It's been over ten years since Dark Souls was originally released and the impact that it has had on modern gaming cannot be overestimated. Beyond becoming a successful franchise of its own, it has established a subgenre called "Souls-like" which imitate many of the mechanics of Dark Souls. It has also inspired certain gameplay mechanics in other games that don't fit under the souls-like label and, alongside indie darlings such as Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV, helped to reintroduce the idea that challenging, difficult games can be financially successful. As an avid fan of modern FromSoftware, I thought it would be worth sharing my thoughts on the original game, albeit in its remastered form, and cover why it's a game that must be played.
The premise of Dark Souls is that gods, beings who have Lord Souls, overthrew the dragons and establish a new age harnessing the power of the First Flame which helped to establish and define the world. However, the First Flame begins to fade and drastic actions are taken to prolong it, leading to humans becoming afflicted with a curse known as the Darksign. The Darksign prevents humans from dying, instead becoming undead who eventually lose their minds as they die over and over again in a process called "Hollowing". The character that you create at the beginning of the game is an undead who has been locked away in the Northern Undead Asylum but ends up managing to escape when a knight drops the key into their cell. From there, the main character, often referred to as the Chosen Undead, journeys to the land of Lordran where they must fulfill the task that the knight at the asylum was tasked to do.
It's a well-known fact now but it truly shocked people that the story of the game isn't told to you through cutscenes and, instead, you must read item descriptions, observe environmental details and decipher the cryptic dialogue of NPCs. This results in a game that many people who've played it don't even understand who they fought and why near the end of the game. At first, this sounds like a bad thing. However, this approach to storytelling leads to some of the most memorable story moments I've ever experienced in a video game. Due to your initial lack of understanding, the world is a mysterious place where you rarely know what's around the corner. However, as you begin to put the pieces together, you start to realise that not everything is as it seems and, through player action, you can make some major decisions that end up having a large impact on the world. I certainly wouldn't want every game's story to be designed like this but, when done well like in Dark Souls, the little moments are immeasurably more memorable than in most other games.
This also applies to the many characters that you meet over the course of the game. The world of Dark Souls is a lonely, hostile place which makes encountering friendly NPCs all the more heartening. While Solaire has definitely become the poster child for the original game, I've always adored Siegmeyer who provides little moments of humour throughout your adventure as well as pointing out upcoming obstacles. It's also a case that you're never sure about how the decisions that you make will impact many of these characters and it can be heartbreaking when you try to help an NPC only to learn that, due to your ignorance, you've condemned them to death. It's worth noting that the game allows you to attack and kill any of these characters at any point which is sometimes necessary in order to save the lives of other NPCs but you can also deprive yourself of key services if you, in your foolishness, decide to attack some of them.
With regards to gameplay, Dark Souls is an action RPG where combat takes place in real-time. At the beginning of the game, you are able to select your class but this does not restrict you from being able to use equipment and spells later in the game, only deciding your initial equipment and stats. The shoulder and trigger buttons of the controller affect your left and right arm which will use whatever is equipped at the moment. This will consume stamina which will recover quickly but prevents you from being able to constantly attack. Standard attacks are quick but do less damage while heavy attacks are slow but do more damage but it's important to note that each type of weapon has their own moveset and discovering the style that you're most comfortable with is one of the special joys of the game. Magic is divided into three different schools, sorcery, pyromancy and miracles which each require a different catalyst to use. Through the combination of a large variety of weapons, equipment and spells, it's quite likely that each player will have quite a different combat experience and also dramatically increases the replayability of the game.
Combat requires careful observation of the enemies' attacks and movement and this is where dodging, blocking and parrying come into play. By pressing the right face button, your character will roll in the direction that you are guiding them, granting you invulnerability frames where your character is immune to incoming damage. These frames last less than half a second and these rolls also consume stamina which requires the player to time when the perfect moment is to roll in order to avoid an attack. It's important to note that, for players who are familiar with later souls-likes but may have yet to play the original Dark Souls, you are only able to roll forward, backward, left or right in contrast to most other souls-likes, including the Dark Souls sequels, where you are able to roll in pretty much any direction. This may feel odd to people used to being able to roll in any direction they want but it's easy enough to get used to. When you have a shield in your left hand, you are able to both block and parry. By blocking, the enemy's attack will hit your shield and, depending on the stats, will block a percentage of damage while also consuming stamina based on your shield's stability and the power of the attack. Finally, you can also parry where your character strikes their shield against the enemy's incoming attack and allows the player to deliver a devastating riposte. Similar to rolling, parrying requires precise timing and it tends to only work on humanoid enemies but it can prove to be a devastating tool in the player's arsenal.
