So, I’ve been playing a little game called Hollow Knight. It’s an insanely beautiful indie Metroidvania game that takes a few cues from Dark Souls. The challenging combat is carefully paced and requires thought and precision. When you die, you drop all your money, but you can recover it if you return to the scene. As an avid fan of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, these design choices make me very happy.
That is until I run flat against a difficulty wall.
Recently in Hollow Knight, I was stuck at two different spots. The first time, I insisted that I defeat a pair of the level’s toughest enemies despite that they were optional. I’m stubborn like that. It took at least ten tries, and I had to navigate the level all the way back to them each time. Then, just the other night, I met my match in another level’s boss. Again, there were more deaths than I care to count, and much more time spent on return trips. I’m sure anyone will understand how frustrating that process can get.
Trapped in the limbo of defeat, I thought back to the first time I completed Dark Souls. That game had several of such moments. The combat, atmosphere, and level design were all excellent. But on a few occasions, I asked myself if all that was worth the rage-inducing difficulty walls. When I finished my first playthrough, I thought Dark Souls was a pretty good game with some key flaws. A few bosses and encounters were outright unfair, the aforementioned difficulty walls were taxing, and there were moments of apparent lack of polish. If I were to score it on a traditional 1 through 10 review scale, I would have awarded it an 8/10.
I don’t blame anybody who ragequits at this boss.
My opinion of Dark Souls today is in essence the same, only now I think I would kick it all the way up to a 10/10. That’s because upon repeated playthroughs, Dark Souls’ ultimate strength shines like a grossly incandescent sun. If Dark Souls is about perseverance through defeat and the elation and reward of a well-earned victory, then to replay the game is to reap said reward.
A repeat journey through Lordran is a gratification almost without peer. When armed by experience with each level’s design, boss attack patterns, etc., the entire game becomes more immediately satisfying and fun. It’s similar to returning to low-level areas in an RPG to laugh at the foes who were so troublesome before. However, it is far more engaging, because the ease of progression is a result of acquired skill instead of higher stats. It is this and the great variety of potential character builds that made my repeated plays of Dark Souls greater than the first.
I also appreciated Dark Souls much more when I returned to other games. On this note, there are fans who say it’s impossible to enjoy most games after playing Dark Souls. While this will never be true for me, I completely understand the claim. Even before I played Dark Souls, I felt a degree of disappointment when a level or boss encounter was too easy. The same would go for when much of a game’s mechanics felt moot thanks to low difficulty that didn’t necessitate use of them. Dark Souls very rarely disappoints in those regards. As such, I found some difficulty in returning to other games. Even now, I don’t enjoy Ocarina of Time the way I used to. In terms of game design, A Link to the Past and Breath of the Wild are more my kind of jam these days. I crave games that challenge me and trust me to figure them out, games like Hollow Knight. In short, I couldn’t grasp the superb design of Dark Souls until I remembered what it was like to be without it.
My experience with Dark Souls begs an interesting question: Is it valid to judge a game based on a level of enjoyment I only found thanks to multiple playthroughs? In other words, can replaying a game be considered part of the core experience that should be evaluated for a final verdict such as a review? Of course, it is valid to love Dark Souls as much as I do now. It isn’t right to deny what I genuinely enjoy. But when I talk about which games are better than others, I don’t know that I can place Dark Souls above my other favorites, such as Bungie’s Halo games. That is despite that I enjoy Dark Souls more overall than Halo.
Halo 3 is another game I consider worthy of a 10/10.
If I compare my first plays of each, the Halo games dominate. They were tight, intuitive thrilling fun that was much more consistent and polished than the original Dark Souls. Of course that’s better than my first time through Dark Souls, which was hampered by flaws I mentioned earlier, such as the difficulty walls. The thing is, is it right to say that Halo is better even though my appreciation for Dark Souls has grown since then? It would be simple to chalk this up to subjective experiences versus a more objective evaluation of each game. Over time, I’ve found a subjective enjoyment of Dark Souls that I can say is greater than how much I enjoy Halo. But my initial opinion on Dark Souls was subjective as well. If I had greater natural skill at the game, its difficulty wouldn’t have frustrated me as often. It’s easy to imagine that, in that case, I would have enjoyed it much more despite its other flaws.
So, which of my two subjective experiences with Dark Souls should I base my final opinion of the game on? The answer is both. My current adoration for Dark Souls is valid, yet I must acknowledge that it took time and some frustrating effort to get there. Dark Souls has a mean learning curve, and to surmount it is the game’s greatest reward. In answer to my question from before, my replays of Dark Souls were an integral piece of my core experience because they were when I truly rose above the learning curve. I find it arbitrary to say that a single piece of my experience with any game is the only valid one, even if that piece is an entire first playthrough.
Artorias of the Abyss is a chunk of Dark Souls I never played until my second time through. That allowed me to enter a fresh area of the game after the learning curve was behind me, which I loved.
But what about passing a final verdict? How can I decide where Dark Souls ranks among games of similar caliber? To be frank, I don’t have to. I know that I enjoy it more than at least some of them, and that’s enough. I don’t see the need to mold my opinion into something it isn’t just so that I can convince others of how Dark Souls is precisely better or worse than certain other games. I am confident in why I love it, and am open to discussion of why others do or do not. If I need to recommend it to somebody, I’ll be sure they know how rough a first playthrough can get (as if they don’t know that about Dark Souls already). Is any more than that necessary?
Let’s get back to Hollow Knight. Since I began this post, I’ve been tested by even greater frustration than I wrote about before. It’s a more brutal game than I expected. However, given my experience with the Souls games, I know that means a bigger payoff in the end. The difficulty walls are already worth it thanks to stellar art and combat. But I accept that some players won’t have the patience for it. That’s fine, though. I do.