Dark Souls Is Hard Mode Only Because It’s Low-Budget and Poorly Designed

“YOU DIED.”

You’ll see these words a lot in Dark Souls.

New area? Turn a corner, stabbed, die. Trying to get back to your dropped souls (Dark Souls‘ multi-function money/experience unit)? Fall off an awkward ledge, die. Accidentally try to cast a spell that has no charges left? Look confused at your own incompetence, die.

Eventually you hardly notice the backtracking. You explore 1% of a new area, then you fail. You get back to where you died before with fewer problems, get another 1% farther, then die again. Rinse. Lather. Repeat until you can’t take it anymore. If you’re lucky (it almost always feels like you have to be more lucky than good), you’ll reach a bonfire, one of Dark Souls‘ save/checkpoints. These are nearly always off the beaten path, frustratingly hidden in a little corner nook. A lot of people bought this game. Few will ever beat it, let alone invest the hundreds of hours necessary for that platinum trophy.

You learn to spend your Souls as soon as they are acquired. Never saving for the future, you are a lower middle-class gas station attendant receiving an unexpected inheritance from a distant relative. Easy come; easy go. But the little windfalls add up. Your level increases, quickly at first, then slowly. Your armor becomes thicker. Your sword longer, stronger. Enemies that once challenged every reflex in your body begin to fall easily. You see sights you would never expect out of a grimdark game like Dark Souls. You start to have real, actual fun.

Then you come across an enemy that seems impossible. It’s not even a boss. It’s just another random goon. Why can’t you win? Are you in the wrong area for your level? This is totally possible – Dark Souls‘ open world gameplay lets you die anywhere you want, and as soon as you’d like (especially if you snag that Master Key as your starting loot). But maybe… maybe it’s not even your fault.

When you make your way down the same path to the same boss over and over and over, you start to notice the little graphical and gameplay snags by the fifteenth trip. The lack of textures, both on up-close and faraway objects. The oft-hidden, oft-weird paths that the game expects you to instinctively know how to take (the broken window in Anor Londo? returning to the Undead Asylum via cliff jumping? the path off to the right in Darkroot Garden?). The slow, unstoppable sword swings and Estus Flask (health potion) drinking delays, sometimes full seconds later, guaranteeing that you’ll get stabbed/bit/magicked in the face. Some (many) reviewers claim that the clunkiness is a conscious design decision, and that the hidden save points encourage exploration while you’re trying not to die, losing possibly hours of progress. Maybe that’s true. Maybe they want you to learn to be cautious, and to feel real, actual fear. Or maybe, like I believe, it was merely From Software being lazy, or cutting corners due to budget constraints, or just not having the resources to make Dark Souls the near-perfect experience that – let’s face it – it is.

Let’s start with the bonfires. These checkpoints are the only safe places in the game (there is no pause – possibly the biggest sign that the game doesn’t respect you one bit and wants to cause you pain), and they’re also the only place to refill your life-restoring Estus Flasks. There is no way of knowing how far until you reach the next one, though, and – perhaps to seem legitimately safe? – they are almost always in hidden crannies in the corners of caves. When you’ve just battled through a horde of zombie skeletons and are looking for a place to spend your hard-earned souls, there is no worse feeling than being blindsided by an instant-death boss battle because you walked right past the hidden passageway leading to the bonfire. This isn’t a game being hard smartly. This is artificial difficulty and cruel, malicious game-lengthening.

Next, the constraints. Every once in a while, the world will open up. You’ll exit a claustrophobic cave and fall out into the harsh sunlight, blinking like a newborn. Then you’ll get stabbed. But not before noticing the draw distance. Like a lot of large-scale PS2-era games, Dark Souls is a big fan of using fog in the distance to hide jaggies and low-poly faraway textures. The problem is that the enemies, with their omniscient AI, will still destroy you from behind their cloudy veil while you struggle to even come to grips with where the arrows are flying from. Maybe this is supposed to make you feel more like you’re in a real, dangerous world. Death rains from above and lurks around every corner, and there is no respite, no hope. However, with the lock-on function only working for nearby enemies, and with no way to aim spells (bows are the only weapon that can be manually aimed, and even then, you can’t aim too high or too low), it feels unfair more than anything. I’m level 75. How is this skeleton with a bow made of sticks able to out-snipe me?

