Dark Souls, the hallowed brainchild of Hidetaka Miyazaki (FromSoftware), is a punishing game. Or so we’re led to believe. Revered by gamers worldwide, Dark Souls is a hall of fame-r, to be placed alongside other portmanteaus that birthed an entire genre. Much like the “metroidvania” or “roguelite”, the Soulslike (or Soulsborne) video game is an interesting one to study. It is defined by a brutal difficulty level (typically fixed), death penalties (loss of important currency, loss of progress) and high-fidelity combat, traditionally metered by a stamina bar. The popularity of this style of game from FromSoftware debuted with 2009’s Demon’s Souls, which was remade for the PS5 launch in November 2020. Dark Souls came a few years later and crystallised the developers as god-like; if you read internet comments that is.
The action of the Souls series of games comes front and centre, since this is the lure and the main attraction; those seeking clear narrative focus would likely look elsewhere. However, there is something to be said for a story that you have to tease out yourself. NPCs will deliver cryptic backstories, items and signs hold mysterious information that can only be truly explained after spending several hours on Reddit. If you adore deep lore, then this is it chief.
When your centrepiece, the action, is unique, it makes sense to drive this as the game’s focus. Dark Souls‘ combat is unlike any other game before it, in fact, it is akin to a dance, defined by pattern recognition and precise timing. Enemies are slow, as is movement, providing windows for parrying and dodging, but the player is slow too. Damage is excruciatingly lethal; it only takes a few hits from the first enemy you encounter to end your life. Thus, a situation of high risk, high reward is setup; time a blow poorly and you are punished, however, read the enemy’s attacks, time your movement and attack precisely and suddenly the game will open up. It is like learning to walk again. It is no wonder that videos of “noobs” playing Souls show chaos and death, while the experts’ characters are nude, katana-wielding badasses, calmly and quickly reacting to the enemy’s attack, making it seem far too easy. The difference here is akin to learning to dance in real life: Dark Souls throws you in at the final concert having had no practice and asks you to learn on the job. You will slip and mess up your footwork many times, but eventually, if you keep at it, you will improve at dancing. Other action video games have been too easy on us, tutorialising the player every step of the way, putting them in charge of an overpowered god from the get-go. In Dark Souls, you are merely another hollowed creature, weak and frail.
It is this challenge, this gauntlet that Dark Souls throws at the player’s feet that is lapped up by the fandom. A game that requires you to learn a complicated dance, and will test your patience and willpower in order to progress. In fact, a comparison can be made with how one deals with their own mental health issues, and Dark Souls. I have suffered, and still do suffer, with depression and anxiety. It is typically characterised by a feeling of extreme tiredness and unwillingness to get up and do anything, low self-esteem, second guessing every decision you make, worrying excessively about other people and your family members, as well as spiralling into suicidal thoughts. What I have learned about my own depression is that taking that first step out of a downward spiral (getting out of bed, talking to someone) catalyses an upward spiral. If you keep riding that upward spiral you will find yourself actually doing things and feeling better because you are doing things. In Dark Souls, when you rest at a bonfire (the game’s checkpoint system), you are ultimately faced with a decision: do I get up and try again, or do I stay here. Perseverance in the darkness, in the bleak, uncompromising world of Dark Souls is a fantastically accurate metaphor for depression. If you keep trying, you will progress. If you keep learning about the game, about yourself, poke and prod at your issues, you will gain an insight that will help you. For Dark Souls, those insights can come from the community, a vast network of which exists on the internet, and of which I extensively utilised.
My journey with Dark Souls started a few weeks ago with the 2018 release of Dark Souls Remastered. For years I had been afraid of Souls games and its siblings such as Bloodborne and Sekiro (and cousins like Nioh, The Surge, etc.), due to the difficulty. I bounced off these games. I played games to relax, I thought, I don’t want an insurmountable challenge! Sidebar: recently my mental health took a dive, and I started therapy. While this, and talking a lot with my family, has helped, it hasn’t cured anything. I’m of the opinion that this rage-filled monster inside of me cannot be overcome, but it can be diverted, much like a river. Pathways that flood with shouting and smashing things can be altered to instead breathe deeply, remove oneself from the situation and do lots of self-talk, trying to figure out the root of my anger or depression. So, Dark Souls. Yes, for my 29th birthday, I decided to purchase the Dark Souls Trilogy. The dark part of me cackled and snorted with laughter, “You!? Play Dark Souls? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. YOU FOOL. YOU WILL ONLY FUEL ME WITH RAGE!” Yes, perhaps he was right. But it felt like my time had come to test this theory.
While the game was installing I went online and read a few guides; broad-strokes, just to make sure I was going the right way. These games can be extremely non-linear, with many optional routes. If I wanted to actually beat Dark Souls (HAHAHAHAHA), I needed to tip the odds in my favour. I chose a pyromancer class, equipped with a ranged fire attack that had an annoyingly long wind-up, but it definitely helped early on. Very soon, I was off. I was playing Dark Souls! Yes, I killed that guy! He was so slow! Look, I even managed a plunging attack on this big stupid asylum demon! Cool, a big bird is taking me to the next area! I’m doing it, I’m actually doing it!
Then I entered the skeleton graveyard, right next to Firelink shrine, the game’s central bonfire. That’s when I started dying. Skeletons regenerate you see, and my attacks were doing minimal damage. I spent a good half an hour trying to get through that area before going to a guide. Yes, it turns out that you don’t need to go that way for a long long time, by which time you will possess a divine weapon that will keep the dead down. Ah, I thought, typical Dark Souls obfuscation. I plundered on.
