007. I asked my friends what they thought of Dark Souls... And this is what they said!
Dark Souls. A classic masterpiece that was so revolutionary it created its own genre. Known to be difficult and only beatable by the best, I ask a couple of my gamer friends their thoughts on it overall. Has Dark Souls stood the test of time? Is it a perfect game? Let’s see what they say! Note: These questions were asked before the release of Elden Ring, so Elden Ring will not be involved in any of these questions or answers.
1. What makes Dark Souls so special or unique for you?
I will be talking in respect to Demon Souls since it was my first Souls game. I initially didn’t think too much of Demon Souls and slightly regretted my purchase because I wasn’t sure if it was my type of game. I originally bought it because of the influences from Berserk, a great and imaginative dark fantasy manga. In fact, my character build was to mimic Guts, the main character of Berserk who wields a large two-handed sword. Demon Souls was a sleeper hit, gaining a lot of fame among the PlayStation 3 owners despite zero marketability. But I wasn’t too sure if I knew why it was getting a lot of fame at the beginning.
It’s actually kind of funny, I did think Demon Souls was difficult in the beginning, but that was because I didn’t understand the game yet. I was stuck at a spider boss for a while, but after I defeated it, things started to click for me. And a lot of the difficulties that I struggled with died down. What made Demon Souls a bit special was that it was released in an era where many games were being critiqued for leaning towards the casual and easy side of the difficulty spectrum. An example being the Wii catering to many family friendly games and mainstream gaming with linearity and handrails to guide the player. I appreciated the fact that Demon Souls went against the grain and was true to itself in its own relentless way, which actually helped scratch an itch that certain niche gamers had. A game that was challenging in its own right, but also fair and rewarding to players who are willing to learn and improve.
With the universal praise of Demon Souls from PS3 owners, it’s no wonder that Dark Souls blew up the way it did when it became multi-platform. And while Dark Souls certainly improved certain aspects of Demon Souls, I appreciated Demon Souls for its risky integrity to its core values and theme in a period where mainstream games handheld players.
At first, Dark Souls didn’t seem like a game I would enjoy; it ticks a number of boxes I typically avoid, such as a complicated stats system, lots of items, difficult/”clunky” combat, and an obscure story. Nevertheless, its unique gameplay, challenging difficulty, and memorable bosses made it one of my favorite games and introduced me to the soulsborne genre.
Obviously, Dark Souls is primarily known for its difficulty. I think From Software really hit a sweet spot with a game that’s incredibly hard, but in a way that’s fun and challenging, rather than just overly frustrating. Dark Souls consistently invokes a strong sense of accomplishment when you finally manage to defeat a boss you’ve been stuck on for a while - you know that you didn’t beat the boss by just grinding levels or luck, but from learning its attack patterns and getting better at timing your own attacks and dodges/blocks.
The difficulty curve also keeps up throughout the game - while it’s the most steep in the beginning, it never gets too easy or boring, with each new boss bringing unique challenges to overcome.
For me, I would say what makes Dark Souls a special game is that it forces you to play in a very specific way, which in and of itself is very different from other typical playstyles. That being said, it also teaches you everything you need to know very organically. Dark Souls teaches you to play a very slow observational playstyle. It’s a bit different from a game like Journey, where Journey wants you to stop, enjoy the environment, and smell the roses. Dark Souls instead is telling you that if you want to progress, you need to stop and think, a lot of times outside of the box, or else you will die. The punishment for lack of knowledge is very severe, but also very necessary so that you have to play the Dark Souls game and brute forcing your way through is not a viable option (with of course some exceptions).
On top of that, Dark Souls is very immersive and organic in its teachings. There won’t be arrows pointing you in the right direction, or NPCs telling you where to go in an oddly convenient way, but instead you really have to look around and weigh your options, because the answer is usually there. My personal favorite moment of this is in Anor Londo. Towards the beginning, you’ll end up at an impasse and nowhere to go. It’s at this moment in the game where you really have to either start jumping off every ledge to figure out where you can go, or observe that there’s a broken window opening up on one of the buildings. If you notice the open window, you’ll realize that you have to carefully tread one of the roof ledges to get over there. These roof ledges all blend in as if they’re just environmental background designs, but are really the key to move forward.
