There is no doubting that one of, if not the, most influential game in recent memory is From Software’s 2011 hit, Dark Souls. The game broke the mold of anything that had come before, and set the standard for anything to come after. Its expansive open world, non-linearity, branching pathways and deep storylines captivated gamers so much that it is still played endlessly six years later. This is in part helped by Twitch streamers such as LobosJR, and YouTube creators such as the lore master VaatiVidya. Also, the community surrounding Dark Souls is still creating content, such as the recently released Doom and Shovel Knight mods.
In total, the game has sold over 5.5 million copies worldwide, sits at a very comfortable 89 on Metacritic, and is still referenced as a gold standard for gaming. Although it has become something of a cliché to compare a game to Dark Souls, a new genre has spawned from the popularity: Souls-Like. This encompasses games which copy the basic formula of Dark Souls, i.e. tactical fighting, stamina management, a currency which is lost upon death and can be re-found etc., but these games also change enough and are innovative enough that they stand out alone. Deck13’s The Surge and Ska Studios’ Salt and Sanctuary are two of the best recent examples. There is also a Steam group for fans looking for similar experiences.
But why are games released in 2017 still trying to emulate a 6-year-old game? What makes the game such a shining example of open-world action RPGs? I believe this boils down to three different factors: level design, unparalleled atmosphere, and the AI. It is a very well-known fact that Dark Souls has some of, if not the, best level design seen in any video game. The 3D map of the game can be viewed here and this shows clearly the vast openness of the environment, and the emphasis on verticality. There is no ‘wrong way’ to go in Dark Souls, as every path leads to a place you need to be, and then as you progress you will open shortcuts which allow much easier traversal of areas, and removes the fear of having to run past hard-hitting enemies to reach another bonfire. Also, this map encourages exploration and fun. There are numerous secret areas in the world to find, all rewarded with useful items, or rewarded with a very hard enemy, then a useful item.
This focus on exploration and non-linearity links in with the second feature that can only be pulled off by Dark Souls: the unparalleled atmosphere. You are always on edge when exploring the world of Lordran, I was hesitant to go around every corner or go through any door, as I had no idea of the horrors waiting for me on the other side. The fair but challenging bonfire system in the game heightens this tension exponentially; the need for the next checkpoint must be balanced with survival so progress is not lost. As well as exploration, the enemies of the game also build the atmosphere due to their excellent design, and knowing that one mistake against even the easiest of enemies can see you killed. Also, the sheer intimidation and panic upon seeing one of the many bosses for the first time cannot be replicated by anything else.
The AI acts as far more than atmosphere though: they are a learning experience. Death is the only way to learn in a Souls game, as it is the only way to remember the timing of an enemy’s attacks, when is safe for you to attack, and when you need to block and play patiently, as the AI are crafted to punish any mis-timings very harshly, which teaches you to never do the same thing again. Also, every enemy type has different behaviour, so each must be memorised and various tactics must be deployed when fighting multiple simultaneously. For example, some enemies you can be close to and spam attacks, and some enemies will eat you if you stand close. Your memory is the difference between life and death.
These factors are why I believe Dark Souls is so influential and important in the industry. And so far, I believe there has been no game able to replicate its magic, and I do not think that it will ever happen. Nothing comes close to the wonder, panic, excitement and rage of a first play through of this classic. I believe that it is the perfect game, and that it can be wholly enjoyed by anybody willing to put the time and effort into it. Understand that you will not be walked through the whole game. You will be challenged, rewarded, punished. And above all else, prepare to die.
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