As the player defeats enemies, they will acquire a currency called souls which can either be used to buy goods and services from NPCs or to level up your character. When leveling your character, unlike many other games where leveling provides a variety of automatic stat increases, you are able to select one of your stats and increase it once per level. As the cost of levels increase, stat allocation is incredibly important and will often make or break the build of a character as, besides the various benefits each stat provides, equipment and spells often require specific stats to reach certain thresholds to use effectively. It also creates an interesting case of opportunity cost as you figure out whether it's better to level up your character or save your souls to spend on goods and services. However, you cannot save these souls indefinitely. When you die in combat, you are returned to the last bonfire, more on that later, and your souls are placed in a spot several seconds prior to your death. If you manage to return to that spot, you're able to regain all of your souls but if you die before you regain your souls, they are lost forever. This can definitely create tension when you've gathered a large number of souls and you must make your way back without dying but, if you take your time and plan out your return, this shouldn't happen too often.
With that, I think it's a good time to discuss the incredible level design in this game. As you progress throughout a level, you'll come across bonfires which serve as checkpoints. When you die, you'll return to the last bonfire you rested at. Bonfires also serve a multitude of other purposes such as allowing you to level, access services after you've acquired specific items and access the game's multiplayer. Beyond that you'll progress through these areas, notably with little to no loading screens, and unlock shortcuts that allow you to traverse the environment more effectively. The first time that I realised that I had unlocked a new path which returned me to my last bonfire but allowed me to skip most of the level felt incredible and makes exploration even more exciting than if it were only for items.
With regards to multiplayer, Dark Souls is primarily a single-player game and is fully playable when offline. However, being online grants access to a variety of fantastic asynchronous multiplayer features. One of the most notable aspects of this is the messaging system which allows players to combine words in predetermined structures and leave it on the ground, allowing other players who are also online to be able to read these messages. Since this is player created content, there's always a chance that the message may be false but it also opens up enormous opportunities for players to give directions to discoveries they've made, warn about ambushes, point out environmental details etc. Additionally, you can revert to becoming human rather than undead at a bonfire by spending humanity that you've acquired through items or combat, allowing you to summon other players into your world to help you fight bosses or for you to go to another player's world. However, it also allows you to invade or be invaded by another player around your level who will attempt to kill you in order to gain souls and other benefits. Therefore, becoming human can be a gamble but it proves to be satisfying and enjoyable while also being optional.
Now I do have to confess that the game isn't flawless with a rushed production schedule resulting in some of the later areas and bosses lacking the quality of the early to mid-game but it's a minor blemish on an otherwise superb game.
Dark Souls is infamous for its difficulty where combat requires sharp observation and reflexes while also allowing the player to die quite quickly if they take damage rapidly. There are no difficulty levels which I've observed has frustrated many people but the game is, for the most part, fair with most reasons for your death squarely on the player rather than the game. Additionally, the challenging gameplay was fully intended by the game's director, Hidetaka Miyazaki, who designed the games to be exhilarating when you overcome a challenge through learning the enemy, your own abilities and clever thinking when it comes to weapons, equipment, spells etc. Therefore, I honestly believe that introducing difficulty levels would compromise Hidetaka Miyazaki's artistic vision for this game.
Graphically, Dark Souls is a perfect example of a game that is relatively basic from a technical perspective but is fully enhanced by superb art direction. The levels, characters and enemies are, for the most part, serviceable when it comes to texture detail and the number of polygons but are designed in such a way that you are constantly taken aback by its beauty. To give an example, the lighting in this game isn't particularly complex but is used in stunning ways when you enter new areas, come across new characters or emerge from a dark area. This also applies to many of the enemies that you'll encounter in this game which sport some of the best and most memorable visual designs that I've ever seen! Additionally, the animation in this game is superb with a satisfying weightiness which perfectly complements the combat and, most importantly, allows you to observe subtle tells which indicate what your enemy is going to do next.
Voice acting is also generally excellent, allowing subtle tells as to character's thoughts and motivations while also drawing you into the world of Dark Souls. Music is rare within the game as it's primarily only heard when fighting bosses, there are a couple of exceptions, but the music is outstanding, serving to set the tone of the fight while also hyping me for the encounter. I cannot tell you how many times I've listed to certain boss themes in my own time and it's definitely worthy of the praise that it's received.
The remaster for Dark Souls is quite interesting. I've always played Dark Souls on PC and the original port left something to be desired with a locked 30 FPS and 720p resolution along with many other issues. The remaster fixes this by allowing you to run the game at 60 FPS, allowing a wide range of resolution options as well as providing various quality of life improvements such as not having items you pick up immediately enter your quick slot or allowing you to use the jump command from later Dark Souls games. While I've heard that some people were disappointed that the game was a relatively simple remaster, I was satisfied by it and have no problem recommending it, particularly since the original Prepare to Die Edition is no longer available for purchase.
The legacy of Dark Souls will continue to be felt far in the future of gaming as it proved to become a defining force in game design and, with the massive success of Elden Ring, a game that for all intents and purposes is a successor to Dark Souls, it's never been a better time to return to the game that helped begin it all. I have no hesitation in declaring Dark Souls to be one of my favourite video games of all time and I strongly encourage those that have yet to try the game to give it a chance.