Brutal. Punishing. An absolute nightmare.
These were some of the ways that I originally heard Dark Souls described when it released in 2011. People praised the game because it made an effort to bring back the challenge of video games, which seemed to have been lost somewhere back in the 90s. On the internet, it quickly became recognized as a favorite for online play both co-op and PVP. But one thread remained consistent: the game was hard. VERY hard. I found it ridiculous that a game could be popular for such a stupid reason. “There are lots of difficult games,” I reasoned, “and most of them aren’t very fun because of it.” Nevertheless, I gave it a very brief try with a friend once. We were decimated over and over throughout the Undead Asylum and near Firelink Shrine, leading to much frustration between the two of us. Why would I waste my time with such a terrible game? So I stuck up my nose and resumed my year-long hype train for the incoming Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Zip forward to 2016. For the first time in several years I wasn’t sure what to do with my free time. There were no new games jumping out at me and I needed something to distract me from my difficult job at the time. After enjoying the Super Replay of Dark Souls by Tim Turi and Dan Tack of Game Informer, I decided I would give the games one more shot. I went out and purchased Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin. I popped it into my Xbox One and crossed my fingers that I hadn’t just wasted thirty dollars.
But I hadn’t.
It was a slow start. Painfully slow, at times. But as I got through the first few opening areas I began to find my stride. In fear I leveled up as much as the game would let me, but this capability was cut short by the enemy respawn limits present. I pushed forward despite this setback into the Forest of Fallen Giants. And then the next area. And then another. I continued my incorrigible strategy for leveling up as much as each of the areas would let me. The game was very challenging and I needed every bit of help I could get. But over time I began to noticing something peculiar: the game was far more focused upon my playing ability and attention to enemy patterns than it was to simply out-leveling opponents for an advantage. I continued forward with my sword, shield, and heavy armor, as well as every helpful summon I could find. Slowly but surely I was making substantial progress. Then one day I found myself at the end of the game, striking down Nashandra with my Greatsword and the help of three NPC summons that are given to you just outside her door. And just like that… I was done.
At first I felt relieved. I was grateful that I had gotten through the game and put it behind me. I could say with pride that I had started and finished a Dark Souls game: seemingly the pinnacle of achievement in the world of gaming at the time. And so life went on for another year after that. I got a new job, moved to a new home, played a few new games, and even returned to some of my favorites for another round (which I’ll be discussing in an upcoming post). But as day by day passed, I noticed an itch beginning to form. I couldn’t describe what it was: a needle in a haystack of a thousand thoughts, doomed to be forever hidden in the mess. One day I found myself at GameStop with some money I had saved up, just looking for a new adventure to embark upon. Title upon title met my eye. As….Bs….Cs….
And there it was.
The haystack was blown away and the needle lay exposed and glittering in the light. I knew I needed Dark Souls III from the very moment I laid my eyes on it. I went home and immediately began playing as soon as I could. It was a struggle to get back into the rhythm of the game in the opening area. After all, it had been over a year since my time with its predecessor. But I stuck it out, and before long, my knight had brought Iudex Gundyr to his knees. Sword and shield once again my ally, I set out into the realm of Lothric to claim the souls of the Lords of Cinder. There were many struggles right out of the gate, however: one of the earlier bosses gave me far more trouble than I had anticipated and I died numerous times to him. I began to think my time with the last game had all been a fluke. Doubt set in heavily and I began regretting my purchase. The next day I fired up the game again to throw myself needlessly against the might of Vordt until I won. But I couldn’t have been more surprised: I pulled out a victory on my first try. Courage flooded back to me and I took the Undead Settlement by storm.
I continued to make my way through the game slowly but surely. Eventually I had progressed enough that I was set to fight against the Dancer of the Boreal Valley. This enemy had long been hailed as one of the most difficult bosses in the game, largely due to her slinking movement and odd attack patterns. I steeled my courage and set forth into the battle. Within minutes, I found myself victorious on my first attempt. Joy came bursting forth as I reveled in my victory to a friend. This milestone marked a radical change in my perception of the Dark Souls series. No longer did I feel like a weakling in a hostile land: I was just as deadly as these terrible foes. I abandoned my shield entirely, realizing that my victory against the Dancer hadn’t required it once, and focused solely on wielding an Ultra Greatsword with my heavy armor. My newfound conviction and battling style saw me through to the later parts of the game, eventually taking on and defeating The Nameless King across several attempts, as well as the all-powerful Soul of Cinder. Another Dark Souls journey was completed, and I felt relief at its conclusion. But not for long.
Little time had passed before I started a brand new file. I began conquering the game a second time, flying through the latter half of the game in a single day. When the ashes settled, I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted more. So I cast aside all inhibition and began a New Game+ with my original character, followed immediately by New Game +2. My appreciation for the game’s combat precision grew with each play through. I also experimented with different builds and armor types, adapting my style once again to become a lightly-armored wielder of heavy weaponry. I eventually settled on using Alva’s Set and Lorian’s Greatsword once my stats allowed for them both while also maintaining a fast roll. Enemies that I had once struggled against became little more than idle threats. And at the end of New Game +2, I managed to beat The Nameless King on my first try. The Soul of Cinder didn’t fare much better.
And tonight, before writing this, I completed my journey through Dark Souls: Remastered. It was my first time through the initial game in the series personally, and also marked my long-awaited completion of the Dark Souls trilogy, despite going out of order. The engine was a bit rough compared to the more recent entries, but I still had an absolute blast fighting my way through the Kingdom of Lordran. Its enemies were a worthy challenge, requiring constant focus to stay alive and continue forward. And now here I sit at the end of it.
The fact that I am writing these words still amazes me. A series I had sworn to avoid somehow managed to get its hooks into me and pull me in for one of the greatest video game experiences I’ve ever had. The Dark Souls games are indeed a mighty challenge, but they are far from unfair: they simply demand that you learn their methodology. Precision and accuracy are a must for journeys through these dire worlds, as well as a fair bit of perseverance for those times when an enemy catches you unawares. These games do not hold your hand. They expect you to be just as vicious as the creatures that haunt every corner. Victory is hard earned, but well worth the effort. Praise the Sun, indeed.