The Taurus demon fell easily, or should I say, cheesily. In fact, I was doing so well that by the time I encountered the Balder knights in Undead parish, I was riding a wave of optimism. I had no idea how to properly parry so these enemies were extremely annoying, to the point where I ran past most until I got to my first real obstacle in Dark Souls, one that stifled my progress for days: the twin gargoyles. I suspect I died upwards of 20 times trying to solo them. I remember texting a friend saying my journey was over – this is it, this is too damn hard and I am too angry to do this anymore. I switched off my console and left it.
There are very few games which I can’t stop thinking about, ones that dig into your brain like an ear-worm. Dark Souls bit me, badly. I couldn’t sleep for thinking about the game. I was at work, out with the kids, planning, thinking about my route from the bonfire to the gargoyles. I was thinking about their attack patterns, how to take one out asap before the other flew down. Perhaps I needed better armour or a better weapon? How do I upgrade weapons? My flame wind-up was too slow, should I just go in and melee? What was I missing? Eventually I stumbled upon the white soapstone; an item given to you by fan favourite Knight Solaire (Praise the Sun dude). My heart hammered as I realised I could summon him! First you needed humanity to reverse the hollowing (don’t ask me about the story of Dark Souls, I liked it, even if it was not clear – I recommend this book, or at least this article), and then you could find Solaire’s summoning sign near the gargoyle’s fight. I possessed 6 humanity. Four times I died to a Balder knight on my way to the boss. Once I was mobbed by some scrub hollows. The last time, having pulled my hair out, eyes boggling, I made it to the boss. I summoned my boi Solaire; for the first time in a video game, I felt like the supporting NPC. He aggro’d the gargoyles so much that all I had to do was stand back, swipe at their tails and occasionally flame them. “Victory achieved” flashed across the screen and I sat back in shock. Maybe I could actually do this? I thought.
With Dark Souls 1 at least, a lot of the game is cheesable. I followed guides and people on Reddit, I re-spec’d my character by upgrading endurance and dexterity, found a decent Claymore, which I grinded souls for, for many hours in Darkroot garden, making it essentially OP. One after another, every single boss in Dark Souls fell to my blade. And on every occasion I cheesed them to hell.
Ornstein and Smough? Summoned Solaire and some random real-life player called “aegon”, who absolutely wiped them out for me.
Capra demon? Just walk up the slope to the left, swipe at the dogs, then flame the guy from above.
Sexy spider queen? I actually did that myself, but it was particularly easy I suspect because I somehow managed to stay behind her the whole time and swipe at her butt (Dark Souls tip #1).
Yes, all the bosses were hard, and getting to the bosses even harder (damn you Tomb of the giants!), but each boss could be figured out, each boss was a combat puzzle, and each death was not useless. Yes, I wanted to quit many times, but I kept making small steps forward and it become impossible to give up. I needed to see it through.
Steve the dragon? Run past everyone, stay within leg 2 and 3, keep rotating and swipe at one leg. Roll away when he wants to leg slam you.
Four kings? Tank him, heavy armour, kill each one before the next one appears.
I should say I never once felt that I mastered Dark Souls. I only figured out how to cheese it better. I learned to kite some really difficult enemies in New Londo Ruins that gave me many many souls, that I used to upgrade my weapon. By the end, I had a +13 Claymore that felt very OP.
One night, it finally came to a head with the last boss, Gwyn, Lord of Tinder as I like to call him (I really hope someone is using that handle). I had followed a guide to save Solaire, such that he was summonable in this fight. I made it past the 5 black knights on the way to boss many times, learning to parry them effectively, stealing their armour, and their awesome sword. I tried solo-ing Gwyn a few times but the parrying was very tricky – I reckon I could have eventually done it after hours of practice, but I had Solaire! Carefully (key word in Dark Souls, everything you do should be done carefully) I humanised myself, made my way to the boss, summoned your boi, and through the fog gate, and… Solaire was angry guys, very angry. I prevented him from going crazy down in Lost Izalith, so he never found his sunlight, and man did he beat the crap out of Gwyn. The fight maybe lasted 3 minutes, as I slashed and slashed, accompanied by a sombre piano arrangement. Here he was, lord of sunlight, all burned out. I took my place and re-linked the flame. I had no idea what I was doing, it felt all a bit Hollow Knight-like (or I suppose technically it’s the other way round). Sidebar: ironically, I played Hollow Knight this year too, and while I prefer the art style and the music, it was far more frustrating than Dark Souls. I suspect I have an aversion to 2D games that lean hard on the metroidvania genre, rather than a platformer-type (Celeste is arguably my favourite game of all time).
But yes, I did it. I actually beat Dark Souls. Really. In terms of my mental health, I actually think it did help. If I can overcome this, go through what my character went through, die and die again, but still come out victorious, then I can apply that to own life. Perhaps it is the fear of the challenge that drives my anxiety, not the challenge itself.
I have Dark Souls 2 and 3 loaded up ready to go, but I honestly don’t know if I have the stamina to play them. I feel satisfied with my Souls experience, but I know that if I want more it’s there. If anything, playing Dark Souls has filled with intrigue for the open-world epic, Elden Ring, the George R. R. R. R. R. R. R. R. R. Martin-inspired new Souls entry from FromSoftware, coming soon to a console near you.
I hope you enjoyed this, and I actually recommend playing Dark Souls, which are words I never thought I’d say. It holds up surprisingly well all these years later, and if you get to grips with it, if you let it in, you will have an extremely satisfying experience. That’s not to say that I didn’t scream at it. I died a lot. You will die a lot. But the trick is to remove that link between death and frustration – every single death is a practice run for the real thing. Much like dealing with depression, you need to retrain your video game pathways, alter the river and learn to walk again.
And as always, thanks for reading.
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