I thought I disliked the trend of Soulsborne games, but I don't I actually really quite like them. They're basically 3D "Metroidvania" games, and much like the term Metroidvania, the term Soulsborne is intrinsically linked to games that don't deserve the accolades of having an entire genre named after them. What we have are games that take the exploration platformer, and do that same concept in 3D mixing in some RPG elements, some hack 'n slash elements, and focusing on skill intensive precision combat previously only found in certain high octane action games like 'Ninja Gaiden' on Xbox. They are however quite distinct from the spectacle fighters such as 'Devil May Cry' and 'Bayonetta' where combo based action, juggling enemies, and flashy stylish switching between different attacks, chaining them all together is the main draw. They're also clearly different, arguably holding a completely opposite philosophy to the musou style action games and other horde combat games, such as 'Dynasty Warriors' and it's various offshoots. This is all good, subtle differences in genres and sub-genres are the spice of this hobby after all.
'Dark Souls' is one of those cornerstone games. I feel it's an incredibly important game in our hobby and the history of our medium, not only for what it achieves but for the way it's influenced other games, and the way it's inspired it's audience. You could claim that this accolade is rightfully owned by 'Demon's Souls', after all, it was the first game FromSoftware made in this style and it's therefore the first time these ideas where done right? Well, there's almost certainly an obscure PS2 game that did it even earlier than that so let's not take that for granted, but even if it was it wouldn't matter. 'Dark Souls' is the cultural cornerstone and it's predecessor is a footnote; a niche game that spawned something that went mainstream. While the mainstream game was multiplatform and then remastered on the latest generation, the original has remained a niche PS3 excluse up until likely one week after I publish this, at which point they'll announce a fucking remaster just to annoy me. All joking aside though it's this expanded audience that catapulted 'Dark Souls'. Being a cornerstone game however doesn't make 'Dark Souls' a good game, far fucking from it. It is shit in so many ways that it's almost a requirement that people play it, if only so they can understand all the potential pitfalls of bad game design you can get away with if you have a big enough ravenous pack of idiot fanboys to scream "git gud" at people all day.
What on earth am I talking about? 'Dark Souls' is a masterpiece right? It's spawned it's own genre and created a new renaissance in hard gaming because it did something no other game was doing. Or at least that's the prevailing sentiment. It created a difficult game, one that tested the players skill and crucially one that was always fair; if you died, it was YOUR FAULT. Right? That's what you always hear isn't it. Well it couldn't be further from the fucking truth. Dark Souls is perhaps the most cheap and inconsistent games I've ever played, needlessly obtuse and unfair at times, terribly designed and cryptic to the point of being bloody maddening; this is not a game that respects your time. The storyline is basically non-existent and any sense of character motivation is left entirely up to the player to develop. The gameplay is various forms of dingy wandering around, wondering where the fuck you go and what the fuck you do because there's no direction, but in a game filled with enemies that can kill you easily because the game wants to be punishingly hard, which disincentivises any exploration. With no meaning behind your actions and gameplay that regularly feels unfair the only possible reasons to play though Dark Souls are masochism or peer pressure.
Now, originally I wanted to keep this about the gameplay, but I have to address the story and the lore first. It's such a sticking point for me that I need to rant about how crap this is from a narrative and artistic perspective. This is actually the weakest argument I make but I want to get it out of the way, so given that.
PART 1 - NARRATIVE, MOTIVATION, & WORLD BUILDING
The game gives little motivation for anything and the set up is both painfully generic and needlessly confusing in what little set up it has. You wake up in a prison, (though it's called the asylum, so should be a fucking asylum) and make your way through the starting area till you reach Firelink Shrine. The concept of undead is introduced but not properly explained, in fact the difference between "alive" and "dead" in this game are barely considered and this isn't just something you can pass over. If I'm undead, what does that mean? I'm clearly not fucking dead because I can think and move. I have agency. Therefore being "dead" doesn't mean the same thing in 'Dark Souls' as it does in reality. It doesn't mean you cease to exist. There's no oblivion. It's just a status. Being dead may as well be the same as being Chinese, or gay, or a guy with blonde hair and a wart on his nose; it's literally fucking meaningless and makes no difference to the setting. It also makes nothing matter. Who cares if people die? Death isn't the handicap we think it is in our world, it doesn't screw your career up or mess up your relationships; it doesn't stop you from thinking or feeling. Literally Death is fucking meaningless in this game!
