March 24 marks the fifth anniversary of Dark Souls III and the completion of the Dark Souls trilogy as it stands, a game series which built a fan base with its difficulty. Growing up, I’ve always started a game in normal difficulty and then sneakily lowered it at the slightest sniff of frustration. The Dark Souls trilogy compelled me due to its lack of a difficulty setting and its sole premise of being challenging. And, after much teeth gritting, I can see why Dark Souls is seen as one of the most influential games of all time - even influencing the way I play games to this day.
Dark Souls was developed by FromSoftware, who were (at the time) a small Japanese studio who had just finished the PlayStation 3 game, Demon’s Souls. Demon’s Souls, although critically acclaimed and had gathered a cult following due to its infamous difficulty, had suffered in sales due to a lack of mainstream marketing and the limits of publishing on one console. Because of this, FromSoftware parted from Sony and was picked up by Bandai Namco to publish games to Western audiences. And so, Dark Souls was born as a spiritual sequel to Demon’s Souls.
Dark Souls was released in 2011, alongside some of the greatest games of our generation, made and published by some of the biggest names in the industry as part of already established and popular franchises. Amongst The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Batman: Arkham City, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, Portal 2, Gears of War 3, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Modern Warfare 3 and countless others - Dark Souls, a high-fantasy RPG with a knack for difficulty, defeated all odds and managed to stand out enough in this assemble of other groundbreaking instalments and sold over one million copies in its first year of release.
A Story Told Differently
In a time when games are getting closer to re-creating the same cinematic experiences as large movie productions with their hyper-realistic graphics, dramatic cutscenes, and dives into emotional storytelling - Dark Souls does the complete opposite by stripping that all back and making the player work to even get a grasp of what’s going on. Each game starts off with an impressively animated cutscene, which will briefly skim over some event which has happened in the past told in riddle format for you to decipher later. After then it’s up to the player to work out the rest for themselves. To do this, you must pay really close attention to what NPCs are saying to you (sometimes also in riddle format) or find snippets of the lore and storyline in item descriptions.
That’s right, Dark Souls utilizes the things that many players will barely pay attention to; item descriptions will usually be glanced at just to find out what the item does, but in Dark Souls these items are connected to a character or boss’ backstory, or will tell you about something that has happened in the past. You’ll pick up a sock that used to belong to the next boss before they turned to the dark side, or speak to some dodgy NPC who’s just hanging around next to a bunch of enemies, waiting for someone to pass by so they can tell you their life story.
But this doesn’t mean Dark Souls' storyline and lore lacks detail or imagination - in fact it’s the complete opposite. By withholding the storyline and forcing players to scavenge for it, it only makes you more intrigued to find out why FromSoftware’s world is so depressing as you navigate your way through derelict gothic architecture, and overgrown lands now inhabited by monsters.
Dark Souls starts off after the First Flame brought life into the world, before this there was nothing but dragons. Three beings claimed a Soul of Lords from the First Flame which turned them into God-like beings and the last to approach the Flame was the Furtive Pygmy, who would claim the Dark Soul, hence the birth of the human race. After the three Lords waged war against the dragons, the land prospered under Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight’s rule under a grand Age of Fire and became known as Lordran.
Now, the First Flame is fading and almost all hope is lost in rekindling it. Humanity, cursed by the Dark Sign, has begun to turn into Hollow Undead; gradually having their humanity stripped away until they are reduced to zombified shells of their former selves - cast off to the Undead Asylum in hopes of containing the curse. You begin the game as an Undead in this Asylum, rescued by a Knight of Astora called Oscar who uses his last breaths before turning Hollow to tell you about the prophecy which must be fulfilled in order to rekindle the Flame. The storyline is a mouthful, but Dark Souls is a rare breed of game where the storyline doesn’t sell it, or even matter that much in order to enjoy the gameplay - but it’s definitely worth taking your time to delve into, as there is so much to unpack in order to understand the world more. There are bosses who you will mindlessly slaughter to achieve your goal, only to later discover their tragic story. Such as Sif the Great Grey Wolf, who only attacks you to protect her master’s grave who sacrificed his life to save her.
Your character is an entirely blank slate with no backstory or particular significance. Although Oscar tells you to fulfil the prophecy, there’s actually been countless Undead who have matched this description before and tried the path themselves. The NPCs are completely indifferent to you and you’re not given any special treatment. You don’t have a special power; in fact, more often than not you’re just getting your ass kicked. You’re not the Dragonborn, you’re not the Chosen One, a Hero, or the Boy Who Lived (you’re actually the ‘Boy Who’s Going to Die a Lot’, if anything). This only makes your accomplishment of reaching the Kiln of the First Flame feel even greater. It’s up to you to rekindle the Flame...or not, as in each instalment of the series you’re given the option to just go “nah, the age of Dark is going to come at some point anyway so why bother doing anything about it?” and just walk out the door again, stepping over the heaps of your slain enemies on the way back.
