Which Souls shines most brightly in the darkness? This month we're giving our verdicts on some of PC gaming's most beloved series, including Hearthstone and Mass Effect. Now we tackle From Software's unlikely PC success story.
Dark Souls is the most important action-RPG since Diablo. Its success essentially created the gaming zeitgeist of the 2010s, proving that million of players want challenging, intricate, technical, even obtuse games. That rough edges can be selling points, not problems to be focus tested away. That patience and precision actually work really well paired with the absurd interactions of online multiplayer, when you're smart about how you put them together.
And the Dark Souls series has done more than inspire dozens of games to follow its design, though that's been enough to reshape RPGs and action games since 2011. More importantly to the PC, the Dark Souls series has blazed a trail for Japanese game developers on our platform. Without Dark Souls doing it first, it's hard to imagine PC ports like Valkyria Chronicles and Deadly Premonition ever making it to PC.
The Dark Souls games are similar enough, and beloved enough, that ranking them means picking apart their most minute details, scrutinizing where they overlap and where they diverge. The worst of them is still one of the boldest action games of the decade. But which is the best? In ascending darkness, from worst to best...
Dark Souls 2
More souls for the sake of more
Developed: From Software | Published: Bandai Namco
Many of Dark Souls 2's bosses were copied from the first game or relied on a gimmick, but a few were up there with the best of them. The Looking Glass Knight is one of DS2's most interesting ideas: the Knight can use its enormous mirror shield to summon enemies, including other human players, into the fight. Brilliant.
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. With Dark Souls, From Software channeled a very particular taste for design—director Hidetaka Miyazaki's—into something remarkable. How do you replicate that in a sequel, when the director is off working on another project? Follow the sequel formula to the letter: more of the same, but just a little different.
Dark Souls 2 is a massive game, sprawling across a wider variety of twisted fantasy landscapes. There are dozens more weapons than in the first, some old and some new. Some areas are crowded with more and better-armed mobs of enemies, placed with just a bit more eagerness to ambush. The concept of hollowing is now more complex, chipping away at your lifebar with each death, and the binary risk/reward for being human no longer applies: you can still be invaded while hollow, but can't summon other players to aid you. Dying sets you back to a bonfire and means you have to progress through the same enemies again, but kill them enough times and they disappear, leaving the area empty without the use of a certain item.
Dark Souls 2 is filled with many other small changes, like summoning having a time limit and online play being tied to "soul memory," an uncontrollable stat based on every enemy soul accrued throughout the game. Its many areas are strung together more linearly with little thematic connection and even less interlinking, offering up forgettable bosses as often as remarkable ones.
By the end, it feels like a game built to offer more of everything, bloating in the process, with returning elements tweaked for the sake of being different. And in striving for that distinction, Dark Souls 2 often misses the minutia of what made the first game such a delicately magical combination of ideas.
Dark Souls 2 looks and plays like a hollowed version of Dark Souls: much the same in the obvious ways, but without the fire of humanity burning within it.
Dark Souls 3
The art of the duel
Developed: From Software | Published: Bandai Namco
The Souls series dips into horror with enormous, disgusting bosses, but its most powerful moments are often duels with the warriors whispered about in its lore. This is especially true in Dark Souls 3, and so many of them are great I couldn't pick a favorite. But if you know your Dark Souls lore, facing The King of the Storm (a completely optional boss) is an incredible moment.
Dark Souls 3 reverses nearly every change made by Dark Souls 2 to deliver a game that is as direct a sequel, narratively and thematically and mechanically, as director Miyazaki will likely ever make. It also bears the influence of his PS4 exclusive Bloodborne, ramping up the slow pacing of Dark Souls with faster movement and more fluid animations for both players and enemies. The result is a game that still requires caution and patience, but weapons feel more satisfying to swing and enemies are all the more terrifying as they dash towards you with blades drawn.
Where Dark Souls felt fiercely, defiantly original and Dark Souls 2 felt scatterbrained in its attempts to cover new ground, Dark Souls 3 pays homage to the first again and again. At times this feels disappointing, retreading environments and enemies that feel familiar, but this theme of recursion is embedded deeply in the game. Lore is doled out in item descriptions and environmental storytelling and vague NPC dialogue, making it easy to miss. But when you grasp the history of this place and the purpose of your journey, understanding the ties to Dark Souls' Lordran imbues the last hours of Dark Souls 3 with the greatest sense of majesty and meaning, of coming together, in the entire series.
