For as long as I can remember I’ve been hearing about how hard Dark Souls is. The game was released back in 2011, and ever since has largely dominated the discourse of video game difficulty. It’s annoyingly common to hear comparisons to Dark Souls as a means to express a title’s level of challenge. There are also a number of outspoken individuals who treat beating it like a sacred badge of honour. Only a true Chadimus Prime gamer bro could possibly beat such an imposingly difficult game. Obviously. Thus, Dark Souls has cemented itself in pop culture as the de facto hard video game.
It is thanks to this cultural status that I was convinced for the longest time that Dark Souls was indeed the pinnacle of difficult games. Why else would people continually rely on the same example for over a decade? It’s not like there hasn’t been an ample supply of challenging games such as Cuphead, XCOM 2, Nioh, or Celeste to use as more recent points of comparison. This gave me the false impression that Dark Souls was uniquely challenging in ways no other game was. I have to imagine I wasn’t alone in thinking this way, and for the longest time that was part of why I never gave the game a shot.
Despite my apprehension, I did recently play through the title. I wasn’t alone however, as I enlisted my friend Meghan to help along the way. After finishing Dark Souls twice, I’ve ultimately concluded that I like it very much. However, I also found it to be a lot easier than I was anticipating, which I still haven’t mentally recovered from. The game rewards patience and lateral thinking quite heavily, not unlike a variety of other games I’ve played. While it may have felt alien in 2011, Dark Souls is right at home alongside all the games it inspired. With all that said, here’s how I became a Souls Shitboi.
You want to know the quickest way to win me over to the dark side? No map. I really enjoy navigating without a map, as there’s something oddly satisfying about learning the intimate details of a space. Some may dismiss this enjoyment for nostalgia, but I even enjoy exploring this way outside of games. Hell, one of the most exciting discoveries I made in recent memory was finding a donut shop a stone’s throw away from Mir’s place. While there aren’t any donut shops in Dark Souls, I had a similar level of enjoyment working out how each zone fit together to make up Lordran.
I think my favourite of these navigation based epiphanies happened when I left Blighttown. The trek down to Blighttown is truly notorious. Players first have to squeeze through a maze of tight corridors filled to the brim with basilisk (henceforth Testicle Jim). Afterward, they’ll arrive at the peak of Blighttown: a village precariously built into the side of a cliff over a poisonous swamp. It was constructed almost entirely out of rotting wood, so any misplaced steps can send players crashing to their death. After finally making it to the base of this shitheap, one must trudge slowly through waist deep poisonous sludge. It’s no wonder everyone thinks Blighttown is the worst.
The trip into Blighttown is indefensibly awful, and the prospect of climbing out the same way I entered was enough to make my stomach turn. However, if you explore the swamp you’re likely to stumble upon a second entrance into Blighttown which connects to the Valley of the Drakes. What’s important here is that right across from said entrance is a shortcut that leads back to Firelink Shrine, the central hub area, through the New Londo Ruins. Ah ha! So there’s a back entrance into Blighttown that allows safe passage without the need to take on the Testicle Jim armade, or Blighttown’s questionable construction. Excellent. I shall use this knowledge to my advantage!
It’s not just how the lands of the Undead connect that makes them interesting to explore – how locations are oriented plays a factor too. Many areas are stacked vertically atop one another, which at first glance doesn’t seem like a noteworthy detail. However, it eventually becomes apparent that when you descend further you’ll only be greeted by increasingly decrepit environments. As such, each of these areas feels like they fell, and were then built upon by a successive group. The ruins of Lost Izalith give way to the swamp village of Blighttown, which itself is buried beneath the sewers of the Undead Burg. This helps give Lordran a real sense of history. You’re not just exploring some crumbling shithole; You’re uncovering the stories of once prosperous civilizations that have fallen to ruin.
This kind of wordless environmental storytelling is my favourite. Nothing ruins the vibe of a game for me faster than an NPC with verbal diarrhea. Finding details as I explore, and drawing my own conclusions is a lot more satisfying to me than simply being told the story of a place. Dark Souls leans really heavily into this idea, and as a result I found myself thinking about the places I’d been in Lordran and the stories of its denizens a lot more than I typically do in other games.
Unfortunately, not every area in the game was given the same level of polish, which hampers the consistency of the environmental story-telling. The best worst example of this is Lost Izalith. While conceptually neat, these lava filled ruins were very clearly rushed in development. Enemies feel like they were placed at random, and several early game bosses make reappearances here in large herds. When so much care was put into the rest of the game, the lack of any attention to detail makes Lost Izalith feel as though it was thrown together to meet a deadline.
