I first discovered Dark Souls huddled down in a dingy basement, like one of the lost and despaired corridors so common in the game’s setting. Since then the series has been one of my favorites. The second installment made some dramatic shifts to core gameplay elements (backstabs, poise) and felt off, but I still powered through and slaughtered Nashandra. But it was 2015’s Bloodborne and last year’s Dark souls III that the series hit its high point, mastering the formula.
After what felt like months of battling frustration, I finally beat both Dark souls III and Bloodborne last month (at least the vanilla game), so I feel like I can finally comment on the series as a whole. What makes these games so appealing?
The fascinating thing about the game design of the series is they take the opposite approach to many of their peers. other RPGs go heavy on dialog and exposition, Souls is sparse. Other games rely on randomized enemies and events, everything in Souls is scripted. Other games polish a user interface util its intuitive and clean, Souls sticks with a barebones tables and text. It eschews difficulty modes or learning curves. It simply presents a direct challenge to the player and gives them tools to work with.
All the praise of the original still stand: uncompromising difficulty, cryptic lore, unhelpful statistics, pixel-perfect collision and response. But III and Borne honed the formula to a fine tip.
I will say that III feels like a remake of the original. Certain zones are identical, from the architecture to the trash mobs. Some zones are literally the same (Anor Londo), but experienced hundreds of years later, so the stones have experienced considerable weathering. At times this is a bit of a letdown, that we can’t experience more of From Software’s brilliant originality, but it’s good that those motifs can be experienced on the current HD modern console generation. III goes beyond the original for a number of zones and bosses (Abyss Watchers, Pontiff) and closes with a nice throwback (Soul of Cinder as Gywn).
Bloodborne is a different beast. Probably the darkest video game I’ve played, the setting is an unholy melding of victorian architecture and lovecraftian horror. One of Dark Souls core mechanic – blocking with shields – has been abandoned (even mocked), in favor of guns, parrying and lifeleech rallies.
Beyond the fights, Bloodborne tells its story in fascinating ways. Players gain “insight” from encountering and defeating bosses, or consuming Madmen’s Knowledge during the playthrough. As insight increases, new details are revealed about the world. Monsters grow dozens of eyes, like spiders. And instead of merely a bloodred sunset, a huge spindle-legged monstrosity is revealed, climbing the steeple of the central cathedral. Numerous characters have also blindfolded themselves, removing their vision of the mundane world in exchange for a glimpse of the eldritch truth.
The player’s journey moves through creepy plazas and grand cathedrals, along with dingy villages of wooden huts. But it also warps in and out of nightmares and dreamscapes, trapped in some recursive figment of cursed and dying adherents of the blood church.
All that being said, Bloodborne’s dark palette and and motifs can be overwhelmingly dreary, and DS III is a nice change of pace to fight on glowing lava fields or sparkling snowscapes.
Even as the Soulsborne games are objectively solid, but it’s is the organic community that’s turned them into legendary hits. The lore, secrets, and the labyrinthine level design requires multiple playthroughs and hours of erudite study, plenty of fodder for wiki communities to digest. Beyond that, freakishly talented players have adopted the game as a prime candidate for speedrunning. The various combinations of achievement possible in the games is astounding. Some run through and slaughter all the bosses as quickly as possible. Other’s find glitches and exploits to simply reach the end credits in twenty minutes. Some even do it all naked, without getting hit once. Others stick the online PVP gameplay, using exotic weapons, or trolling opponents.
I’ll never be that good, or have that much time and dedication. I’m content to master the game to the level where I can defeat the bosses, maybe come around again in NG+ and defeat them a second time. There’s nothing more satisfying than finally executing all the perfectly timed rolls and counter attacks to victory, hands sweaty, heart pounding. In a way, that rush is behind me, which is a bit bittersweet.
From Software says they’re done with the Soulsborne series, but the formula has been such a wild success, I’m sure spiritual successors will abound. I’ll be there, dodge rolling and backstabbing with the rest of them. Praise the sun.