When the fog isn’t present, the developers make up for it by dropping the textures. There’s one level in particular, a sandbar along an underground lake, defended by an insurmountable hydra – the sand is as smooth as glass, and so is the water. No waves, no ripples, nothing. The only difference between the safe sturdy ground and the death water is the color.

And then there’s Blighttown. Poison water all over the place, slowing your movement and killing you softly, a single solitary (and hidden) bonfire, and so many enemies that the lag will make this area nigh-unplayable. Remember slowdown? I thought it was a thing of the past, as well. But then you hit the triangle button on your controller a few times, switching between two-handed and one-handed sword styles, watching your shield magically alternate between your back and your hand without even a frame of animation in between, and you realize ah, so that’s why – they gave up on the little details in order to throw this massive world at you with no help, no hope, and no way out.

It’s funny, though. Even with all these little issues, no game has ever sunk its barbs so deeply into my psyche. When I sleep, I dream of rounding a corner and breathing a sigh of relief as a cold bonfire comes into view. I plan boss strategies in my mind while sitting on the toilet, having a quiet moment to myself. When I write, when I work, when I eat, even when I’m playing another game, I wish I was back in this cold, harsh world that Dark Souls has created with so little effort. Every death teaches me something – about the game’s mechanics, about my strategies, about myself. I learn. I grow. Dozens of hours into Dark Souls, and I have only scratched the surface of what the game has to offer. Scanning the numerous online Wikis hoping to offer some small solace to the players living in this dark, unforgiving world, I realize that there is so much I’ve missed, so much yet to do, and I feel that I am not alone.

But the thing about Dark Souls: we’re all alone, and there is no one to rely on but yourself. It is the most real game I’ve ever encountered, and the analogies that can be made with our waking life are boundless. There is no pause button. Every action has a consequence. Sometimes things aren’t as pretty or as easy as you’d like. Sometimes it feels like whoever made this world really had no idea what they were doing. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Photo Credit, I believe, is Josh Archer.

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15 Comments

Filed under Editorial

15 responses to “Dark Souls Is Hard Mode Only Because It’s Low-Budget and Poorly Designed

  1. IFS

    The only time I ever felt the game was unfair to me was at anor londo when I had to get past the two archer sliver knights firing spears at me from way out of bow range. I never noticed the texture problems because I was too immersed in the game to care, and I didn’t notice lag in blightown until new game plus for the same reason. I never felt the controls were clunky, I thought they were very tight, and the inability to cancel swings/spells/items midway through was part of the games way of teaching the player to be cautious. The hidden areas can be annoying, but usually there is some hint as to their existence, when there isn’t is where player messages can really help.
    I’m not saying your points are invalid, this is a game where everyone will have a different experience.
    Also, what did you think of the online component? You didn’t mention it in the review, and it was one of my favorite parts of the game, so I’m wondering what you thought of it.

    • Oh man those spear guys. Lost so many souls. I think I’ll actually make a whole post on the online component sometime because it deserves more than just a hundred words or so. Like the rest of the game, I actually loved it. And it made being a human super scary because you could get randomly killed at any point. That’s one of the best thing about Dark Souls – it makes you actually feel things like fear, isolation, wonder. Not a lot of current games can make that claim. Thanks for reading the whole thing and the thoughtful response!

