Being fairly new to the game blogging scene, creating a post about ‘the Souls games’ feels almost like a rite of passage. At the same time, it feels like an all-too-obvious cliché . For a little context, googling “Dark Souls blog” returns 17 000 results. Seventeen thousand. Every piece of lore, every enemy and boss, every weapon, character build, environment and NPC has been dissected and analysed by Dark Souls enthusiasts with an encyclopaedic knowledge of each and every detail.
“I’m not a great Souls player…” is a line which I often read. It’s often accompanied by a contradiction of varying subtlety such as;
“…but I’ve defeated every boss naked”,
“…but I finished NG+7”,
or “…but I completed it using a dance mat as a controller”.
There is a boss in Dark Souls who has been given the rather unfortunate name of ‘Ceaseless Discharge’. Coincidentally, it’s also a fairly accurate description of each of my Souls games playthroughs. I’m not a great Souls player, in fact I’m pretty awful at them.
I never had the opportunity to play Demon’s Souls and so Dark Souls was my first foray into the series. It felt like I was crawling through the game by my brittle finger nails, constantly cracking, snapping… breaking. With every inevitable death there was a lesson to be learned; the placement of a trap, or the moveset of an enemy that I could maybe parry or avoid next time. My hands and fingers bore the scars of these early lessons but eventually, and with a mix of determination and persistence, I would realise that I was now not only standing but confidently striding forward. I’d committed to memory the location of every enemy and if not the quickest way of defeating them, the best way of running around them.
And then I would enter a new area, and be immediately cut in half. The game would continually remind me of the pain of pulling myself forward by my finger nails, having to relearn and grow. This, is the Souls experience.
And yet the rewards for the patience, endurance and composure demanded by a Souls game is unlike any other. When you’re as bad at Dark Souls as I am, the sense of achievement every time those all-too-rare words “BOSS DEFEATED” are triumphantly displayed in the centre of the screen is incredible (and a welcome change to the overly familiar and polar opposite message, “YOU DIED”). Being my first Souls experience, it was quite unlike anything I’d played but somehow, it reminded me of the feeling I had playing Ghosts and Goblins for the first time. The sense of epic adventure ahead and not knowing where the path would take me or the adversaries I would face. Or perhaps it was due to the fact that both games allow your character to wear little more than a loincloth.
After a small tutorial section, your character arrives at the ‘hub’ area of the game. One of the first things I noticed is that there was no defined route, and there were multiple options for the direction I would head in. Obviously, I want to keep this post on point and hopefully I’ve successfully established that “I’m awful at Dark Souls”. It therefore goes without saying that I would choose the option of running into a graveyard of giant skeletons who chased me into an area called the ‘Catacombs’ which I wasn’t supposed to go anywhere near until much later in the game.
“YOU DIED”. And so began my Dark Souls journey.
Those players paying attention would find interesting links between item descriptions, locations and enemies creating a spider’s web of insight into the lore and backstory of this world. It seemed my incompetence was not only restricted to combat, as I missed a lot of this during my first playthrough. Those 17000 blogs and online wikis however, provide more than enough insight into this world world post-completion. It was at this point that I realised I hadn’t ‘finished’ Dark Souls at all. Embarrassingly, I had completely missed how much extra gameplay was brought to the game through the intricacies of each of the game’s covenants (many of which I hadn’t realised even existed). Through further reading, I discovered huge locations and bosses that I didn’t even know were in the game! And wait… more than one ending?
It’s this indistinct and obscure amount of hidden detail within Dark Souls that keeps an incompetent player like myself coming back. You think you’ve seen everything? Think again. And somehow, despite the challenge, it’s seems fair. Learn, die, try again, repeat.
And then Dark Souls II happened. For me, two game mechanics were introduced in Dark Souls II which made for a lesser experience. Firstly, dying reduced your maximum health. This is not good for someone expecting to die a lot, and I spent a lot of time at half-health because of it.
The second was a little more unsettling. The enemies in an area would disappear once defeated enough times. A mechanic introduced to make it more difficult for players to farm enemies for souls (the game’s ‘currency’ used to buy items and increase character stats) . Because of this, by the time I finished Dark Souls II, many of the environments were empty. Many of the enemies had disappeared not because I was farming them, but because I had died so many times and was forced to ‘redefeat’ them after every death. It was a strange feeling after completing Dark Souls II. Unlike when I defeated Gwyn at the end of the first Dark Souls, this mechanic somehow made for a less rewarding experience. This mechanic left me with a feeling that the game had allowed me to beat it, like a dad allowing his five-year old son to score a goal between his legs. Dark Souls II taunted me by constantly reminding me that I was so awful at these games that it was willing to help me defeat it.
Dark Souls III has been a return to tradition, a return to the grind, a return to a time before someone thought vanishing enemies was a good idea. I bought Dark Souls III digitally on release day. I’m slightly shocked to realise this was in April 2016. Seriously? More than 18 months?
More importantly, I’m fairly certain I have my first new year’s resolution. Watch this space.