Time waits for no game, and it just so happens to have run 10 laps around the perennial Dark Souls, From Software's amazing (but also somewhat terrible) 2011 release and everyone's new favourite genre descriptor.
It's a game that means a lot to me, not just for its content, but also everything else around it. So stick around the bonfire and have a read as I write about every conceivable thing Dark Souls and hopefully don't go hollow in the process.
I've been toying with the idea of reviewing one of the Souls games proper, but so far I've only given the imitators their fair due (more on this later on). Partially, it's because those games are smaller in scope, making them easier to pick apart and analyze. But it's also because I don't know where to start or where to end when talking about the Souls-games proper.
I've been playing Dark Souls for so long and so many times that my first-time experience has almost been eroded from my memory. As far as my brain is concerned, there never was a time where I didn't have the whole damn game memorized or felt even a hint of hesitation strutting around in its hostile environments. How the hell could I write something a newcomer could comprehend from that perspective?
So I might as well double down on the way I think and describe the game as the second western action RPG with engaging combat and build systems I've played (after Demon's Souls). I know it was made in Japan, but I'm not having that conversation today.
I cling to that descriptor because that's the first thing the game brings to the table. In lieu of monotonous combat stringing together tons of engaging dialogue trees, Dark Souls instead vies to immerse you in its harsh world by beating you over the head and expecting you to roll with the punches and then master it.
There's a lot that goes into what makes the whole game work, but to me, the most important factors are its determistic nature and the stamina system. By placing enemies in the same spots and having them respawn alongside your healing potions, the game presents a predictable challenge. And by limiting your actions through stamina costs, it forces you to figure out how to make progress in a smart way.
That's the initial scope of playing the game, just surviving an encounter. But beyond that, you also have a larger scope hanging over you, which is the character build system. While winning each fight and beating the whole game are important goals to work towards, I find character building to be the most satisfying aspect of play overall.
Mastering enemies and areas is one thing, but to truly master the game, you need to use your knowledge of the world to plan a course of action in multiple parts. For simple characters, this isn't hard, but for the more esoteric weapons and builds (particularly magic), I find great joy in routing out where particular equipment is located so I can figure out the best time to pick stuff up for my build.
This being so satisfying is why I always lose interest in the lategame, NG+ especially. With only the primary goal of surviving battles and the end goal of beating the game being left, I instantly miss the challenge inherent in a long-term character-progression plan.
Thankfully, with there being multiple different schools of builds to try and co-op being so much fun, the game is incredibly replayable. I'm curious about what my dollar-to-hour ratio must be at this point, even after buying the game twice. It must be so low it'd work as an aphrodisiac for company executives.
But even after getting your fill of the game after multiple playthroughs, there's still the world of the game left to try and understand. While it is ostensibly just a pile of shintoism and generic fantasy novels peppered with a healthy helping of Berserk (a tradition they never let up), it still manages to be so evocative and engaging. It's depressive as all hell, but not without majesty and the odd dumb joke.
I mean, the boss Pinwheel in Japanese (Saninbaori, IE "Three people in a coat") is named after the Japanese comedy act Nininbaori ("Two people in a coat") where one person blindly tries to feed the other from under a coat. And we can't forget about the mysterious Big Hat Logan, named so for his really big hat. How's that for deep lore!?
Playing the game is oh so slightly nonsensical (Lordran being a dense kingdom centered around a single wall with no way to the ground still confounds me), but I think that's part of its charm. With the level design being a top priority, the resulting world is not simulationist in the slightest, but still manages to feel ali...dead. There's just so much macabre garbage and weird NPCs with impeccable accents to discover and befriend(?).
I know I'm being slightly unfair towards Demon's Souls by talking about its successor like I just did, but DeS is not the game having its anniversary right now and for as much as I love it, it does have less to offer, at least mechanically. Dark Souls was also the game that put From on the map, so naturally it has a more interesting spot in the history books.
People try to put all modern From Software titles under the same "Soulsborne" umbrella, which while sounding inane (and being increasingly inaccurate), is appropriate (though personally, I just go with "Souls-games", "Modern From Software titles", "Games keeping Armored Core in the grave" or "Does not open from this side simulators").
