With the release of Dark Souls III only a month away, it is a good time to reflect on what makes the original Dark Souls so special. Known for its extreme difficulty, the Souls series also features amazing level design, well-designed boss battles, and a deep combat system. Such a challenging game comes with great reward for those who put in the effort to persevere through it.

I always find it hard to compare modern games with games that are considered to be from the classic era. My “all-time favorite games” list always includes titles like Earthbound and Chrono Trigger and there isn’t really much room for modern titles. Maybe it is because of nostalgia or because those games have become so iconic over the years. Often times newer games from the PS1/N64 generation and onward do not hold up quite the way we remember them. Games from the 8-bit and 16-bit generation usually stand the test of time, which is a huge factor in their overall merit. With that being said, one of the only modern games I consider to be among my all-time favorites is the original Dark Souls.

Dark Souls absolutely changed my life and the way I think about video games. Everything about it was perfect for me: the aesthetic, the brilliant level design, the difficulty, and the high learning curve. It was a game that punished the player based on their own actions alone. Many dispute the fact, but if you die in Dark Souls, it’s your own fault. It’s up to you to learn the mechanics because the game isn’t going to hold your hand through the experience.

dark souls bonfire
Living bonfire to bonfire.

When I first played the game four years ago, it was a huge wake up call. The challenge had dissolved from most video games and I was so occupied with quickly blasting through games that I hardly realized it. Dark Souls was something entirely different, yet familiar. My favorite elements from classic RPGs and platformers were in this new game. I had to take my time learning the levels, rationing my estus flasks (the equivalent of health potions), learning enemy attack patterns, and knowing when to grind and when to move forward. If I made any mistakes I was dead. If I was careful, I’d be able to at least redeem my souls from my place of death.  

It was a truly meaningful and memorable experience. I’ll never forget the experience of dying over and over again in Blighttown and Poison Swamp. The sense of accomplishment I got from completing these areas was astounding. After beating them, I told myself “I’m never going back!” and I haven’t gone back since. These areas were torturous to get through and some might question why anyone would want to have that kind of experience in a video game that is allegedly supposed to be fun. I can certainly sympathize with that point of view and Dark Souls is not a game for everybody.  Even though Blighttown had me screaming at my television screen for what seemed like hours, I still enjoyed the merciless level design. I simply fell in love with the feeling of accomplishment I got from it.

The high-risk, high-reward mechanic is so punishing, yet so addicting. After a “failed attempt”, players can’t help but want to respawn and give it another try. Though not the first game to utilize high-risk, high-reward, Dark Souls did it with huge mainstream success. It became a leading example of this mechanic and many prior games have implemented elements of it. Combined with brutal difficulty and unforgiving gameplay, Dark Souls has mainly appealed to hardcore gamers and even revitalized attitudes on video game difficulty. A high bar has been set and as a result, it seems like many games are now once again based in extreme difficulty. Indie titles like Spelunky and Super Meat Boy have also helped set a precedent for difficult games in the modern era.

When I first jumped into Dark Souls, I found the level design confusing. It wasn’t apparent to me which direction I could go. There were multiple paths I could take from Firelink Shrine, the main hub. In my head, I wondered if this was like Mega Man where I would have to complete levels and bosses in a specific order. After many hours of play the main path became clear to me, but I still had a few different route options. I discovered that the brilliant Metroidvania-esque level design was connected by locked doors and one-sided elevator switches. The entire map could be traversed through a series of passageways and elevators in a way that was never apparent in the beginning. It is so fascinating how it all comes together after being overwhelmed at the start.

ornstein and smough
Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough.

Apart from brilliant level design and difficult enemies, Dark Souls also features some of the best 3D boss battles I’ve ever played. Their design and aesthetic are frightening, which is only reinforced by their immense difficulty. I was stuck on Taurus Demon and Ornstein & Smough for what seemed like forever. After I finally bested them in battle, I felt accomplished and relieved. Dark Souls rewards its players not only with experience points, but also with great achievement. The game teaches the basic mechanics through a trial and error process. You’ll always be learning from your mistakes in order to become a better player. All of your skills will be put to the test during boss battles and there is no easy way to scrape by. For the first time in ages, it felt like a return to difficult video game bosses. The challenge brings out the most important aspects of video games and gives the player a true feeling of accomplishment.

Playing through Dark Souls revitalized my interest in modern gaming due the feeling of reward I got and the absolutely amazing game design. It is an old school video game at its core, complete with immense difficulty and various stages of progression. While it is not a game for everybody, those who have played it thoroughly can understand its impact. With the 2015 release of Bloodborne being a huge success and Dark Souls III in the near future, I cannot wait to see where From Software will take us next.