Dark Souls is a gaming icon. The words “You Died” (and the collective audible response of “No Shit”) are carved into the collective consciousness that is gaming culture.
Its reputation proceeds it, and I was primed to enjoy Dark Souls. On the surface this series has “me” written all over it, with its reputation for sadism. Ultimately on my first playthrough I came away pretty disappointed. “I liked [Dark Souls] but didn’t love it” was my ultra-brief summary in my Hollow Knight recap. I returned to Dark Souls in the form of the Remastered edition for Switch on a whim. An intended quick blast on my brother’s Switch turned into a full-blown playthrough from start to end. Now with my expectations set to reasonable levels, I can say I enjoyed it more second go around. It’s a very good game, with some strong reservations.
The second time through I came to appreciate the world of Dark Souls more. It’s dark and despairing, sure, but a lot of time and thought has clearly gone into it.
Every single item has significance in the world, some connection to a deeper lore. Dark Souls doesn’t handhold you in this regard. There are mini plots and dramas that are easily missed – I saw different things this playthrough, I acted differently. There are also effective scripted moments that subvert your expectations and help the world feel more alive. The bosses are almost all hella intimidating, and plenty characterful.
I still wish the story was more explicit. I wish there were more puzzles. I still think there are bullshit moments and tomfuckery engineered to make you scream and swear. I still think movement is too slow and checkpoints are too infrequent. On rare occasions the level design is frustrating. On the PS3 version, Blighttown was deeply unpleasant to play because of constant slowdown – the remastered port on Switch remedies this at least.
Despite these qualms, Dark Souls is a highly memorable title with plenty to recommend it to masochistic players with boatloads of patience. Being better versed in modern gaming than I was two and a half years ago when I first played it on PS3, I can appreciate better the influence Dark Souls has had on the games industry. Its famed old school toughness, first a meme and now a trend, has proven that there is a wide audience for challenging games. Personally, I consider that a positive. Would I prefer to play notable games inspired by Dark Souls – Hollow Knight, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – over Dark Souls itself? Absolutely.