Spoilers abound for all games in the Souls series, with the exception of Bloodborne.
I'm sure it's not news to state that the (Dark) Souls series is something of a cultural phenomenon. You just have to look at all the merchandise, memes and YouTube lore hunters to see that. But in all honesty there was a very real chance of FromSoftware's franchise falling flat at the first hurdle.
Demon's Souls had a limited release across Europe on July the 25th, 2010 following interest from importers and some solid early reviews (it'd come out in its Japanese homeland a year earlier). Word spread across forums about "the hardest game ever made" in hushed tones, as if it were contraband. And from that point on many of us were intrigued.
See, that's the thing about the Souls franchise: it gets right under your skin like a tattoo. It's painful at first, but over time it becomes a part of you. Perhaps you've spent hours reading lore theories on Reddit, thinking about boss strategies while you were at work, or chilling out to Gwyn's harrowing orchestral theme.
Whatever your poison, without that fan dedication Demon's Souls may not have sold out its first run, and who knows, maybe we wouldn't have the following Dark Souls as we know it on Western shores? Either way, the fans have fostered a great culture around the series from inception to trilogy closer.
And the games represent a series of moments that span sheer rage at fucking up just before a boss dies, to serene calm while farming souls in the gloomy depths of Darkroot Garden's humid basin. If you want to talk pure atmosphere when it comes to locales, though, then I simply have to start with the Tower of Latria from Demon's Souls.
Shit the bed, seriously, this is surely one of the most disturbed, isolating and skin crawling areas in a game to date. It's a huge, complex prison facility patrolled by freakish jailers that randomly ring bells. You hear them above the wails of hopeless, decomposing inmates, but you can't quite see them. And when you actually have to fight the guards at close quarters, they start shrieking and firing all sorts of magic skulduggery your way.
This whole section of Demon's Souls is an endurance test of location mapping, combat skill and mental resolve. It makes Blighttown look like the green fields of Teletubbyland. Blighttown itself, or frame-drop city if you're on PS3, is a sickening quagmire of plague and filth designed to screw with players who have levelled their resistances incorrectly.
Mastering it feels like a breath of fresh air, and it's a lot like Anor Londo in that you had probably heard players raving about how challenging both sections were, but once you finally set foot on their soil, you get a chill, as if something big is about to happen. Then after your first death, you get why so many people talk about each area, followed by misery.
Which brings me to Ornstein and Smough, Anor Londo's resident bosses, who have become legends since appearing in the first Dark Souls. As you're flown over the Sen's Fortress wall and see the splendour of the city's false sunlight, you feel a wee flutter at how gorgeous it all is. Then as you look out over the spires and walkways, you know that they're out there, somewhere, waiting to kill you mercilessly.
You feel that dread right up to the moment you step through their fog gate and then it's all game-face, show time. You'll die repeatedly of course, but when you get their attack patterns down or summon a mate (weak!) you feel like a million bucks. It's genuinely deserved gratification unlike so many modern games that coddle you with flashy explosions and rewards you didn't really earn.
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The flipside to this encounter is the boss battles with grey wolf Sif and her comrade Artorias, the Abysswalker. They're separate moments but these are actually two characters you don't want to kill due to their tragic backstories.
Artorias was a knight who dedicated his life to halting the spread of the Abyss; a dark, corrupting essence linked to humanity and governed by the evil Manus. When you face him in Dark Souls' "Artorias of the Abyss" DLC, he's corrupted and crazed, and a far cry from the noble, victorious warrior the core game's lore tells of. It's at this point you realise he failed to defeat the Abyss and has become just another monster to be felled.
That's sad, but it's sadder still that you also have to slay his faithful companion Sif, a giant grey wolf that guards the grave of her fallen master in Darkroot. Just wait until she gets to a quarter health and starts limping and whimpering as you cut her down. Christ.
Other honourable "Prepare to Cry" moments include Ostrava of Boletaria committing suicide when he discovers his father King Allant has become corrupted in Demon's Souls, and when Solaire of Astora goes insane and you have to put him out of his misery.
Regarding bosses, I simply have to give nods to The Nameless King for being such an epic bastard, Prince Lothric and his brother for what is a rather ingenious battle, and of course the original Lord of Cinder Gwyn, who you fight in an oddly muted yet challenging encounter. There are more, of course, but these are some of my favourite boss highlights.
One big question throughout the series is why you are killing all of these monsters and men, and taking their souls. The plot cleverly ensures that you never fully know if your quest is actually noble, or if you're being manipulated like a chump by the likes of Kingseeker Frampt and Dark Souls II's Shanalotte, aka the Emerald Herald.
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What is the chosen undead's purpose? Do you trust either Frampt or Darkstalker Kaathe? What does Shanalotte get out of you claiming the Throne of Want? Should you give DS III's Firekeeper her eyes back? The moments where you start to doubt the reasons behind everything you've been doing over the last 50 hours really get you in the gut, and that's powerful indeed.
Nowhere are the implications of your actions throughout the whole series clearer than in Dark Souls III. There are nods to this in great moments everywhere, but two stand out in particular: when you enter the Untended Graves, and your final march towards the Kiln of the First Flame.
The Graves just look like an eerie location consumed by the Abyss until you realise, nope, this is the game's tutorial area again, but it seems to exist in some alternate timeline, during an Age of Dark. It's very creepy and acts as a vision of what's to come – or perhaps it's a reminder of what has already been?
The Kiln itself is genius, as what you may have suspected all along is confirmed. Basically, as the First Flame fades, the past worlds and times of previous Lords of Cinder begin to converge and are pulled towards the centre of it all. This explains why the geography is all messed up, why bridges lead to nowhere and why locations bear strange resemblance to areas in previous games.
That's a great moment, but my personal favourite was the return to Anor Londo in Dark Souls III. After slaying Pontiff Sulyvahn the following area looks so familiar, yet different, and as you ascend up a familiar spiral staircase the realisation hits in that, yep, you're back in the legendary city once more.
It's just like when Snake returns to Shadow Moses in the final third of Metal Gear Solid 4: a touching loop closer that is positively brimming with nostalgia. You remember where the blacksmith used to be, the hours you slogged to farm Titanite Chunks in the mail hall, and of course, the first time you fought Ornstein and Smough.
That's particularly clever, and isn't it just a perfect summary of what the Souls series is all about? It's an ouroboros of never ending tragedy, the continual rise and fall of kingdoms, the death and hollowing of legends, all delivered through repeating new game plus modes.
Dark Souls will never really end for many of us. It will endure and be explored by generations to come, and that's quite a wonderful thing for a series that began with a rare, obscure import title that stood out amongst the triple-A pack to become a gaming classic.
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