The Mechanics That Birthed A New Genre
The only direction you’re given after your escape from the Asylum is basically just following what paths are open. You'll try to understand what on Earth the cryptic NPCs who hang around Firelink Shrine are trying to tell you, and hope you’re not wandering into what’s supposed to be a later level in the game...because that’s open to you in case you want it, but you won’t actually be told that and must work it out for yourself based on how quickly you’re dying (this could also just be the game’s difficulty, directions are a bit of a hit and miss with Dark Souls). You’ll also encounter locked areas which you’ll need to return to once you have the key. Whether the game will actually tell you what key you need is a bit of a gamble, but most of the time the trick is to just return to the locked door once you’ve picked up something weird that you can’t work out how to use. Oh, and there’s also illusionary walls which will only open if you randomly hit it - meaning some sections of the game require you to have been hitting random walls everywhere you go if you want to reveal them without the help of the internet. And here’s a tip, hit the walls behind that illusionary wall too because one large area in Dark Souls is actually hidden behind another illusionary wall.
The map of the first Dark Souls game is a beautiful labyrinth of great, abandoned cities and settlements that satisfyingly interconnects back to Firelink Shrine. This is hugely beneficial as fast travelling is a luxury offered in the late stages of the game. In Dark Souls II and Dark Souls III, the maps were a lot less interconnected with less shortcuts, one blacksmith located in the hub area, and fast travelling is available from the get-go. Although this makes the game a lot easier, nothing can beat the satisfaction of learning your way around Lordran with each unlocked path.
Dark Souls’ legacy is also embedded into its mechanics, creating a new genre of games known as ‘Souls-like games’. This is mainly due to its use of bonfires as checkpoints, meaning you can’t actually save your game’s progress in case you make a mistake - every action is set in stone and if you fail, you just return to the last bonfire you touched but your disposable items will not be replenished and the NPC you killed will still be dead. On top of this, Dark Souls even made death its own useful mechanic because it’s used as a way of learning your opponent’s skills and weaknesses - where did you go wrong and how can you do better next time? As you kill each opponent, you gather a certain amount of souls which is the currency used in the game to level up your character, upgrade your weapons, and buy items. Upon death, you lose your souls but you can pick them up again once you’ve respawned. But you only have one chance to do this and if you die on the way back to your souls, you’ve lost them forever.
Even the multiplayer was made different. Instead of directly interacting with other players, you leave snippets of yourself in their world by leaving helpful, funny or misleading messages. You can also invade their worlds for a duel, or help them out by allowing them to summon your sign and vice versa. But people will use this in different ways and it’s up to you how you interact with other players. I once had someone invade my world, but rather than fighting me they were actually directing me to all the hidden loot.
And, because of the many different builds you can generate from your character by putting points into certain skills, using weapons that will also scale up in damage based on the points you have in these certain skills, and wearing armor that benefits your build - the Dark Souls trilogy is hugely replayable. There’s actually a few different websites such as this one where you can plan what kind of character you’re going to create in a playthrough and even see which ones other players have created.
Dark Souls holds a massive influence on the gaming industry to this very day. Just some of the games inspired by this newly created genre of ‘Souls-like’ games include Destiny, Shovel Knight, Titan Souls, Hollow Knight, Mortal Shell, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Nioh, God of War, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and Journey. Even Hideo Kojima’s latest game, Death Stranding, was said to be a new genre of game known as a ‘Strand’ game due to its unique multiplayer mechanics, though even this bared a heavy resemblance to Dark Souls’ multiplayer functions with the way other players can leave messages and help you out in your own world without direct interaction.
The Black Sheep Sequel
After Dark Souls, director Hidetaka Miyazaki wanted to move onto a brand new project with Sony. Because Bandai Namco did not want to wait for him to finish this project before moving on with the series, they hired Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura as directors for Dark Souls II whilst Miyazaki supervised them. Because of this, Dark Souls II had an entirely different tone to its predecessor and is considered the ‘black sheep’ of the series. The enemies were easier, though came in greater numbers to keep the difficulty up. Death was also more punishing as every time you died, your health bar would gradually reduce and you would need to use up a rare Human Effigy in order to restore it. And there were almost twice the amount of bosses which gave off a ‘quantity over quality’ feeling as many of them would be recycled later on, were just based off knights and therefore felt unimaginative and too similar to each other, or were regular enemies increased in size or numbers to put up a better fight. Poise was taken away, which meant that certain armors would no longer give you more resistance against being stun locked, something many Dark Souls II enemies are very fond of doing.
