Games don't prompt me to stand up and scream on a regular basis. When I kill off a boss in a Souls game, however, I feel powerful. I earned this victory, and want to shout it to the world.
There are few games I'm proud of beating, but Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls II are on the list. You feel like you've joined an exclusive club, and I'm psyched to be on the list.
Playing a Souls game is like climbing an intimidatingly steep mountain. The mass of land doesn't seem that bad from a distance, but up close, it's daunting, perhaps impossible. But if you plan carefully, take it one step at a time, and don't get ahead of yourself, you just might scale it.
These games have a reputation as being difficult. I won't pretend they're easy, but they wouldn't have this reputation if it wasn't for how sadly effortless other games have become.
A year ago, my wife was out of town, and I decided to pick up Dark Souls. The sequel was coming out in a few months, and I was tired of feeling left out. So many of my friends had fallen in love with the series, while I'd continually written them off as games for weird masochists. The difficulty seemed arbitrary, the long animations were arcane. I didn't get it and didn't want to.
And yet, I felt left out. What was I missing?
It's how I found myself on the rooftop of a shabby building, failing to kill two gargoyles for the better part of an hour. Death was constant. I was miserable. Then, it happened. I picked up on their patterns, kept my calm, and "victory achieved" blared across the screen. I was hooked.
This is how nearly every boss battle in a Souls game plays out. You enter the room with the understanding death is imminent, but this time around, victory's not the point. The first few times with a boss is planning for the next few times with it. Are they resistant to magic? Should I focus on dodging? In Souls, death is educational, a learning experience requiring a deep examination. If you died, it's your fault. Since that's the case, why did you die? Rinse, repeat.
Most games have gotten soft, with endless checkpoints and plenty of room for error. Souls games ask for your patience. If you listen to what it's trying to say, it all starts to make sense.
The Souls games try to blind players with frustration, since it breeds mistakes. What's a cheap trick to remind you who's in charge is an easily avoidable misstep the next time. In any other game, if you reach a boss or survive a tough encounter, there's a checkpoint waiting nearby. "You earned it, buddy!" Not the case with Souls. In Demon's Souls, checkpoints are unlocked by beating the boss. In Dark Souls and Dark Souls II, checkpoints are a little more common but hardly widespread. In most cases, reaching a boss can take several minutes of careful fighting. Chances are you'll be anxious to make it back to the boss, make a mistake, and experience a cheap and easy death. Discovering a boss does not earn you the right to fight them again.
As the death count rises, exasperation sets in. Some bosses can take you out in a few strikes, making sure every encounter with a new demon is full of tension. Keeping emotions in check is critical to survival. Even after figuring out what makes a boss tick, a single misstep can result in death. There's something that happens towards the end of every boss battle in any Souls game, as you realize victory is in reach. Your palms sweat, your heart starts to race, and greed sets in. Since there's no way to pause the action, half the battle in Souls is literally calming yourself down as combat reaches its climax. I actually start talking to myself when battles hit this point.
"It's okay, you've got this."
"You're almost at the end. Don't be greedy."
"You don't want to do this all over again, do you?"
But greed is the true enemy in Souls. You know it'd only take two more strikes to defeat this asshole, but your strategy has relied on hitting him one strike at a time. But you can probably get one more hit in, right? Any Souls player knows what it's like to make this mistake, get sent back to the last checkpoint, and realize they're going to have to start from square one all over.
Flamelurker was my albatross in Demon's Souls, which I finished up last night. What a bastard!
When I first encountered this beast, he tore me limb from limb. My wizard was someone who happily pelted enemies from a distance, but Flamelurker wouldn't comply. He chased me. To even reach Flamelurker, I'd have to spend nearly five minutes carefully dropping down a series of bridges that were just far enough away from one another that I'd lose health each time I fell.
I gave up; my frustration was spilling over. There's a point where fighting the same battle over and over is a losing proposition, as you're unable to calm yourself enough to even give it a shot.
Since the Souls games can be completed in different orders, I left Flamelurker behind.
Hours later, I returned with more health, better spells, and a dozen game hours under my belt.
He was still killing me every time. Then, like the gargoyles in Dark Souls, it clicked. I realized Flamelurker couldn't hit me with his most powerful attack—spontaneous flaming combustion—if I kept backing away. Every time he'd start exploding, I'd hit him with a spell. Ding, ding, ding. At the same time, I realized the pillars nearby were surprisingly useful for getting him stuck. Those long attack animations that usually result in an enemy hitting you? You can use that against them. Ding, ding, ding. Calm. Ding, ding, ding. Patience. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat.
My body started reacting to the fight. Sweaty palms? Check. Fluttering heart? Check. Making small, dumb mistakes? Check. But I kept my cool, and Flamelurker's health soon reached zero.
Finally, Flamelurker was dead. Unlike the game's many other enemies, he won't come back.
I screamed to the heavens. I'd scaled the mountain. The problem? There were many more mountains ahead. With victory on my mind, though, a single thought came to mind: bring it on.
You can reach the author of this post at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @patrickklepek.