Dark Souls invented a genre. Demon’s Souls established the framework, but with its spiritual follow-up, Hidetaka Miyazaki and From Software set it in stone.
Along with Minecraft and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the original 2011 release of Dark Souls could be seen as ushering in an age of freedom. Freedom from the limitations imposed by market testing and focus groups, freedom for game developers to succeed on their own terms, and the freedom to make games as complex and open-ended as possible with little to no regard for players’ feelings.
Especially their anger.
Yes, it’s impossible—amid the memes, shattered controllers, and cries for an “easy mode,” whatever that means—to ignore how Dark Souls has become THE measuring stick of difficulty. Cuphead, Nioh, Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon: Zero Dawn—just about anything remotely hard gets called “the Dark Souls of X” almost compulsively.
It’s all hyperbolic shorthand, really, and with the release of Dark Souls Remastered on Nintendo Switch and the Trilogy Box Set elsewhere, now’s as good a time as any to dispel the smoke surrounding the bonfire.
Have a seat, pop open that Estus Flask, and let’s look at the Humanity behind the Hollows…
(Note: This piece will focus specifically on the three Dark Souls games; since Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne are unrelated, Sony-owned IPs, they don’t count.)
Dark Souls: Twisted Firestarter
The original Dark Souls, ironically, is the hardest to talk about. Everyone who loves it calls it a masterpiece even its sequels fail to match. Everyone who hates it calls it a monster with zero sympathy for the popped blood vessels and broken controllers of many who couldn’t even beat the tutorial.
The truth is they’re both correct.
Here, we have a game that makes no bones about punishing you from the outset, expecting you to understand in the first few hours how to dodge, time your movements, understand basic leveling, and learn not to take anything for granted, especially your “souls.”
Souls serve as experience for leveling up and the currency for buying items, but when you die, they’re almost gone for good—you have one chance to get them back before dying again. The twist? With the exception of bosses, ALL ENEMIES COME BACK UPON DEATH.
Those two rules, along with the complete lack of hand-holding in every respect, are the main reason rage quits run rampant: Nothing is more infuriating than getting back to the spot where you died, only to mistime a single dodge and lose 250,000 souls for good, or put another way, HOURS of progress. Similarly, this feeling can be exacerbated when jumped by an enemy or boss you didn’t see because you were minding your own business.
How, and why, does the other camp see it as, if not the best game ever made, then the best representation of what video games can be?
None of these design choices were an act of laziness—they were all fully intentional, a means to encourage players to pay attention. See a giant demon in the tutorial area? Learn to keep your shield up and expect the unexpected. Get jumped by a group of enemies because you ran into a room? Take it slow, and pay close attention to your surroundings. Keep suffering at the hands of a boss and losing your souls? Level up your stats, learn enemy attack patterns, and maybe engage in jolly cooperation with the knight you walked past five times to the arena.
Death and failure are part of the learning experience, but through that death, learning from your mistakes, and reaching out to other players with summons and Wikis, you grow more as a player and, arguably, a better person.
By the same token, two sequels of refinements have also put Dark Souls’ shortcomings into sharp relief. Not being able to roll in eight directions can feel archaic, a few critical aspects can feel needlessly obtuse for newcomers, and one later dungeon in particular cops out with an undercooked boss rush that betrays its exploratory nature.
Even with these hangups, the original became a meme for a reason, and with the comprehensive Remastered version (complete with the Artorias of the Abyss expansion), you have a golden opportunity to experience the trilogy’s brilliant origins.
Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin—A Burning Desire to Be Loved
Some Souls fans have replaced Dark Souls II in their minds with the previously mentioned Bloodborne, because Miyazaki didn’t direct this game (though, he served as a supervisor to codirectors Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanemura). It also didn’t help that when the game got ported to PS4 and Xbox One, things were noticeably tweaked with the Scholar of the First Sin edition, which served as the basis for this entry.
As a result, we have what could be described as the problem child, runt of the litter, ugly duckling, and black sheep all at once, designed in the name of the ever-dreaded “desire to be acceptable to a wider audience,” the death knell for many franchises.
But we have a third game, so it obviously wasn’t the case. And compared to 90 percent of RPGs released in the last decade, Scholar is nothing short of magnificent. It may be the worst Souls game, but it’s still a great game for many reasons.
The arguments against Scholar are not invalid, however: For all its improvements, it comes at the cost of being a cohesive whole. Areas feel noticeably disconnected from one another, coming off like dungeons stitched together with the programming equivalent of duct tape and string. Turning movement speed into a character stat leads to instances of questionable hit detection and enemies appearing to be detached from the floor and attracted by invisible magnets. And while the difficulty never comes off as sadistic, losing a percentage of your health bar with every death feels needlessly punitive.
However, it remains arguably the best entry point for newcomers, with a much gentler learning curve compared to the past (relatively speaking, anyway):
- The death penalties are offset by the fact enemies disappear after being killed enough times, making repeated boss fights manageable.
- Item and stat descriptions are markedly more detailed than in the past, along with characters you meet along the way.
