On Black Friday 2019 I purchased a PS4 and a stack of games. I had been playing almost entirely indie games for the past ten years with several exceptions. Many modern AAA franchises never interested me, and the few games I did play were losing my interest. Fallout 4, one of the few AAA games I finished in the past decade, was largely boring. Still, I knew I had missed some great games over the years, so my goal now is to play through some recent AAA games that interest me and to write about each of them. Assume there are spoilers and enjoy!
Before I get into trouble let me say first: Dark Souls Remastered is amazing. It would be great if it came out in 2020. The fact that the original Dark Souls came out nine years ago is shocking.
I just beat Dark Souls 3, before that I beat Dark Souls 2, and for the first game in this series of articles I played Bloodborne. I’ll be writing up the other two Dark Souls games in the coming month but it’s very apparent to me that Dark Souls is the worst of four unbelievably well crafted games. It’s hard not to talk about these as a group since they’re all so clearly connected, but it’s obvious playing through the Dark Souls games and looking back at them that areas in DS1 were unfinished and many annoying ideas in the game were removed in future entries.
Dark Souls very much feels like a brilliant first draft of a more balanced and streamlined experience over the next decade. From an outside perspective it seems like FromSoftware was still experimenting with what to do with the games. Some experiments worked beyond my wildest dreams, others were awful and the separation between the two was often a few seconds of play. Areas like Anor Londo are absolutely awesome...until you reach that one stupid part with the archers firing at you as run along thin rooves and overhangs. Tomb of the Giants is a really cool idea...until you actually play it and it just feels messy and incomplete the whole time. Sen’s Fortress just kinda sucks, but who doesn’t love a death trap castle? Many places, or parts of places, don’t feel like the good kind of difficulty present in later games, they just feel flat out annoying. One of the most consistent design choices that is not present in any later games is the unbelievably thin hallways. I was killed by hallways more than anything else, desperately trying to attack enemies only to hit the walls again and again. Claustraphobia and tight battles are a trademark design of the games but in Dark Souls they’re clearly still a prototype.
The art direction of this game is unreal. Looking down on huge areas you’ve passed through or yet to enter, massive landscapes, the vibrancy of colors, all this makes the game really stand out. The areas that struck me the most were Anor Londo, Blighttown, Crystal Caves, and Demon Ruins. They all shared an overwhelming beauty in four totally unique ways and color palettes. In this way Dark Souls sometimes stands out in comparison to its sequels. The graphical quality is not as tight, but the red vibrancy of seeing the Demon Ruins for the first time is incredibly memorable. These color choices are notably missing by the time I played Dark Souls 3, even though the third game looks significantly better.
The aesthetic of Dark Souls is clear from the start - you’re trapped in an overwhelming journey to do...something. Sometimes the something is clear, if only for a few minutes, other times you read dialogue and your first thought is “what in the hell are these people talking about?”. The lack of clarity in the game is both brilliant and terrible and will continue to be a major point of contention for me in the rest of the series.
I still don’t know what a Dark Soul is. I still don’t really get why I would or would not want to link the fire, end or continue the age of fire, or really do any of the things that come up in the game. There’s just too much obscurity. I don’t think they should lay it all out there, the mystery absolutely fits well with the feel of overwhelming horror in the game, but there needs to be more fleshed out.
In the gameplay this confusing nature plays out in item management and character building. As a new player I found Bloodborne to be really confusing to start, but compared to even the first Dark Souls it’s simple. The amount of items, armor, weapons, spells, etc. is overdone. For a minimalist game, the items and equipment are decidedly superfluous. This trend will get worse with every game.
I also hate covenants. They’re a solid idea for a game mechanic but are not even remotely explained in the game and looking up explanations online only makes things more confusing. Why do they exist? Which one of them will somehow screw me over or get me involved in some PvP with people who have 500 hours in the game? I had and have, 3 games later, no idea what I’m doing with covenants. They’re badly designed and should not be in the game.
Overall I loved my experience but I was happy to move on to the next Dark Souls. It really is unbelievable this game came out in 2011. It is fundamentally different from other games of the time and remains so to this day. The overall game design is really great and, even when annoying or not very good, it is inspiring to go through. I’m really glad I played it, but it does deserve a caveat - a couple bosses, and several locations, are just bad. You’ll probably know when you get there. If you’re getting really frustrated, google it. I honestly didn’t even think Dark Souls Remastered was that hard, it just swung wildly between somewhat challenging and annoying as hell.
As the first (I know I know, I never played Demon Souls and I’m sure I never will, unfortunately) of FromSoftware’s own personal genre of games, I’m really happy it exists. You can see everything in later games there at the beginning , and as I play all the games more it makes me appreciate all the chances they took in Dark Souls. All the experimenting, however janky, was worth it to produce the games they’ve made. So if you love these games, but never played the first, check it out. If you played Bloodborne or later Dark Souls and liked them okay but never finished, or never got too into them, avoid the first one.
This game though...what a ride.