So, we've discussed that Dark Souls has no narrative at all, which means there's no motivation to do anything in game. We've also discussed the games bullshit moments, points in the game designed either incompetently or worse still intentionally to be unfair and so that the player will lose through no fault of their own. Considering this is a game where the fanbase tells you to "Git Gud" and that every death is YOUR FAULT! whenever you bring up these cheap moments only highlights the delusional nature of the fanboys blind praise of this game.
PART 3 - TERRIBLE & CONVOLUTED LEVEL DESIGN ON PAR WITH THE FUCKING NES
I ended part 2 by saying that getting back to the Asylum is a goddamn mess. Oh yes it is. This is a level of convoluted a cryptic crap on par with the likes of 'Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest' on the NES in the late 80s. That's not a good thing. That game was marred with bad design issues largely because of a poor translation and a need for the game to be longer. Konami didn't want people finishing the game when renting it, because then people wouldn't buy it, so they add in cryptic shit like the nonsense with the cliff tornado to make it last longer. That's what this is like.
Here's an independent video by someone doing a walkthrough showing the steps you need to take. So first you need to walk off the lift in Firelink Shrine mid-way through travelling which is fine, but then it expects you to walk along parts of the world geometry that look like they're not wide enough to walk on and that your characters walk animation seems to slide over. This doesn't seem like a place your supposed to go, it feels like you've found somewhere where you can go out-of-bounds and sequence break. Next you have to roll and precision platform onto a pillar that's barely larger than you. This is a game without a dedicated jump button and it's expecting precision fucking platforming. Additionally if you're fairly encumbered you physically can't make that jump. He even describes how you jump, and it's hardly easy to do accurately involving timed holding and quickly tapping buttons in order to do a dive roll, which isn't actually a jump it's intentionally dodge-rolling off a cliff edge. Like I say, there is no jump button. You follow this up with needing to curl into a ball in a birds nest and wait for around 30 seconds for anything to happen. This is bizarre and makes no thematic sense. Why would curling up in a giants birds nest take you back to a previous level in the game? It's senseless.
If this was the only instance of convoluted level design it wouldn't be so bad, it'd be a quirk sure but not necessarily bad. But it's not, 'Dark Souls' is full of tight walkways, awkward camera angles, and levels that are confusing to navigate. The next place you'd be heading after tha Capra Demon is Blighttown and this is possibly one of the most un-fun areas you can be in, in this game. First you need to travel through The Depths and face the Gaping Dragon which isn't such a bad boss if it wasn't for the enemies that fire unlimited soul arrows at you from the battlements. They never run out of ammo and have unlimited range which feels rather unfair considering you have a set range on the same spell and a limited number of castings. This is another example of unfair level design, but it's nothing compared with Blighttown itself.
At this point Blighttown is infamous amongst the Souls community for being a terrible area, in reality it's not that bad in level design it's instead a whole new problem that up until now wasn't an issue. Performance. Blighttown requires you to be playing on a computer well beyond the recommended requirements for the game otherwise you'll find it struggling to load, if you're on consoles at this point you're basically fucked. Framerates will drop below 20 frames per second at times, the game will often stutter and freeze up, and while it often only freezes for a fraction of a second or just drops a frame or two in lag; this is a game where making a mistake gets you killed and combat expects perfect timing. These stutter moments will cause you to die. But if that's not bad enough, the area has reduced visability and an enemy that spits toxic darts at you that impose the "Toxic" status effect. Now, if you're poisoned in the game your health will slowly drain and you need to use an Estus Flask to recover health, depending on the level it could take two Estus Flasks to regain enough health to counter act the amount you're losing. Toxic isn't so kind, it will continuously drain your health over and over and you will need to stand there and consume EIGHT Estus Flasks one after the other as the Toxic continually drains your health before it wears off. Considering you can carry only 15 of these flasks at max, this means you cannot survive being hit by Toxic twice in this area without being killed and even if the toxic dark hits your fucking sheild, you'll still count as being hit and still take the Toxic status. Making this attack brutal, unblockable, ranged, often striking from off screen, and in a level with reduced visability so you can't necessarily see the enemies before they fire at you. All this happens while regular enemies are attacking you in a level with some of the worst performance of an action game in the last 10 years. This is the epitome of terrible level design. Towards the bottom of Blighttown you'll find yourself in a poison swamp which will not only zap your health but also reduces mobility unless you did the convoluted journey back to the Asylum to get a ring that improves your mobility. It's just another drudge in a level that simply isn't fun.