2. Dark Souls is a difficult game, what made the game so tough? What were some of your more frustrating moments?
If you compare Demon Souls and Dark Souls to the mainstream games that were being released around its time, it is no doubt that the Souls games were more difficult on average in comparison. But I remember honestly feeling the Souls games were not as difficult as older games back in the 80s or 90s, the NES/SNES era. I think perhaps the gaming era of when Demon Souls was released was a point where gaming has regressed in difficulty to appeal to a wider audience. A lower standard of difficulty in illusion that it would be more fun for people. For Demon Souls and Dark Souls, they don’t explicitly tell the player on how to beat the game, but I firmly believed through the first areas, design of the layout and enemy placements, the game quietly shows the player the philosophies of how to overcome the game. That one enemy ambush past the armored boar forced the player to approach corners with caution, the hidden staircase by the pots which lead to a merchant teaches the player to be observant of the environment, and the area with multiple undeads swordsmen and archers emphasized positioning and careful attack timings to avoid being swarmed and overwhelmed. For a player who refuses to pay attention to timings and behavior as well as not using critical thinking in envisioning the environment, they will have a bad time in progression.
I don’t think I had trouble with Dark Souls as much due to coming from Demon Souls, but I did have trouble with the final boss of Dark Souls because I had trouble parrying his attacks and overall was impatient. With Demon Souls, I definitely had trouble in the beginning, to the point where I just played through the first area repetitively to try to understand what I was not getting about the game. As mentioned before, after I defeated the Spider Boss, then things started to click for me, especially as my character’s build was starting to ramp up. It’s like a game of mahjong or a fighting game where you have to accept the possibility of losing, but hoping you learn something valuable from it. And once I got into that mindset, then the game did not really become as difficult as I was learning from my mistakes more.
And I think for people who loved Dark Souls, they know the true appeal of the Souls games is not that it is created with hard difficulty as the main forefront, but rather the difficulty is a byproduct from its thoughtful game core values for the most part. In short, I hate the marketing that labeled Dark Souls as “ZOMG SO DIFFICULT” and I hate that the B team misses the point with Dark Souls 2.
I think Dark Souls is difficult because of (1) how easy it is to die and (2) how punishing it is when you inevitably do die.
The combat in Dark Souls has a steep learning curve - it’s much more about timing and deliberate actions than button-mashing (see gameplay section for more details). And the enemies are tough. Even common enemies do significant damage and can be challenging on their own. Bosses are obviously even more difficult, with lots of HP and attacks that often one-shot. I would usually die a bunch of times just to learn a boss’s attack patterns, and then a bunch more times until I was finally able to get the timing of my dodge rolls and blocks.
Dying in Dark Souls also has real consequences. Not only do you get sent back to the last bonfire you rested at, but you also drop all your souls (exp points essentially) and humanity where you died. You can recover your souls if you make it back, but you’ll lose them permanently if you die again before then. Bonfires are also few and far between, meaning that the trek back to dropped souls can be long and difficult.
All this meant there definitely were many frustrating moments. Personally, the beginning of Dark Souls was pretty hard - the combat didn’t start clicking for me until around the Bell Gargoyles. I was also really annoyed by Bed of Chaos. This was one of the few bosses I felt was not well designed - not only was it not obvious how to actually attack it, the instant death from random holes opening up in the floor felt unfair.
As mentioned before, Dark Souls is a very punishing game. The harsh punishment itself was rough, but I don’t think it ever overly enraged me. What I did find incredibly frustrating was when I knew the answer to a situation, but because of a slight positioning error mixed in with the physics of the game, I would receive the full punishment of death. One example I can think of is in Anor Londo again (I must hate this place). There is a part where you need to run up another set of roof railings, but this time with skeleton archers shooting arrows at you. For the most part, you can just run past the arrows, but there comes a point where you eventually reach the archers and have to confront them. At this point, I was on a very thin ledge by a building wall and was blocking the arrows with my shield, which I feel is the correct choice in this situation. However, because of the mechanics of the game and the engine physics, even though the archer was directly in front of me, the knockback from a blocked arrow shot still somehow knocked me off the thin ledge that I was currently standing on and subsequently pushed me to my doom. This happened multiple times and I can’t even remember how I eventually conquered the area.
Another difficult moment of the game was the boss fight with Ornstein and Smaugh. Enough said. I think it took me around two hours of trying over and over before I eventually exterminated them. By golly was that fight tough.
