In this short series, the GR team will reflect on the iconic games of the last decade that meant the most to them, and we're starting with Sam's look back at Dark Souls.
When thinking about games with a pervasive impact on the past decade, it's hard to argue that Dark Souls shouldn't be included in there. FromSoftware's notoriously difficult action-RPG gathered plenty of fans as soon as it was released, spawning imitators, memes, and a taste for brutal experiences, ones that were firm but fair, challenging the player to get better by constantly failing, picking themselves up, and learning from their errors.
There's a reason why "Soulslike" and "the Dark Souls of..." have become popular phrases in the industry, after all. After Dark Souls' success, many other developers tried their hand at making the same type of experience, although none quite hit the same heights as FromSoftware's iconic game. That is, until Bloodborne, but that's a tale for another day.
Technically Dark Souls wasn't entirely revolutionary. Demon's Souls came before it, but that didn't quite resonate with players as much as 2011's Dark Souls did, which refined many of the elements we had already seen. The combat is, of course, the biggest selling point, and there are a few parts to this recipe for success, all of which combine for an engaging experience from the minute-to-minute slaying of grunts right up to the huge bosses that have crushed many a player.
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Stamina management is what the entire combat system revolves around. The tiny green bar at the top left of your screen is the most important factor to remember in combat, since when that runs out you're unable to attack and, most importantly, dodge. Get too greedy with strikes and you can leave yourself vulnerable, and so great care has to be taken balancing attack and defence to ensure you can strike that killer blow, especially in boss fights where one hit can take you down.
This is one of the core elements that others have tried to imitate, but this works with all the other intricate aspects of Dark Souls like a beautiful clockwork contraption. Two other important elements are the lengthy catalogue of items to help you, from firebombs to moss that can cure poison, as well as the depth of upgrades, with the player able to spend Souls either on items from vendors or boosts for various attributes at bonfires, the regular checkpoints of the game.
Souls are another core element, and again these can determine life or death. They are earned by defeating enemies or bosses, but a little like a roguelike, these can be lost on death. Only by going back to the place you died can you recover the Souls, and once again this is a reason why Dark Souls puts a high price on carelessness since many a warrior has tried to rush and recover Souls, only to die again and lose them all.
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Speaking of roguelikes, Dark Souls is, in a sense, a mashup of genres, but unlike a Frankenstein's Monster, it ends up taking the best ideas from elsewhere and fuses them into an interesting gameplay experience. In a sense it's a 3D Metroidvania as well, with some of the best environmental design of the last decade, forcing you to backtrack, uncover hidden pathways, open up shortcuts, and discover more of this vast world, all of which makes you feel tiny among the huge, ominous structures and scenery.
Pretty much everything you see in Dark Souls can be explored, and the way these areas interlink is truly special, much like something like Dishonored. Each location has been crafted with care and detail, with attention paid to enemy placement, secrets, and passageways. Veteran players can return and find something new in each run, and there are even entirely optional areas with bosses that only the most hardcore of players can slay.
This detail extends to the lore as well. It's a well-known fact that FromSoftware isn't very forthcoming with the story of the Souls games, but those who want to go over Wikis, glossaries, item descriptions, and more will be rewarded with a narrative that reveals a bleak, dying world in which there is plenty of magic, mysteries, and monsters.
This applies to the items as well, as players have always shared knowledge with each other about weapons, keys, and more; this shared knowledge helping the community find hidden secrets, like the Drake Sword that can only be obtained by shooting a dragon tale a copious amount of times (it's very tedious). There's so much in there to get lost in, meaning it's intensely replayable, especially if you want to try new areas, gameplay styles, and more.
That's perhaps why the Dark Souls community is known for being so passionate since they possess a ton of knowledge that's taken a lot of time to uncover, and a lot of hardship too, with bosses aplenty lying between players and the various areas of the game. Of course, some of this fanbase is toxic (ever heard of "git gud"?), but there are a lot of Dark Souls players who share the wealth with others.
That applies to in-game help as well. You see, Dark Souls has a social system in which you can leave signs for others to summon you to help with fights, and there are even certain NPCs that you can call upon for assistance. This same system also allows for invaders, with other players coming into your world to murder you, however, this social system is present enough to provide tangible opportunities for players, while also being absent if you don't want to engage with it (when you die, you become 'hollow', and only by using Humanity to restore yourself can you summon or be invaded).
It's hard to overstate how important Dark Souls has been in the last 10 years. It's not only a cultural phenomenon in terms of its popularity, but its influence can be felt in most third-person games released since, from Assassin's Creed Odyssey to this year's Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. It set a new standard for tense and strategic combat, going way further than being a simple hack and slash.
There are a ton of other ways it has influenced gaming, like a taste for crushing difficulty, but we love it not for its influence and its legacy. We love it because it's inherently gripping and immerses the player in its rich and depressing world, always hitting us with new ideas and challenges to conquer. It may have been imitated, but to paraphrase Eminem, they just might be the next best thing, but not quite Dark Souls.