So first off the tone is completely bawked. There are more undead than there are living people in this fucking game. Maybe it's just a personal thing, but undead as a concept pisses me off. Either you need to explain why these corpses are moving around, or they're not fucking corpses. A vampire is NOT a dead thing. Vampires are CLEARLY alive. This isn't up for debate, they simply are alive. They literally display all the signs for life. They can move, sense, feed, reproduce, and grow; and while we're not shown them actively respiring or excreting it's entirely logical to assume they must do given all the others. Vampires are alive. This cultural obsession with death and claiming clearly living things are "un-dead", as if you can undo death is frankly pathetic and lazy from a writing perspective. Zombies and the like however at least make some sense. Whether it's magical re-animation, a viral host moving a dead body, or something else; they're generally consistent and can make for interesting enemies when done right, though they are often over-done. A good example of a scary way zombies where used is in 'The Last Of Us', where the fungus animates the bodies and creates effective bioweapons out of them. So what does 'Dark Souls' do to establish it's setting and lore. Absolutely fuck all that's what! Let's consider the opening cutscene and look at whether it's actually explaining anything.
So we have a vague world of "ancients", it's unformed apparently yet there's fog and trees, oh and apparently DRAGONS! So it's not unformed is it. It clearly has a fucking form and it's one that can sustain complex flying lizard creatures, but that aside. Then apparently "fire happens", which doesn't make any sense at all. Apparently this creates some dichotomy; "warmth and cold, light and dark", you know the most stereotypical good vs. evil thing, though we've not established why one is better than the other. "Then from the dark, THEY came", and suddenly there's undead. We haven't even established that people are a fucking thing yet. We've not even bothered to show that intelligent life exists. Are there countries? Social structures? What's the technology level? Is this earth? No, nothing. Why establish the most basic fucking things we'd need to know going in. We need to see a skeleton hand belonging to someone called Nito holding a magical flame. Apprently these shambing "THEY" found "the souls of lords within the flames". How? What the fuck is a soul? Who are these lords? Lords of what? We haven't even established that people exist but we have a system of nobility. What the fuck is going on. We're 1 minute into the goddamn cutscene and it's already making literally zero sense. Oh but we've got to have all this ominous music and imagery so you know these things mean business. There's no established world setting or anything, but skeleton man bad! That's what you need to know.
So, what now, are you going to answer anything you've set up, "The witch of Izalith, and her daughters of chaos". NO! FUCK IT! JUST ADD MORE BULLSHIT! Seriously, they don't explain anything about Nito, they just move on. This is the very next line and it's meaningless. What the fuck is Izalith? Why are her daughters "of chaos"? What does "of chaos" even mean? I know, it's yet more try-hard bullshit isn't it. "Fire, Chaos, Undead", this is a 12 year old Games Workshop wargamers idea of lore. Why not just shout "Skulls for the skull god" while you're at it. Actually, I'm being unfair. Games Workshop put way more effort into their world settings. So, 'Dark Souls', are you going to explain these women? "Gwyn, the lord of sunlight and his faithful knights". Fuck no, let's just add more exposition and another random faction, person, thing etc. that explains NOTHING! "...and the furtive pygmy, so easily forgotten"? Oh for fuck sake! Stop mentioning more things and people without explaining who they are, what they're doing, what's going on, or why we should give a skuttering fuck. After 2 minutes this cutscene has still not actually explained the interplay of anything in this world, they've just declared things to exist with an ominous voice as if it has some grand meaning automatically. It's all withough context but with plenty of over the top music and visuals to provide grim-dark subtext but which actually means literally nothing. That's the phrase of the day with this game "literally nothing". That's all this game ever seems to offer you.
Does Dark Souls ever explain any of this? No not at all, if anything it just get's more confusing. "With the strength of lords, they challenged the dragons". Why? Why did they challenge the dragons? In what way? To what end? What the fuck does any of this have to do with Nito and the "THEY" who found the souls of lords? Have we just forgotten about them. Apparently the witches, the knights, and Nito, along with some betrayer dragon (doesn't make any fucking sense, but it eludes to complex politics without the writers needing to write any world building, plot, or background; so let's go with it), wiped out the dragons... and this means, say it with me, literally nothing. "Thus began the age of fire". Because apparently dragons needed to die to usher in that age, but there's also knights with suits of armour which would indicate a social structure, nation-states, at least medieval levels of technology; how the fuck has that existed without "fire". Never explained, naturally. "But soon the flames will fade and only dark will remain", sounds serious but it's again, literally nothing, it doesn't mean anything. Everything is just a vague statement with no real weight behind it. The last statement is that there are "carriers of the accursed dark sign", but they don't explain what that means or why we should care, just that it "marks the undead", which at this point may as well just be red hair because being undead means literally nothing in this world.
So, basically the plot of 'Dark Souls' is this:
1. World exists, it's covered in fog, there are dragons for no obvious reason.
2. Fire suddenly comes into existance without explaination or reason as to why it didn't already exist in a world with fucking dragons in it.