The final frustrating moment I wanted to mention is a negative side effect of trying to teach the player everything organically, which is that some things that were necessary for progression but were hidden from the player didn’t feel cleverly put out of sight, but instead just felt unintuitive and unnatural. One example is the Crystal Dragon boss. You encounter the boss multiple times through Duke’s Archive and the Crystal Cave. The first encounter, the boss is on a ledge and is unhittable, with the unknown intent that you’re supposed to lose the battle. This is the only instance where you’re supposed to lose in the game. Afterwards in the real encounter with the boss, you finally have a chance to actually hit it, and while you are able to hit it, after a few seconds the boss restores its health. What makes this situation unintuitive is that because of your previous experience with the boss, the Crystal Dragon going from untouchable to touchable but healing is very unclear that you need to do ANOTHER step to make the boss truly vulnerable. Also, the healing mechanic made it unclear whether the boss was healing from an attack or a position versus me needing to actually do something about it.
3. Following up on that, what made you want to keep going?
I want to say that the heavier the frustration, the more satisfying it is to overcome an obstacle. It is also extremely noticeable in the difference of skill levels when you enter a new game+, equipped with pattern recognition and technical skill that the game has embedded into you in the first playthrough. Seeing personal growth and growth in players always feels nice as they embark on their own first journeys in Souls games.
Mostly spite (just kidding).
The beginning was the most difficult for me, but I eventually gained confidence after getting a few bosses under my belt. I was able to look back and realize that I had learned and defeated bosses that at one point seemed impossible to my past self.
The weapon variety also kept me interested early in the game. Each weapon is pretty unique, so trying out different weapons was fun. In particular, finding a halberd really changed up the game for me - I was able to poke safely at most enemies for a while.
Finally, although I didn’t engage much in the online component, the orange soapstone messages were oddly encouraging. Though most messages were trolly, there was a certain comfort in knowing other players had passed through.
I played Dark Souls very recently, so far beyond its release date. From this point in time, Dark Souls has had mountains and mountains of accolades and praises for it. From awards to becoming its own freaking genre, Dark Souls had a lot of amazing things going for it that I just had to check it out. One of the biggest descriptors for this beautiful game is that it is challenging. It is hard and you will be tortured. And you know what I had to say to that? Challenge accepted. With all these comments about how challenging the game is, the sense of accomplishment for finishing through the pain was definitely high. Side note, after beating Dark Souls, I started playing easier more casual single-player games, and I have to say those other games felt almost TOO easy after going through Dark Souls. It was a strange feeling.
4. What are your thoughts on the gameplay itself? (gameplay mechanics, gameplay related answers here)
I remember thinking the shoulder buttons for attacks were a bit weird, but it made sense since it was analogous to the players arms. In the end, I kind of liked the shoulder buttons for main actions since it freed up the thumbs for less important actions. If you think about it, you’ll want the main actions to be ready on the go, having the main actions to be the four face buttons where only the thumb has access means a slightly increased delay between pressing two different buttons. In comparison, the shoulder buttons where your index and middle finger are already placed do not have the bottleneck of appendage movement. As an additional positive, it allows the thumb to be a bit more freed to control the camera while attacking.
As for the battle system, the Estus flask system was by far a great improvement to the healing mechanic in Demon Souls. Not only did it make heal-spam strat useless, but it made the player more conscious of not getting hit. There’s also a risk-reward element in refilling at a bonfire, but at the cost of enemies respawning. Overall, it made the bonfire great and gives such a peaceful sigh of relief whenever the player stumbles upon one after a long hard progress.
The variety of character builds was okay. A lot of weapons were kind of useless (like broken sword) or overshadowed by far superior choices. A common flaw that I see in Souls games are usually the physical/strength builds are safe for first playthroughs. Magic builds require a bit of game knowledge and are overall not recommended for beginners as some magic spells are situational. It would be nice if magic builds could be more beginner-friendly, but that might require some balancing fixes.
The world tendencies in Demon Souls was confusing, so I was alright with it being revamped with Humanity/covenants.
Dodge rolling is a classic. It wasn’t until I played Nobeta (an indie Souls-like game), that I kind of realized dodge rolling and parrying could be made into a much better mechanic of rewarding the player greatly if the player utilizes the iframes to dodge through an enemy’s attack.