While Lost Izalith is a lost cause, the rest of Lordran is home to a variety of cleverly designed encounters. One of my favourites was the lonely, unassuming scrungle off in the distance with their back to you. When players rush forward they’ll likely be jumped by foes waiting to ambush them. While punitive, I always thought getting dunked on like this was more funny than discouraging. It also started a cat and mouse game where I would try to predict traps, cheering when I was successful, and laughing at myself when I wasn’t. Not all encounters are like this, but there are enough traps and ambushes sprinkled in among standard combat engagements to keep things interesting.
Speaking of combat, while the actual mechanics of combat are dead simple, the way that Dark Souls rewards lateral thinking isn’t. The least spoilerino example of this happens during the game’s tutorial. After learning about the game’s basic controls and checkpoint system, you’ll enter an empty room only to be greeted by a surprise attack from Lord Chonko the Great as he drops down from the ceiling. You’re equipped with a broken sword and no armor, so you’re not likely to win in a head-on confrontation at this point in the game. However, Dark Souls doesn’t expect you to slowly chip down Chonko by slapping his immaculate ass cheeks with your broken kitchen knife. Rather, it wants you to examine your surroundings and reassess the situation.
While it is possible to beat Lord Chonko with your shitass broken blade, there is a far easier solution that FromSoft is banking on. Upon entering the boss arena, players should notice an open doorway on the far side of the room. There is nothing stopping them from saying, “fuck this” and running through said doorway to bypass direct confrontation. It’s also worth noting there is a tutorial tip in this room that reads, “Get away!” just in case you needed the extra nudge. Afterward, players can finish the remainder of the tutorial, which will award them with a proper set of armor, and a weapon. Now they can re-enter Chonko’s arena fully equipped for battle. This turns the otherwise impossible fight into one that is far more manageable, while also cementing a lesson about the value in approaching problems from alternative angles.
Also, to clarify, while I thought the core combat mechanics were simple, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. Combat is almost exclusively reactionary, so it feels a lot like playing rock, paper, scissors, albeit in slow motion. Enemy attacks have huge amounts of wind up, which gives the player ample opportunity to select and execute the appropriate counter measure. Thankfully, enemies do absolutely nuclear levels of damage, so many of the game’s encounters still retain a nice level of tension. This helps to keep combat engaging across the experience, instead of falling into repetitive tedium.
One area I expected to enjoy more with Dark Souls was the boss fights. I didn’t think any of them were bad, but I expected more from them. One of the most pervasive memes for these games is a significant supply of jokes about how difficult the bosses are. Unfortunately, I found most of them fairly straightforward. In a lot of ways I felt like I was playing a simplified version of Monster Hunter, which might actually be why I felt so at home fighting the majority of them. They were all visually impressive, but I don’t feel like I formed as much of a bond with them as many players had on their first journey through Lordran.
Having said all of that, there is one exception. The infamous fight against Ornstein and Smough is one of the most challenging things Dark Souls has to offer. It pits you against two of the hardest bosses in the game simultaneously. Their attacks perfectly compliment one another with one using slow, mighty strikes, while the other does quick elemental attacks. I’m still of the mindset that this fight is very intentionally designed to lure players into finally leveraging co-op, due to how inherently unfair it is to fight the two knights by yourself. That said, the build up to this fight an+d the player’s eventual victory really stands out as one of the highest highs of Dark Souls.
Speaking of co-op, it was during this fight that I realized how awesome the co-op in Dark Souls is. Being a stubborn fuck I decided I was going to solo the terrible twins, but I wanted some additional practice that didn’t feel so self-defeating. As such, I placed my co-op banner down to assist other players. And I did. Holy moly. For a game that is as dour as Dark Souls, there is something incredibly uplifting about seeing anonymous players helping one another overcome the game’s challenges. I never would have thought someone else’s success would feel more meaningful than my own, but here we are.
I believe that covers all the thoughts I had on Dark Souls after finishing it. Thrice. It’s a really fun game, and I’m disappointed I was put off by its reputation for so long. It ended up being a game where the level of challenge resulted in an engaging experience, rather than one where it was oppressively difficult. I definitely think more folks should give the game a try, doubly so if they can get someone to help as a guide for their first time through. Meghan was a huge help for me as I was able to ask questions and get direct answers without spoiling other parts of the game for myself. Plus it was fun to have someone to laugh with through the insanity.