FromSoftware’s dark fantasy epic shows that it’s possible to let the player shape their experience without shoving the options straight into their face.
Picture this, you’re loading up a game for the first time and you’re presented with a couple of options that allow you to immediately alter how you play it. You adjust the brightness, expand the edges of your screen just right and decide whether or not you want to have subtitles visible. Then, at the climax of this introductory slew of menus, lies that fateful screen that will forever alter your experience: The difficulty selection. To some it’s an arbitrary system that can feel like a cop-out depending on what changes are made, and to others it’s a way of tailoring the game to their own skill level for a smoother or much more brutal run, depending on what they want to get out of the game. There are so many games that feature immediate difficulty selections that it’s impossible to list them all, but what about games that don’t have such an in-your-face method of fine-tuning your experience, and instead invite you to explore the depths of its systems and mechanics, letting you discover your own ways of doing things organically?
Dark Souls is an action-RPG developed by FromSoftware and released in 2011, a spiritual successor to the developer’s 2009 PS3 exclusive Demons Souls. It has been known as a highly challenging and difficult game that forces its players through a gruelling gauntlet of freakish monsters, dangerous level design and crushing bosses, whilst also retaining a level of fairness and sincerity that keeps its players coming back for another round despite a potentially hefty number of failures. A successful marketing campaign with the tagline ‘Prepare to Die’ helped boost the game’s reputation as a hard nut to crack, and the hype surrounding the difficulty still persists to this day, despite seasoned players who have clocked 600 hours in the game claiming otherwise. Despite the game being initially daunting to newcomers who are expecting a world of hurt and suffering, Dark Souls in fact features a generous amount of features and optional mechanics that can either make the game even more difficult than it was before or allow for a smoother journey through Lordran’s many dark, twisted environments. Despite being named after the first game, this article will cover points that are generally applicable to all the games in the series, unless specified otherwise.
Multiplayer as a concept is intrinsically woven throughout Dark Souls’ framework, whether it’s the player vs player or co-operative aspect that involves other players, commonly unknown players into your game to assist you. Cryptic messages left by others can either help you or hinder you, leading players to both secrets and certain death. Bloodstains litter the ground, warning others of potentially hazardous areas that have claimed the lives of others. It’s no secret that playing the game with the use of summons is known as Dark Souls’ ‘easy mode’ and there is some truth to be found there. The bosses get bigger health bars which goes some ways towards a more balanced encounter, but the added firepower from extra players and redirection of the enemies’ attention can make fights still skew the battle in favour of the player. Playing Dark Souls co-operatively with a friend is one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had with the game, although there were moments, (especially on the bosses that I found somewhat easier than my partner) where I felt like the victory was somewhat diminished by the combined power of two players.
A Class Act
Dark Souls’ way of handling starting classes initially seems relatively in line with its more traditional RPG brethren. You’ve got your melee-focused knights and warriors, ranged rogues and archers and the spell-flinging sorcerers and pyromancers, but after a couple of hours it’s clear that your choice at the beginning doesn’t really hold too much of an influence on how you want to proceed with your build, aside from a ‘starter kit’ of stats and equipment designed to set you along that particular path. For example, one could choose to begin their journey as a Sorcerer with increased stats in attunement and intelligence along with a basic Soul Arrow spell and a catalyst to cast it with. Now you could decide to take that sorcery route to its logical extreme and become a glass cannon Shōnen protagonist-level battlemage (we’ll get to that a little later,) or you could pick up a melee weapon, invest a couple of points into relevant skills to make it as effective as needed and then use your magic purely as a way of augmenting your melee prowess through buffing spells like Magic Weapon, or turning into a dark fantasy version of Metal Gear’s Gray Fox and turning invisible with Hidden Body so that you can run up to people and then slice them with a katana.
It’s the build variety that keeps Dark Souls refreshing on repeated playthroughs or PvP duels, the latter being especially true because you’re never quite certain what you’re going to be facing up against until it’s staring you right in the face. Your opponent could be playing as a pyromaniac hammer-wielder, or a tanky armor-clad stalwart who relies on whittling your health down with poison. The creativity of builds has helped Dark Souls maintain a healthy viewer-base on the internet, with players like Iron Pineapple and SunlightBlade entertaining their channel audience with videos of their exploits using a variety of unconventional setups.
