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  • Writer's pictureAndy Chapman

Dark Souls 3: Why it Works

When the subject of difficulty in video games is discussed, one of the most common series mentioned is Dark Souls. Game developers FromSoftware are synonymous with a sometimes punishing level of gameplay. Their most notable titles, Bloodborne, Dark Souls, Sekiro and recently Elden Ring, have a notorious unchangeable difficulty level. But this isn't what makes these games great. The difficulty is a big part of the identity of what has become known as Soulsborne, but delving into the games, you soon discover they are more than just a challenge.

All the above titles are critically acclaimed and much loved by the gaming community. But why? Today we’re going to look at one of these games and discuss why Soulsborne has had such a continued impact on the gaming world and on me. Through my first FromSoftware experience, Dark Souls 3.

I have always been a fan of RPG fantasy games, especially open-world games such as Dragon Age, Skyrim and The Witcher 3. I love the fully realised worlds these games inhabit. I love being able to create a character and then level up that character how I want. I love the discovery and exploration of these games. But I always stayed away from Souls. These games from the outside, I knew I’d probably love lore-wise, but was always put off by how hard they were supposed to be, as well as how much they centred around boss fights, which is something I don't often enjoy in other games. Boss fights rarely are the best part of a game.

One day I finally decided I was going to try Dark Souls 3. Several friends had told me how good it was. Plus it was on sale at the time. So I downloaded the game, got through the first area, came up against the boss and died, a lot. So much so that it put me off the game. I couldn’t beat the tutorial boss! These games are clearly not for me. So I gave up on it.

For months it kept nagging at me. I wanted to give it another go. So once again, I booted up Dark Souls 3, created a new character and on the second attempt, I won!

Once past this first challenge, the game opens up to you. The first proper area is available. You’re now thrown into a game of exuberant highs and punishing lows. You're introduced to a variety of enemies, many of which will likely kill you immediately, and bosses that will punish you again and again.

The world you explore in Dark Souls is not open like Skyrim or The Witcher 3 is, but the feeling you get is the same. Level design is something FromSoftware get right. They make a linear game feel like a sprawling open world. Turn one corner, open another door and you connect sections of the level, making navigation easy and exploration necessary and enjoyable. On top of this, all the areas blend perfectly together while feeling unique and varied. If you placed a player randomly anywhere in the game, they’d know where they were very quickly, from the design of the surroundings to the enemies attacking them. Everything has a reason for being there and has a connection to the larger world.

Everything about Dark Souls 3 and other Soulsborne games as well is detailed. The lore behind everything is vast. So much so entire YouTube channels are dedicated to deciphering the many meanings and backstories within the games. The combat system is simple and intuitive but goes a lot deeper when you connect it to the levelling system and the stats you can choose to raise.

When starting a new game, there are ten different starting classes you can choose from. Each with their stats slightly different, highlighting a different play style. Around 200 varied weapons can be found within the game, as well as a number of spells that require individual stats to use effectively. This means there are a great many different ways you can play this game. With different stats levelling different weapons, the system is deep and takes time to figure out, but it gives you so many options that other similar games can rarely compete.

Moving through the world of Dark Souls 3 is a challenge. It is meant to be. It is so inherently a part of the gameplay that it is impossible not to talk about. The games leading figure Hidetaka Miyazaki was interviewed in The New Yorker he stated -

“We are always looking to improve, but, in our games specifically, hardship is what gives meaning to the experience. So it's not something we're willing to abandon at the moment. It's our identity.”

This quote referred to their latest game Elden Ring, which as with all their games, a small number of people complained that it is too hard and an easy mode should be introduced. But this would completely miss the point of the game.

Overcoming the odds and succeeding is what these games do so well. In some aspects, you could see them as puzzle games. A boss has a move set that you need to learn and adapt to. It’s figuring out the puzzle in front of you as the puzzle hits you with a big sword. This is what makes the difficulty great in Dark Souls and why the boss fights are enjoyable. There are ways to make the game easy. They are just not handed to you. Discovering the best methods for yourself makes victory all the more sweeter.

Like all Soulsborne, you do the work to win. This is also true for the story. The narrative isn’t handed to you with long exposition. You are given the objectives at the beginning, but never told where or when these can happen. The story is partly told through various NPCs scattered around, but often these can be missed altogether. Information can also be found in descriptions found on items you pick up. These give deeper meaning to the world in which they are placed. You get a choice. Delve into the lore and the story or simply go through the game and kill some enemies. Dark Souls 3 gives you the freedom and the option to go deeper if you want.

In our modern gaming world, many titles hand you everything from where you are, where to go, how to do it and what to do after. FromSoftware games do not do this. They want you to figure it out. This gives a lot of replayability to the games, as there are almost certainly things you will miss on a first blind play-through. Sometimes even whole areas of the game are hidden from the player.

Dark Soul 3 opened up the world of Soulsborne games to me and gave me my favourite gaming experiences of all time, as well as some of the most frustrating. Yes, they are difficult and yes you’ll probably die a lot, but you will also win and maybe discover you can achieve something that seemed impossible. But don't take my word for it. Try Dark Souls 3 for yourself and find out why it works.

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