By Sam Greer
The Dark Souls series has finally come to a close. But while The Ringed City marks the 'official' end of the series, at least as far as its original developer goes, From Software seem keenly aware that Dark Souls truly ended some time ago.
Which isn't to say I didn't enjoy this swansong. The Ringed City was a thrilling finale that ended things with a fitting anti-climax. It was all that the end of Dark Souls should have been, with a world of ash, as far as the eye can see. And when I stepped out into that final showdown at the end of time and space, I was ready to say goodbye to Souls.
The previous expansion Ashes of Ariandel gave us the story of a painted world, doomed to rot. All because its rulers would not let its current cycle end, stalling a cleansing fire that would allow a new world to take its place. I am not one to be obsessed with Dark Souls as meta-textual commentary, but it's hard to escape that in these final two expansions it feels like From Software and series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki are passing some comment on the fate of the series. The entirety of Dark Souls 3 felt like a definitive statement on the diminishing returns of sequels. Where Dark Souls 2 can be read as the futility of sequels trying to measure up to their originators, 3 feels like the extreme; an exhausted husk of a world, cobbled together from stolen ideas, all ready to cannibalise itself.
Yet if Dark Souls 3 feels like its creators showing how Dark Souls has run its course as a series, you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise by the game's enduring popularity. In such a short space of time Dark Souls has become an all-consuming obsession for fans, critics and developers alike. It might not be the biggest game commercially, but it's hard to think of any game so frequently and deeply discussed.
This remains striking because, at a time when every other big title seemed to be going for as broad appeal as possible, 2011's Dark Souls was, like the cult success Demon's Souls before it, a breath of fresh air. It was not afraid to let players discover things for themselves, whether it be the world or entire game mechanics. It was challenging too, with no difficulty options meaning you had to rise to each new foe or simply give up.
Dark Souls was, for many, a return to an old-school design sensibility. Though a distinctly modern action role playing game, it was nonetheless the descendant of games like Castlevania and Zelda — series which had long since moved in markedly different directions from where they started.
Yet the fixation on difficulty and indirect storytelling is quite odd given Miyazaki himself has said, in an interview with Wired “I have no intention to make the game more difficult than other titles." Instead he describes "...making games that give players a sense of accomplishment by overcoming tremendous odds." Each subsequent Souls game has moved away from the more punishing mechanics and introduced ways for players to make challenges easier. It lets us control the difficulty through how we play rather than a simple menu option.
These qualities have nonetheless come to define Dark Souls in popular perception, thanks in no small part to Bandai Namco's marketing emphasising the difficulty. This characteristic is largely what those hoping to follow in its footsteps have copied. That the “Souls-like” has become a sub-genre speaks to the demand for more Dark Souls, but also shows which things are essential to the series in the eyes of many.
The network of bonfire checkpoints, the currency of souls that can be lost upon death — these are the systems copied by the imitators that have emerged in the past few years. 2014's Lords of the Fallen has its own story and universe, but all of its design is lifted wholesale from Souls, with only the most minute tweaks to the formula. The same goes for Salt & Sanctuary, an indie title that translates it into two dimensions. There are many others either released or on the way: Eitr; The Surge; Necropolis.
Despite borrowing these specific ideas with little change, they nonetheless fall some way short of Dark Souls' quality. In fact what they have so brazenly copied helps show what's missing.
Because Dark Souls was never one idea well-executed, whether that's difficulty or otherwise. It was dozens all working in perfect unison. Taking one or two of its mechanics in isolation only serves to highlight how many other elements are required to make them work. Even Dark Souls itself makes this clear. A landmark game but not a perfect one, its late game area Lost Izalith drew the ire of many fans. Despite being one of the game's most impressive areas in terms of its geography, with a spectacular degree of verticality, the reliance on repeated assets, the game's awkward platforming and perhaps the series' worst boss encounter shatters the game's harmony. What Lost Izalith so perfectly made clear about Dark Souls is that to work, several dozen elements all have to be working well in unison. When one falters, the whole thing begins to fall apart.
So if there is a single idea to be taken away from the game it is not difficulty or obtuseness. It is coherence. Dark Souls made such an impression because it arrived so complete. The interconnecting world has been rightly praised but it's worth appreciating that its labyrinthine structure isn't just literal. Thematically Dark Souls has layers and layers of ideas, all threaded together. Every corner of the game world matters to the other either by way of contrast if not direct relation. Each foe, weapon and piece of architecture has a lineage throughout the game world, that is reinforced visually, narratively and mechanically. That rare fantasy game that delivered a comprehensive mythology that fans are still mulling over years later. All of these details work together to create the sublime quality that made the game such an achievement and ultimately, so difficult to replicate. Even its own creators, over two sequels, have failed to match it completely.
Boiling the game's success down to one idea has led to the most shallow of imitators. At a glance they may seem similar but only a few minutes of play illustrates the gulf. There are hard bosses and precious resources, shortcuts and traps, but there is none of the coherence. Lords of the Fallen's world is a mish-mash of tropes, spiky videogame monsters laid out at as random obstacles. There is no deeper meaning to the presentation, nothing to be gleaned about the world from the mechanics. Because these systems belong to Dark Souls and they can't just be dropped somewhere new and make sense.
If the lessons of Dark Souls have failed to be learned from its immediate clones then there is perhaps reason to be optimistic about those who have interpreted its influence much more vaguely. Ghost of a Tale is a currently early access stealth-themed adventure. Despite relying on completely different mechanics with a personality much lighter and more fairytale-like, it nonetheless manages to grasp some of the essence of Dark Souls. It has a sprawling, interconnected world but it's more than that. New areas change the game's dynamic, offering fresh challenges that enrich the relationship between each part of its world. While it might not be quite up to the achievement of Dark Souls, it is able to provide that wholeness whilst offering a different kind of adventure.
Hyper Light Drifter is another indie title, one that seems much closer to the Souls mould as an action RPG. Yet it takes influence from the titles Dark Souls itself draws from, and in doing so finds similar strengths — albeit with differing execution. It emphasises individual encounters and singular abilities over gradual character growth. And it manages to turn Dark Souls' weaker aspects, like platforming, into a strength, with many engaging challenges forged out of the main character's dash ability.
Though perhaps the greatest example of reinterpreting the formula is From Software's 2015 PS4 exclusive Bloodborne. Another action-RPG but with a gothic horror twist, a world soaked in blood and riven-through with mysteries even more enigmatic than the myths of Dark Souls. Here there are equivalents of the souls and bonfire systems, but careful changes to how they work shift their relationship drastically. Our pool of healing items isn't restored at rest, for instance, but a resource replenished by killing foes, emphasising the brutal, vampiric nature of Bloodborne's populace. Drawing out such a richness of meaning with only the smallest of changes shows just how expertly-engineered these designs are. The exact mechanisms of Dark Souls work solely in the established, coherent meta-physics of its world. In Bloodborne we come to understand its setting through small changes in these rules, with many of the new themes implicit in these mechanics.
We are no doubt only seeing the beginning of Dark Souls' blooming influence. So many games will be coming, borrowing ideas from Souls small and large. To succeed where so many have failed, they must look not at the individual threads but at the tapestry as a whole. It is perhaps no surprise the industry has difficulty copying a game that, above all else, requires a holistic approach to its creation: reinvention and reinterpretation, to the benefit of the whole.
It may look like this sub-genre of Souls is destined to go the way of Dark Souls' kingdoms, nothing but ruins and ash. But there is another possible future, as the painter within Ashes of Ariandel tells us: burn away the rot, and paint a new world.