Dark Souls review

last updated 2023-09-22

You might think I would be exactly the target audience for this game. I like hard games, I like action games, and I like games that put gameplay before story. Dark Souls has a reputation for being the pinnacle of "hard but fair", which is exactly what I want in my games.

However, the truth is that Dark Souls is very often unfair, leaning on things like trial and error for its "difficulty", and overall it seems designed to grief the player as much as possible, and to make matters even worse, it has a fawning fanbase that insists it is the one true perfect video game and if you don't like it it's because you're a whiner. While the fanbase isn't the game's fault, having to see those people's comments online makes it even harder for me to enjoy the game.

As usual for things I have strong opinions about, this isn't going to be much of a balanced review, more of a litany of criticisms I can point people to when they ask why I don't like this game. Also, I'm going to focus on Dark Souls 1, since it's the only one I finished (I played half of Dark Souls 2, it wasn't any better).

If you're interested in a game with similar combat but less bullshit, play Jedi: Fallen Order.

Jedi: Fallen Order review

Dark Souls likes to waste your time

Most bosses don't have a bonfire (respawn point) near the entrance, so every time you die you have to run all the way back to the arena - usually through a mess of enemies you've already killed - before you're allowed to try again. Sometimes the bonfire is so far away that it takes *2 minutes* to run back even if you don't fight anyone! This 2-minute interlude between attempts is not interesting gameplay, it's disrespectful time-wasting.

Dark Souls tramples on your right to retry

The game doesn't return consumable items used when you die. You have an item that increases your damage and you're facing a hard boss? You only get one try with the item! This forces you to choose one of three options:

Then there's the curse mechanic. Some enemies inflict a status effect called curse, which not only kills you instantly but *persistently halves your max health*. The only ways to cure it are to use a rare item or visit a character in an area that you may not even know about when you first encounter this mechanic.

Why you shouldn't have persistent consequences for failure

Trial and error

A horrible case of it.

trial and error

There are a lot of enemy attacks that you can't reasonably intuit how to avoid; you just have to have already seen them.

There are also many times even outside of combat where you can be instantly killed by a threat you couldn't have reasonably anticipated. Some examples:

There's a boss (Ornstein & Smough) that consists of two enemies at once, and when you kill one, the other is magically restored to full health! The game wastes a ton of your effort as punishment for not having looked up the fight on the wiki first.

As is typical for RPGs, the game doesn't make any effort to tell you how damage is calculated, which is important since you're choosing which stats to upgrade. I could upgrade Vitality and get 30 more HP or upgrade Resistance and get 2 more Physical Defense... but how am I supposed to make a meaningful decision when I don't know what a point of Physical Defense does? This is not challenging gameplay, it's arbitrary guessing where you're punished for not reading the developers' minds and you can't re-spec.

Here's a post by a Dark Souls fan about how damage is calculated. It's extremely counter-intuitive and not explained anywhere in the game.

Finally, there's enemy parries. You're taught how to parry enemies in the tutorial - an alternative block move that's hard to time but if successful leaves the enemy stunned and vulnerable to a very damaging riposte. But some enemies can do this to you too. It's basically random whether they parry your attacks or not, and when they do, there's no way to avoid the riposte and it usually kills you from full health. The only solution is to look at the wiki and find out about "parry stances" - apparently the enemies that can do this can only do it while in a special stance, so I guess you're supposed to just not attack them in that stance. But there is no way except wiki or extensive trial and error to learn this.

Bad exploration and section design

When you die, you leave your souls (experience) behind, and if you get back there without dying again, you can recover them; but if you die while they're still out there they're gone forever. This not only means you can lose amounts of souls gathered across several sections (you can't safely store them at bonfires), but also that if you die in a boss arena, you can't go explore a different path (the game is very nonlinear), you have to keep trying at that boss until you win. While you can use a Homeward Bone from the arena to return to the bonfire after recovering your souls, Homeward Bones are a limited item and take time to use, making them hard to find an opportunity for in many boss fights.

Speaking of souls, like most RPGs, the game's upgrade system consists of level grinding. Every enemy drops souls every time you kill them, so the more time you spend killing mooks, the stronger your character is.

The game has fucking *illusory walls*. The only way to be sure you haven't missed anything is to attack every wall. Doesn't that sound like so much *fun*?

Many of the bonfires in the game are hidden (sometimes behind illusory walls), causing the experience of much longer sections than the game is balanced for, or simply too far apart even if you know about them all.

General disrespect toward the player

You can't *pause* the game. Do you need to tend to something in real life? Get fucked! Did someone else walk in the rooom to say something to you or turn on the lights? Good luck fighting the boss while that's going on. I know someone who played Dark Souls while he had a 1 year old son, and so whenever his son started crying, the game forced him to choose between losing the boss fight or leaving his baby son crying.

Aside: I think the best demonstration of the toxic philosophy of this game and its fanbase is that that same player when first telling me about the game specifically called out the lack of pausing like it was *cool*. I've also heard fans say on the internet that pausing is "for casuals".

And despite the fanbase being always on about how skill-based the game is and how you never take damage without making a mistake, there are multiple parts in the game where damage or even death is unavoidable even if you know what's coming. The Stray Demon and Gravelord Nito both require you to take fall damage to enter the arena, and the first encounter with Seath the Scaleless is an *unwinnable fight*. When he inevitably kills you you wake up in a jail cell (from which you can easily escape) and you fight him again later in a situation where he's not invincible. Nevermind the fact that you do lose your souls when you die in Seath's first arena, it's all fair because... because...

Some bosses have long periods of invulnerability during their move pattern, which just makes them boring and tedious to fight. I'm thinking of the Moonlight Butterfly, which you fight from a bridge while it shoots ranged attacks at you and only occasionally comes close enough for you to hit it, and the Centipede Demon, which you fight from a small piece of land in a room where the floor is lava, and it shoots ranged attacks at you for a long time before it finally decides to come over where you can reach it.

Camera difficulties

I don't think any action game player likes being screwed over by the camera. When I played there were a few boss fights where my camera would often get stuck in the wall. Also when fighting multiple enemies, it's hard to keep them all on screen, since you basically have to be locked on (locking the camera to a single enemy) to fight in this game or most of your attacks will miss. And god help you if you press the lock on button when the game thinks you aren't sufficiently in view of the enemy - your camera gets thrown in a random direction.

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