1. Dark Souls (2012)
Publisher: Bandai Namco
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 get the difficulty out of the way. 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 truly 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, as well as adding to the lore that is stitched into the fabric of the world. The combat 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. Pyromancy or miracles? A ring of sacrifice or the Lion ring? The correct answer lies in your twisted gut.
It’s a mark of the game’s quality not only that completing a single playthrough feels like a great achievement, but also 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, especially when that flavour is scrawled on the floor by other players. 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 but the remastered version has fixed much of those problems, except the hackers.
Where can I buy it: Get the remastered edition on Steam Steam.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Dark Souls II is the low point of the series, even if it is much improved in its enhanced Scholar of the First Sin edition. Go for Dark Souls 3, or a trip to feudal Japan in Sekiro. Or check our list of the 10 best games like Dark Souls.