You Can Get Good at Dark Souls

Written by Benjamin Wiebe

Dark Souls is a game series that most people have heard of. In 2021, it was titled the “Ultimate Game of All Time ” according to the Golden Joystick Awards. It’s a game that is seemingly of extreme cultural importance. Dark Souls has spawned numerous YouTube channels and videos, from Let’s Plays to character-building guides to lore videos to game design videos and video essays. Its spiritual successor, Elden Ring, sold 12.5 million copies two weeks after its release in 2022. It’s a game that all of my friends have heard of… and it’s a game that many of them don’t want to play. 

My friend’s unwillingness to plunge into Dark Souls and the kingdom of Lordran isn’t a fault of their character. It’s not that they are uninterested in fantasy RPGs – they are avid fans of D&D 5E. It’s not that they don’t like the souls-like gameplay loop – they are fans of both Hollow Knight and Jedi: Survivor, games that share the interconnected level design and “bonfire” checkpoint system. What keeps them from wanting to play Dark Souls has less to do with what the game is and more to do with its notoriety. Dark Souls is “a hard game,” perhaps even the hard game. The phrase ‘get gud’ was created by Souls fans, often used in response to players looking for help when dealing with the challenges presented in the game. Dark Souls is a game made for masochists, those who want to be beaten to a pulp time and time again. The game is unfair to the player, full of traps that kill the player in one hit and with enemies that unleash a barrage of undodgeable attacks. Some bosses are accompanied by allies to gang up on the player. For example, the Capra Demon fight is an early boss accompanied by two of the most irritating enemies in the series: dogs. Dogs in Dark Souls are erratic, hard-hitting, and hard to hit – and in the Capra Demon fight, there is no space to maneuver around. 

If you manage to make it out of the early game, the mid-game apexes with the hardest fight in the game – a two-on-one, where if you manage to kill one of the bosses, the other gets superpowered and fully healed. Death in Dark Souls is inevitable. Death is common and cheap, and because you have to replay through previous areas and previous enemies to get to the thing that killed you, the player’s time is seemingly wasted by the game. Even worse, the currency that allows you to buy items and level up, “souls”, is dropped by your player when you die. If you fail to retrieve your lost souls before you die again, they are lost forever. Through this lens, it’s easy to see why my friends don’t want to play Dark Souls. It’s a game that will require tens of hours to complete, which gives you no real directions and is instead unbearably cryptic. Jump isn’t even bound to a button on the controller – you have to sprint forward and then double-tap the button you use to sprint. Dark Souls is hostile to the player, so only a fool or a very patient person could dream of beating Dark Souls

Of course, this isn’t entirely true. According to HowLongToBeat.com, a website on which users can input how long it took them to complete any game, Dark Souls: Remastered takes players an average of 44 hours to complete. My own playthrough took me 32 hours and 44 minutes, and I definitely do not have unending patience. I ran into roadblocks, and the Ornstein and Smough boss fight raised my temper enough that I had to take a day off the game.

It’s a perception of the game created by years of fans speaking to the “difficulty” of Dark Souls, a perception antithetical to the experience of playing Dark Souls

Playing Dark Souls is akin to building a puzzle. This is a common metaphor, especially when discussing the lore of the game. As noted earlier, the ‘story’ of Dark Souls is often told through cryptic NPCs (non-playable characters) or vague item descriptions. The opening cutscene gives an introduction to what this world is, its rulers and the wars they waged on one another. But it doesn’t tell you why you are there. Some NPCs are more forthcoming than others, and some will give you an explicit goal: to re-link the flame before the world is plunged into darkness. But why do these NPCs want you to relink the flame? Should you re-link the flame? Why are all of Gwyn’s servants blocking your path? These questions can only be answered by long questlines, and digging through your inventory, slowly piecing together the stories of those who were here long before you. 

It’s easy to see why the lore is considered a puzzle and easier to see why entire YouTube channels have spawned out of Dark Souls’ lore. But it’s not only the lore that is a puzzle – every level is a puzzle, waiting for the player to piece together how this world works. 

Let’s start with the basics of gameplay: For a Third Person Character Action RPG, Dark Souls is a bit… weird. As many have noted, the game’s combat and movement systems are a bit obtuse. Every action you do has a ‘time cost’ associated with it. Some people consider Dark Souls a rhythm game for this reason: bosses telegraph attacks, which you have to learn the timing of to dodge, block, or parry before unleashing your own volley of attacks into the boss. And your own attacks take time, with each weapon swinging in its own unique way. If you are fighting a boss and swing at the wrong time, you have to sit through the attack animation and watch yourself be pummeled by an attack you can’t dodge. This is made more complex by your character’s stamina. Stamina is used whenever you dodge, block, or attack; if you run out, your character must wait for it to refill. Poor stamina management can make a sure victory a death sentence.