But it had its strong points, deviating away from Lordran - the storyline and NPCs felt more in depth and interesting. This time the setting is Drangleic which, similar to Lordran, was once a prosperous kingdom but Hollowing brought it to ruin. Its ruler, King Vendrick became obsessed with finding a solution. He was approached by the beautiful Queen Nashandra who came from overseas to warn him of the Giants and a power they hold. Vendrick went to war with the Giants, obtaining their power and returning to Drangleic but the Giants soon followed for revenge. The war was stopped by an unknown Hero, but by this point the Hollowing had already done enough damage to Drangleic for Vendrick to lock himself away in his castle. Cursed with Hollowing at the start of the game, you travel to Drangleic to break this curse but along the way, the Emerald Herald tasks you with finding King Vendrick and obtaining four Great Souls from the Old Ones in order to rekindle the Flame once more.
Because you had more storyline interactions with the other characters, Dark Souls II felt a little more fleshed out, with your character taking more of a presence in what’s going on in the world. It holds its own twists with the whereabouts of King Vendrick and why the Giants lost the war, but also kept the same ‘if you want it, work for it’ method of holding most of the information back in item descriptions.
And, although it went over the top with the amount of bosses it had to offer, it did include some great fights and best experiences in the series - especially within its three DLCs. Dark Souls II also introduced the mechanic of enemies no longer spawning after they have been killed a certain number of times in order to stop players from farming items and souls from them, this was great it making paths back to particularly difficult bosses so much easier and less frustrating once the enemies along the way would stop spawning - meaning the player could save their resources and energy for the fight itself. In a way, it felt like the game (if you refer to The Scholar of the First Sin edition) still managed to balance out its difficulty compared to Dark Souls. Whatever it took away in terms of enemies no longer respawning or fast travelling being available from the get go, it replaced with something else such as the health-bar decrease and much heavier feeling controls, especially with the inclusion of the ‘adaptability’ skill which affects how successful your rolling will be.
Along with this, it had some great level design with some of the best being Dragon Aerie, Dragon Shrine, Dragleic Castle, No Man’s Wharf and The Gutter. And its lobby area, Majula, is my favourite in the series with its serene music and beautiful sunset-lit cliffside overlooking the sea, potentially looking over where the Giants or Nashandra came from and making you wonder what else is out there. When you first emerge from the caves into this area, it instantly makes you feel safe yet fills you with wonder over the mysteries it holds with its abandoned mansion and bottomless pit which you’re itching to explore.
And End to An Era
Miyazaki returned to direct Dark Souls III alongside Bloodborne, with Shibuya and Tanimura kept on as co-directors. Miyazaki has said many times that Dark Souls III will be the final instalment of the trilogy or at least the final instalment before the series is taken into a new direction. Keeping on the theme of the never-ending cycle of keeping the First Flame kindled, Dark Souls III is set in Lothric, seemingly many years into future from Dark Souls and potentially built over Lordran as it shares some of the same areas and NPCs as the first game.
The bell has just been rung to signal that the First Flame is once again dying out, by this point humanity has adjusted to this existence and has a chosen Hero or Lord known as a Lord of Cinder to sacrifice themselves in a ritual to rekindle the flame and prolong the Age of Fire. But there’s an issue this time, Prince Lothric has been chosen to sacrifice himself for the Flame but has refused and instead wants to let the Flame finally die. When the bell rung, the Lords of Cinder from the past were resurrected but all refused to complete their duty. You play as The Ashen One, an Undead who was once a candidate to become a Lord of Cinder but failed. You are resurrected to find Prince Lothric and the other Lords of Cinder and bring them to Firelink Shrine in order to complete the ritual.
Dark Souls III shined in adopting Bloodborne’s fast and aggressive fighting style and tremendously powerful score to create a game that felt different to its predecessors yet acted as a huge homage to the series overall. We got to revisit Anor Londo, though this time its sunset lit cathedral has been frozen over under the rule of the gluttonous Aldrich and came across NPCs from Astora and Catarina to remind us of our favorite characters throughout the series.
Each Dark Souls game ends with the player being given a choice: Sacrifice yourself to rekindle the First Flame, let it die out as it will eventually do so anyway and bring on The Age of Dark, or Dark Souls II and Dark Souls III also give the player the option to selfishly bring on an Age of Dark with the intention of taking it for yourself to rule over. T
his endless cycle further enhances the hopeless feeling you get from this world and the people living in it. There’s a bit of sadness to every NPC, even Siegmeyer the jolly ‘Onion Knight’, who serves as comic relief throughout the game in all the tricky predicaments you need to rescue him from. But eventually his pride takes a beating when he’s saved by the player for the last time, because of this the Hollowing takes over as he has lost all the fight in him - meaning when his daughter eventually finds him she must put him out of his misery. Even the themes of death and using death to your advantage revolves around the idea of cycles, and endlessly dying to something in order to defeat it eventually. Maybe the same will happen with Humanity’s fight to keep the First Flame lit.