The reason people do this is because From Software is incredibly iterative, as one would expect from a Japanese company with limited resources. While Sony's and Bandai Namco's struggle for supremacy over From's output would want you to think otherwise, everything From has put out since Demon's Souls (barring the furtive Déraciné, so easily forgotten) is basically the same series of games, with only the most recent (Sekiro), being distant enough mechanically to be worth thinking of as a spin-off. And even then, it carries on a ton of "series" traditions.
Thanks to the core of "hardcore, metal and very depressing action game" being so strong and From Software being so good at shifting the focus of the mechanics (making it easier to tank, nerfing shields, effectively removing stamina, actually removing stamina) this hasn't lead to oversaturation. If anything, with Elden Ring on the horizon, people are hungrier than ever for this secret sauce. Except for Armored Core fans, who have probably gone hollow this last decade.
While the mechanics remain engaging, I have found things to be a bit stale thematically however. With "series" director Hidetaka Miyazaki being given the keys to the company for dragging From Software out of the AA mire into the edges of the AAA kingdom, it's not surprising that their games cover the same notes over and over again. Which is almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the games are about neverending cycles of life, death and suffering meant to repeat the same mistakes over and over again until outside interference step in.
As such, I'm under no impression that Elden Ring will be any different. The main character will be under a curse, the kingdom will be slowly degrading, you'll fight someone using a Berserk sword (who looks more like a wolf knight than Artorias, somehow), there'll be a poison swamp and at the end you'll fight an old man in a field of flowers. Hell, they might throw us curve ball and make it an old woman this time. But do I give a shit?
Hell no, inject that stuff into my veins! No other studio satiates my desire for running around metal hellscapes while listening to classically trained English actors as well as From Software does. Really, for as much as the industry seems infatuated with From Software's output, none of the big boys are brave enough to go the whole way and make something as awesome as Dark Souls (barring Team Ninja). The indie scene is fighting the good fight though.
Video game genres are a fuck, this fact cannot be challenged. Mistakes were made and the archivist within me is upset to this day. But you need to work with he cards you're dealt, so let's talk about Souls-likes.
These games ape after From's output both mechanically and stylistically, with each one putting its own spin on the various ideas present. And since the genre conventions are so damn complex and somewhat arbitrary, there is ample room for arguing for or against a particular game belonging to the genre.
I remember thinking that Inmost was a Souls-like (I think I mixed it up with Unworthy), but when I actually played it, I realized it was its own thing, even though it's very depressing and partially stars a knight fighting monsters. Comparatively, something like DarkMaus is evidently a Souls-like, but manages to have its own identity due to its top-down perspective and use of sightlines.
There are a ton of games I could talk about here (special shoutout to Nioh for being extra hardcore at the cost of not being as depressing), but I wanna focus on the two games I reviewed earlier this month, Salt & Sanctuary and Blasphemous.
Not only do these games have sequels in the works going to bat against Elden Ring (which is just Dark Souls 4 as far as I'm concerned), but I think they are the games that have gotten closest to representing From Soft's design goals outside of the studio itself.
Salt & Sanctuary closely follows the Dark Souls blueprint, effectively translating almost every aspect into 2D. It's an impressive game, especially for a mere two-person team. Not everything survived the transition unharmed though (like the player's ability to navigate around bosses), but there are other aspects like the replenishable consumables that are direct improvements to the formula. Hell, From Software eventually implemented those themselves in Sekiro to a minor degree.
With how good the game is for what it is, I feel like the only thing holding it back is the budget. I don't think Salt & Sacrifice will overshadow its predecessor to a major degree, since I believe it's still just a two-person team. But the thought of them scaling up production just a smidge would mean so much. Just the addition of voice acting would kick it up a point or two.
And that leads us to Blasphemous, which scales down on the scope and complexity of the formula to deliver a simpler but more engaging experience. If S&S is 70% RPG and 30% metroidvania, then Blasphemous flips those values around. It has less variety in its environments and has a singular focus on its theme of guilt, but damn if it doesn't manage to make the most out of what it sets out to do.