3. Suddenly undead exist despite no-one establishing that there's even people on this world. They find the souls of lords apparently.
4. Suddenly there are people, including knights and witches; no explaination to how civilization is structured.
5. The knights, witches, and undead all work together to kill the dragons because fuck dragons. No reason is given.
6. The fire is apparently going out, and there's a "dark sign". No-one can be arsed explaining what that means.
7. No-one address that the undead found the "souls of lords", or what that even means; presumably they just forgot about it.
When you watch this cutscene only to wake up in a prison, fight you way though undead and a demon, which makes no sense because at no point have we established that demons are a fucking thing in this setting, but that aside; when you do that, you'd hope there would be some clarification. An explaination for that cutscene we sat through and perhaps an indication of where you fit into this world. There isn't. A cryptic cutscene could be forgiven if the starting level actually explained shit to you, but it doesn't. You make it to Firelink Shrine and end up talking to some mincing prick in armour sat at a bonfire. He has an annoying laugh and smarmy voice which makes him instantly unlikeable, yet I'm supposed to do what he says as he's basically the "quest giver". He tells you "There's actually two bells of awakening..." and this is your entire fucking mission by the way, to ring these bells, as he explains, "...ring them both, and something happens. Brilliant right?". No FromSoftware it's not fucking briliant, it's perhaps one of the most lazy uninspired and pathetic attempts at a story I've ever read. There's literally zero motivation or reason for me to follow it. There are 8-bit and 16-bit games from the 80's and 90's with a more interesting narrative and more motivation to progress, and some of them pull it off without a single word of dialogue or line of text. This piss-poor attempt at a story is painful. The only reason you would want to actually ring those bells is there is literally nothing else to do in this game. Find two bells and ring them. Why? Who fucking cares just do it, and if you get killed along the way by the bullshit enemies we put in the way it's YOUR FAULT despite the game being one of the cheapest and worst built games ever made. Beat the game, not because you've got any emotional investment, beat it because it's there.
PART 2 - BULLSHIT MOMENTS & CHEAP DEATHS
So you made it through part 1 and if you're a soulsborne gamer you're probably brimming with righteous fury ready to scream at me about how "MARIO DOESN'T HAVE A PLOT, IS THAT A BAD GAME!?!" Or something similar, and in theory you'd be right. Games don't need to have a plot in order to be great games, because what makes a game is gameplay. 'Dark Souls' could easily sell itself off being a return to the oldschool idea of gaming, where you just put the game in and play. No need for a story, you can infer basics as you go. Some of my all time favourite games are 2D platformers and they often have no story at all, with a small blurb on the box or in the manual explaining the premise and that's it. 'Sonic The Hedgehog' is a perfect example of this working. The entire storyline is "mad scientist kidnaps woodland creatures, you have to stop him", and you can work that out completely from playing through Green Hill Zone and piecing it together from what you see on screen... and it's easily a better story and plot than anything 'Dark Souls' comes up with because 'Sonic' isn't trying to be an RPG. That's the problem here.
'Dark Souls' can be best described as a 3D attempt at creating an exploration platformer (or "Metroidvania" as people insist on calling them), as I said in the beginning of this article, and that's a pretty engaging concept. There's a lot of potential here and the first major area of 'Dark Souls', called Undead Burg is a great example of this. It's open and winding, folds back in on itself, and through the unlocking of shortcuts, allows for everything to feel reasonably interconnected. As you play through this area you'll become more and more familiar with some of the quirks of this game, such as enemies instantly respawning if you rest. Undead Burg introduces you to packs of enemies and manages to teach you quite conclusively that you can't just power through this game. It's not a hack and slash experience. Undead Burg actually has some interesting enemy placement that teaches you how to play the game, it teaches you to look at your surroundings and consider where enemies may be. The crossbowmen that shoot you in the back before facing the Taurus Demon is a great example of this as it actually gives you an incentive to turn around and explore how to get onto that tower, which you can subsequently use to do a plunging attack repeatedly to kill the Taurus Demon. This harkens back to the Asylum Demon and is a nice bit of connective thread rewarding gamers who learn from play. Sadly this mechanic is literally never used again in the whole game, making this reinforcement of it here baffling to say the least.
Following the Taurus Demon is where the game really opens up, and some consider everything up to the Taurus Demon to be the tutorial areas. I consider them to be the only well crafted areas, as so far they've been relatively consistent, and while they're bland and generic fantasy they're at least reasonably fair. Enemies are slow enough that you can take them on even in groups so long as you play cautiously. Nothing feels undeserved except the first time those crossbowmen shoot you in the back, but if anything that informs you of level layout in a dynamic way that makes me forgive the cheapness of being hit from an enemy off-screen. It doesn't however make the next part feel less cheap.
