Playing a game in the Dark Souls series is a rough endeavor for any gamer. In fact, it’s a terrible idea to just jump into Dark Souls. It’s not a series that you can pick up and play casually. The initial learning curve is a straight up ninety-degree cliff and never really gets any less steep from there. Dark Souls 1 was a huge turn off for me in how little the game gives you to go off of from the get go. I know I was initially turned off when I spent 12 hours getting to the second boss in Dark Souls 1 before giving up altogether. It wasn’t until my diehard Dark Souls friend started coaching me through my second attempt at the game that I really begin to appreciate what the series truly has to offer.
I’m not one for handholding in games, but let’s be honest here. Dark Souls 1 is downright unintuitive. It only gives you half of the game’s controls in the tutorial and then places you up against a massive demon that can drop you in one hit within the first ten minutes of gameplay. And should you manage to best this beast, you get dropped off in the nexus of the world with only one suggestion on how you should progress, either go up or down. No specifics. Just go and figure it out from there, which wouldn’t be a problem. However, there are so many branching paths where you’ll just hit a dead end that it’s easy to get frustrated. And in most cases, taking the wrong initial path won’t be rewarding. It’s more so annoying.
So it’s up to you to figure out how to spend your stat points and what they affect. Figuring out how to manage equipment can be daunting when you’re not sure how the myriad of statuses and effects can play off each other. Each enemy and each encounter are not only a puzzle in how to overcome them, but they’re also a test of your skill as well. So it is possible to be so bad at a Souls game that you quite literally can’t progress. It’s a game that’s self-defeating in its ability to grip beginning players. The Souls series’ biggest flaw has to be that it doesn’t actually tell the player how to play it. So how are you supposed to tackle the game when you’re not sure how to go about playing the game in the first place? And why even bother? Why smash your head against the seemingly intangible wall of the Souls series in the first place? It’s a simple answer. There exists no greater sense of accomplishment in gaming than beating your first Dark Souls game.
It might seem like a hyperbolic statement, but anyone who has beaten a Dark Souls game can tell you the rush you feel when finally seeing those end credits roll. Beating Dark Souls 1 and 2 still stand in my memory as two of the best moments in the 21 years of my gaming career, and for numerous reasons. And those reasons are what make Dark Souls a series that will go down in gaming history as unparalleled experiences.
First off, there’s the lore and storytelling within the game that have become known to the gaming community as simultaneously deep and complex, yet tertiary to the overall experience. You can still get a complete Souls experience without knowing the vast amount of lore the community has put together over the years. But once you beat the game, you’ll be wanting to know more, and each piece of new knowledge just feeds the fire and makes you look at the game through entirely new eyes. Boss characters suddenly turn from horrible aberrations to pitiable creatures. The greater picture slowly starts to fall into place, and you’ll question what choice to make at the end of game. Or you’ll wonder if your choice really matters at all.
After beating Dark Souls 2, I remember my insatiable need to know why the world of Drangleic had come to its former state of ruin. During my first play through, I felt like I was a generic Dungeons and Dragons adventurer. Slaying monsters and collecting treasure simply for the glory and fun. Which was an amazing experience in and of itself. Every subsequent play through made me realize your place in the overall cosmos of fire and souls. The sheer magnitude of your actions doesn’t have any perceivable effect in game other than progression, but once you realize that you’re a key element in the struggle between light and dark, your every action starts to hold new meaning. It makes you feel important, godlike even. It gives this sense of wonder that I found akin to beating Bioshock Infinite and finally coming to find understanding, awe, and somehow, confusion all in one emotion. But while Bioshock Infinite’s shocking moment is fleeting, Dark Souls leaves an impact on your person long after your first play through,… or your second play through, or third, or seventh…..
It might seem like madness to play through a Souls game more than once. Your first play through should take the same amount of time as any standard RPG. My first Dark Souls run through ran me about 45 hours. My first Dark Souls 2: Scholars of the First Sin run through took me around 70 hours, DLC included. But my second run in both games took me around 12 hours. Once you figure out how to build your character and traverse the kingdoms of Lordran and Drangleic, the challenge ceases to be your lack of knowledge in the game. Then it becomes about discovery. It’s an amazing transformation.
At first, Dark Souls can seem like a tedious or even impossible task. This is due to the fact that you can’t simply beat your head against the game until it breaks. However, they’re not unfair games. There’s a term in educational development called the Zone of Proximal Development. This refers to the zone of achievement just outside of a learner’s reach. Essentially, the learner just barely lacks the skills to tackle their current task. But through perseverance and guidance, the learner can break through their barrier. One of the most notable moments where this happens is during the Orenstein and Smough fight from Dark Souls 1. It’s a perfectly designed boss fight that tests your ability to properly read your opponent. Once you figure that out, it’s a test of your own will and patience that pays off in the end. From Software manages to nail this by implementing excellent progression throughout each game as well as placing failure in the lap of the player.
When you die in a Souls game, or worse lose your experience because you didn’t pick it up, you know why you failed. There are few moments in game that feel grossly unfair, because you can tell what you did to lose in the end. If you didn’t prepare for a boss battle, it’s your own fault. If you overextended your efforts when you know you should have gone back and regrouped, it’s your own fault. If you chose to bite off more than you can chew, it’s your own fault. So it never feels truly unfair. And in some cases, death in a Souls game is a learning experience. Very rarely will you beat a boss on your first try in a Souls game. Rather, it’s a chance to study the boss’ move set so you can learn how to combat them appropriately. Your skill grows immensely over the course of your first play through, and by the time you’re given your final obstacle, you’ll be eager to come back for more.
I’m a person who likes to put games down once I beat them. I’ll file them away and maybe pull them out of their dusty cases every once in awhile to relive some old memories. But the Dark Souls series pretty much stays in the rotation of games I play. It’s to the point where I can play it casually now without there ever being too much stress over progression, but there’s still enough of a challenge that I feel like I’m gaining ground every time I play. Keep in mind, this is someone who actively hated the series on his first two attempts at the game.
Now the Souls series holds a very important spot in my pantheon of gaming excellence, as well as in my personal life. It helped me through some rough times by helping me escape from my daily struggles. It also gave me this immeasurable sense of accomplishment as a gamer that I still have yet to find a comparison to. I would challenge any self-respecting gamer to play through one of the Souls games at least once. And don’t let others dictate how you do your first play through. I used a guide as an aid during my first completion, but only after I had gone through an area to catch anything I missed. It took nothing away from my experience and actually helped me to enjoy the game more. It’s going to take a lot of time and patience, but in the end, it’s worth it to have one of the most influential names in modern RPG design beaten with pride.
Dylan Robert , dubbed 0ptimysticGamer for his boundless love of video games as a form of art and entertainment. You can follow him on twitter at @0ptimisticgamer!