A world of dragons and lords has gone to war, and with the lords coming out victorious, they set out to mold the lands to their choosing. Many years after, the light in the world is now dying, so one of the great lords, Gwyn, has kindled the bonfire to keep the world alive and to prevent the citizens from ever reaching death. Now with the fire fading again, a single undead human sets out from a prison in hopes of being the chosen undead to once again rekindle the bonfire – or to kill Gwyn and keep it out for good.
The story, as described above, has simple roots, but grows and grows the more you dig. From leaving this prison, your character goes on to ring two bells, allowing entrance into a fortress that leads to the great city near the sun, Anor Londo. From here, you gather the four great Lord Souls which will allow you to face Gwyn and then either relight the fire or keep it out. On a brief playthrough, this is mostly the story you will receive. But if you truly dig, there is a massive blanket of lore covering every area, character, and item you come across.
There are beautiful character stories such as that of Artorias, who walked through the abyss in hopes of preventing its inevitable spread. Yet he succumbs to its darkness, saving his canine companion with his last bout of sanity, and then waits for an undead to one day come and slay him to let him die with honor. There is the lore of Anor Londo, seemingly bright and well guarded – but in reality, it is an illusion painted by Gwyn himself. There is the boss battle with Quelaag, half-human and half-spider, shrouded in flames and seemingly with only evil intentions. But as you kill and pass by her, her reasons are revealed – she was only trying to protect her sister (crippled and unable to move) from invaders. And this lore goes on and on for almost everything you come across, all tying back to the story at large creating a wonderful and dark fantasy world filled with endless exploration.
The gameplay of the original Dark Souls is innovation at its peak. It may have become a meme to compare almost every new game to some aspect of Dark Souls, but the fact that it is so often done speaks to how much of an influence this game was. The combat style is slow and patient, forcing the player to learn the individual enemies’ different attacks and then timing dodges, parries, ripostes, strafing, backstabs, magic, ranged, and normal/strong attacks to defeat them. Any combination of these tactics can be used for various enemies, but then it is also up to the player to choose weapons that deal different types of damage, buff their weapons permanently at a blacksmith or temporarily with magic, and then level their stats in order to deal better damage depending on which type of weapon you are using.
The bonfires and shortcuts create a feeling of anxiety and elation – the vast space between fires is terrifying as your health and healing items are quickly whittled out through the level, but the discovery of a well-placed shortcut is a perfect sense of progression. There are also so many veering-off points that require you to analyze whether you are in a position to take a detour, or if you are better off progressing on the intended path. And as you are on these paths, traps and hidden enemies lie just out of sight, but there are fair hints that they are coming if the player is willing to pay close attention.
I am not usually one for online gaming, but FromSoft developed a way to integrate minor bouts of online play within the story of the world that makes me really fall in love with it. The notes placed on the ground by other players hint at traps, hidden doorways, enemies, weaknesses, and a variety of other things. Player invasions may at first seem cheap, but given you have the option to play as an undead negates that,. As a human, things are truly much easier on you, so these invasions add a level of difficulty that end up being completely fair. Finally, the summons can help players get around certain challenges such as harder areas or bosses they are stuck on. To an extent, I like this, but it does make some bosses (like Gwyn) a bit too easy compared to how they should be fought. But overall, the online component and every other facet of Dark Souls’ gameplay is simply amazing.
Despite nearly every aspect of this game being excellent, the level design is where it really takes off. Each location (excluding Lost Izalith) is created with such care. The different areas interconnect in the most astonishing ways and are layered on each other to create a vertical level design that is almost impossible to match in other games. The areas themselves are beautifully constructed and are each given their own thought-out lore. Ranging from the dark, layered catacombs to the trap ridden Sen’s Fortress to Anor Londo (one of the few areas in any game that I would consider perfect), there is simply so much beauty and variation that it is impossible to not give the Dark Souls level design a perfect score.
With all that already, then the DLC comes and still manages to be one of the best parts of the game. While the first boss is decent, every single moment of the DLC afterward is even more expertly created than the main game itself. The different areas within the DLC are clear predecessors of those in the main game, and you can pick out and theorize on what may have happened to create the world in the present timeline. The trek from the gardens down lower and lower into the city and even further into the abyss itself is an excellent choice that helps depict how horrifying and evil the abyss truly is. The bosses, specifically Artorias, Kalameet, and Manus, are in my opinion all in the top 5 bosses of the entire game with Artorias most likely landing at #1. The story itself is intriguing and helps expand on the somber story of one of the best characters in any FromSoft game ever created. FromSoft always seems to create DLCs that exceed the main game, and this one is no exception.
Dark Souls is truly the pioneer of this style of gaming, and while Demon’s Souls may have come before it, this is the game that nailed the style. Its unique style of fantasy storytelling, the challenging but completely fair play style, and nearly perfect level design, all come together to create what is one of the best games I have ever played. The DLC somehow takes all of these compliments and improves upon them. My only complaint is that the remastered version seemingly changes nothing. There are some minor quality of life changes, but it is not worth spending money for those things alone if you have the original. But nonetheless, this is a game that changed the genre and is worth replaying or even playing for the first time all these years later.
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