We’re all going on a Dark Souls holiday
Somehow Dark Souls is 10 years old. As NGB’s resident git-guider I’ve fought a battle for the majority of my tenure on the site against those who would tell you that FromSoftware’s SoulsBorne games are, to quote our lovely editor Ben, “shit games for wankers”. I’ve wrote before about my rocky history with the series, from being absolutely anti-Dark Souls thanks to its perceived brutal difficulty, to finally embracing the games and the wonderful worlds that producer HIdetaka Miyazaki has created. For me, the absolute pinnacle of this world design is in the first game of the series, a game which embraces spiralling MetroidVania like designs of interlinked areas and mechanics that empower players to explore the land of Lordran however they see fit.
It’s a subtle thing, really – once the player fights their way through the opening sequence of the Undead Asylum a massive crow drops them off at the Firelink Shrine in Lordran and they can take in the world around them for the first time. If you’ve never touched the game before, some of the sights you’ll take in won’t mean much to you, but from this hub a massive chunk of the games world is visible. Rising above you is the Undead Burg, with the bridge on which you’ll ultimately battle the Taurus Demon clearly visible in the distance; Travel further up into the Burg and you’ll see the spires of the Undead Parish and the walls of Anor Londo just poking out way off in the distance – your ultimate destination for the first half of the game. Head over to the opposite side of the Shrine and look down into the valley and the murky depths of the dreaded Blighttown are visible. Venture through the ruined temple and you’ll find yourself in the graveyard and the entrance to the Catacombs.
Now, Dark Souls does have a critical path, something that newer players will quickly find if they try to visit the Catacombs or the ghostly New Londo Ruins early. Ideally you should be heading up into the Undead Burg, towards that bridge and picking your way up to the bell tower at the top of the Undead Parish – this is where the easier enemies are and where you will find many early game items that will help your character level up and grow at a gradual rate, easing you into each increasingly difficult boss encounter. But as someone who has revisited the game many times, one of the things I love most about it is how you can just completely ignore that critical path – with the exception of some late game areas, around half of Dark Souls map is accessible from the word go, allowing savvy players to skip huge chunks or even access powerful weapons and items early for an advantage.
What becomes apparent as you explore the map is that Firelink Shrine is the most central place in it, and that most paths lead to or from here like spokes on a wheel, spiralling up and down through the verticality of the world and interlinking. Dark Souls UI does not have a map itself, but the connectivity of the world means it’s easy to build a mental picture of where key areas connect into each other, even if some of the more labyrinthian areas of the world could be trickier to memorise at a macro level. On the main path of the game, this becomes no more apparent than the first time you fight through the Undead Parish and take the lift down from the chapel. When the game announces that you’re back in Firelink Shrine, not only does the penny drop as to where you’ve come from and how the map connects these two areas together, it also allows you to breathe a sigh of relief that you’ve battled your way through a big chunk of the opening area of the game and have earned yourself a well deserved rest before tacking the Bell Gargoyle bosses. But it also makes you think – how can I use these different routes to my advantage? Can I get to this boss fight sooner? And then you start to look at the other spokes on the wheel…
One of the key “non critical” paths involves choosing the Master Key as your starting item (or using the Thief as your starting class so that you get the key by default). This allows you to open a number of doors in the game without first finding their specific keys, and opens up a great initial route. As soon as you’re dropped at Firelink Shrine, head not up to the Undead Burg, but down into New Londo Ruins. Before you enter the ruins proper there’s a door that you can only normally open with a key you find towards the end of Blighttown, but with the Master Key you can open it from the other side early. Not only does this allow you to enter Blighttown from the back, skipping the entirety of this horrid area and the preceding Depths area, it also allows you to cut a path up through the Darkroot Basin, up to the Undead Parish and the lift shortcut, or even through Havels Tower and into the back of the Undead Burg ready to fight the Taurus Demon without having to fight your way past countless hollows. While the enemies in these areas are tough for early characters there’s resources to allow you to jump a ton of levels, grab some strong weapons and items, open up several shortcuts and access to merchants and the main blacksmith of the game, Andre, so that you can level up your weapons sooner.
Now, I’m sure to most readers all that will be just random words and you’re sitting there throwing up the Alan Partridge shrug gif, but for me as a player this sums up why I keep coming back to the first Dark Souls more than any other game in the series. For some, it’s interconnected map is a means to facilitate speed or challenge runs, to find new ways to break the fixed sequences that the game does have, but for me it’s like revisiting a town I grew up in. You find the streets haven’t changed, you take that short cut you once found that got you to the shops quicker, you find your old friends house and everything is like a warm comfort blanket. And look, Mr Capra Demon still lives in the same house with his dogs! Give him a wave!
So, dear reader, if you’re a Souls skeptic I ask this of you – find someone who can take you on a tour of Lordran, who can show you just how well crafted this world is. Maybe go check out some videos by YouTubers like Zulie The Witch or VaatiVidya, videos which tear down the intricacies of this world and often peek behind the curtain of its design, the secrets of which are still being discovered to this day. What I’d like you to take away is that, even if you don’t like to play it, Dark Souls has a level of creativity and connectivity in its design that is rarely seen in videogames like this, even in its closest imitators. Ten years on, Dark Souls remains probably one of the best designed videogame worlds of all time, and it’s a fantastic achievement that many players are still taking time to visit and revisit it today.