For some reason my Apex Legends post is one of my highest and most consistently viewed posts. A few other of my video game posts (Mario Jump Rope, Stardew Valley, and three Zelda posts) also rank really well: apparently people really like reading about video games and I should probably try to write more about them. One problem though: this blog is about things that suck and I try not to play games that suck. My time is precious, there are thousands of games, games take a long time to play, so why would I fuck around with playing awful games?
My five-year-old daughter somehow found my Dark Souls game a few days ago and wanted to play it. I was amused. This kid was going to totally get her ass slapped in the game. I wasn’t wrong. She didn’t know how to lock onto enemies, use the shield, or even swing the sword. She walked away from the Undead Burg bonfire and instantly died. After a few minutes she finally killed a few enemies (without assistance from locking on) and would then get murdered. Progress at least, right?
After she gave up (maybe 15 minutes after starting) I began playing my own game file that I gave up on about a year ago. I had a pyromancer build and was stuck in the Catacombs of all places. The Catacombs is one of the “easier” areas of the game and popular theory assumes it’s meant to be completed earlier than later. I tried to do this instead of going there overpowered mid- to late-game like I usually do. But holy hell was that place a nightmare of level design. I was constantly getting lost and dying by falling, especially dying to those rolly skelly motherfuckers at the bottom on the way to the boss Pinwheel. I died about ten times maybe.
After that I branched out trying to figure out where the hell I had left off. The Butterfly was dead, the Gargoyles were dead, and the second bell hadn’t been rung yet. Down to Blighttown I went, via the Master Key of course. For the first time I tanked Quelaag which was very satisfying. I recalled how much trouble she gave me on my first playthrough and contrasted this with how easy she had become.
Storytelling aside here: Dark Souls is a great game. It’s probably one of my top five favorite games, maybe even in the top three. While it isn’t a flawless game, it’s about as close to flawless as you can get. The difficulty is fulfilling, the plot isn’t forced into your face, the gameplay is varied, and the worldbuilding, level design, sound design, and atmosphere are amazing. Let’s go through each one of these and give the game a proper dick sucking like it deserves.
Dark Souls is notably hard. I think this is misleading though. It’s challenging in an acceptable way whereas most games around during its release seemed to be too damn easy. It’s well-known that to survive Skyrim you only need to abuse healing potions. It’s just not a hard game, not that Skyrim and Dark Souls have much in common game-wise.
Not that Dark Souls doesn’t have plenty of unfair, bullshit difficulty moments and the rolly fuckers in the Catacombs are the perfect example of this. Or the Anor Londo archers: anyone who has played the game and made it that far know exactly what I’m talking about. They’re legendary with their immense total-bullshit factor. And let’s not forget the entire Capra Demon boss fight, or Smough and Ornstein’s Pornhub-esque tag-teaming of your innocent and unprepared character with their large clubs and spears. Or the stupid fucking bridge Drake. The game is brutal in many cruel ways.
I think what makes this bullshit acceptable is that it was purposefully done on behalf of the game developers. They added plenty of these bullshit-hard moments just because they could. While the game is mostly fair, these moments are what break you. They’re what make you persevere and beat the game. Those fucking Anor Londo archers are the definition of bullshit artificial difficulty, but they never feel cheaply done. They’re not nerfed weapons or terrible game mechanics nor are they large health pools just for the sake of having large health pools. The devs want to piss you off and this is a flaw on you not the game devs. Once you figure out how to relax, calm down, and deal with the bullshit in front of you, you can easily conquer any challenge the game tosses at you. And you feel great for doing so. Many times I’ve conquered something to realize my hands were literally shaking from adrenaline. I don’t recall any other games that can do this.
Dark Souls offers a handful of starting classes such as a sorcerer, pyromancer, healers, and your normal typical warrior classes. This immediately gives you options and adds replay value to the game. A common view is that a sorcerer/magic build playthrough is the easiest mostly because you can stand as far away from the action as possible and hurl overpowered Crystal Soul Spears at the helpless enemies. A warrior build is probably the most difficult, forcing you to close the distance and do physical damage to your enemies.
But even besides those basic options you can play the game anyway you want. Some people eschew shields in favor of two-handing weapons and dodge-rolling attacks. Some people do “Soul Level 1” playthroughs, never leveling their character up during the course of the game. Even if you start off as a certain class, you can also play however you want depending on how you spend your points as you level up. A sorcerer at the start can be a tank mid-game if you dump points into certain attributes.
Hell, even the weapons have a wide variety to them. You can use a basic one-handed sword, or use some massive two-handed weapon like the Dragon’s Tooth or the Zweihander. Or you can use a spear/halberd/axe/whatever-the-fuck-else you want to use. Mix and match as you please. Wear whatever armor you want, use whatever spells/magic you want, and use whatever weapon you want. Play the game as you see fit. This creativity makes subsequent playthroughs of Dark Souls nearly always interesting and different.
