1: Dark Souls [official site] (2011/2012 PC)
Publisher: FromSoftware (JP) Namco Bandai (WW)
Discussions and declarations about the difficulty of Dark Souls tend to undermine the discussions and declarations that we should be having about the quality of Dark Souls. Let’s put the difficulty to one side before moving on. Dark Souls isn’t the most challenging game on this list. It’s not the game that will kill you the most (hello, roguelikes) and it isn’t even mildly unfair. It’s a game that understands the value and incline of a decent learning curve and its central rhythm of progress, death and repetition, teaches rather than tortures.
If it’s not the most punishing RPG ever made, then what is it? Among other things, the Souls games are an intimidatingly assured re-invention of dungeon crawling and, in fact, the entire concept of dungeons in RPGs. Everything from enemy placement to the twisted lay of the land contributes to the challenge of the game, and to the lore that is stitched into the fabric of the world. The combat system is exemplary, combining inch-perfect animations, timings and agonising tension to make every encounter memorable. Stats are almost invisibly woven into the build of your character, whose abilities and proficiencies are recognisable at a glance, and whose behaviours you’ll adopt and modify as you go, creating and fussing at the role you’re playing without the need for dialogue or morality meters. There are details as well as broad strokes, for those who choose to pick at them, and those details are devilishly satisfying.
It’s a mark of the game’s quality that completing a single playthrough feels like a great achievement but that there are people who continue to play, time after time, and continue to learn. Dark Souls teaches you how to play as you travel through its horrors and mysteries, but it also teaches you how to read games, making you alert to the fact that every texture and scrap of flavour text can contain clues. Those clues might save your life, point you toward a diversion or shortcut, or they might help you to understand that there’s meaning and history in every part of the world. You just have to look closely. Pay attention and you’ll find the choices no character points out, and discover consequences whose warning signs you were keen to overlook, an optimist in a dying world.
Notes: The PC port was criticised heavily upon release and while the criticisms were just, the game shone through. Thanks to the brilliance of modders some of the technical issues have been remedied.
What else should I be playing if I like this: The sequel, as the further reading above highlights, isn’t as strong as the original. It’s not bad though, and much improved in its enhanced Scholar of the First Sin edition, with all kinds of alterations, including tweaked enemy placements that improve the flow of the game and feel lore-appropriate.