Dark Souls: A Reflection and a Farewell

When you think about how much that I adore the the Souls games, it’s a little amazing to remember that I probably would have never played these if I had not started writing for NJoystic. When Steve offered to send me an extra copy of Dark Souls he had around, I remember my exact thinking was, “Well, I’ll try any game at least once. If nothing else, my mind shattering with rage should lead to good podcast content.”

Playing this free game did lead to good discussions, but not for the reasons I had thought. Sure, there are plenty of stories about lost tempers and I certainly have some controllers that probably wish I never started playing these games. However, what stands above those moments was how impressed I continue to be with this series. To this day, it’s very easy for us to fall down the Souls rabbit hole and talk forever about all the great things that these games do.

Now that I have finished up The Ringed City DLC for Dark Souls III and it seems like the series has reached its end, I find myself reflecting on the games and this obsession I had with them that likely took years off my life. I just know that the sense of wonder, the fear, the frustration, the victories, and the rewarding relief that the Souls series has delivered over its time is something that will stay with me. So I figure this is probably my last chance to truly reflect on it all, a game at a time.

Demon’s Souls

The truth is that I didn’t go into these games completely blind to their formula, due to the one major blemish on my Souls record. I’ve only played a handful of hours of Demon’s Souls with a friend of mine, and every time we do play it I come away not really liking it. Still, I know that I would probably need a lot more time with the game to either figure it out, or figure out why this game has always rubbed me the wrong way. I want to beat it one day, but the truth is that this game helped put me off playing Dark Souls for years.

Maybe I just wasn’t ready yet, but even with my current experience Demon’s Souls has not grabbed me. So maybe the magic didn’t really start to come out at this point.

Dark Souls

What is interesting about my time with Dark Souls was that I wasn’t even sure if I was enjoying it while I was playing. I’ve tended to play challenging games on a regular basis for a long time, but Dark Souls was always different than some twitchy platformer or combo-driven action game that I would usually be hooked on. Initially, I thought the game was just a case of excessive punishment and the reason I never wanted to play it was that even I had to have some limits.

As I played it, I began to realize that there is a flow that Dark Souls trains you to follow as it roughs you up. I gradually figured out when to slowly go down a path and when to run for my life. I started learning how each enemy fought, to take advantage of openings, and to treat every swing of the weapon as something crucial. I was also surprisingly building the world in my head as I progressed and was recognizing my location from scenery and landmarks. This made the moments where I felt lost that much more genuine, and kept alive the tension of having to push forward into the unknown.

I truly hated how this game made me feel at times. The tense focus that boss fights required, and the many deaths that left me baffled as to how winning would even possible. Yet when it was all said and done, I slowly started to realize all the ways Dark Souls taught me how to play it and understand it. Every time I overcame a challenge, that was passing a test that made me a more knowledgeable player.

I had organically learned to navigate this game, and I was now exploring the world and appreciating the story they built along with it. The moods that the player should feel from the setting and inhabitants of the world felt authentic because the gameplay made its threats and its rewards mechanically feel appropriate to their story counterparts. While the story of Dark Souls is deliberately buried in item descriptions and theories, it’s one of the more interesting and complex tales in games for me. No small part of that is because of how well it all works with the game’s design.

It took me weeks to figure how all the pieces of this game connected into what I now consider some of the most brilliant examples of game design out there. Pushing through the game took a lot out of me mentally, but it was definitely worth it. I can also say that I’m now pretty used to the stress of the series, and can’t help but accept there is something addictive about how it toys with your adrenaline throughout the entire journey.

Bloodborne

Dark Souls took so much out of me that I actually put off jumping right into Dark Souls II, and decided to wait until Bloodborne game out. While only a Souls game in terms of formula and structure similarities, if you ask me what my favorite Souls game is I will always say Bloodborne first.

It tweaks the formula’s gameplay more towards action and aggression, and it designs its encounters around that. The emphasis on openings and timing was still there, but the abilities available to the player can make them just as vicious and agile of an opponent as the monsters they face. This meant the fights could get crazier than anything I had seen in Dark Souls, but it also made the fights more satisfying to me.

I also love Bloodborne‘s setting and approach to otherworldly horror, but before I go nuts about the lore I’ll just cut this short and recommend my review if you need more in depth thoughts from me. Simply put, Bloodborne is one of my favorite games.