Differing with every other game ever made (mostly) Dark Souls has a plot that isn’t tossed into your face forcefully. In fact, Dark Souls doesn’t seem to give a fuck if you care about the plot at all, and this almost plays into the games favor. Ignoring the plot makes you a tool who simply walks around and kills shit blindly, so when you finish the game as an unknowing death machine it’s fitting in a way. Not to give away the ending, but completing it as a tool who doesn’t think is fitting with what you accomplish.
And if you care to learn about the plot you better enjoy puzzles because the plot is a puzzle. The only clues you get are item descriptions and sparse dialogue. The cutscenes in-game (besides the boss intro cutscenes) probably total three or four minutes at most. The dialogue in-game is probably at most two-pages long if you decided to type it all out. The item descriptions are just as vague and seemingly meaningless as everything else, but someone with a creative mind and attention to details can piece some things together which is massively fulfilling. Solaire’s fascination with the sun. The inscription on the Ring of the Sun’s Firstborn. The fact that the statue next to Lord Gwyn in Anor Londo is strangely missing points to a strange in-game fact and popular theory: Solaire is probably Lord Gwyn’s lost son. Why this is, who the hell knows, but even that jumping off point gives you many leads to ponder.
This is how nearly everything is in the game — vague, hidden, and uncertain — but how else would roaming around a dying decaying world be? It feels like you’re part of some massive story playing some important role and even you don’t know what that role is.
The subtle plot plays directly into the atmosphere of the game. The world is large, complex, and has a fascinating history but there are no clear signs of this history. No one is around to tell you what it all means. Only strange enemies in the woods, deformed people turned into spiders and other monstrosities, and crumbling (and strangely large) buildings scattered throughout the world. What does all of this mean, if anything?
You feel utterly alone in the world with few friends to talk to. The music is mostly non-existent except for a few key areas. Firelink Shrine and the Anor Londo Throne Room come to mind and they contrast well with the silence in the rest of the game. The bosses command their own impressive scores that raise your anxiety to hand-shaking and adrenaline-inducing levels. Playing for hours with no music and strolling through a fog gate to find a terrifying music track backing the boss charging at you is intense. Not all areas are quiet though: New Londo has a track that is so silent and subtle that you don’t notice it being there; if anything it makes you unconsciously even more terrified of the ghosts that appear out of nowhere and slit your throat or slice your character to pieces.
The stiffness of your character, the slowness with which they move, and the clunking of their armor all make you feel like an incapable and worthless person in some massive and harsh world. You’re not some superhero meant to save the world; you’re just another Undead trying to do whatever it is that you’re supposed to do. The world is cruel and doesn’t give a fuck about you. You feel alone, isolated, and nearly always in danger. The game is terrifying, depressing, oppressive and isolating, but sometimes it almost takes on a peaceful quality to it. A sort of resignation and acceptance with how dismal the in-game world truly is.
The Level Design
The level design of Dark Souls is where I think the game really shines. While the game does become rather linear later on, the first half of the game is immensely complex and interconnected.
I think this was mostly driven by the lack of teleporting/warping/fast travel until you get far enough into the game. This helps the game feel massive by requiring you to walk anywhere you need to go. Shortcuts are numerous and countless times I’d explore a certain direction only to discover it linking to a part of the world I never expected it to. The Undead Parish and Firelink shortcut is the best example I can think of. You start in Firelink, and walk all the way to the Undead Burg, fight the imposing Taurus Demon, and make your way to the Undead Parish in a long and arduous journey, especially for new players. In the Parish you find an elevator that appears to lead to a totally new and dangerous area and find yourself pleasantly surprised to discover you’re back at the Firelink Shrine. “Oh, I’m here?!” I clearly remember thinking the first time I discovered this. New London and Darkroot Basin via Valley of the Drakes. Blighttown to Firelink shrine. Darkroot Basin and the Undead Burg: everything is always closer than what you expect.
Take a look at this picture. I think it was created from actual Dark Soul’s game files on PC. The first time I saw it, it blew my mind away. I stole it from here, and while this person didn’t make the map himself (or the program) he does give credit where it’s due.
It’s a map of the entire game. Everything is interconnected and wraps around itself like a maze. You start the game in the red central area, and as you can see everything branches out from there. Some of the large branches are late-game areas which suffer from poor level design, but the entire early- mid-game levels are wonderfully interconnected and complex. Take a look at this map of the depths — one of the shittier areas of the game — and you can see the level design is still delightfully complex.
Dark Souls does have its flaws, notably the clunky gameplay at times, or the shitty framerate in Blighttown (which may have been fixed in the remastered version?), or the shitty late-game areas and bosses (Bed of Chaos, anyone?!?), or the fact that it’s really hard to get into initially, but I really think these don’t make the game bad at all. There’s so many positives that any flaws Dark Souls has can easily be overlooked. It’s a fantastic game and if you haven’t played it, well, get the fuck out there and play it!