“Git Gud.” I hate this phrase. I absolutely loathe it. Even though there is what I find ironic truth to the statement, I still feel it is one of the worst things to come out of Dark Souls: A statement that somehow encapsulates the game yet also sounds like one of the worst cases of gatekeeping out there. But make no mistake: Dark Souls is a game that does expect you to learn and improve if you want to conquer it.
GENRE: Masochistic Action RPG
GET IT HERE: Dark Souls Remastered (Steam)
Dark Souls came from a time when its niche developer, From Software, found unexpected success in one of its experimental PS3 releases, Demon’s Souls. Like it, Dark Souls is a dark fantasy action RPG that is all about exploration, skill based combat, and eventually achieving victory through trial and error. And its infamous difficulty shaped an entire generation of gamers, as well as creating the “Git Gud” mentality. But I’m here to talk to you about the game itself, and how I found joy in a game that is meant to be about perpetual misery and suffering.
One quick thing to note: I’m going a bit light on screenshots here and restricting myself to the start of the game, because discovery is one of the big things about Dark Souls, and I don’t want to ruin that experience for any potential first timers. All you’ll see are the tutorial area and the first non tutorial area of the game, nothing beyond that.
The premise of Dark Souls is about as bleak as you can get: The world is dying. All but abandoned by its gods, and every day more and more people succumb to a curse that makes them revive from any death they suffer, but with each death eroding away their sanity and humanity until they become but a mindless husk that only seeks to consume the souls of others to preserve themselves . You are one of these cursed undead, sent to rot away in an asylum as the world ends, but end up freed in a chance encounter, told you may be a chosen undead who can fulfill an ancient prophecy. …And that’s…All the exposition story you really get. Much of the story of Dark Souls is told through lore in item descriptions and in the environment, as opposed to dialogue, though some of that still exists. So once you’re dumped into the cold, unforgiving of Dark Souls, you’re given a goal to aim towards, and multiple areas to explore as you try to achieve that goal. And along every path, you’ll find a variety of things that make it clear: This game hates you and wants you to die.
As I mentioned, Dark Souls is an action RPG. If you’re coming in from games like Skyrim however, this isn’t that kind of RPG. Dark Souls is an action RPG that puts combat and environments ahead of everything else, forgoing a massive skill tree and instead having character progression be defined by your equipment and the stats that allow you to wield it. If you want to use magic, you need to find spells, or someone to teach them to you, find a catalyst to cast said spells, and have the Intelligence stat required to use your desired spells. This is definitely a bit different compared to just learning magic via a skill tree. Despite the game having you pick a “class” at the start, the class is only a starting template, as everything in this game is defined by your stats and your gear. You could start out as a Cleric, but be a knight wielding a massive greatsword in the heaviest of armor by the end of your run, it’s all about what you choose to upgrade, and what you choose to wield.
So, you pick your class, go through a tutorial that teaches you the basics, then get dumped you into that cold, unforgiving world I mentioned. Dark Souls does teach you all the basics of the game and how it plays, but it’s up to you, as a player, to apply that knowledge. Every enemy you encounter in Dark Souls has its own type of movements, attacks, weaknesses and resistances you have to learn and adapt to. You have simple, undead husks who simply throw themselves at you and allow you to easily block or evade, and then punish them. But then you start running into soldiers who retain more of their combat knowledge from life, and actually know how to block your blows. This forces you to try and find ways to flank them or break through their guard entirely, as they are still slow enough to react that you can punish their mistakes. And at the top of this humanoid chain are knights who can easily go toe to toe with you, leaving minimal openings in their defense as they seek to break yours, and by extension, you as a whole. And that’s just the human stuff. You’ll also encounter plenty of beasts, such as fast, ravenous dogs who rush you nonstop, rats who cower at first, but suddenly become quite dangerous if literally backed into a corner, and all kinds of other creatures who have their own behaviors and attacks you’ll need to learn if you hope to overcome them.
And at the top of this hierarchy of things that want you dead are the boss battles: the biggest of the bads. Lots of health, lots of ways to kill you. You’ll be expected to watch and learn their attacks and how to best react to them: Be it a dodge, or a well timed block. Every boss is a game of patience, as you look for the openings in which you may be able to land your own strike between the relentless blows your opponent will try to destroy you with. Most new players will struggle with every boss they meet for the first time, possibly blaming them for being cheap or overpowered. But if you can see past that, and see what the game wants you to see: those openings you can exploit, the ways you can avoid an enemy’s attack, and finally overcome the battle? You just end up with one of the biggest moments of catharsis in gaming.
And that is honestly what makes the Dark Souls experience so great to me: The feeling of triumph when the odds are so heavily stacked against you. Seeing a difficult encounter, finally managing to see how you can beat it, and then doing it? It feels good, REALLY good.
I mentioned this is a game of skill based combat, and I wasn’t kidding. While stats and gear do play an important part in the game, your capability as a player is just as important. Every weapon, every spell has its own unique handling. Straight swords offer you a balanced means of combat, giving you wide swings and piercing stabs with respectable speed. Heavy weapons give you overwhelming reach and damage at the cost of massive windups, and taking a good chunk of your precious Stamina that is needed to swing a weapon or dodge away from danger. Magic offers you a means to attack from a distance, but requires you to stay still for casting it, meaning you need to think about when it’s safe to do so. Heavy armor can protect you from more damage and allow you to swing a weapon without interruption even if you’re hit during the swing, but weighs you down and makes you much slower. Lighter armor gives you great mobility, allowing you to evade attacks more easily, but will do little to protect you if you’re actually hit. All of this has to be considered when choosing what gear you want to use, as you have to learn that gear and how it works as much as you do your enemies.
