The first time I played Dark Souls, I was a senior in high school and I thought I was the best when it came to every video game (that wasn’t League of Legends). Dark Souls taught me a little humility. I struggled and spent hours upon hours trying to understand how to be better at this classic in the making. However, I was never able to confront Gwyn.
Since that defeat, I’ve spent years learning the Souls series and finally began to make some progress for myself. Now, after recently conquering Elden Ring, I’m returning to take what’s rightfully mine, the title of Lord of Cinder.
Iconic Story Beats With a Sprinkle of Frustration
Every time I replay Dark Souls, I’m hit by just how memorable the early game truly is. Everything before Sen’s Fortress is iconic, not only in the Soul series but in gaming.
You are the Chosen Undead who must ring two bells of Awakening in order to gain entrance to Sen’s Fortress and eventually Anor Londo so that you can speak to Gwynevere who will gift you the Lordvessel which is used to hold four Lord Souls. These Lord Souls are what grant access to the Kiln of the First Flame and Gwyn himself.
It’s a very simple premise but it’s a rabbit hole of lore. Even if you don’t want to get caught up in all the minutia of the prophecy and the history regarding the Age of Ancients, the mystery the game presents might just tempt you to look up a Vaati video to get some of the juicy details.
However, stumbling through this world only knowing surface-level details can be thrilling in itself. Wandering from the first bell not understanding what you are doing or why you are doing it, it’s like a true adventure.
Proving myself to Gwynevere and traversing Anor Londo felt like a true accomplishment. The Souls series gets a bad rap for its difficulty but it’s that difficulty that is so interwoven into the context of the game. The struggle is to overcome years of adversity and fulfill an ancient prophecy and that doesn’t happen easily.
If I could run through this game like I do Skyrim, what would be the point? Because the anticipation of finally confronting Gwyn is what helped to drive me further into this game. The design of the game is built around this philosophy of struggle and that’s so important to appreciate.
The Souls series has made me realize just how much I enjoy having time to piece together the story while playing rather than having these long boring conversations or cut scenes. I love the mystery and I wish other developers weren’t so scared of omitting mediocre exposition in their titles. I do love cut scenes when they are done well but, let’s be honest, most are not. They are filler that we’d rather skip.
That being said, there are several elements that are so unclear or hidden that they might cause some frustration for people. For instance, learning how to traverse the abyss to fight the Four Kings might leave players a little lost.
How was I supposed to know I was supposed to defeat a giant sword-wielding dog, put a ring on, and jump into a dark hole at the bottom of the world? These things happen and whether you want to check every item, NPC dialogue tree, or just look up a guide, it’s up to you and it’s all valid really.
From Software’s World Design at Its Best
Having played almost all of From Software’s titles at this point, Dark Souls’ world design is just perfect. The interconnected paths that are available from the very beginning at Firelink Shrine are wild. Dark Souls really lets you have access to areas that might be best to do when you are closer to level 40-50 at level 2.
Being able to see future locations from far away or hearing the whispers of what’s to come is always thrilling and while other From Software titles have done this since Dark Souls, I think Dark Souls did it best.
Take your first assignment, ringing the bells as a great example. This objective is the highlight of the entire game. The traditional path has you wandering around a castle and a small town before you fight some gargoyles so you can ring the first bell. Then you can head down to the ruins, take a turn and make your way through the toxic town of Blighttown.
Winding through this poisonous and bug-infested shantytown is just another experience that sends shivers down a Dark Souls player’s spine. Navigating it is frustrating and often, the player will have to go back and forth through here before they actually clear everything they need to. It’s iconic for its frustration and leads to the final bell (and later, one of the Lord Souls).
Both of these locations are available from the start (technically) but the player can also go to the Tomb of the Giants or the New Londo Ruins. It’s really cool to know that when you are on the bridge to Sen’s Fortress, you are also on top of a lush forest that you can climb down and explore. Or how New Londo Ruins opens a door to Drake Valley.
This has all been talked about before but it’s incredible how well From Software made Lordran feel like a real place. Keeping track of how everything connects and learning as you go like you are traversing a real kingdom or city is something that you rarely experience to this degree.
Becoming the New Lord of Cinder Is Frustrating
My favorite thing about Dark Souls 1 is its level design because there are a lot of things that have begun to age poorly as From Software have perfected their craft. The first thing that stood out to me when returning to this title is the fact that you can only roll in four directions which really messed me up after playing so much Elden Ring and Dark Souls 3.
I was constantly being punished for thinking I could roll diagonally and while I did adapt over time, it did make Dark Souls feel older. And these little details are everywhere for people who return to this game after the newer ones. A few others include things like you can’t drink Estus and walk slowly, weapon upgrades are a little less streamlined, and there’s so much walking. All the time.
Combat is a lot slower or more meticulous compared to newer titles and while that may be more interesting for some, I found it a little dull. I don’t need Sekiro-level speeds but Dark Souls often felt like the slowest fencing matches you’ve ever witnessed.
There are a number of pretty good bosses and a number of bosses that I feel were simply not interesting or fun to fight compared to later bosses in the series. Getting to the Four Kings is frustrating the first time and fighting them can be a little anticlimactic.
Demon Firesage is extremely annoying to fight as a melee build due to his large AoE moves and non-stop attacks. Seath is annoying if you never heard about the large crystal that makes him invincible and since no enemy has ever had anything like that in the game, you might never even think to try something organically yourself. And the Bed of Chaos? Does that even count as a boss?
Even Gwyn is a disappointment with the lengthy walk to get to him and the actual fight just becoming a parry fest.
Now, let me get off my chest about how much I hate the Bell Gargoyles. I think I died the most to them out of any of the bosses (YES, even more than Smough and Ornstein).
The inaccurate rolling combined with the even slower fighting pace due to the duo fight led to a lot of annoying encounters while the walk back from Firelink Shrine just to fight through a mob of enemies before the gargoyles really got old.
While we are on the topic of walking, it’s the reason why I quit in the past. The walk to bosses adds so much time to the overall playtime. I’m already at a wall, you don’t need to make me walk halfway across the kingdom so I can bang my head against that wall again. This especially stood out now with the release of Elden Ring and its very generous checkpoints.
There is a lot of good though. There are plenty of intense and interesting bosses such as Iron Golem, Sif, Witch Queelag, and Centipede Demon. The regular enemies throughout the game were always a challenge and a joy to fight. And I really liked how Dark Souls had me getting back to basics with some things that later games made relatively unnecessary such as parrying.
I do really like Dark Souls despite how this might sound but it definitely is not my favorite From Software title. Not by a longshot. But I hope we can get a Demon Souls-level remake at some point because I would love to conquer Lordran one more time.