  2. Dark Souls should be studied by anyone who is interested in level design. It’s as close to perfect as humanly possible. The only perfect man-made game design being 90 feet between bases, of course. Dark Souls is a challenging game, not a hard game. If you die, it’s because you’re not playing correctly. I’ve played through the game a few times, and I can only think of 2 areas that cause some cheap deaths: The archers at Anor Londo, and The Chaos Demon (I think it’s called, the one that’s down the slide in the fire area) Other than that, if you die, it’s on you. You made a mistake. Some people don’t like that. They want to blame the developer, “It’s THEIR fault I suck at this game! Those thousands of other people who love Dark Souls are all wrong!” There are games that are unfair and infuriatingly cheap. Hey, I played STUNTMAN and I wanted to buy a ticket to California and beat the Lead Designer to death with the game box. But Dark Souls is nothing like that. It’s balanced and fair. You just have to play by the Dark Souls rules. Level up your weapons and armor with your souls. Get the Drake Sword as early as possible. Don’t button mash. Take your time. Look around. Use the items your given or offered to buy. Don’t be in such a rush. Relax, pull enemies to fight one at a time instead of rushing in. There are alot of people willing to help you. Use a humanity to Reverse Hollowing and summon someone to help you. When leaving Firelink Shrine heading towards the Undead Burg, use those few enemies to practice backstabbing, kicking shields and test your weapons. Dark Souls is a deep and rewarding game. I think it’s the greatest video game I’ve ever played. I am fully “Prepared To Die” come this Friday. Praise The Sun.

    • speedyaj

      I’m sorry but it is not the players fault they die. After playing this for a while, I realised the only reason this game is difficult is because of its messed up combat mechanics. It’s basically an “easier” version of monster hunter…if the mechanics actually worked properly.

      If someone can kill you, through a shield, when you’re on full health…in 1 hit, you know the game is poorly made.

  3. arron

    Sounds like they took a page out of Bethesda’s book for “Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth” when they wrote that. I remember when playing that there were utterly unforgiving sequences where if you didn’t do a long sequence of carefully choreographed moves in good time in several places in the game, then you were screwed. The monster AI was basically clairvoyant and no matter where you hid when alerted, it would find you and you’d wind up getting shotgun mobbed to death. There was a room with a statue pushing puzzle with a bug that meant if you pushed the statue too far, you couldn’t push it back. And that would trap you in a sanity sucking temple without escape. Or the refinery with the Shoggoth, which comes down to whether you have enough sanity and whether you can negotiate a maze perfectly without hitting obstacles. Make a single slip up or have little sanity..and it’s Game Over. Reload, and redo several minutes of polygon-perfect actions from scratch.

    The save points were distant, frequently hidden and in some cases you had to unlock (there’s one on the inside door of a safe for example) and it just got infuriating to play. It really did feel like torture where you’re playing for less time than it take to reload the game after dying. There was one spot where you’re on a ship to some island and huge waves are swamping the boat causing you to die. I never got beyond that point because I suddenly had the notion that research into removing my brain through self-administered cranial surgery would be more beneficial.

    The odd thing was that this should have been a game that really appealed to me – complex mysterious plot, disturbing diary/evidence entries, eerie goings on and realistic combat/damage metrics. I loved how the game didn’t give you a weapon close to the end of the first chapter. The most powerful gun you got was a Thompson Machine Gun and you had limited ammo for that. I think I used it twice in the whole game.

    So the game forced you to think about your gameplay. Rather than having you gun down the inhabitants of Innsmouth five minutes after arrival Call of Duty style..you had to scout around looking for ingress into areas and talk to people. And you found out exactly how much the town hated “outsiders” as a result. But because the critical hoop-jumping events of the game were handled in such a ham-fisted non-optional linear manner where not pushing that bookcase one inch over the door meant death..the whole experience went from entertainment to a chore. It’s a real shame as it was a game with additional tweaks and bug fixes could have been something special.

  4. Albino Raven

    The controls don’t feel the controls are clunky. The fact that you have to commit to your swing makes the weapons feel weighty and satisfying. I never noticed any enemies obscured by fog during my playthrough. With regards to Ash Lake, I think the smooth sand and lack of wave were conscious art choices to reflect the primeval nature of the area.

    I agree with the rest of your comments. A lot of game mechanics seemed to be needlessly obscured. Perhaps I’m just forgetful, but I don’t remember ever being told that pressing the dodge button again while running makes you jump. Also, how are you supposed to know that you that choosing Absolve Sins from Oswald in the church will make NPCs friendly again if you accidentally hit them?

