Okay, so I have a confession to make right off the bat: I’m not a total Dark Souls newbie.
A couple years back, I picked up a second-hand copy of the Prepare to Die edition on PS3, eager to dip my toe into the unfathomably deep pool of the Soulsborne universe after having heard so many positive things about From Software’s incredible, unique series.
The fatal mistake I made, however, was ignoring the difficulty warnings. I assumed I could bully my way past Lordran’s myriad nightmare beasts and fallen knights without having to back-track, learn the subtleties of Dark Souls’ complex mechanics, or grind levels any more than I would in a standard RPG. Naturally, my journey ended rather abruptly in a hissy fit of frustration and childish indignation.
Fast forward to early 2016 and, following the stream of rave reviews and excited internet chatter that greeted the release of gothic masterpiece Bloodborne, I decided to give the series one more chance – hoping a bit of prior research, combined with a more prudent, methodical approach to combat and exploration would see me through. And boy am I glad I did.
After spending a few hours traversing the streets of Yarnham, I finally understood exactly why these titles were so well regarded by critics and gamers alike; and I’ve been gradually working my way through creator Hidetaka Miyazaki’s back catalogue ever since.
Now, with a remastered version of the much-lauded original on the horizon, I have a shot at redemption… but that’s not the only thing I’m looking forward to.
Prepare to Die
Ironically, given my past experiences with the original, one of the most exciting things about Dark Souls: Remastered is having the opportunity to use what I’ve learned from the sequels to test myself against what is arguably the series’ toughest game.
Although Dark Souls II, III, and Bloodborne are by no means easy, the general consensus is they’re slightly more accommodating experiences. Bloodborne’s regain system, for instance, makes what could be considered as rash, suicidally-aggressive play in other titles a viable strategy, while the relative simplicity of the firearm-based parrying system more than makes up for the game’s lack of shields and heavy armour. I can’t parry or dodge roll for toffee in the other Soulsborne titles; hell, I even struggle to manage my stamina effectively. But, after a few hours, even I could pull off successful ripostes with a reasonable level of consistency.
Dark Souls II, though slower in pace, simplified matters for players somewhat by despawning enemies once they’d been defeated a certain number of times. Similarly, although this extremely helpful mechanic would be cut from Dark Souls III, the game’s generous distribution of bonfires certainly made exploring Lothric Castle and its environs substantially less nerve-shredding – not least because in DSIII, as with DSII, equipment was automatically repaired whenever the player rested at a bonfire.
By contrast, success in combat required a prodigious amount of patience, strategy, and pure skill in the original Dark Souls: whether the player was confronting a ten-story-tall demon or a single, low-level hollow. The player couldn’t simply dart in for a quick two-hit combo to restore some lost HP here and there, or casually riposte a heavily-plated adversary with a languid shot from their blunderbuss. Nor could players simply remove enemies for good by murdering them multiple times, with a few special exceptions, to clear the path to the next boss room, or count on the gentle fiery glow of a bonfire at the start of each new area. More importantly, in Dark Souls, bonfires lacked fast-travel functionality until the final stages. If players wanted to return to the Firelink Shrine for some small measure of respite from the oppressive horrors of Anor Londo, explore one of the many paths leading away from it, or repair/upgrade their gear at the Blacksmith’s, they had to travel by foot.
Granted, players could make use of the various shortcuts dotted around Lordran to expedite the process of journeying back to important areas like Andre’s Workshop, utilize bonfire kindling, which doubled Estus capacity in the corresponding zone, and take advantage of a simplified leveling system that allowed players to level up their avatar at any bonfire – a particularly generous feature that spared players from the nerve-shredding tension of having to trek all the way back to the beginning of the game, weighed down by a small fortune in souls, every time they want to strengthen their character.
However, assuming Dark Souls: Remastered remains faithful to the mechanics of the original, even simple things, such as experimenting with new equipment or returning to a previously visited area in order to mop up any outstanding side-quests, are rife with danger. And I can’t wait to see if my newfound patience and determination are enough to see me through all of the additional challenges these superficially minute differences bring.
A Whole New World
Whether or not that proves to be the case, of course, only time will tell. Still, one thing I can be sure of if my experiences with From Software’s subsequent offerings are anything to go by, is that I will have the opportunity to explore yet another hauntingly evocative and utterly engrossing fantasy world.
The Soulsborne games have never been the most graphically astounding, true, but there’s something undeniably beautiful about their settings. It’s not always easy to describe what it is precisely that makes them so special, but if I had to try and put my finger on it, I think I’d agree with resident Dark Souls superfan Mike Worby and say it’s the combination of the dark, oppressive atmosphere and the sense that these environments aren’t just digital playgrounds created for our amusement; they’re living, breathing worlds that, until relatively recently, were inhabited by a thriving civilization.
From the crumbling edifices of Drangleic and Lothric Castle, to the derelict streets of Victorian Yarnham, each game offers us a glimpse of a thematically familiar but subtly distinctive world gone to ruin. Relying, in much the same way as From Software’s uniquely indirect approach to storytelling, on gentle inferences, painstakingly considered level design, and delicate environmental details to gradually reveal the world around us; peeling back the layers of mystery and unveiling them as much in our minds as on screen. They capture our imagination and leave us free to form our own picture of what Old Yarnham or The Profaned Capital would have looked like in their heyday, before their fall. Immersing us in their worlds, creating an experience that resonates differently with each player.
And, as someone who has only scratched the surface of the original, Dark Souls: Remastered puts me in the enviable position of being able to explore this undoubtedly incredible setting with fresh eyes.
Where it All Began
What I’m looking forward to most, however, is being able to put all the things I’ve come to love about the later games into context.
The watertight, perfectly balanced combat mechanics; the colossal boss designs that make almost every encounter feel momentous from the moment the player first lays eyes on their quarry, and the ineffable sense of satisfaction that comes with defeating these awe-inspiring creatures; the slowly unfolding, esoteric story; the gradual, measured process of exploring these fantastic environments; the unique approach to cooperative and competitive play; the sheer depth of the game’s systems.
Now, obviously, many of these things began life in Demon’s Souls, but I think most fans would agree they were refined and perfected in Dark Souls two years later. You could even argue it was the success of the latter that gave Hidetaka Miyazaki the creative freedom to iterate, rather than overhaul the established formula, with each new installment; Dark Souls’ unambiguously positive critical and popular reception ensuring he didn’t have to compromise his original artistic vision or homogenize his creation in order to appeal to mainstream gamers with any of the subsequent title. Unlike countless other IPs that increasingly feel as if they’ve been designed by committee.
And this, I think, will only deepen my respect and appreciation for a series that has always striven to provide its fans with a gaming experience like no other, through its superbly balanced and atypically challenging gameplay, magnificently dark fantasy worlds, and wonderfully passionate community (‘Git Gud’ mentality aside).
25th May and Dark Souls: Remastered can’t come quickly enough.