Climbing out of Blighttown is a chore. There's thin platforms to walk along filled with the enemies that spit toxic darts, it's just more bullshit and considering the performance only really improves once you get to the Valley Of Drakes, which is basically a stonethrow away from returning to Firelink Shrine. This entire journey is tedious, and if you take the wrong turn in Valley Of Drakes there's a good chance you'll get killed by a sleeping dragon and have to do it all over again.
So you've rang both bells, there's a short cutscene showing a large portcullis opening, which you'd likely recognise as the one near the blacksmith as it was quite an obvious dead end. This leads to Sen's Fortress which is actually pretty good... this area is fairly well designed, has some inventive traps that allow for tactical luring of enemies into their own traps. A need to stay aware of your surrounding to break line of sight as enemies will cast spells across the level while you're walking along tight platforms avoiding traps, so timing is key. This would be a flawless area if not for it's bullshit deaths. There's a lift that will take you up then instead of stopping speeds up just before reaching the destination and insta-kills you by ramming you into ceiling spikes. Lifts have never been anything other than area transition mechanics up until this point and it's almost impossible to anticipate this first time playing. Then there's the Mimic. People claim it's a classic monster, but unless you're very familiar with old D&D, it's really not and it's bullshit because again it just outright kills you. If the Mimic attacked you, took a third of your life or hell even half, on the first bite then allowed you the chance to fight it. That would be more reasonable. Opening a chest to suddenly find "You Died" however is bullshit and ruins any fun you may be having. Sen's Fortress was the best level in the game, but 'Dark Souls' has to ruin everything. The boss of this area is also shit, the Iron Golem. He should be a fairly standard boss but his grab attack has one of the worst hit-boxes ever and it can grab you regardless of if you're actually in range, which makes the entire fight feel massively unfair.
The most obvious example of awful and convoluted level design is Anor Londo, and this one really pisses me off. First of all, you enter Anor Londo by being carried by winged demons in a cutscene and just dropped into it. This is massively at odds with the interconnected feel this game is supposed to be going for. Every other level winds back into Firelink Shrine but this one has a disjointed cutscene. Just terrible. This however is just the beginning. After scouring the area of Anor Londo, killing everything that moves, and realising that literally everything is a dead end you'll reach a point where you either give up and switch this piece of shit off, or do what I do a Google it?
Eventually you'll figure out that you need to climb on the world geometry again in a way that legitimately feels like you're going somewhere you shouldn't be allowed to. That beam you're walking on isn't flat despite it being programmed to act like a flat walkway showing that textures and the world mesh will often not match. This could easily have been fixed by adding something, like a temporary wooden rampart added to that beam to make it look like you could walk on it. As it stands I expect to slip off it, because the angles are so steep, but you don't; no, the game decides this been counts as flat.
Next you have to go through a broken window and eventually make you way though the inside the cathedral, walking along wooden beams in the roof. This is so badly designed and so badly conveyed as the intended path through the game that I'm surprised anyone allowed this to make it into the final release. If you stand still you can see that the beams are so thin that you can't actually fit on them, your feet float either side of the beam because well designed hit boxes are not a thing in 'Dark Souls'. The designers actually have the fucking gall to put enemies up on these rafters too which means you need to fight on these beams too thin to stand on.
I find this entire area in Anor Londo to be indefensable which is precisely why I include screenshots. It's the single worst example of terrible level design as it highlights just how little the levels make sense and how purposely obtuse they can make things. The walkways are consistently too think to reasonably manouver on, they often don't look like walkways, they regularly have enemies on them with attacks that cause knock-back. Consider when you're fighting the two knights with bows on the window-sills if you need to re-live a terrible memory. This isn't fun, this is beyond frustrating... and yet all this could be forgiven...
...literally everything I've discussed so far would make the game frustrating but not objectively bad. The lack of a story and motivation to play the game, that could be considered a matter of taste. Perhaps you want a game without a story, you just want a pure gameplay experience. I'd argue there's better ways of doing that but if that's the case I can see people largely dismissing my arguments about story. Perhaps you enjoy trail and error gameplay and don't find the parts that I've highlighted throughout this article as bullshit moments all that egregious. Again, I feel there's far better ways to do this. A game like Super Meat Boy makes trail and error design seem fair because it respects your time and allows you to repeatedly test out and try levels in different ways in quick succession. The games deliberate combat system and slow pace is in direct opposition to trial and error game design but maybe you're OK with that. You could even find the obtuse level design interesting, seeing it as a means of making the player think outside the box and make them reassess how they think about the game as they play. There are arguments that can be made to justify these bad design elements. I feel they're poor arguments, but they're arguments non-the-less. My next point destroys the fucking lot though.
