You may have heard difficult games described as the Dark Souls of their respective genre (Cuphead, for example), and in fact From Software's game has become synonymous with difficulty in the gaming sphere. Ever since it was first launched it has enticed streamers, YouTubers, masochists, and challenge-hunters into trying out its tough bosses and unforgiving nature, and with the Switch version just landing, it's time to look back on the classic and what makes it so influential.
Before that, though, we have to take a step back to 2009, which is when From Software released Demon's Souls for the PlayStation 3. A cursory glance at the game will tell you that it hits many of the same notes as Dark Souls, from the level of challenge to the UI, and in fact, there would not be a Dark Souls without this title. Demon's Souls was critically acclaimed upon release, especially due to its difficulty, but that was only the beginning of the Souls saga.
Two years later Dark Souls was released for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 (with an awful PC port the year after that had shocking mouse and keyboard support), and this is where From Software really hit their stride, building on Demon's Souls with a spiritual successor that's now regarded as one of the best games ever made. Not only was it an outstanding game, but it would go on to become a cultural phenomenon and a reference point for action-RPGs to this day.
One of the key reasons for this is because of the hauntingly empty world that From Software had created. The story is notoriously absent from Souls games while you're stuck in the middle of it, but essentially this is a dying world plagued by an Undead Curse, and you need to find the Lord Souls and decide the fate of the world. You are one of these Undead, which means if you die, you come straight back to life at the nearest bonfire. The setting is so impactful because everything in it is hostile, with only a handful of friendly faces to meet. It's almost totally devoid of hope because of this, and even the game's ending isn't particularly positive whatever way you spin it.
It's a beautiful world despite its hostility, but it's a vast one too, from the gaping chasms underneath Blighttown to the burning fires of Demon Ruins and the vast spires of Anor Londo (inspired in part by Milan Cathedral). Everything is huge, with immense landscapes and skyboxes making you feel puny, and the seemingly endless world keeps unfurling secrets as you get deeper into the story.
The level design works with the world perfectly, as it's almost like a 3D Metroidvania as you're constantly going back on yourself to find out where to go next and unlock new shortcuts and routes. Two of the paths away from the Firelink Shrine at the beginning of the game are incredibly challenging at first, for example, which forces you to go up the third path to the Undead Burgh; a gentle way of guiding that's often used by the game to get you to new places.
Since Bloodborne landed there seems to be a divide in the community about which method of combat is best. Bloodborne, after all, had a fast-paced, aggressive style that favoured quick dodges and parry's with your gun, but Dark Souls was slower and more methodical. Defence is the name of the game here, and you'll find your fingers glued to the shoulder buttons as you alternate between block, parry, light, and heavy attack.
This is a skill-based combat system that's deeply rewarding the more you practice, as almost all the sword-wielding grunts can be parried with a well-timed button press, letting you plunge your sword into their midriff (this animation can also be done by working your way around the back of them for a flanking attack). Learning when to wait and when to attack is a dance that Dark Souls needs you to learn, and one false move can mean death as your vulnerability is exploited.
This is without even mentioning the bosses. Sure, they're challenging, but the joy with Dark Souls is that they're never cheap or unfair. These bosses can smash you in a few hits, but it's all about learning their patterns, what attacks they make, and just like the game smashes you when you leave yourself open, you too have to see when the enemy is open and strike at the right time. You can even summon friends and NPCs to help, so it's never an impossible task.
Like any good RPG, Dark Souls is also packed with lots of depth. There's plenty of armour and weapons to find - a lot of which will be hidden unless you know where to find it - but your items will actually be the most useful to you. Your Estus Flask, for instance, provides the health you need, while other items will be needed to get rid of poison effects, imbue your weapons with lightning, and much more. Trial and error is the name of the game at all times, and the world is full of things to help you with that.
A big criticism often levelled at the game is that it's obtuse, which then fuels the superiority certain members of the fanbase smugly flaunt around online. It's true, not a lot of it is taught, but once you learn the many systems at work then things do start to come together, and it's a rich and rewarding experience that values your time.
Now that Dark Souls: Remastered is out for PC, PS4, Switch, and Xbox One, a whole new audience has the chance to try it out and see just why it's one of the best action-RPGs ever made. It looks beautiful on these new consoles, runs better, and just goes to show how it's still as culturally relevant in 2018 as it was back in 2011. After all, how many games have you seen try to replicate it?
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