Like pretty much everyone else right now, I’m enamored by Elden Ring. FromSoftware’s latest is an unbelievable achievement, a sprawling, hauntingly beautiful world filled with the studio’s iconic enemy design and shaped by its signature best-in-class combat. It’ll be a mainstay of GOTY discussions, and its influence seems likely to be felt across the next generation of open-world RPG design. The trouble is, I haven’t actually played it yet.
In fact, I’ve never really played a Souls game at all. My knowledge of the series comes from the encyclopedic knowledge of a couple of my friends, but my only previous attempt at Dark Souls fizzled out after a few hours. Having asked a Soulsborne veteran to help me with the Bell Gargoyle boss fight, their immediate success took the wind out my sails, and I eventually gave up for good somewhere in the Darkroot Basin.
That was five years ago, and even the release of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice wasn’t enough to rekindle my interest in FromSoft’s output. It’s taken the frenzy around Elden Ring to do that, but having never truly tested my affinity for a Soulslike, I was loath to spend $60 on a massive open-world that I didn’t know if I’d enjoy. So to test my mettle, I resolved to take another run at Dark Souls.
Prepared to Die
My first attempt meant that I knew what to expect from the first couple of hours, so I was well-prepared for the opening few fights. What I wasn’t expecting was the extent to which the original Dark Souls is showing its age. That’s not helped by the fact that I’m playing 2012’s Prepare to Die edition rather than 2018’s Dark Souls Remastered, but it’s also a sign of how far FromSoft has come. Between Dark Souls 3, Sekiro, and now Elden Ring, the Soulsborne has become a genre defined by action that feels slick and fast-paced, a reputation that even Bluepoint’s Demon Souls remaster for PS5 has added to.
By contrast, Dark Souls feels slower and more methodical; dodge-rolling requires precision, not chaotic button spamming; enemy attacks are often quick and painful, but staggers are brutal. Even the Estus Flask animation seems to take an age to complete compared to more modern alternatives. The game itself is no different to how it’s always been, but its successors have significantly altered the playing field over time.
The result of this shift, however, means that I’m discovering that my understanding of the entire series has been deeply misplaced. The bones might be a little creaky by modern standards, but so far, Dark Souls doesn’t actually seem to be particularly hard. It’s a game that punishes hubris and carelessness, and which asks that you learn from your mistakes and adapt quickly to your surroundings, but if you can operate within those boundaries it’s surprisingly forgiving. The journeys to recover your souls after death are too long for my tastes, but fortunately I rarely have to make my way all the way back to a boss fight. Taurus Demon went down first time. The Bell Gargoyles followed suit on my second attempt. Moonlight Butterfly and Capra Demon took three tries, but Gaping Dragon was down in two.
This doesn’t make me some kind of newly-emerged Dark Souls prodigy, but it’s a fascinating reassessment of a series that I’d semi-consciously steered clear of as a result of what I thought was grueling, punishing, ‘git gud’ gameplay. Some of that is already there, and I appreciate I’ve got a long way and some truly infamous bosses to go, but as I head into Blighttown, I feel confident that I’m in this for the long run. Elden Ring might be calling, but for now it’s Lordran, not the Lands Between, that’s my new obsession.
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