Back onto the topic of difficulty, choosing your class and sticking it can actually lead you to the point of being obscenely powerful and nowhere is this more true than with the Sorcerer class. Whilst it’s pretty bog standard at the beginning with nothing more than a wimpy little Soul Arrow that’s about as powerful as a wet fart in a classroom, about halfway through the game you unlock more meatier spells and catalysts, and a bit further along there’s even more. When the correct tools have been accumulated, the player’s journey from an ineffective layabout barely able to scrape by to an all- powerful heavenly demigod capable of toppling the game’s most ferocious threats in under a minute. It’s no exaggeration to say that a magic-focused build can make Dark Souls a breeze and considerably easier to tackle than a melee play-through, but assuming you’re playing the game blind without looking up any information beforehand, that ease came with the player’s choice to engage with a route the game allowed them to take without any sort of nudging or suggestion whatsoever.
It’s entirely possible to forgo using the levelling-up system altogether and play the game at the base level, also known as a ‘SL1’run, which is often used as a way of making the game more challenging for those who have already finished it the ‘normal’ way. Enemies will hit you harder, you have less stamina and the ability to bear heavier equipment will make for a more strenuous task that is as rewarding as it is gruelling. Such a challenge run can be taken even further with self-imposed restrictions such as using broken weapons only or beating the game with the use of peripherals from other games such as Guitar Hero. This became such a phenomenon that an entire subset of the community grew based entirely around beating the game with the most unorthodox utilities possible ranging from a Mariokart Wii steering wheel to an actual banana. Seriously.
If you are willing to test just how far you can stretch your own skill at a game you’ve beaten 10, 20, 50 times over, then it may just be worth giving Dark Souls a whirl with anything but a controller.
The Road Less Traveled
Even when sticking to an average build, Dark Souls’ difficulty can be adjusted depending on the players’ actions throughout the game. For example, on a normal run through the first game, the Catacombs beneath Firelink Shrine won’t be traversed by the player much later in the game, where they will defeat the admittedly pathetically easy Pinwheel, and earn the Rite of Kindling. The item allows the player to kindle bonfires past the previously restrictive amount of 10 Estus fills up to a maximum of 20 times, which is a useful tool for the harder late-game bosses and areas. However, a player who knows what they are doing would actually be able to access the depths of the Catacombs as soon as they arrive at Firelink at the start of the game, and through the use of a couple of handy shortcuts, defeat Pinwheel, obtain the Rite of Kindling and have those 20 Estus fills available for their entire run through the game if they so wish. Whilst still a tough game, the extra amount of available estus flasks that early on can make a player’s journey a bit less arduous, particularly if they find themselves taking a lot of damage and having to heal to push through it.
Blighttown is one of the games’s most infamous sections, and it’s easy to see why. The presence of the toxic status effect (it’s poison but twice as bad), blowdart snipers who inflict said toxic from a distance, mosquitos that are difficult to hit and a poor framerate amongst other points make it a slog to get through even on repeat playthroughs. If the player should pick the Master Key as a starting gift, however they are able to completely bypass the majority of Blighttown, two bosses and a heap of potential headaches. Would it be better to trudge through Blighttown’s murky pungent depths and gain the experience and loot that lay within, feeling relieved at making it to the exit, or to simply bypass it entirely for a smoother, simpler experience? Well, that’s up to the player to decide.
There’s no denying that Dark Souls is a challenging game by design, but the freedom it offers players who delve into its dimly-lit corners, plunge into its dank depths and take a brave swing at the ferocious beasts that corner them to shape the way they experience the adventure is actually rather beautiful. It’s a game that offers a vast amount of options and replay value for those who are willing to dive back into it and tackle Lordran in a different way than before, and even to this day, nearly a decade later, people are still enjoying different ways of playing it.