This is how video games work: you start a level (or mission), you progress, you make gains until you reach a boss or stated objective. You do what you need to do, kill who you need to kill and then move onto the next challenge. The next environment. The next foe.
That’s usually how video games work. However, that’s not how Dark Souls works. That’s not how Dark Souls works at all and that’s part of what makes this series so addictive, so challenging and so refreshingly different.
Millions of players are currently plowing through From Software’s Dark Souls III. As they did for previous editions in the series (and its spiritual spin-off, Bloodborne) critics and fans are raving about the incredibly difficult, detailed and creepy world created by Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team. These reviews come despite the fact that Dark Souls III hardly altered anything since Dark Souls II, including its insistence on making players take on the same challenges again and again and again.
The genius of the Souls series lies in that feature, that requirement that you must tackle the same beasts and landscapes dozens – if not hundreds – of times. It’s radically different from most other video games, but it’s a stroke of pure genius that rewards and teaches you in surprising ways.
Before we get to that, let’s recap exactly how Dark Souls works. You play a nameless warrior slowly making your way through a haunted, desolated, disturbing wasteland. The plot is scarce – as are the instructions – and you just push forward. The enemies are many and shockingly tough. You’ll take them on with a variety of weapons, some strong and some weak, and you will die. A lot. You will die many, many times. You will die more in the Souls series than you have in any other game. That’s the hook, that’s what brings people back.
A death in Dark Souls isn’t always a setback. In fact, the opposite is true: it’s a necessary step forward. Defeat is a building block for the rest of the game. When a monster strikes you down with a sword, you take that moment as an opportunity to adapt. Like a hunter in the field, or a velociraptor in Jurassic Park, you learn. You note how the enemy got you, from their positioning to their weapon to their rhythm. What worked against them, what didn’t. The next time you face them (and you will face every enemy multiple times. Goodness, will you.) you will be ready.
The same goes for the bosses in the Souls game, which are harder than practically any other set of bosses in video games. These are the adversaries who will haunt your dreams. They are punishing and don’t let up, they will push your patience to the limit. When you begin a battle with a boss, their health bar is intimidating, terrifying even. But you push forward anyway, sure that you’ll probably get killed several times. After death, you spawn again – far away from the boss that just struck you down. You make your way through the level, killing the same monsters you already destroyed in route to the boss that took you out with ease. When you meet it, you use what you learned and attempt to take them down. Still, you’ll probably die again. And again.
It’s rewarding in a frustrating way. In fact, it’s too much for legions of players. Many people can’t dive into Souls because the sting of multiple defeats is too much. They’re not entirely wrong, it goes counter to what we’ve been taught since the early days of Nintendo. Death means you’ve failed, death means you aren’t good enough. Death is a lesson in Dark Souls but that’s a hard adjustment to make.
It’s not just the battles that force you to repeat yourself countless times. The world itself makes you double-back and return to areas you’ve already covered. You’ll walk upon the same ground time and time again in the Souls games. But when you revisit a land that you strolled through 20-3o hours before, you’re a different player. You’ve learned and grown so much. It feels like you were there ages ago because so much has changed.
That’s the beauty of these games. Yes, they sometimes they feel impossible. Yes, you’ll nearly throw your controller in rage after a boss kills you the same way dozens of times. Yes, you’ll feel like you’re not making any progress. But you are. Even when you’re dying again and again, you’re moving forward. You’re learning and changing and gathering intelligence that will help you out the next time you face those foes.
When you do finally take down that villain who wiped you out, you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment that will floor you. It’s like beating an end-game boss, even though it might be the first in the game. It’s a feeling of evolution, of overcoming a foe ten times bigger than you. You’re David and you have conquered a Goliath sprung from your darkest fears. That’s a feeling unlike any other in gaming. Defeating an enemy in Dark Souls is a high that no other game can create.
You do the same things over and over. You see the same broken temples and the same ghastly enemies. You will repeat the motions more times than you can count, slowly becoming a stronger player. The Dark Souls series puts you through the wringer. It shows no mercy. It doesn’t go easy on you. It’ll make you live your nightmare again and again and again. In the end, you’ll want it no other way.