Dark Souls is a franchise that is near impossible not to respect regardless of your standing. Be it among the brigade of players on their 15th playthrough, or those of us who still struggle to get past the Asylum Demon. How does the title command such respect? By merely putting its gameplay experience first.
Dark Souls is, arguably, the quintessential example of a title centered around creating a gameplay experience with a defined, palatable vision. It’s not trying to be the prettiest. It’s not packed with the most features, and damn, It’s certainly not trying to hand-hold its players through the first hour of the game.
While putting gameplay first sounds like the most straightforward and most logical thing to do when it comes to creating a fantastic gaming experience, time and time again, we see new titles that stun us visually, only to underwhelm us when we get down to the gameplay experience.
Back to Basics
If someone mentions Dark Souls, that unforgiving, challenging gameplay is right at the forefront of what comes to mind. A system where the fun is in depth and the details. So many titles in more recent memory struggle to bring anything new within their niche.
Dark Souls holds up eight years later by delivering an experience that’s increasingly hard to find. An experience where the progression is genuinely personal. Where the player needs to learn mechanics, not just how to grind out levels. Where death, more often than not, means YOU made a mistake, not that your level wasn’t up to snuff. To many, it’s a rather brutal concept. But the reality is it’s a breath of fresh air in today’s market.
If you’ve ever picked up a guitar, you’ll know why this can be so satisfying. Hear me out here. If you’ve ever sat down to learn a song and instantly hit a wall, only to push against it again and again until you get it right, you know Dark Souls. That happiness of hard work paying off is really what makes the title, especially on a player’s first playthrough, so incredibly rewarding.
Later, playthroughs are akin to making a classic song your own, to keep with the same analogy. You know what’s coming, the foundations are the same, but it’s what you do with it that makes it unique. Like adding your fills into riffs, new builds and ways to play are ten a penny in the best approach here.
The Perfect Interpretation
Of course, there are a plethora of games that have been released in recent years that look to encapsulate that Dark Souls magic, as the term ‘Souls-like’ has begun to be coined. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and more recently Code Vein, have brought that magic and given it a new setting, with the latter diving into the realm of anime with its art style and themes.
While these titles hold their own very well, their most significant changes are also something that makes Dark Souls stand out. It’s setting. Western fantasy is by no means anything new, but the take is refreshing. Gone are the cliches of Elves and Dwarfs. In their place are characters who let their personality define them and monsters straight from the gates of hell itself. Interactions are memorable and feel far more meaningful when compared to fantasy titles that throw characters in and out, as so many do.
Trimming the fat
What Dark Souls does very well, remove the unnecessary. You’re not going to find cookie-cutter items, generic spawns for the sake of spawns. There are a story and a purpose behind everything you see. NPC’s aren’t loaded with a heap of generic information that serves little in the way of intrigue. Instead, each character brings their own to the story.
The same goes for features within the game itself. There is nothing that’s overly tacked on, that feels like a spare part. Even multiplayer and PvP feels integrated into what is overwise a very solo experience. The seamless nature of this integration helps to further that replayability I sung the praises of earlier.
In a time where loot boxes and cosmetics are an all too real plague upon almost every AAA title, going back to a title like Dark Souls with such a refined, limited palette is a genuine breath of fresh air. Less really is more, in this case.
Gimmicks, Graphics, and the Grotesque
If more developers led by From Software’s example, we’d be looking at a vastly different landscape in gaming. It’s hard to escape the corner we are in, where AAA titles are locked in a rather unsustainable quest for visual perfection and the procurement of big-name cameos. We all loved E3 2019’s lineup of celebrity appearances, but while the joy and the memes might last a week, Dark Souls is proof alone that a focus on gameplay lasts a lifetime.
You see, Dark Souls is to gameplay what the original Crysis was to graphics. The Benchmark. Crysis spent a good couple of years as the gold standard in video game graphics, and now today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a AAA title that isn’t following in its footsteps when it comes to graphical fidelity. Sadly, we are yet to see a surge of titles all aiming to emulate the formulaic gameplay structure that has captivated fans of the Souls franchise.
I’m not going to sit and claim Dark Souls is the perfect game. It’s far from it. Glitches and bugs do still occur, although not nearly to the extent that the title faced at launch. Even then, that’s nothing out of the ordinary in today’s market. Titles released without promised content — titles release with game-breaking bugs on day one. Dark Souls might share some of the problems with today’s games, but it certainly does correctly enough to be forgiven.
A Rest at the Bonfire
Dark Souls is, to many, that title that makes people throw controllers. To many more, it’s a thrilling challenge that delivers frustration and happiness in a manner usually weighted towards the former. Dark Souls is, however, an old friend to a specific group of gamers. Those who’ve put themselves through the punishment and returned as the ‘Souls universe’s equivalent to Bane.
To everyone, Dark Souls should be seen as a benchmark for what to expect. A focus on player experience. A game that puts the knowledge of the player first, even when it means sacrificing additionals.