Until you understand the rhythm of the game’s combat, Dark Souls will not make sense – it’s a puzzle where even your choice of weapon can have a major impact on your play.

Speaking of weapons, let’s discuss the third major “puzzle” of Dark Souls: It’s RPG mechanics. Many overlapping systems impact how the game feels to play – whether it’s the armour/carry weight system, poise, weapon damage types, character attributes, or the various consumables you will find throughout your journey. These interlocking systems can have drastic effects on your gameplay… if you know how to utilize them properly. Learning that levelling up your offensive stats for damage is only as effective as your weapons scaling – which increases drastically with weapon upgrades.

Every player has to navigate these systems on their own, but the psychological effects of how these systems work, when combined with the narrative that Dark Souls is an unmovable wall, can make for a very reserved playstyle that doesn’t interact with these systems intuitively. Take the game’s healing system, the Estus Flask. You only have a set amount of these every time you leave a bonfire and venture into the world, and while these can heal small wounds, they also could heal a much larger amount of health – and some players will save using a flask till they have sustained just a little more damage. This economical play can backfire, though; if you encounter a difficult encounter and don’t find a healing window during the fight, you may never heal. 

Or perhaps players may consider every item in their inventory to be extremely precious and view those items like master balls in Pokemon. You could use your black firebombs to kill the asylum demon, but what if there is a harder challenge ahead that you need those firebombs for? Because using items is permanent, players may hold onto items far more than they should – and because of the puzzle-like nature of the game’s lore and systems, not every item clearly tells you how they work or their effectiveness. A player may even find an item they want to use, like the weapon upgrade materials, but trick themselves into holding onto them. What if I find a better weapon, and I don’t have the ability to upgrade it? It was a common thought in my playthroughs of the first game. However, when later merchants offered those early materials, I felt both relieved and silly.

This is the second puzzle of Souls games, and each player will find a preferred playstyle. Some may even resort to going to a wiki to find what each item does to determine when they should be used. Everything will be a bit of trial and error: finding out what weapons you like best and the timing of their movements, deciding what shield to use, and how much you want to carry compared to the roll it offers, etc. And this doesn’t even consider how magic might impact your build, which can simplify some encounters.

The last puzzle component of Dark Souls is its level design. Every level is hand-crafted, with enemies placed in both obvious and hidden spots, waiting to strike. Levels can feel long and overwhelming, and as your healing items begin to run dry, wandering the new land creates new anxiety: if I die, will I be able to make it back here? And as you surpass new challenges by the skin of your teeth, you begin to doubt your ability to return. You begin entering every new clearing with one goal: find another checkpoint. A bonfire is preferred, as it entirely replenishes your healing items and health, but a shortcut will suffice. The levels are tense, and every corner possibly spells your doom. If you make it to the shortcut, your progress will not be in vain.

But even death isn’t in vain in Dark Souls. Because those tense levels will begin to etch themselves into your mind, each time you barely survive a trap, you learn something new. You can do it! You made it past once, so you can make it past again. 

Over the past year, I spent nearly 200 hours playing various Souls games, from Bloodborne to Elden Ring to Demons’ Souls. Each game challenged me in new and unique ways, and with each game, I had to conquer the challenges through new methods. Sorceries in Demons’ Souls allowed me to create a build that could one-shot most bosses. Dark Souls had the most elaborate levels; my load-outs changed with each area. Bloodborne had the most aggressive bosses that pushed me to use every technique available – parries, backstabs, quick and slow weapons. I have loved each game, and I want others to get into this series because these games are far more approachable than what their reputation would have you believe. You can get good at Dark Souls!

What does getting good at Dark Souls mean?

To me, getting good at Dark Souls refers to the shift in momentum when the adventurer goes from being on the defensive constantly to a precise, aggressive force that dominates every challenge laid before them.

Getting good at Dark Souls is akin to mastering a piece of music – it’s when your actions are in time with the song set before you. Good play is memorizing enemy placements and patrol routes and using each to your advantage. It’s a type of play that only comes from practice – from dying tens of times and having to make your way through the game again and again. After you have traversed each level so many times that every part of it is branded on your mind; that is when good play begins.  And yes, it requires dying a few times – sometimes to basic enemies, sometimes to the boss. But when you get into that rhythm, the game transforms from an ominous terror that stops you from starting into predictable prey waiting to be conquered. 

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