After beating the Taurus Demon, you'll walk along the castle walls for a bit and almost immediately get killed by a dragon from off screen that you couldn't possibly see coming. I've heard some stupid arguments defending this part too, claiming it can be avoided and that you should know it's coming because there's a black scorch mark on the floor; as if this game was even close to being consistent. You regularly see scorch marks and blood stains that mean nothing, and at some point later in the game can do combat rolls over chasms, on rickety bridges made of 3 or 4 lashed togther broken lengths of wood and nothing happens. This game does NOT reinforce that hints of danger will be apparent in the textures, and in fact actively reinforces the opposite as you play.
Not only does this dragon attack come out of no-where, it seems tailor made to punish new players by making it so that the souls you've just won for beating the Taurus Demon are lost, and likely unrecoverable. It's not the first time the game will outright steal your rewards off you for progressing, and there's one in particular later in the game that's so disgustingly obtuse that if it was earlier in the game I suspect people would have rage-quit. That boss is Seath The Scaleless, a boss dragon that insta-kills you late in the game in an unavoidable attack very soon after and the bullshit following that encounter is such that I'll give it it's own goddamn section, for now let's continue with this first dragon. My big issue with this dragon is it doesn't just unfairly kill you, it effectively indicates to the player that they're going the wrong way. By putting an instant death here, they're subconsciously telling the player, "go somewhere else", which is a problem as the only way to progress is across this castle wall. Getting past this dragon feels like sequence breaking, it feels like you're cheating as you have to lure the dragon down onto the wall in order to get past into Undead Parish. Beyond the dragon there's a tower with a black knight at the top, positioned in such a way that it will almost certainly attack you from off screen as soon as you get to the top and kill you. This means that following the Taurus Demon we've had two bullshit moments in quick succession. These are moments after the demon, but you'll potentially spend hours pissing about here, dying multiple times, or getting lost on the off-shoot paths thinking the dragon is supposed to indicate a no-go area. This isn't fun and just create this, "where the fuck do I go now", feeling that ruins games based on exploration.
Getting beyond these moments though will lead you quite well into the blacksmith and back around to Firelink Shrine which we've looped back to a couple of times now. The way these first areas link back and criss-cross with firelink shrine is really well done and it does create a sense of exploration and gives the player a real feel for the world geometry. This is the one good thing this game pulls off, and it's something the sequel completely fucks up, but that's for another time. The Heavy Knight in this area, as well as some of the other enemies will drop items uses to upgrade your weapon, and the fact that the blacksmith is so obvious encourages you to upgrade before facing the next area boss; the Bell Gargoyles. They act as a progression gate, because you need to have upgraded your weapons and spent some souls before facing them to stand a reasonable chance of beating them. They're a significant difficulty spike and that's no bad thing but sadly they highlight a completely different flaw in the game which I'll go into detail in next time, which is game balance. Before that though, there's more bullshit moments to highlight.
Once you've finished the Bell Gargoyles off you'll go up, ring the first bell, head back down to Firelink Shrine where you speak to the mincing prick by the fire and he asks "...was it you" as if he didn't really care if you did the whole bell ringing. Then he tells you, "don't stop now. Only one more, but it's going to be suicide", in the same campy and irritating voice, followed by another stupid laugh. Clearly this NPC doesn't actually care if I do the mission, and he seems to want you to fail. He finds it funny. To go back to the first point; why would you be motivated to do anything when this is how the NPCs act? But enough of that, we're now heading down towards the second bell and another bullshit moment the Capra Demon.
This boss hits you 1.3 seconds after you move through the fog gate. You need to know this is coming, and even if you block or dodge you risk being hit by the dogs that are with him, or being caught pinned up against the wall. There's also an annoying tree that blocked the camera. This boss is cheap to the extreme and requires you to fight him in one of the most cramped areas. This leads you to open up the aqueduct shortcut and you're again back at Firelink Shrine. I re-iterate, this criss-cross level design is really good and the one thing I commend 'Dark Souls' for. Once back the mincing prick (or Crestfallen Warrior as everyone else calls him) will hint that you can return to the Asylum and this is where you get yet more bullshit moments. There's basic hollows that have a previously unseen flurry attack which does massive damage that will probably kill you your first time, but if it doesn't the stone floor following them gives way and you take fall damage which is also likely to kill you, all before facing the Stray Demon boss; so this entire section is designed to kill the player in the most unfair way possible. Honestly at this point I think I've made my point about the bullshit moments in this game so let's move on to level design because getting back to the Asylum is a goddamn mess.