100% Series Retrospective: Souls/Dark Souls


Carter’s Quest

Bless me readers, for I have sinned. It’s been 3000 three years a while since my last Carter’s Quest, as I took on new responsibilities and lost the ability to trek through entire franchises in my spare time.

But with recent milestones like the release of Dark Souls Remasteredand the shutting down of Demon’s Souls‘ servers, I just had to go back.

Why Souls?

The stars sort of aligned for this series this past month. With my wife on maternity leave I figured now is the time to introduce her to this madness that people have found solace in for so many years, and what better opportunity than the newly mintedDark Souls Remastered— which allowed me to play every gameoutside of Demon’s Soulson PS4.

I also used this as a journey to engross myself in some aspects of Soulsthat I typically miss out on with my first few runs. I play sword + board (shield) as often as possible, because that’s my thing with the obvious exception of the anti-shield Bloodborne. I also go in completely blind and solo, with no online help of any kind (guides or co-op), and I’m counting “I haven’t played this for years and forgot where the Cling Ring was” moments.

Although I have played each entry with these restrictions lifted after my first few goes, the thing is I’ve done this so often that this time, for this Quest, I let myself off the hook to do whatever and it allowed me to see a few of the games in a whole new light. Before I begin, here’s one quick note: the order the games are listed below is the exact order I completed them in.

Dark Souls – PC, PS3, PS4 [played, Remastered edition], Switch, Xbox 360, Xbox One

There’s very little to complain about with Dark Souls from a pure aesthetic standpoint. From Software took the formula they established with Demon‘s, and over the course of several years, crafted a masterpiece. It’s probably the most revered entry in the series, and designers will be espousing the greatness of Firelink Shrine and how its entire level structure funnels into it for years to come.

There’s a reason why you see the term “Dark Souls of,” instead of “Demon’s Souls of” frequently penned in various thinkpieces — it ushered in a new audience, took From Software out of the niche hole it had created, and threw them into the limelight of an eon of “Praise the Sun” and various bonfire memes. Soulswas a bonafide hit, something that everyone had to get a taste of, and Dark Soulsdeserves that win.

Replaying it in Remasteredform was treat, naturally. Although most of my thoughts are already encapsulated in my review, going through Dark Soulsagain, despite its spot in my top 10 most replayed games ever list, was never a chore. My wife, however (we were playing with two copies side by side on two PS4s/TVs), made it to the Gargoyle boss and decided to call it quits. Instead, she gravitated toward the gothic setting of Bloodborne, which has captivated so many over the high fantasy theme of dungeons and dragons.

Different strokes! Ever since the RemasterI’ve been hearing lots of people talk about how dated the first Dark Soulsis, even in this new form, which has spawned all sorts of interesting conversations. A lot of people couldn’t go back to the clunkier combat after getting a taste of the Hunter’s Dream, and I can completely understand that. But for me it’s less about the combat and more about the world and my connection to it. Between its soundtrack and tone, Dark Soulsmanages to nail that subtly unsettling feeling that keeps me going minute by minute.

Dark Souls II – PC, PS3, PS4 [played, Scholaredition], Xbox 360, Xbox One

I’ll put my flame shields up now: this very reviled entry still checks out as one of my favorites.

I get the complaints, even discounting that some of them were fixed in the updated Scholar of the First Sinedition. Without father of SoulsHidetaka Miyazakiat the helm the project seemed rudderless, but I actually love that the team was able to work with the new co-directors and cobble something together that’s so weird that it ended up becoming a Soulsexperiment, much like Demon’swas in the first place. Because it’s so strange and because Miyazaki wasn’t leading the charge, it prevented the series from getting into a rut.

“No-Man’s Wharf,” which even has a silly moniker to boot, makes me smile every time I zone into it. I mean, a pirate cave? Sure why not. It’s just so out there, and the more traditional zones are some of the most impressive work From Software has ever done.Dragon Aerie, with its majestic creatures fluttering about, is still a sight to behold and puts many of the other Soulsgames to shame. Even Majula, the game’s hub and one of the only traditional “towns” in the entire series is breathtaking, and I’ve gazed over into the distance many times when returning to it to level up.

Oh, starting the trend of allowing players to choose whenthey start their New Game+ runs rather than force them into it after the final boss? And all of the advancements made to co-op and PVP? Magnificent! Dark Souls IIis rough, but so is most of the series. It doesn’t get nearly enough respect, and I hope at least one person is inspired to give it another shot with the impressive DLC worlds in tow.

Bloodborne – PS4

Bloodbornemight be the purest form of Souls. I’m tempted to give that crown to Demon’s, though there are a lot of wacky concepts (by director Miyazaki’s own admission) that are present to Dark Souls 1and 2, complete with several “maybe it’ll stick” wild card locales/boss concepts. But with Bloodborneyou know what you’re getting.

There’s no massive underground volcano zone or “how is this a thing that only weird people could love” pirate cove. It’s mostly the same uniform gothic wonderland, which, for a lot of people, grounds it and works in its favor (I find it a bit exhausting at times and yearn for a respite of unhinged insanity that only dragons can provide). With pared down stats and faster dodging there’s a greater emphasis on moment to moment combat decisions rather than playing with numbers.

