I bought Dark Souls Remastered in 2018, after it came out, got a little into it, then bounced after the first area in Undead Parish. I tried two more times through the years, and my frustration with the sluggish controls got me to quit every time. I just wasn't having fun, and the difficulty felt forced to me.
Dark Souls has been a juggernaut ever since it was released in 2011, spawning a whole subgenre of Souls-likes, becoming what Metroidvanias became as a genre label – both helpful and insufferable. Games that weren't inspired by Souls were still called "The Dark Souls Of X" just because they had a level of difficulty beyond "sneeze on these bosses three times and they die". Part of it was, frankly, perpetuated by the advertisements for the Souls games themselves, with the first PC release for the first game being called "Prepare to Die Edition" and the description calling it "Extremely Deep, Dark & Difficult". Honestly, I assumed that the punishing difficulty was all there was to the game, and shrugged it off as being something I was never going to get into.
I played Hollow Knight last year, and its gameplay also turned me off of Dark Souls. Hollow Knight is also challenging, but its controls are extremely responsive, its healing mechanics always give you a fair chance to bounce back, and the world and atmosphere and soundtrack immediately get you interested. I played that for 30 hours, and was completely sure that I'd never get into any Souls game because this was my ideal type of challenge. Then I got the first ending and was burnt out at hour 38, and straight-up quit during the Broken Vessel's dream boss fight.
And somewhere, in the back of my mind, I kept thinking – people are still obsessed with Dark Souls. People keep claiming that it's not that difficult if you know what you're doing. There were some twitter accounts that I followed that suddenly found themselves getting Dark Souls, and I wondered, was I being too bullish? Was I missing something?
I started it for the fourth time, messed around with the controls, accepted the fact that I couldn't cancel my actions mid-swing, then paid close attention to the enemies. And suddenly, I realized that each enemy was holding their attack in a backswing for three to four seconds before actually trying to hit me, and I adjusted for that. Which was easy, because I had become accustomed to Hollow Knight's quarter-second tells.
And suddenly, the game clicked.
Dark Souls is not a brutal game. It's a game that encourages you to be patient, explore carefully, and act in combat when the time is right, but it doesn't really demand outstanding skill or immaculate timing or perfect positioning. Enemies can be backstabbed extremely easily. If a skeleton attacks you, you have two seconds to wait before trying to parry it, and the real test lies in being patient and waiting for the right time to press the button. If one of the massive bosses is trying to one-shot you, you can comfortably stroll backwards and avoid it. Parrying and backstabbing also make you invulnerable during their animations, and you can roll through powerful attacks without suffering a scratch.
The issue is, I was playing it like a God Of War or Prince of Persia (or to take a more recent example, Nier: Automata) where you can spam the attack button against hordes of enemies and comfortably win. Dark Souls requires forethought and encourages you to draw enemies onto a one-on-one battle, and each combat action needs to be purposeful, but as long as you keep track of those things, the game becomes a cakewalk. Even the notorious Blighttown didn't cause me much issue, and the DLC bosses were all tough but fair. I don't think I've lost even a quarter as many times to a single Dark Souls boss as I did to the second Hornet fight in Hollow Knight.
So, uh, yeah, I'm ten years late in announcing that Dark Souls is good, actually. And beyond the gameplay, the world takes a while to seep into your mind, but once you realize how interconnected the world is in both geography and lore, everything starts feeling like treasure troves of interesting mysteries.
I finished my first playthrough in 42 hours and missed out on the DLC, then immediately started a new playthrough with a different build afterwards and finished it with the DLC in under 20 hours, then immediately started a new playthrough with another different build.
I'm going to try Dark Souls 2 afterwards. I've heard it's divisive but I want to play the games in release order, so let's see.
- From a purely mechanical standpoint, why do some games have you interact with enemies by hitting them?
- Hollow Knight (2017) is amazing in every single way.
- My experience on Dark Souls 2 – my first Dark Souls (and 3d souls-like) game
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