Seeing as we’ve entered a new decade, I – being the sappy, festive person that I am – decided to replay an old favorite as my first game played in the new decade. So naturally, I picked Super Mario World.
And then after that, I picked Dark Souls. That’s two all-time greats back-to-back. Not too shabby.
Yeah, I know. I’ve mentioned I still have some 2019 games to review so I should really get back to them. I don’t know, I just felt like playing a game for the enjoyment of it for a change, instead of putting the pressure on myself to review it. Yes, I will still get back to those remaining 2019 games, notably Pokemon Sword. But if I’m going to be perfectly honest, I’m finding myself struggling to get through Pokemon Sword. It’s actually inspired me to write a future piece about my overall opinion of the Pokemon series. I find that I love the IP, the concept, and the creatures of Pokemon. But I’ve kind of realized I’m not the biggest fan of the games themselves. Of all Nintendo’s franchises, Pokemon is the one that – ironically enough – just doesn’t evolve.
But that’s a discussion for another day. For now, we’re talking Dark Souls. Originally released in 2011 as a kind of spiritual successor to Demon Souls, Dark Souls would become one of the most beloved and acclaimed games of the 2010s. And frankly, it has very little in the ways of competition for the title of the most influential game of the 2010s. Seriously, how often do you hear terms like “Souls-like” these days? How many of its elements have you seen integrated into games of all different genres? As much as people want to pretend that Rockstar and Naughty Dog are the big influencers of gaming today, neither of those studios have seen their design philosophies reverberated into the works of others on such a deep level. Rockstar may have popularized open-worlds, and Naughty Dog has continued to make people think having a story equates to good storytelling, but Dark Souls has fundamentally transformed game design in ways akin to the grandaddies of the medium like Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda.
When I originally reviewed Dark Souls Remastered, I awarded it a rare 10/10. While I don’t think awarding a game like Dark Souls with top honors is misplaced, I do admit I have (at least temporarily) lowered my score of it to a 9/10. Not because I think any less of it per se, but I might prefer Dark Souls 3 and (especially) Bloodborne in the ways of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s very specific series of games. It’s a case of “which giant is the biggest among giants.” Even Dark Souls 2, the supposed “black sheep” of the lot, is still a great game. This is a series which definitely feels like a 10/10 is warranted somewhere though, it’s just tough to say which one is the definitive installment.
The first Dark Souls still seems to be the most beloved overall (with Bloodborne being its closest competition). And it’s definitely a fair argument. There’s just so much about it, from its level design, monsters, intricate gameplay, countless atmospheric locations, and genuinely original lore that makes it all so memorable.
In fact, Dark Souls is a game so good that I bought the remastered version twice, the first time around on the PS4, and the second time on the Switch (because Switch has everything). With my current playthrough, I decided to take the Switch version for a whirl, though in retrospect maybe I should have gone back to the PS4 version first since I’m only one trophy away from platinuming the game…
Eh, another time. On the plus side of things, Dark Souls Remastered looks and plays just as well on Switch as it did on PS4. And the great thing about the Switch version of any game is, of course, that you can play it as a handheld. Sure, I usually play Switch docked as a console, but to have the option and ability to play something like Dark Souls as a handheld game is just wonderful. It’s such a huge advantage for Switch games, and I don’t think that detail about the console gets the recognition it deserves. Again, Dark Souls as a handheld title, with no compromise! I love the Switch.
Anywho, my current playthrough is reminding me why I love Dark Souls so much. You always hear people go on and on about the game’s legendary difficulty, and while it certainly is a steep challenge, there’s so much more to Dark Souls than its challenge. This is a game (and subsequently, series) that seems to have an intimate knowledge of game design. What at first seems simply like brutal difficulty is actually a lesson in patience and dedication. Approach Dark Souls as you would most other games, aiming immediately for action and to take out your enemies, and your haste is destined to fail.
When you die in Dark Souls, you lose all of your acquired souls (essentially experience points and currency rolled into one). But you’re given a chance to reclaim them. Learn from your mistakes, make it back to where you died, and succeed where you once failed, and you can reclaim your lost souls. It’s a terrific risk and reward mechanic that firmly asks the player to study every element of the game, as opposed to simply running in and killing stuff willy nilly.
Hidetaka Miyazaki’s 2019 title, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (another 2019 game I gotta get back to) was beloved by many, even receiving Game of the Year by a number of outlets. But that particular game has – so far – not clicked for me in the way the Dark Souls/Bloodborne games have. A large reason for this is that it removes the “reward” aspect of the aforementioned risk and reward scenario. In Sekiro, whatever experience you’ve accumulated is lost and gone for good immediately upon defeat. It’s a difficult game that seems to send the player into its challenges blindfolded, and then arrogantly punishes them for not being able to overcome said challenges the first time around. That’s not the case with Dark Souls. No matter how difficult Dark Souls gets, there’s always that semblance of hope that makes you want to persevere.
I’ve heard some people describe Dark Souls as being about “hopelessness,” and some even referring to its dark world as “nihilistic.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth. As grim and elegiac as the series (Bloodborne most definitely included) can be, Dark Souls is ultimately an incredibly hopeful experience. It may not be apparent at first, and surely the uninitiated will get angry a time or two at its seemingly unfair odds. But as you struggle, and endure, and pick yourself back up and carry on, you begin to realize what makes Dark Souls special.
Dark Souls isn’t simply a ‘hard game.’ It’s a work of art that teaches you the importance of even the smallest ray of hope in the face of hopelessness itself. The brooding, often-grotesque monstrosities of Dark Souls at first seem to mock you in defeat. But as you learn to press on, and learn from your experience, and know that with just a little extra effort you can conquer anything, you end up doing just that. And when you finally fell a particularly dastardly monster, the sheer joy and relief that washes over you as your foe vanishes into light is euphoric. And by the time you make it to New Game Plus, you are so wizened from your experience that you feel like a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Superman, knowing every nook and cranny of the game while being able to topple foes that once seemed unbeatable.
It’s hope that got you there. Hope that Dark Souls beautifully, deceptively implants into you. So many video games these days are hellbent on proving the artistic merits of the medium by means of replicating cinema, but Dark Souls is one of those titles that becomes a work of art by fully embracing its nature as a video game.
No other medium could instill hope in its audience in the same way Dark Souls does. Hopefully, its players will be able to take that message to heart, and let that same kind of hope help them in the real world as well.
Suffice to say, Dark Souls has earned its place as one of the best games of its decade.