    Dark Souls is interesting because it seems to encourage (and at some points even require) the player to engage in an out-of-game community. Sure you can get the Drake Sword if you have trouble early on, but who would think to shoot the drake’s tail without looking it up online first? The same applies for all of the secret areas and, worst of all, the Darkwraith covenant. It baffles me that they would require the player to go against the little direction they have received and bypass Frampt to access such a crucial part of the online experience.

  5. Alexander The 1st

    “(there is no pause – possibly the biggest sign that the game doesn’t respect you one bit and wants to cause you pain) ”

    Only major part I have a problem with, as since the game has an online component, pausing the game while you have humanity would be impossible if you’re invaded or you have teammates.

    Granted, pausing could’ve been available during Hollow gameplay, but then even more would be in Hollow’s favour. Is there any offline-benefit to being human?

  6. There’s actually two bonfires in blighttown; the second is high up, closer to the path connecting to the depths.

  7. This game is hard but hardly unfair. In fact once you learn the mechanics and level layout it is quite easy. There is a way to approach every situation, you just have to find it.

  8. ABicepGirl

    The game wasn’t that hard, this article plays up the difficulty more than the try-hard fanbase and marketing did. I loved this game, and it had nothing to do with its difficulty. It’s a fun game, the levels are fun, the player control is great (I don’t spend my time mashing the attack button at every enemy), it hs deep lore. It has issues, like any other game (for example, for all it’s wonderful pluses, Bioshock Infinite is another on-rails shooting gallery). So what if you occasionally have to plan ahead, or die, or have great timing to kill a boss?
    The only people still babbling about whether or not Dark Souls was a legitimate experience are either (A) the pretentious people incorrectly obsessed with it as a standard for how challenging games should divide gamers by skill, and (B) Idiots who bought into the ignorant hype from people in (A) and try to hate on it as though their argument is anything more than another straw man.

  9. Karl

    This is an absolute joke. I’ve played well over 1,000 hours of dark souls, and I can assure you that most of these complains ate due to someone being new to a game of this sort. There’s no pause feature, but it’s not like you get sent back to the last bonfire, when you quit and come back you are usually right where you quit or slightly further back. OI would assume that this player is accustomed to fps games or something, and isn’t used to this sort of game. I can tell you now, the biggest reasons for dying in this game is impatience and lack of ability regarding the use of the controls. Once you figure that out, the game is a huge load of fun and over all enjoyable to play in pve. Just get used to the game and stop complaining.

  10. JFlo

    On the topic of lag, I think they tried to prevent it, and only failed in Blighttown. I’m not sure on this, but have you noticed fog doors that aren’t in front doors, cuz I just think that’s put there for world buffering reasons (not sure). And better textures would make the game lag worse (depending on system and graphics card).Blighttown probably lags because there is only one fog door between it and quelaags place, the number of enemies, and it having to load the entire great hollow and the ash lake when you are there. Just an opinion.

  11. Estus

    DS is unforgiving. I’m currently on my 4th playthrough and I’ve learned something every time, whether it be about the lore, myself, or game mechanics. I think the problem is DS is a different game depending on the character chosen. A STR build character will experience the game differently than a DEX build character, etc. I think that adds to the game. Poise is also a very deep aspect of the game. Does one make sacrifices in endurance or speed? This also adds to the depth of the game.

    However, there are issues. My biggest gripe is enemies auto-correcting in mid-animation. I hate that. Arrows following you, whether it be from regular bows or the Dragon Greatbow, jumps attacks trail, even magic. Those ridiculous bloated head sorceress in Oolacile case spells that cannot be outrun. This could be a programming issue as well, but the button-press delays are unacceptable. When I press the attack button, I meant for the attack to execute right there, not 2 seconds later. Backstabs are also horribly broken, and I’m glad FS addressed that in DS2.

    Patience is required though, every single enemy, even those zombies with broken swords, are a threat. Underestimate nothing. Thinking back to my first playthrough, this game tries to intimidate it’s players from the get go. The first thing you see upon existing the cell is the Underground Asylum demon. I was intimidated as well. I also learned very early on, parrying is required! One must learn to parry or this game will be unbelievably frustrating. Getting by those Dragon Greatbow wielding Silver Knights is so much easier when I learned to parry their arrows.

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