How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never played Dark Souls.
For years I’ve heard all the talk. Masses gushing over the incredible experience of Dark Souls, watching as the legend of its extreme difficulty grew over time. A whole genre has grown since its inception; imitators and spiritual successors continue to try and recreate at least a portion of the formula that has become so endearing to so many. My knowledge going into Dark Souls Remastered was limited to taglines and memes, but after having the opportunity to play it, I can confirm that it lives up to the hype. Opinions on why Dark Souls is a must-play experience widely vary, and no particular answer is more valid than another. What sets it apart for me is the wide range and intensity of emotions it triggers, an experience so powerful that you’ll learn a little bit more about yourself if you’re able to soldier on.
After hours of intense combat and strategic thinking in an attempt to make incremental gains through the brutal environment of Lordran, I almost forgot there’s a story at all. A short but gorgeously-animated cutscene sets up the history of the world and your character’s place in it. The story begins with an unformed land of gray controlled by a race of dragons until one day when a flame ignites. Within the flames are the Souls of Lords, a power that allows the four beings that emerge from the darkness to topple the dragons. The end of the war births the Age of Fire, a time when kingdoms would rise and fall, and life and death would flourish. The journey of your chosen character begins at the end of this age, with the final embers of fire beginning to burn out, and the age of the darkness beginning to rise. As an undead warrior who has yet to lose their mind to madness, it’s up to you to ring the Bells of Awakening in a bid to extend the Age of Flames and to give life a chance to continue.
Learning the history of Lordran needs to be earned as the story is not actively presented to you. Additional lore is found off the beaten path, whether it’s through the few characters you’ll meet that aren’t trying to kill you or in the descriptions of items found along the way. During my first few trips through the Undead Burg, I completely missed both Solaire of Astoria and the Undead Merchant, with the latter proving to be quite useful early on. Those first few hours of combat are incredibly stressful and can take a toll during extended gameplay. Finding characters that aren’t actively trying to gut you with a sword or bash your head in with an axe provides a necessary breather and a calming reminder that not everything wants you dead.
The most surprising and most frustrating part of Dark Souls is just how deadly every enemy can be. The journey through Lordran is a seemingly infinite supply of hollows: undead warriors whose minds have left them. Each hollow has the potential to stop you in your tracks, sometimes with only a few swings of their sword. My lack of patience often got the better of me, resulting in death after death after death. Even pausing just a moment to take in the sights can lead to your downfall. While admiring the tutorial boss from what I thought was a safe balcony, he promptly killed me with a jumping smash of his club. After shouting a few expletives, I learned my lesson and moved on. Bonfires act as save points, and are the locations you respawn at after each inevitable death. They also provide the opportunity to reset your health— but not without a price. Once a bonfire has been used, the enemies you’ve defeated will reappear in their original location, and it's back to square one.
Though each enemy is challenging in their own right, the combat is always fair. Movement is crisp and responsive, locking on to an enemy provides the opportunity to keep attacks and strafing directed towards a single opponent. Defensive moves are triggered with the left shoulder buttons, while quick and strong attacks are controlled by the right shoulders. My preferred stance is a more offensive two-handed sword approach, which is high-risk high-reward and is probably the reason for many of my countless deaths. A whole range of different weapons and items are available depending on whether you like to attack up close and personal or hang back in a more defensive posture. What can’t be stressed enough is that any lack of concentration during a battle can result in some of the most extreme rage I’ve experienced in a game. Nothing infuriated me more than a stray enemy slash ending my run when I tried thinking two enemies ahead. I had to adapt to staying in the moment.
My greatest moments of jubilation and most rage-inducing bouts of frustration were all tied to progression. Each section of Lordran I considered as its own self-contained level, each battle within it a puzzle to solve. My goal was to reach the next bonfire, but how I was going to get there was the challenge. The key to success was ultimately reflection and adaptation. Learning the movements and tendencies of each enemy type and figuring out how to utilize the environment to my advantage were necessary to stay alive. With the enemies respawning in the same position, it became a matter of figuring out how to overcome each enemy one after another. Each section typically ended with a boss battle which added to the feeling of completing level. The bosses themselves are puzzles in their own right, trying to establish patterns of movement in order to determine a strategy for victory. Dealing the final blow provided its own unique sense of accomplishment since unlike the regular enemies, bosses do not respawn after you use a bonfire. Managing to get past throngs of difficult minor foes only to face off against the even more formidable and often gargantuan bosses can feel like a Herculean task at times. I certainly had moments where I questioned the value of continuing, but the incremental success and the outright joy of lighting that next bonfire made the hours of anger and frustration worth it.
It feels odd to say that a video game pushed me to my limits, but as a relatively calm personality I experienced some emotions I haven’t felt since my teenage years. I haven’t broken a controller since an infamous late night with my Nintendo 64, but on a few occasions playing Dark Souls Remastered I came close to crushing my Joy-Con between my fingers. Not everyone is going to find the soul-crushing difficulty as therapeutic, but amidst the rollercoaster of rage, frustration and depression, I learned the importance of perseverance and patience, and just how good it feels to accomplish something that you once thought impossible.