- Even moving around and dodging in eight directions feels nicer, so while the world may be more slapdash, getting around has fewer headaches, along with playing Scholar as a whole.
- The entire Lost Crowns trilogy of expansion packs (Sunken King, Old Iron King, and Burnt Ivory King) also provides a borderline sadistic challenge for masochists, which greatly extends playtime, when even accessing these areas can be brutal.
Crucially, the structural refinements and quality-of-life improvements here would mix with the combat from the first for the last, and arguably best, entry to date.
Dark Souls III: Rekindling the Flame, One Last Time
Fans were overjoyed to find out Miyazaki was back in the director’s chair, but a lot has been made about this being, if not the final Souls game, then a turning point, and you can practically feel the weight of expectations. You can also see the attempt at splitting the difference, mixing the imaginative spark of the first Souls with the refinements of the second, on paper providing the best of both worlds.
In short, it worked. The result was straightforward, and maybe a touch uninspired compared to its predecessors, but Dark Souls III polishes the formula to as perfect a sheen as possible.
Not to say III is just a copy-paste job—there are notable tweaks. The biggest is the addition of Focus Points (FP), the equivalent of a magic bar. With FP, you can use spells and special Weapon Art techniques, which are skills for each of the distinct weapon classes. Those skills aren’t just appreciated, they’re necessary, because pound for pound, III is easily the hardest in the series, bar none, and perhaps one of the hardest games of at least the last 10 years.
Taking cues from Miyazaki’s time spent on Bloodborne, aggression is the norm now. Fast groups of enemies and dynamic, multiphase boss fights render old strategies useless. Bonfires are plentiful, however, and the level design strikes a near-perfect balance between inspiring depression and pure euphoria. But the emphasis on reflexes means poor motor skills are your own worst enemy, especially for first-time players.
That said, veterans might find things a little too familiar. Perhaps in response to criticism of Scholar feeling like an incomplete vision, III not only reverts to the original game in terms of combat, the level design, and characters, which are not just reminiscent but copied wholesale. The opening cutscene implies a transitory land, where previous realms converge on one another, and it makes some sense for a finale to recall memories of games past, but it leads to the opposite problem of Scholar, where instead of cohesion, the price is novelty.
Still, for what you get, especially with the Fire Fades version and its two expansions (Ashes of Ariandel and The Ringed City), III remains an outstanding finale for the best RPG trilogy this decade. If this ends up being the last proper Souls game, the franchise ends as it begins, a burning flame destined to be kept alight.
Victory Achieved: How Will the Cycle Continue?
So now, here we are. Three action RPGs, each one a five-star experience, with one of the most impactful legacies in all of game design, for better or worse.
With From Software focusing their energy on Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, there’s been a lot of debate on where the series goes next. We’ve seen plenty of games, good and bad, take the Souls format in interesting directions, but with a few exceptions (Hollow Knight, Dead Cells, the aforementioned Nioh), none have proven worthwhile on their own merits. Mostly because they either crank up the difficulty for the sake of it or just copy-paste it verbatim without regard for nuance or context.
By the same token, the discussion surrounding these games and their impact on the future of video games is also left to interpretation. Will their success lead to nothing but masochistic adventures en masse, as a widespread corrective to the trend of accessibility?
Clearly this fear is valid, hence the years of complaints for games like this to have “easy modes,” that hard games are bad because not everyone can complete them on their first try. Understandable as it may be, these concerns are misguided.
Not every game is made for everyone as a simple fact of life, and similarly, not everyone will enjoy every game ever made. People who champion Dark Souls are not entitled sadists who demand the industry cater to their whims exclusively. They just want games that stay true to the core principles of their method of engagement.
Games with both respect for the player and a degree of self-respect. Games that offer a distinct vision without shuttering out people who have different views. Games that offer tools for struggling players without belittling them in the process or providing an easy way out.
Dark Souls, for all its death and misery, reveals the benevolence of the human spirit in all its glory; that victory is the greatest achievement of all.
4 Replies to “Dark Souls Trilogy: A Retrospective of Swords and Souls”
I discovered “Dark Souls Remastered” while roaming through http://www.fuzeforge.co.uk/ one day and I downloaded it. As a newcomer to the franchise created by Miyazaki, I did not find this title repetitive. It was an amazing experience and I was stunned by the graphics and by the gameplay of this video game.
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Amazing analysis of this series. Just curious, you consider Dark Souls 3 to be the best of the series? Do you prefer the more “aggressive” style to the more “defensive” style of Dark Souls 1?
Also, your description of the enemies floatiness in DS2 is perfect. I never quite understood what bothered me so much about the enemy animations but that’s it! They always felt like they were gliding to me rather than walking.
If you have a chance, check out my site…I’m starting a series of level reviews for the entire Dark Souls trilogy. (I’m only through the tutorial of DS1 so this will take me years but gotta start somewhere!)
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Love the idea! We’ll definitely check your series out. And thank you for the kind words!
I tend to go back and forth between 1 and 3 for my personal favorite, but if I had to choose overall, I’d go with 3 for being the most refined and polished of the bunch.
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