PART 4 - HIT BOXES, GAME BALANCE, GLITCHES, & COLLISION DETECTION
I wanted to save this point until now because I genuinely feel this is the point where 'Dark Souls' goes from a flawed game that could reasonably still have a good draw, to an objectively bad game. If all the previous points I made where still true, but the gameplay was consistent, fair, and predictable; you could at least claim that while the game has some frustrating moments and obtuse level design, the challenge of beating the game is what brings people in. It's a test of skill and that repeated test of skill is rare in modern games, with their constant check-points, regenerating health, easily beaten goons as enemies, and hand-holding level design. In fact, this is precisely what many people defending 'Dark Souls' claim. I'm going to explain why that's simply not the case.
Hit boxes throughout 'Dark Souls' are painfully inconsistent. There are multiple enemies where you will easily dodge their attacks and yet their attacks still hit. The grab attack from the Iron Golem at the end of Sen's Fortress is an example I've already mentioned. Havel, The Rock is another good example. He's a miniboss with a curved hammer that seems to hit you and can one-shot you, even when you're clearly outside of it's hit box. These are examples of one-on-one fights where the hit boxes are bugged, but it's when there's multiple opponents that this becomes near unplayable.
With more than one opponent, incoming attacks will often layer over each other, with the enemy models just phasing through each other as if they weren't there. This can end up with the ridiculous situation I show in the GIF below where a barage of attacks can come in with no point where you can safely dodge or counter-attack, where blocking will only drain your stamina entirely, and where attempting to bottleneck your opponents into a tight corridor only makes the situation worse.
This ability for enemies to be able to attack through each other without issue completely undermines any tactics involving the level layout you could possibly use. This issue also effects enemy projectiles, where an arrow or thrown weapon will pass through melee enemies you're fighting as if they weren't there and still hit you meaning you can't use enemies as cover and ranged enemies have no penalty whatsoever for attacking into melee. This problem is further compounded by the tightness of the walkways and presence of walls. Your attacks bounce of walls, so much so that often you'll find yourself unable to attack if your weapon is too long for you to swing it without hitting a wall. This level of realism is appreciated and would be a really cool addition if it also effected your opponents but it doesn't. Not only can your opponents weapons keep going, they can clip right through walls and ignore them, and the AI will often ignore walls completely as if they can see through them. While the enemy model can't clip through a wall as far as I know, the AI will ignore the presence of walls entirely and they'll even outright attack through walls, their weapons clipping through them and hitting you even if you're in a different room as shown in the second GIF below.
This is the crux of what makes 'Dark Souls' such a terrible game. This same issue happens repeatedly throughout. Whether it's basic enemies like I've shown above or in boss fights such as with the Bell Gargoyles where one can spew fire while you're in melee with the other, and the fire will pass straight through the gargoyle you're fighting only to hit you and kill you. In later fights such as with Ornstein and Smough, the bosses can and will outright pass through each other, and Ornstein regularly throws lightning that passes through Smough. Considering how huge Smough is, this makes it so that Ornstein can pretty much attack, throw projectiles etc. without issue and you can't even tell what's coming and that's without considering the terrible camera in this boss fight which often gets stuck behind pillars obscuring your view.
The fight with Ornstein and Smough also highlights a huge balance issue. Playing as a melee build is the expected way you play this game, but as it's supposedly an RPG there's the option to play as a spellcaster. Doing so breaks the game. If you play as a Pyromancer or Sorcerer you can take out the majortiy of enemies at a distance, without any real challenge. Most of them don't have any AI programming for what to do when they're hit at range so they'll either stand around and let you kill them, wander aimlessly, or charge forward while you gun them down. In boss fights, you can make short work of many of the bosses that would have been genuinely difficult for a melee build. The Bell Gargoyles drop without the need to upgrade any equipment, you can easily take out Ornstein and Smough from a distance. The enemies on the unfairly thin platforms in Anor Londo can be destroyed from range. It's incredible how far you can go using a sorcerer and just spamming soul arrow and later soul spear. The game is clearly not designed around this method of play because it cheapens everything, yet at the same time, it's the only way to play 'Dark Souls' and have it be even remotely fun because without spells the game is a goddamn chore.
This isn't an isolated case of it being just one or two bosses, this is a constant issue. Moonlight Butterfly is a boss that's beyond trivial if you're a spellcaster but is a genuine slog for a melee build as there's no clear way you're supposed to take it down. It seems to have been designed with spellcasters in mind yet almost none of the other enemies in the game are and that's where the confusion lies. If you play as a sorcerer you've effectively chosen to play 'Dark Souls' as a third person shooter game, only you're the only person with a ranged weapon, barring a few archers every now and then. None of the minibosses or main bosses except Moonlight Butterfly seem built around this mechanic, and all of them without exception are far easier as a spellcaster. The entire game is easier as a spellcaster, to the point of tedium.