Dark Souls 3 benefits greatly from newer console hardware, adding depth and beauty and scale to its familiar castles and undead settlements and hellish underground worlds. It's the most grotesque and grandiose, with more processing power to fit more enemies into the world without performance drops. And it's certainly the most player-friendly, amply doling out bonfires to warp between and return to. Again, like in Dark Souls 2, a tiny bit of the magic is lost, here. The world is intricate and hides so many secrets, optional areas big and small, but you'll spend less time discovering honeycomb links between new and old.
It feels right for Dark Souls 3 to sit in the middle. It corrects mistakes and missteps and is absolutely the most fun of the three to play. It runs like a dream at 60 frames per second. Duels with knights are tense and exhilarating, mobs are balanced to be overwhelming but rarely unfair, bosses are breathtaking and creative. Changes to the weapon upgrade system and equip weight encourage more experimentation with builds, and the world is so gorgeous it compels exploration. Its NPC storylines are fascinating, though near impossible to follow without a guide. An action game everyone should play.
It's just no Dark Souls.
Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition
The true heir to Super Metroid
Developed: From Software | Published: Bandai Namco
2012 (on PC)
If Dark Souls wasn't such a phenomenal game, and Durante wasn't the champion of PC modding, the Prepare to Die Edition port would've knocked Dark Souls to the end of the list. It launched at a locked 1024x768 resolution, with broken sound and other issues. Durante's mod DSfix is a mandatory tool that addresses these flaws, turning the PC port into the best version of the game. Even Blighttown runs at a solid framerate.
I find it hard to convey exactly what it is that I think makes Dark Souls such a singular game, but this is the idea I keep coming back to: it's the imperfections that make it. Dark Souls 3 is a fantastic game with far fewer rough patches—it streamlines playing online, traversing the world, equipping armor. It is a less frustrating game, which should make for a better game. And yet the difficulties of Dark Souls' frustrations lead to greater triumphs, greater discoveries, and greater mastery that a more polished game will never quite be able to recapture.
When players talk about the Souls games, they too often focus on the difficulty, that . I think that's missing the point. Yes, difficulty is part of what makes them the best action-RPGs of the decade, but it's specifically the way the Souls games are difficult that makes them so bold and refreshing. It's why Dark Souls hit the gaming world like a bomb in 2011, and while the sequels follow its philosophy they never manage it with quite the same style. In Dark Souls, the undead soldiers roaming the remains of their civilization are not your true enemies. The mighty Black Knights guarding their towers are not your true enemies. The demons waiting in the darkness of Sen's Fortress are not your true enemies.
Dark Souls is the true enemy. The entirety of Dark Souls—AI, invading players, geometry, frames animation, attack patterns, bugs, draw distance, controls, even flavor text—is an enemy to be studied, understood, and defeated.
The difficulty of Dark Souls beckons players to overcome it in any way possible, and so we do, in so many creative ways. Ways that would often be off-limits in other games. Someone would've programmed a dragon's tail not to take damage, because you aren't meant to hide under a bridge and shoot it with 100 arrows from afar, collecting one of the game's best weapons with little effort. A designer would've warned you that attacking NPCs removes them from your game world forever, or made them invincible. A writer would've spelled out the importance of humanity and boss souls, so you don't mistakenly waste them.
Dark Souls does none of these things. It frustrates. It obscures. It leaves you to figure out your own solutions and demands patience and skill while overcoming them. And it gives you such a surge of satisfaction for overcoming those obstacles, either hard-earned or illicit. Sometimes a victory feels like you've outsmarted the designers. Outsmarted the game itself, cheating it of its dominance. But this is allowed, even encouraged, to beat Dark Souls by any possible means.
In a game without such a strong vision and fascinating world to discover, step by tender step, the places where Dark Souls prods and annoys and leaves things unfair or imperfect would make for a lesser game. They would detract from the experience of playing it. And for the first few hours of play in Dark Souls, they do. But that moment when it clicks—when you understand the freedom you have to claw your way over obstacles in so many different ways—it's suddenly very, very hard to stop playing. What a game.