I’ll be the first to admit my penchant for high fantasy skews Soulsproper to the top of my list, but Bloodborneis undeniably a step forward for the series in many ways. Like Soulsthere was never a dull moment, as the pacing is almost mathematically perfected.

Again, my wife, who wasn’t super keen on the other Soulsgames, also loved this the most: so there’s that! For this adventure I had the ability to play as much co-op as I wanted, and used that opportunity to get weird with outfits and weapon types I never rocked before to differentiate myself. Thank goodness for all of the co-op advancements of recent games, which reached a new turning point after Dark Souls II.

Oh and one more thing — Bloodbornehas gotten heapsbetter due to post-launch patches. Co-op is more stable, glitches have been addressed, and most important, load times have been drastically reduced.

Dark Souls III – PC, PS4 [played], Xbox One

This is something I didn’t realize until this Quest’s very playthrough (six), but Dark Souls III is probably my favorite game aesthetically. It’s the newest, which helps, but the lightning effects really pop, and it’s the only game where I truly feel like my character is mine rather than an avatar meandering through the world. There’s an insane amount of customization options and gear variety, and several game-breaking items have been balanced or brought in line after being so dominate for so long.

The return to an MP-based magic system from Demon’s also opens up more diverse builds — allowing Dark Souls IIIto breathe and become the most theorycraft-able Souls. To a numbers guy like me that spends so much time in menus (and missed doing it in Bloodborne, which a lot of you likely loved about it), it’s a blessing.

Yet, after all this time there are a few minuscule issues that I picked up on having played every Souls so close together. Take something as small as Mimic (fake treasure chest) placement.Dark Souls II does a wonderful job of instilling paranoia with Mimics, even though there are only a scant few in the entire adventure. Dark Souls III overdoes it, to the point where nearly every zone has at least one (if not two) of them. Things like that.

Part of it is because I had been immersing myself in Soulsfor so long and started to notice all of the little nitpicks more, but every so often Dark Souls IIIwould have me cocking my head to the side and pondering the meaning of a few of its small choices (as a whole, it might have the weakest set of bosses — and the Anor Londo return wasn’t nearly as impressive after just visiting it several days prior). You can really tell that this was sort of the culmination of Dark Soulsproper, and that after this, they needed a hiatus to try something new.

All that said, it kind of just flew by. This is a sleek well paced adventure, and From Software proved here that if it comes down to it, they can almost effortlessly bang out another winner.

Demon’s Souls – PS3

Kept you waiting for this one, huh? I saved its playthrough for last on purpose just to juxtapose it to all of the other entries with their more modern bells and whistles, and I’m glad I did. The past blasted me in the face the moment I lugged my “Slim” PS3 from its hibernation shelf. Man do I miss that XMB UI! And all the flashy colors! And the weird sensation in my nervous system when I grip the PS3 controller! Okay maybe not that last bit, even if I did beat the entire game on one charge.

Another shock, even though I covered it on this very site in detail —Demon”s Souls‘ online play is dead. Yep, it’s the only game in the series that you can’t play online in right now. It was kept on life support for many years but eventually, Atlus decided to pull the plug.

Although I was going for a “mostly online” set of runs this time, I was happy to make an exception for what is still my favorite Souls game. I know, with Dark Soulsand Bloodbornestealing the crown in many people’s hearts and minds, to the point where you hardly ever hear Demon’smentioned in the conversation, it’s not necessarily a cool school yard pick. But it holds up, and is arguably still the bravest, riskiest, and wildest take on From Software’s fully realized vision of a modernKing’s Field — which is what Miyazaki and his crew were going for.

Though it might look old in stills it’s amazing how, unlike the original releases of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, Demon’skeeps its 30FPS framerate consistently without drops. It also started many trends that would be continued to be peppered in throughout the years. Not being able to level-up before you take down the first boss (Bloodborne), using items to heal instead of flasks (Dark Souls II), the giant circular-based hub where you basically do everything (Dark Souls III) — it all came from Demon’s.

I see the allure of the whole “huge open connected world” thing, but I honestly prefer the level-based system of Demon’s Souls. Level “3” is probably the best example — you start off in a dungeon, have to fight your way out and take down demonic jailers and kill a false God, then ascend the spiraled monoliths, defeat its guardians, and conquer the Tower of Latria. I started to notice and appreciate the little lore tidbits in the level warp screen — something From would never do again.

The individual worlds themselves are also a whole lot untamed, thanks to a generous physics system. Rolls are more floating ninja flips than anything, and you can vault (RIP) over small gaps. There’s jank, to be sure, especially with some wonky boss AI that allows for more cheese than any other game in the series, but it’s all part of the charm.

Demon’s Soulsis wild and unpredictable — it’s peakSouls.

It was a blast playing through all of these creations again, especially the few I haven’t fried into my photographic memory yet. This is probably one of the most uneven franchises in gaming history, and while some would call that a fault, I see it as its biggest strength. There are so many diverse opinions on which game is the “best,” and some of the most heated conversations in the entire gaming community have been born out of those arguments.

The real takeaway? Each entry has something that will speak to someone, but all of them manage to get under our skin and fire that indomitable “won’t quit” fire in all of us. Even after the 1000th “You Died” screen.