During the height of the last generation of consoles, the action-RPG was not only thriving but influencing just about every large-scale title. From progression that focused on skills, levelling up, and equipping a wide range of items and weapons, it didn’t matter if it was a big budget shooter or a sci-fi adventure on a distant planet – RPG mechanics could be seen everywhere. But, amongst this expansion of traditional game design that blurred genre lines, FromSoftware and Bandai Namco released a dark-fantasy action-RPG called Dark Souls.
An experience that told a minimal story in a mysterious land beset by darkness. An action-RPG that not only focused on deep character customisation and strategic melee combat – but also presented challenge and reward on a scale that made anyone that played it take note. Fantasy in a way that hadn’t been seen before. Gone were the hordes of enemies to simply work your way through to reach the next location. In its place a large open-world where each battle, each encounter, each mistake, each discovery, and each victory felt monumental.
Dark Souls had arrived.
The Height of Fantasy
Since the release of Dark Souls in 2011, the series has gone on to become a beloved and critically acclaimed trilogy, with the most recent entry Dark Souls III releasing in 2016. A series so distinct that in many circles, it’s now commonly referred to as a genre in and of itself. Which raises the question – why? With developer FromSoftware going back to the series roots with Dark Souls: Remastered, the reasons for this are present from the very beginning. And outside of the well-known challenge that comes with playing Dark Souls, a series that has now become synonymous with being difficult and punishing, it’s how this aspect informs the experience that creates an action-RPG quite unlike anything else.
An action-RPG that not only focused on deep character customisation and strategic melee combat – but also presented challenge and reward on a scale that made anyone that played it take note.
Trial-and-error, a term used by many to explain puzzle or combat challenges that require failure to learn the skill or sequence of events needed to succeed, is a key component. In Dark Souls this translates to large-scale boss battles taking several attempts to triumph, but also sudden ambushes and standard encounters with enemies that you can see in the distance where your skills need to be honed and perfected. In the dark-fantasy world of Dark Souls, a place shrouded in fog that was once ruled by dragons, the story unfolds through exploration, discovery, and taking a moment to piece together a few notes or study the arrangement of ruins. This also extends to items, weapons, and equipment – where the reason for their existence is contextual, thematic, and not merely set decoration.
The campfire setting, a place of meditation and reflection, as the only location you can save your progress is no coincidence. This added sense of tension that comes from the dark-fantasy aesthetic that blends medieval dread with a grim outlook, fosters a level of immersion that wouldn’t be possible without failure. Where learning how to fight makes sense. Not only within the world of Dark Souls, but in the action-RPG genre itself. Pure fantasy and pure role-playing, that leads to a journey that feels personal. Even its online elements, where players can invade another person’s game or simply discovering a pool of blood which will then let them witness the final moments of someone who recently fell at that location, felt revolutionary.
Souls-Like and an Industry of Influence
Challenge or difficulty is something that has been associated with videogames from the very beginning. A hard level in a top-down shooter, a particularly difficult series of platform jumps, a boss battle that requires quick reflexes to dodge incoming attacks - the examples are as many as they are varied. With the influence of Dark Souls and its challenging gameplay that sits alongside pitch-perfect controls, combat mechanics, exploration, online integration, and character progression, referring to a game as ‘Souls-like’ is a statement not only about potential challenge. More importantly, it’s a statement about this intoxicating blend of elements that creates a level of immersion worthy of comparison.
For some titles, the influence is front-and-centre. Developer Deck13’s The Surge essentially remakes Dark Souls but in a sci-fi setting, albeit in a way that ultimately falls short of its inspiration. In other more notable examples of Souls-like experiences, the overall presentation and genre changes - but the same focus on deep rewarding challenge that builds on all other aspects remains. Hollow Knight (a nod to an enemy type in Dark Souls II) from Australian indie developer Team Cherry expertly blends the challenge and intricate design of Dark Souls combat with the exploration of Super Metroid. More recently, Dead Cells took the concept of failure and challenge in an exciting direction thanks to a world that changed with each playthrough - with progression and story feeling every bit as personal and rewarding as FromSoftware’s classic.
In the dark-fantasy world of Dark Souls, a place shrouded in fog that was once ruled by dragons, the story unfolds through exploration, discovery, and taking a moment to piece together a few notes or study the arrangement of ruins.
The influence can see seen everywhere and has even coined the phrase ‘The Dark souls of [blank]’ where blank could be anything and the proclamation being one that is instinctively bold. In that being worthy of the name Dark Souls - requires something special to back it up.
Remastering a Classic
Videogame preservation is a very real concern, and when physical media and hardware becomes more difficult to source, experiencing classic titles from a previous generation can become a difficult endeavour. The other side to this of course is a change in presentation we’ve seen in recent years - from HD-displays to new forms of media itself. And in terms of preserving a classic, Dark Souls: Remastered is an essential release. It not only brings back an entry from an established franchise loved by many, but it does so in a way that updates and refines without interfering with the core design. And in the case of the original Dark Souls, a design that still stands out today. Timeless.
A testament to the quality of the game, level design remains intact, evoking the same level of immersion, personal growth through progression, challenge and feeling of accomplishment that comes with overcoming adversity. The new remastered visuals and cleaner presentation, which optimise Dark Souls for modern hardware (including the Nintendo Switch), not only looks great but also have the added benefit of fine tuning some of the shortcomings from the original release. Back in 2011, the Blighttown area presented issues in the form of frame-rate problems that affected combat. By improving performance in Dark Souls: Remastered, no such issues remain - giving the overall feeling of refinement that one expects for a remaster of this nature. Dedicated servers also improve the online component, with additional tweaks that come from the benefit of two sequels.
In terms of preserving a classic, Dark Souls: Remastered is an essential release. It not only brings back an entry from an established franchise loved by many, but it does so in a way that updates and refines without interfering with the core design.
So much so that even for those that played the original back in 2011, there’s more than enough reason to dive back in. Something that Dark Souls fan have over the years built entire communities around in the same way that cult films warrant annual screenings.
Iconic Boss Battles
Perhaps it’s an area of Dark Souls’ legacy that gets overlooked in lieu of commenting on the challenge presented, but the boss battles excel first and foremost because of their memorable design. From the dark-fantasy inspiration that draws on western and eastern mythology and history to the stellar animation and combat behaviour. Boss battles in Dark Souls are not only fraught with danger but the bosses themselves more than look the part.
Also, they tend to sneak up when you least expect them to. From the first encounter with the giant Asylum Demon to the twin chaos that comes with fighting two giant warriors Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough. Memorable boss battles, those being truly memorable, are far and few between in videogames - with Dark Souls presenting some of the very best not only this past decade but in the mediums long history. Another reason why Dark Souls can be considered a genre unto itself.
This feature is sponsored by Bandai Namco. Dark Souls: Remastered is available now on Nintendo Switch.