Some parents believe the best way to teach a child to swim is just throw them in the sea and let them work it out. Others, that kids interested in taking up smoking should be forced to chuff 30 packs in one go, until they’re raw-eyed, wheezing lumps of tar-stained flesh.
That’s very much been my experience of Soulsborne, From Software’s notoriously soul-destroying series of games encompassing three Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne. Late to this famously punishing party, I started on Dark Souls 3, the most recent game where the makers took on board hardcore fan complaints that DS2 was too easy and set about beating the player about every inch of their inadequately armoured pyromancer asses with legions of overpowered skeleton soldiers and devil frogs capable of reducing you to a pile of guts with a bat of the oh-right-of-course-it’s-poisoned eyelid. Newbie ignorance didn’t help. I ploughed painfully through about 100 hours of DS3 chucking valuable resources down my neck to no obvious advantage and not realising until the DLC that the sparkly signs by the doors to those impossible bosses allowed you to summon NPC assistants.
It was such sweet agony, and the sense of achievement at beating it so much like hard drugs, that I worked my way backwards through Bloodborne and DS2, chasing that initial rush. Challenging games, sure, but knowing even a little about what I was doing made them a relative breeze (until I ran into the brutal bastards of the DLCs, at least). Now From Software have just released a remastered version of the first Dark Souls and, as I race into the endgame, it’s clear that I’ve done Soulsborne all wrong. If you’re a DS newbie keen to catch up on the most intense, sophisticated and rewarding experience in gaming history, you need to start here. Here’s why.
It’s relatively easy
The key word here being ‘relatively’. Make no mistake, if this is your first Firelink rodeo, Dark Souls Remastered will eat your lunch, digest it into an acidic mulch and spew it back into your melting face. You’re basically dropped into an open fantasy world with virtually no guidance as to where to go: down one path you’ll find tough opponents that will take all of your patience, skill and cunning to overcome; down all the rest are nasties that will just mash you into human soup before you can raise your plastic sword at them. You’ve got armour made of porcelain, you roll like a breezeblock and you hit like a doped-up dormouse. Oh, and you’ll fall off both paths to your death every few steps or so.
That said, despite the game often being ranked as the hardest of the Soulsborne series, that’s clearly the result of the twitching memory of learning how to git gud. For veterans of the other games, Dark Souls Remastered is a bit of a pushover. Early enemies go down in a couple of slashes from pretty basic weaponry, and by the halfway point I was already knocking about in Havel’s tank-like armour set with a maxed-out lightning scimitar, the sort of equipment I had to spend months farming evil sun priests for in DS3. Two or three late-game bosses have gone down second time by just piling in swinging, no matter how tricky their attack patterns or how many skeleton minions they’ve got.
A fair few bosses are formulaic and predictable too, and some, like a kind of fire-spewing candelabra called Pinwheel, you’d literally have to sit in the middle of the arena whistling ‘I’m A Yankee Doodle Dandy’ for five minutes to get killed by. One grisly looking beast made of lava and going by the name of Ceaseless Discharge – more of a gigantic genital complaint than a lord of the underworld, really – just dropped an appendage by my side and let me whack it until it fell into a massive hole. You can understand why early players considered the dual bosses of Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough as the toughest boss fight ever back in 2011 – two bosses at once! Nightmare! – but three games later I’ve beaten down three or four bosses at once, and one goddamn nun that resurrected as two bosses, then as a super-powered invisible flying dark-nun with mega-smooshing powers. Ornstein and Smough? As soon as you learn to run away from Smough’s lightning arse, they’re pate.
The toughness of Dark Souls Remastered actually lies in its structure. It’s some way through the game before you gain the ability to warp between bonfires (the in-game save points), so getting from place to place can be a hard, repetitive slog. But the addictive appeal of Dark Souls is that you relish the challenge of the next game, so you need to feel that Dark Souls Remastered pushed you to your limits before taking on DS3 or Bloodborne, games to which your limits mean shit.
You need to stand on your own two feet
Most games will tell you what to do. A handy white dot will appear on an item in the background that you can interact with. A mini-map in the corner of the screen will guide you to the next not-too-difficult side quest. Dark Souls Remastered, on the other hand, smacks away your grasping hand and pushes you into the dark. From the very off you’ll be wandering unwittingly into areas you shouldn’t even be daring to set foot in until you’ve earned yourself the stats of a demigod, and entire sections of the game can be missed unless you’re constantly questioning your environment. I mean, who first thought of stepping off a speeding lift onto what might be a new platform in game HQ Firelink Shrine? And who, from that platform, realised they could make an impossible leap to a distant chunk of grass that leads back to the sodding training level via curling yourself randomly up in a crow’s nest, there to find an innocuous item without which you won’t be sucked into a gigantic painting in a completely different part of the game? Who does this shit? You’ll have to, and the complete lack of guidance you’ll get from Dark Souls Remastered is perfect training for exploring all of the other games in the series, exhaustively.
You need to feel the ‘epic’
Soulsborne lives and breathes scale and spectacle. Gaze out from any cathedral rampart over a vast expanse of mountain peaks and gothic architecture and you’ll be able to visit every single corner of it. Now Dark Souls vets will give you the full run-down of improved frame-rates and changes in the gleams from the prison walls between the original game and the remaster; all I can tell you is that, when the demon fireflies lifted me from the ramparts of Sen’s Fortress and carried me over the panoramic glories of the cathedral city of Anor Londo it all looked, well, a bit blocky. I’d visited Anor Londo in DS3, you see, and it was a stunning place of plush velvets, gleaming metals and polished stone walkways. Anor Londo in DSM is almost identical, but a bit blander. So visit it here first, before getting dazzled by DS3’s hi-def remake.
Dark Souls is such an immersive and engaging experience, it naturally encourages the deep-diving nutjob. The amount of character history, back story and item significance in DS3 was baffling and overwhelming, whereas Remastered lets you in at the ground floor, and also introduces you to the weapons, sorceries and armours that will become your go-to arsenal without making it a full-game mission to upgrade them to their greatest potential. Dark Souls is a world unto itself; here’s your chance to feel like a native rather than a befuddled tourist.