The best bit of Dark Souls isn’t the boss fights, it’s everything else
Everyone knows the best bits of Soulsbornelikes are the bosses, right? There’s a reason titles like Titan Souls exist, boss-running games that distill the experience into pure form, discarding everything in between. Your carefully honed skills are put to the test against imaginative and outrageous critters in spectacular arenas. What’s better than that?
Literally every other part of the game.
Alright, alright, I’m being hyperbolic in a cheap effort to train you to read the rest of the article, but if you’re reading this, it obviously worked! Hilarious comic exaggeration aside, Dark Souls bosses (which I’m going to focus on for clarity, although this all applies to the rest of the genre as well) are often seen as the game’s highlights, but it’s a is absolutely contrary to my experience. After talking to friends and random strangers I walk into kebab shops at 2am, I’m not the only one either.
There’s nothing wrong with Dark Souls bosses, they’re some of the best in the business. (Except for the Capra Demon and his damn dogs. Absolutely detestable garbage, that.) It’s just that, overall, the experience isn’t all that different from any other action game. Lots of great shows and learning attack patterns until you can dodge the dangerous bits long enough to land enough hits on the soft bits. It’s fun, mostly, but that’s not why I choose Dark Souls over, say, Devil May Cry.
Dark Souls is, according to the objectively correct people at this very web site, one of the best RPGs on PC. For some, it’s the hard-to-swallow kind of truth pill, and I’m not just talking about grumblers who refuse to call anything not turn-based with visible dice rolls an RPG. It’s an action game, right? Sitting in that kind of nebulous action-adventure that former video game journalists talk about “doesn’t fit into any of our other categories.”
Here’s the thing: replicating that old-school RPG feel isn’t just about rattling polyhedrals and +1 to save versus funge. The real magic lies in carefully navigating an unknown world where danger lurks around every corner, anything is possible and no one, not a lonely soul, cares whether you live or die. This is what Dark Souls absolutely nails.
Much of Dark Souls’ oft-vaunted difficulty is actually just meant to take your time navigating the environment and paying attention to your surroundings.
Most of them are invisible, because much of the culture around games, both video and otherwise, only recognizes bits and pieces with dice rolls, button presses, or mouse clicks as the real game. It’s the same misunderstanding that leads to paltry sneers at “walking simulators,” but Dark Souls demonstrates why something as simple as walking is such a big part of a game. Dark Souls’ oft-vaunted difficulty is actually just meant to take your time navigating the environment and paying attention to your surroundings. There are hidden traps and hidden enemies, many of which will gladly kill you with a single hit. You have to adapt, move slower, remember to look up, keep your shield up as you carefully round a blind turn.
None of this, except holding down the lock button, requires any real mechanical input beyond, well, walking. However, you are still playing the game, you continue to learn and hone your skills. The same actions in a tabletop RPG, or a video game mimicking that form of simulation, would require the player to run Sense, Search, and Stealth checks and remember to tell the GM they were moving defensively. . It’s the same thing, Dark Souls just takes advantage of the video game format and removes the obscuring layers of stats and dice. Although you no longer have to imagine your surroundings, understanding how everything works through careful observation and experimentation is still the name of the game. Knowledge is power.
The same approach applies to the business of putting swords in faces and nowhere is clearer than the Catacombs, which are filled with Harryhausenesque skeletons, stammering towards you with deceptive speed and an utter refusal to stay down. To permanently return the skellies to the grave, you need to track down and dispatch the nearby necromancers who revive them, which is easier said than done with a legion of the undead hot on your heels. Unless you apply some good old dungeon knowledge and go with a god weapon, some holy juice that guarantees they won’t get back up.
Nowhere does the game tell you “hey, use a divine weapon to prevent the skeleton from reanimating”. The Divine Weapon Infusion description has the instructions “Use against undead and necromancer counters”, but that’s all the advice you get. For an even easier time, using a blunt weapon will cause the skeletons to collapse with one hit. No wonder priests use maces! It’s a bone-chilling example of how a little deduction and a pinch of fantasy game logic take a tricky section of the game and make it a walk in the park.
The enemies you encounter during these dungeon digs are really where the game’s superb melee combat also shines. As mentioned, poking big bosses is fun, but slicing and pushing more bread-and-butter encounters is a much more engaging experience. The typical Dark Souls beginner melee is to hide behind a large shield and occasionally inexpertly hack whenever it seems safe to do so. Even then, you are taught the basics of stamina management and the punishment that comes with it.
Any enemy can finish you off fairly quickly if you let them, but the reverse is also true. Traversing the Undead Burg with a bit of experience under your belt, deftly parrying clumsy attacks and responding with a quick riposte, or cleverly sliding around an unfortunate hollow for a quick stab, is one of the great pleasures of the game, which is only bettered by the knowledge that one wrong move and you will be axed to death by a walking corpse in an axe-wielding frenzy. The best enemies are those with access to move sets comparable to your own, increasing both the panic of your first fumbling exchanges and the satisfaction that comes with later duels as equals and then ultimately as master.
It’s this feeling of slowly accumulating the knowledge and experience needed to master the various challenges on offer that is at the heart of what makes Dark Souls great. Intertwining environments and overlapping systems come together to form a cohesive and expertly crafted whole. Stripping away the grandiose boss encounters and naming them as the pinnacle of the experience feels almost profane. Trampling through mud with a raised shield, desperately searching for traps and ambushes, that’s Dark Souls of Dark Souls.