Dark Souls II

I actually streamed my playthrough of Dark Souls II with the expectation that I would be pounding my head against the wall in a lackluster sequel. Enough people had told me that the game missed the mark on some things that made the first Dark Souls so special to the point that I was reasonably sure I wouldn’t like my experience. I thought I wouldn’t like the first game either, though. So I was more prepared to be wrong this time.

Maybe it was because my expectations got appropriately lowered, but I actually ended up liking Dark Souls II way more than I thought I would. Most of the fights aren’t that memorable, and the level design isn’t up to the mark of what I had played before, but it did capture enough of the spirit of these game to keep me curious and engaged in what was happening.

I think what Dark Souls II doesn’t get enough credit for is in its lore. While the connections it makes to the first game are pretty distant, the unique characters and elements that the sequel introduces are some of my favorite bits of lore and story in the entire series. My time actually playing the game left me with some fairly scattered memories, but I probably spent more time watching videos and reading pieces that explore the places and figures of Dark Souls II than I have for any other game.

Dark Souls II is easily the weakest of the series for me, but I definitely think it has some high points that make it a worthwhile entry regardless.

Dark Souls III

Again, I reviewed this one so I’ll keep my opinion brief here. I found this to be a very satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. I think the locations and level design were a huge step up from the previous game. The combat was smooth and offered more depth than a Dark Souls game had offered before. I also loved how the more I learned about the Souls world over the course of these three games drastically changed how I saw both the world itself as well as my role in it as I reached the end.

I didn’t talk much about the Ashes of Ariandel DLC when I played it because it didn’t really hit with me. Elements of its story are really fascinating but, in Dark Souls fashion, you’re left with way more questions than answers. I found the frozen world of Ariandel to be an interesting location in the greater context of the lore, but not all that fun of a place to actually explore and fight my way through. In the sense that it was more Dark Souls, I enjoyed this DLC. It has to be said, however, FromSoftware have proven far more capable when it comes to add-on content.

What really sucked was the feeling that this DLC starts this intriguing storyline but it might not ever finish it. There was no guarantee the next and final DLC would really continue what Ariandel started, as Dark Souls tends to play erratically with its settings.

So I was relieved when I realized The Ringed City does set out to finish this bizarre, hidden chapter that started in the frozen world. From a lore perspective, it’s a really strong package full of characters and items that invite more of the addictive theorizing and discussion that is rampant in the Dark Souls audience.

From a gameplay perspective, I felt The Ringed City honestly captured the lows and highs of the series in fairly equal measure in its first half. The visuals and level design of the dlc is really good, but some of the boss fights seemed to rely on my least favorite areas of Dark Souls combat. The juggling of more than one boss enemy at time, or actually replacing a boss with some annoying PvP crap for example.

For me, the greatest thrill of a Souls boss is being able to learn the tells of one complex, dangerous opponent and execute on my opportunities. It kind of sucked that the final DLC runs away from that mentality a bit early on. Luckily, I can confirm the dlc does eventually embrace that idea enough to make up for the times it slips up. The final boss of The Ringed City, in particular, is one of my favorite duels in the series. It’s the type of fight that’s tough, but it feels just beatable enough that I didn’t even consider summoning help. I had to beat this on my own, and when I finally did it was one of the high points of the Souls games for me.

Once it started to set in that this was the end of Dark Souls for the foreseeable future, I started exploring some of the corners of the DLC as I reflected on it all. Finding items I honestly wish I had found way earlier, I kept thinking about the long road this series has taken me down. This isn’t going to become some wrap-up where I tell you Dark Souls made me a better person or anything crazy (Aan argument could be made that I’m way worse), but there is a real sense of gratitude I feel for having played these games.

I feel like I not only learned a lot about FromSoftware’s individual games, but I learned a lot about what a game can actually deliver to a player if it puts all of the pieces of its design together just right. It also showed me how rewarding a piece of fiction can be despite almost never directly telling you the story. While I would probably need countless hours to explain just half of the Souls story to somebody, I’ve relished the free time I’ve put into just talking and hearing about it.

This series is also one of the best personal examples I can point to when it comes to the benefits of keeping an open mind about games. I was absolutely certain I would hate Dark Souls, and now look at me. I’m sitting here sad to know this will probably be my last chance to write anything substantial about these games, but I’m also thrilled to see other games out there take inspiration from the series. I think players will feel the influence of Dark Souls in both small and major ways for years to come, and to see a game have a noticeable impact like that is a cool thing to witness.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch Souls lore videos for way too many hours. I’ll let you know in a psychotic twitter rant if I suddenly understand it all.