And yet, despite all I’ve said, the game’s controls and how you use all these tools are surprisingly straight forward. You have two attack buttons to use different attacks with a weapon, a block button, an item button, and a dodge button for starters. You also have the ability to lock onto a target to keep them in focus, so you can concentrate on your movement and fighting instead of keeping the camera on your foe. The overall flow of combat in Dark Souls is fairly simple: Block or evade when the enemy attacks, strike them when you have an opening. Back off if your stamina for attacking/blocking/dodging is too low, and close back in once you catch your breath. Repeat until one of you is dead. What adds depth to this system is the fact each weapon has quite a varied moveset despite only using two buttons, but said movesets are incredibly simple to learn. There’s no complex combo inputs, instead your chosen attack is dictated by which attack button you press and if you’re sprinting, dodge rolling, dodge backstepping, or doing none of these when you press said button. All weapons also have the option to be used in a one handed or two handed stance, with the two handed stances typically offering stronger or faster blows at the cost of not being able to have a shield or spell-casting tool at the ready in your off hand.
You also have the option of spells and consumable items in combat, allowing you to heal, buff a weapon, attack from a distance, options you would expect in an action RPG of course. But they feel much more weighted in this game since every item, every spell has an animation tied to it that you must go through to perform the action. A healing spell takes time to prepare and cast. A chug of your Estus Flask (A renewable healing potion of sorts) leaves you open to attack until you complete the process of drinking it. An offensive spell won’t do a thing until you actually finish its casting process and fling it at your foe. Much like weapons, your items and spells have a “weight” to them that makes the combat far more engaging than the kind where you simply spam items or abilities until you win.
And that’s just the basics of combat. The environments play into things as well, both in and out of battle. In battle, one has to consider the layout of where they fight: The enemies within that area, if a spot may offer you a better way to engage them or pick them off one by one instead of fighting them all at once. Some areas may have snipers that give support fire to their allies, reinforcing the idea you might want to lure your foes to a spot where you can engage on your terms. Others may have traps, or ledges above fatal falls that will result in your immediate demise if you plummet from them…Or your enemy if you knock them off.
When you take all of the above, it’s easy to see why Dark Souls’ combat is so heavily praised. It looks remarkably simple on the surface, yet has a surprising amount of depth due to how everything comes together to create a system where every action you take feels weighted in some way. And it all manages to work with a relatively simple control scheme in the grand scheme of things. Where most games tend to rely on input strings, or pressing multiple button combinations and similar? Dark Souls keeps it simple: One action per button. And the gameplay feels absolutely fantastic because of this. It also means that if you mess up, you don’t have anyone to blame but yourself: Or your controller I guess. But it’s never because the game read something wrong from you.
So, with the combat given its look, let’s talk about how it fits into the bigger picture of the game. As you progress towards your goal of fulfilling the Undead Prophecy, you’ll have to go through a variety of interconnected areas akin to a Metroidvania, all while fighting all manner of man and beast, watching out for traps and other environmental hazards in the world around you. And as you explore, you want to keep an eye out for items and equipment that you’ll need to complete your undead journey. Hidden paths and hazards mean you’ll constantly need to have a keen, observing eye, lest you miss something helpful or quite harmful. And if you find one path isn’t working out for you, well, maybe you can try another! The best part about the original Dark Souls is how many paths you have to take even from the start of the game if you know how to look around.
The most important thing in Dark Souls however are its Bonfires. Safe havens in an unsafe world. When you rest at a bonfire, all enemies in an area you have slain are brought back to life, but you are also restored to full health, and have your main source of healing: the Estus Flask, refilled to full capacity, along with any uses of spells you’ve equipped. Bonfires are also where you can spend souls you earn by slaying your enemies or finding consumable items that yield souls upon use. Those souls can be spent to level up, though you can also use them to buy items from merchants. But this is also where one of the biggest difficulty elements of Dark Souls lies. If you die, you return to the last bonfire you rested at, but all your souls are left behind where you perished. You get one chance to reclaim those souls, and if you die? They’re gone forever. This encourages not hoarding your souls, and spending them whenever possible. There’s no bank or other safe means of storing them, aside from not using consumable soul items you have come across. This means if you die with a lot of souls on you, you’d better be careful lest you lose everything.
The environments of Dark Souls are easily one of its strongest points due to several factors. For one, music is of minimal presence in Dark Souls, typically only used in boss battles and in a couple special locations. In most areas, the only sounds are those of the world and its inhabitants, with not a musical note to be heard. It’s amazing how much more impact the world of Dark Souls has because of its lack of music, with the ambience of the environment having such a strong presence instead. The bubbling of magma in a deep fiery cavern, the rustling of leaves in the wind in a dark forest, the wind blowing past you in so many of the game’s outdoor areas, such simple things that add so much to the overall experience. And those environments all have a story to tell as you explore them, stories of a world that has been through so much, and has so little left.
So yeah, the music. When music is used, it’s used to great effect. Many bosses in Dark Souls get their own unique songs, with only a few tracks being shared between multiple foes. As a result, every song manages to feel very fitting for its encounter. One of the bosses being a very majestic, beautiful looking creature that is accompanied by a quiet, almost sorrowful woman’s song, backed up with mournful harp and set of string instruments. Another duo is given a song that invokes a feeling of power and ferocity with a deep choir, accompanied by an orchestra variety of instruments that make it clear: You are about to engage in one of the fiercest battles you have ever seen. Again, when the music is used? It’s used to great effect, creating a fitting background sound to the battles against the game’s strongest foes.
There’s a lot one has to learn to truly understand Dark Souls, as this review has likely shown. But for those willing to learn, and willing to accept that they will face failure quite often before they face victory? Dark Souls is probably one of the best action RPGs one can experience due to its amazing blend of good combat, environmental storytelling, and the satisfaction one has when overcoming its difficult challenges.