Overall, I didn’t really have many complaints of the battle system. It was a lot of stamina/health management, attack timings and enemy pattern recognition.
Dark Souls’ gameplay is definitely one of the best parts of the game.
I’d describe the combat as methodical and maybe even “clunky”, but in a realistic way. Your character’s movement and attacks are fairly slow; once you commit to an attack, you can’t easily cancel or change its direction. If you miss or clank off a wall, you leave yourself open on the backswing. This results in a very deliberate combat style of carefully watching your enemy and timing your attacks.
Your weapon makes a big difference too - each weapon has a unique moveset, which is often more important than the raw damage numbers. For example, the halberd allows you to do light poking attacks straight ahead, along with a slower but heavier sweeping/spinning attack; the zweihander gives you side to side swings for your light attacks and a massive overhead slam for your heavy attack. It’s fun trying out different movesets to find one that suits you.
To deal with enemy attacks, you can block with a weapon or shield, dodge roll, or sometimes even parry. While dodging gives iframes and essentially allows you to avoid almost any attack, the timing can be difficult, and it leaves you vulnerable during the recovery. The stamina system also adds an additional layer to combat. Attacking, running, blocking, and dodging all consume stamina, so you often have to make decisions on what to do (should I try to squeeze in another attack while I have the chance, or save my stamina for a roll?). And while you do have the ability to heal during combat with estus flasks, these are limited, only replenishable at bonfires, and require you to expose yourself to attack as your character takes a painfully long sip.
Overall, the combat is incredibly satisfying once you learn it’s intricacies. It feels great to precisely time a dodge roll and follow it up with a heavy R2 smash with your greatsword.
Overall, I felt the game design mechanics held up well, but some of the actual gameplay mechanics felt really dated. The camera auto centers at a moderate speed and it is really difficult to keep the camera at a certain angle to view the boss while running away at the same time. I believe there are camera controls in the settings, but none of them seemed to have done anything for me. Also, the control buffering felt weirdly long to me. I spent most of the game with a Zweihander greatsword, and there were many many instances where I would press attack twice immediately in succession, and my character still continued the second attack after the first attack. Mind you, the first attack takes maybe 3 seconds to complete, so having a 3 second buffer, or 180 frames, was really long and was the cause of many deaths. Besides that, the controls were overall snappy and responsive, and I definitely have to commend the Havok team for balancing the weapons pretty well. My last gripe was the lack of information from the UI or the mechanics of growing your character. It was impossible to know how many souls a certain item gives you, and even if I were to learn after using it once, Dark Souls continues to not tell you how many souls you were given. Therefore the only solution was to either look it up online or write it down, which felt really archaic to me. Lastly, upgrading weapons and learning spells was very difficult to figure out. Even after completing the game, I have no idea how spells work, and I only have a vague idea of how upgrading weapons work. There is something to be said about not having every mechanic be required in order to beat the game. It allows for a lot of creativity and different ways of playing. However, I do wish there was just a little more explanation for how the numbers work.
5. Dark Souls is known for its level design. What made it so special?
The Souls games’ level designs follow a simple pattern of using loops to make the world seem small and big at the same time, if that makes sense. If you think of a straight main path, but add loopy circles along it that makes the player stray off the main path, but only to make the player come back later while also unlocking a shortcut so the player doesn't have to visit the loopy circle path again. It retains a sense of progression while also conveying that the area is big and interconnected.
I don’t think the level design is that revolutionary, Etrian Odyssey games use the same concept as well. But I think in an era where level designs in mainstream games were mostly linear, it might have given Dark Souls an edge to remind players of what level design was like back in the good old days.
In addition, the item, enemy, and landmark placements were thoughtfully planned (except for Lost Izalith) to convey information to the player, such as indicating traversable paths and relative position in an area.
I remember Miyazaki was interested in verticality in level design, as shown by the journey down to Blighttown and upward in Sen’s Fortress. There’s really a lot that can be said in detail about level design, but I already rambled about it in an earlier blog writing.
Dark Souls is composed of many different areas, each with distinct environments and enemies. From the castle ruins of the Undead Burg to the poison swamps of Blight Town, and the impressive architecture of Anor Londo to the forests of Darkroot Garden, each area is memorable and unique.
