Striking The Perfect Balance Of Horrific And Beautiful In Dark Souls
Since going through the Souls series for the first time last year, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them. Not only for its brutal but fair and strategic combat or its wild story. But the way it manages to hit this sweet spot of visually stunning and beautiful while mixing in the perfect amount of terror not only in its level design but its boss design. Before I go any further, I should say. At the same time, I enjoyed Bloodborne. Specifically, its whole aesthetic just didn’t click in the same way. Instead, it leaned so far into the Lovecraftian nature that I eventually became desensitized to it all. Also, the fast, more offensive-based combat didn’t have the same feel as the Souls games’ slower, more strategic gameplay. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an excellent game, but it didn’t connect with me like Dark Souls 1 or 3 did.
A few examples immediately come to mind, and the first one is a pretty big spoiler for both Dark Souls 1 and Dark Souls 3, so if you haven’t played them, I suggest you turn away now.
So in Dark Souls 1, after going through the hellish Sens Fortress, which will test you as a player, and seems to be the spot most people fall off. Sens is full of these monstrous reptilian guards, giants throwing boulders, pitfalls, and other incredibly lethal traps. It’s a really dark and depressing place that constantly beats you down, and the fact that there is a single bonfire that can be very easily missed is just icing on the cake. But after beating you down, you get brought to Anor Londo if you manage to get through. A bright, beautiful, and well-maintained castle.
Anor Londo is a bridging moment for Dark Souls players being home to, in my mind, the worst bosses, Orenstein and Smough. You fight through this pristine castle, through all the knights guarding it, and at the end of your strife, you come upon Gwynevere, the daughter of the Lord of Sunlight. And if you don’t kill her, Anor Londo remains in this bright, beautiful spot in Dark Souls.
Returning to Anor Londo in Dark Souls 3 is a grand moment for returning players. Expecting sunlight on your return, instead met by this region covered in darkness with a boss brandishing Gwydolyns weapons and armor who is Gwynevers brother. They are wielded by Aldrich, the devourer of gods. Everything in Anor Londo is dark this time around, the sun setting the bright interior from the previous Dark Souls seemingly swallowed whole.
The other devastating and genuinely the best moment of this haunting beauty is both times we meet Gwyn Lord of Cinder. Gwyn is at the climax of both adventures. There is this moment leading into the arena where the world is on the brink of destruction, things are dire, and we pass through the fog gate to face Gwyn. As we pass thru, this beautiful melody hits; while not the first time we get a grandiose theme for a boss, this time it’s slow, light with the hint of despair and hopes all wrapped into one. Then again, at the climax of Dark Souls 3, we entered a darkened version of the Firelink Shrine, again up to the fog gate, and here we face Soul of Cinder. In a graveyard filled with headstones, he takes on many forms during the battle, but when you hit this halfway point, he becomes an unstoppable force. While being beaten down by this foe that will push first-time players to their limits, backlit by sunset in a grave of heroes while this beautiful orchestral song plays, again, when you get to the halfway point, flames become a part of the Soul of Cinder. In contrast, an ode to the original Lord of Cinder plays mixed in with this new rendition of the song. It really is one of the most hauntingly beautiful moments in the series.
I want to very briefly touch on two more moments. One is the Dancer of the Boreal Valley, who is known for her dancer-like fight, with her movements and attacks being more tied to the music than any other encountered in the series. Fighting her in a cathedral covered in darkness as she skulks towards you is a weird, gorgeous, and horrific moment many Dark Souls 3 players won’t soon forget.
The last one is the genuinely haunting Gravelord Nito. Being one of the prominent lords, you have to take down in the first Dark Souls. Traveling through the Tomb of the Giants, a place filled with skeletons, immense darkness, and just an overall sense of dread. So naturally, the boss of the area would be a giant skeleton with a haunting scream that damages you and who is just dripping with malice. But just like the underground caverns in Paris, the boss arena is covered in bones, and there is something about it that makes you as the player realize that what is going on in the story of the game goes far beyond our imagination and there is something incredible in the level of detail and the ability to perfectly nail that balance.
Really Dark Souls manages to hit this perfect balance of everything being the most horrific and beautiful simultaneously, not even looking at the moments above. Look at Great Wolf Sif and the Four Kings from the first one or The Nameless King and Pontiff Sulyvhan from the third entry. Even though I am very new to the series, Dark Souls has quickly climbed up the ladder to being one of my favorite series, and I can’t wait to see if we get another.
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