The artstyle and the voice acting is perfectly in tune with the macabre nature of the setting, which is as metal as settings come. Almost every screen of the game could serve as an album cover. And the gameplay is no slouch either, as even though it forsakes a stamina meter, it still manages to present a meaty deterministic challenge and enforce some harsh rules to force the player into mastery.
While it's getting harder and harder to keep up with the various releases, I'm still psyched for more Souls-likes to hit the market, even if they contribute to the thematic oversaturation I mentioned earlier. I want games to engage me and a stiff challenge is a good way to do so, provided there is enough depth there to motivate me to keep going.
The role of difficulty in games, the validity of its absence and the importance of strong design to support it merits its own write-up, but I know for certain that complex combat and RPG systems, weird worlds and the harsh rules are what drew me to Souls-games and their derivatives.
Of course, there's more to unravel here, as the multiplayer elements go beyond just co-op and the odd asynchronous elements. There is also the matter of invading someone else's game to ruin their day, which is such a risky addition to a game.
I'm a bit split on invasions, as Dark Souls 3 soured me on them for only showing up to ruin co-op, but I think I'm overall in favour of them even if they're unfair, since they add such an irreplaceable element of randomness to the game. The stories I could tell you of of the weirdos I've fought both as an invader and as a host trying to use a mix of guerilla warfare, esoteric builds and the power of ganking friendship to eke out a win could fill its own blog.
There's really nothing quite like it, as due to the RPG mechanics, you'll always run into someone doing their own thing. At least when you're dealing with random PVP. Once you dig into the organized PVP From Software eventually leaned into in Dark Souls 2 & 3, you'll find yourself drowning in a cesspool of meta garbage that puts a spotlight on the shaky PVP mechanics.
Now, I've never been one for fighting games, as a brief encounter with the PSP BlazBlue game turned me off the genre entirely. But the Souls-games resonated with my competetive spirit and got me to engage with fighting game-esque things. I tried my hand at invasions in Dark Souls, but grew tired of it as connection and balance issues sapped the fun out of things.
It did prime me for Dark Souls 2 though, which just so happens to have the least terrible PVP in the series. It's not a high bar, but the changes to mechanics and the more reliable matchmaking plus an everchanging meta brought about by bug fixes and DLC kept me heavily invested.
I used to spend hours upon hours dueling people and partaking in fight clubs, which is my favourite result of the open-ended multiplayer design. With the help of Prism Stones to mark out safe zones, speech carvings, random rewards to drop and the AoE healing Pyromancy Warmth, a hosting player can set up and maintain a fight club for others to enjoy.
That's amazing on its own, but when you remember the dumb situations that arise when some random invaders arrives, it's simply fantastic. Either they'll shrug and join in the battle, or they'll pretend to do that, gun for the host and then get eviscerated in a tide of retribution as the fighters unite to protect their friendly host. Add in other dumb bullshit like cosplayers, joke builds, tryhards, accidental magic misfire and the fun just doesn't end.
The only actual fighting game that has drawn me in like that is Absolver, a mix of Dark Souls and God Hand, which is why it naturally became my game of the year in 2017. And because the world is unjust, it didn't catch on with the FGC and died off in about a year. Thankfully, the devs at Sloclap managed to scrape by and have their new kung-fu beat-em-up Sifu on the way.
As hard as it is to believe sometimes, there's always another person behind the character trying to shove a Dark-infused dagger up your butt during an invasion. And wouldn't you know it, all those people have lives that they sometimes spend doing things related to Dark Souls. And that's how you get the cavalcade of PVP montage makers, shitposters, guide-makers, data miners, lore hounds, modders and speedrunners that make up the community.
I feel this odd sense of camraderie with everyone who plays these games. You have to be at least a slightly bit odd to go back for more when the game kicks your ass from minute one and it makes for an interesting bunch. The sheer amount of effort some people put into their videos these days is just staggering.
And since there are so many of them, if you join the community at this point, you're spoiled for choice. You can spend as many hours consuming stuff related to the game as you do actually playing it!
Just taking the mods as an example, there are like half a dozen campaign conversion mods that people have made for Dark Souls 1-3 to give others the feeling of their first playthrough back by shuffling around content and subverting expectations.
