in the series are great, but the first game is still my favorite. The only knock against the combat I have is that you can never play through a Dark Souls game like the first time, ever again. The first time through, you don’t know how hard it’s going to be. You have to pass a mental wall to really get the most out of these games, and once you push past that wall you’re hooked. You can never have that moment again with any of the other games, because you’ve already passed that wall.
The storytelling in Dark Souls is one of the coolest aspects of the game. There is almost no explicit story told in cut scenes, dialogue, or character interactions. There’s very little spoken dialogue at all in fact. Most of the characters the player interacts with are NPC’s at the hub of the game world. They offer a few lines of dialogue each but that’s about it. The really great thing about the story is that the world itself tells the story of Dark Souls more than any traditional cut scene or dialogue. If you open your inventory, every single item has a description that doles out a little piece of the story.
Taken as a whole, these small thematic clues paint a picture of a civilization in ruin. It’s up to the player character at the end to rekindle the flame or to snuff it out. This minimalist approach to storytelling allows a disinterested player to completely ignore the story altogether and focus on playing a video game, while a player who cares about the story and the world building can spend hours piecing together what happened to this civilization. It’s an extremely engaging approach to telling a story, and it takes advantage of the storytelling strengths of video games as a medium.
Dark Souls and it’s predecessor Demon Souls were revolutionary when they came out. There have been many copycats in the time since they were first released, but no one makes this kind of game like From Software and Miyazaki. The combat is fun and engaging, the difficulty curve rewards patience and perserverance, and the story is told in a unique way that highlights the strengths of video games as a medium. If you’ve never played one of these games, go get Dark Souls right now.