In addition, these areas are all interconnected in a way that makes physical sense, with multiple ways to enter each area. As you progress though the game, you’ll unlock or discover connections to previous areas, which always felt very cool to me. I still remember the magical moment of unlocking and taking an elevator down from Undead Parish, just to realize that Firelink Shrine was directly below me the entire time.
First off, if you haven’t already, check out VonTrappyFamily’s blog post about level design, it’s a great read. I feel like the most impressive thing for me about Dark Souls’ level design is that it’s all one cohesive map. There are games where when you enter an elevator, it loads you to the supposed floor above you, but in Dark Souls, it’s actually designed where a section is below another section, and unlocking said elevator brings you directly back to the first place. You see it all connect together and it’s very cleverly done. It’s all connected. My personal favorite was in the beginning when you first take an elevator from the Undead Parish back to Firelink Shrine. It was a really cool “wow” moment for me. Also, Dark Souls loads surprisingly fast for having to load the whole world, since there are hardly any loading screens at all.
6. Have you played other "Soulsborne" games? How would you compare those to Dark Souls 1?
I played Demon Souls, Dark Souls 1, 2, 3, Bloodborne and Sekiro (if that counts, but I wouldn’t count Sekiro). I absolutely loved Bloodborne. Not counting Sekiro, I would say that Bloodborne’s game philosophy is different from Dark Souls and Demon Souls. While the Souls games tend to have the player err on the cautious side, Bloodborne encourages aggressiveness, which leads to faster gameplay.
I’ve played Dark Souls 2, Dark Souls 3, and Sekiro.
Dark Souls 2 and 3 are both fairly similar to Dark Souls 1, though I think I still prefer Dark Souls 1. One thing in particular that stands out in DS1 is its level/world design. In DS2, the world layout is basically a hub/spoke, with a main area that you come back to in between major sections - there’s almost no connections otherwise. DS3 does bring back the interconnectedness of the zones somewhat, but not quite to the same level as DS1 (though DS3 did have some very visually impressive areas, like Anor Londo).
Sekiro was a very different experience. In contrast to the methodical combat of the Dark Souls games, Sekiro’s combat was much more fluid and fast-paced. Instead of relying on dodging attacks and slowly chipping away at an enemy, Sekiro emphasized timing blocks to stagger an enemy, eventually enabling a deathblow. While it took some time to get used to, I think I actually did prefer the combat in Sekiro - it looked almost cinematic at times. The vertical movement with the grappling hook was also incredibly fun.
7. How did you like the Dark Souls environment? (did the music, graphics, setting, etc add to it?)
I think I mentioned earlier in one of my answers that Dark Souls sticks with its core theme pretty honestly. (It’s been a while since I started answering the questions and I’m too lazy to read my answers). Anyways, when talking about the environment, each element ranging from sound, music, art direction always point to giving a broody, dark fantasy atmosphere. (God Bless Berserk inspiration, RIP Miura ;_;). It works well with the gameplay to never give the player a sense of peace aside from the bonfires. A good example is the menu doesn’t pause the game, and so there’s always a sense of danger in the 4th wall breaking sense when you can’t pause at any given moment. The environment, along with the enemies, work against the player, such as the contraptions in Sen’s Fortress, the blinding darkness in Tomb of the Giants, the murky swamp in Blighttown, the easy-to-get-lost-in Darkroot Garden, the horrible lava with bad level design in Lost Izalith, the narrow rooftops of Anor Londo.
I would describe Dark Souls as dark or gothic fantasy. While not my favorite genre, I appreciate how cohesive the theme is - the gothic architecture, muted colors, and brooding orchestral music all help invoke a grim and somber world, which matches well with the enemy designs and overall difficulty. Though not the most graphically impressive, there are still areas that are very memorable due to their environmental design.
Dark Souls is, well, dark. It’s lonely, but it’s also full of surprises. I enjoyed how different all the bosses were, and how each area was pretty unique, despite the common factor that they’re all terrifying. The story is very passively told, with hints from the NPCs you talk to, but nothing direct or in your face. If you dig deeper, there is a lot to learn and enjoy.
8. Is there anything else you want to add?
Screw you, Patches. FU Bed of Chaos.
Overall, Dark Souls is a fantastic game despite its weaknesses. Given the cleverness of the level design, the unique gameplay that was seamlessly interwoven into the environment, and the difficult challenge, I would give Dark Souls an 7.5/10. Final note, there is a remastered version but I played the original to get the full original experience.