I've only played one of these (Prepare To Die Again), which didn't change a ton, but since you spend so much time mastering the base game, any change to it feels alien and exciting. The Cinders mod For Dark Souls 3 is basically its own game at this point going by what I've heard. Apparently the dev wasn't satisfied with just rebalancing some weak gear and decided to implement their own mechanics. And crab-tacular weaponry!
My own community contribution just so happens to involve my first set of blogs here on Destructoid, as I decided to dig into From Software's history of first-person RPGs and adventure games. What started as simple overviews developed into fullblown text Let's Plays as I found more and more connections to Dark Souls to share.
I wouldn't expect anyone to endure the sheer jank one must survive to play these games, but they have their charm. Their first game, King's Field holds the honor of being the first RPG on the Playstation (in Japan) and is sort of a technical marvel despite how ugly it is. I say that because it streams 3D content (years before Soul Reaver came out) in much the same way that Dark Souls does. Hell, it goes even farther and saves enemy drops even when teleporting to different floors.
A good example of the way From Software works and the reverie they have of their past is the way the two great dragons of the King's Field series got reinterpreted in Dark Souls. The final boss of King's Field 2 (Guyra) had its design reused for the Black Dragon Kalameet in the Dark Souls DLC. This then matched Seath in the base game, who is a reinterpration of the final boss of King's Field 3, looking decidedly less like a Gundam this time around.
What really motivated through all of this though was the sense of discovery. Compared to modern titles, which are datamined immediately, no one cares about King's Field, Shadow Tower or Eternal Ring. I had to scour the internet for all the information I could find and then figure out the rest myself. You can play Dark Souls like that as well, but the temptation to look something up in detail is always there.
I ended up with a curated collection of maps, manual scans, vague guides and downloaded versions of now-dead websites which I'm very happy with. It's an odd feeling to have digital relics of a bygone age that no one cares about that helps you sorta understand a bunch of obscure Japanese games. If anyone's interested in taking this same journey and needs a push in the right direction, you know who to ask.
I've been looking for an excuse to talk about the Dark Souls card game, so we might as well end on that. I know there's the full board game as well, plus a card game for Bloodborne (with a board game in the works), but I haven't played those, since the former is stupid expensive and the latter only supports 3-5 players, so I couldn't justify buying it. But I have played the Dark Souls card game twice (with another person, no less) so let's talk about that.
Being a card game based on Dark Souls, it's naturally stupid tough and borderline unfair. But it is a very clever interpretation of the core Dark Souls loop in card form. You pick a class deck which contains equipment and spells associated with the class, plus the stamina cards needed to play them. This deck represents your health, so any damage done or cards played brings you closer to death.
You (and eventual extra players) then pick a route which brings you across a couple of encounter cards which eventually lead to the boss you need to beat in order to win. But you have 5 rests worth of time to win, so it's prudent to do as many encounters as possible to win and secure loot, which you can mix into your deck to increase your health and give you more options during battle.
The interesting part is that you can also spend those rests trying to fight the boss, as dying only deprives you of loot you haven't secured yet. It's usually a dumb idea to fight the super tough bosses early, but the option is there and sometimes you're just lucky.
I had a lot of fun playing the core game and the expansion, but I found it a bit too hard, as you can't save your deck while making a boss run nor can you heal without a herald. It did make it more fun the few times we did win, but even with a good amount of loot, it's difficult to have a strategy beyond "play whatever the hell you have and pray the boss AI deck is kind".
One thing I found interesting about it was when I played with the expansion. Doing that pits you against a selection of Dark Souls 1 bosses, but everything else is still Dark Souls 3 assets. It's as if you're playing Dark Souls filtered through 3, which I think is how a lot of people experience it, since 3 is apparently the most popular game in the series.
This is where I would whine about non-existant Dark Souls 2 representation, but while writing this part I found out that there was a actually a second expansion made that I didn't know about! One that has a new invasion mechanic and 4 Dark Souls 2 bosses. And it's even in stock at a local retailer, so I'm gonna finish this up and go order it. You'll have to make your own "The Dark Souls of decades" joke, I'm out of here until Elden Ring is ready to consume all my free time.