The Gateway Guide to Dark Souls

Wondering about the best way to approach FromSoftware's devious RPG trilogy? We've got you covered — now with video!

Guide by Bob Mackey, .

The reputation of the Souls series comes as both a blessing and a curse. Its unique charms draw plenty of people interested in a tough-but-fair challenge, but the marketing's focus on this single element scares many others away. It's a real "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.

If you've been reluctant about diving into these critically acclaimed RPGs, they're honestly not as intimidating as you might think. If anything, we're the ones so spoiled by recharging life meters, glowing waypoints, and endless, gentle nudging—design trends popularized over the previous console generation—that the concept of a truly challenging game has become downright terrifying.

That said, if you're looking to dip your toe into the vast, deadly ocean known as Dark (and Demon's) Souls, the first part of this guide contains all-purpose strategies to help you come to terms with the demands of all three games, while the second part offers the suggested order through which you should tackle this unofficial trilogy. So read on, and praise the sun!

Final Fantasy IX's Quina really hasn't aged well.

Don't Fear the Reaper

The biggest secret of the Souls series? It's actually not impossibly hard! True, you'll die a lot in any of the games, but with every death, you'll gain a little more wisdom—in your own head, not your character's. Treat every death as a learning experience, and not just a temporary setback. Each time you meet an unfortunate end, Souls is telling you your current strategy just won't work—and the series offers few ways to brute force yourself past sticking points. And, even when you die, each game gives players one chance to pick up dropped souls—the currency used for everything—provided you reach the spot where you last keeled over. Even so, there'll be plenty of times you'll forever lose enough to make your heart sink—but Souls games tend to provide more of their primary resource than you'll ever actually need. Just make sure you're capable of coping with loss before you sit down to play any of them. (It's a very Buddhist approach.)

Leave Your Perfectionism at the Door

If you're the kind of person who's willing to restart a game after 20 hours just because you missed a treasure chest, hidden character, or story event, the Souls series may drive you mad. True, you can play alongside an FAQ or strategy guide and make sure you're doing the right things at the exact right moments, but that's the exact opposite of how you should play Souls. It's a series made to be explored, rather than approached with a checklist mentality, so don't be afraid to make mistakes your first time around. You may accidentally slay innocent NPCs, turn a valuable weapon into garbage, or miss large areas entirely. But that's okay! The best parts in any Souls game come when you're creeping down a dark hallway, holding your breath, completely unaware of the terrors lurking around the next corner. And, once you've run through any game once, the series' new game plus mode allows you to replay your experience with a refreshed world and an upgraded character, so you can avoid the missteps made during your first playthrough. But it'll be just as hard, because those enemies grow stronger with each cycle.

Yes, you'll probably have to fight this thing. And yes, you'll need help.

Rely on the Power of Friendship

Co-op isn't at all mandatory in Souls games, though it comes highly recommended. Being summoned into someone else's world allows you to explore new areas without the threat of losing your souls, all while helping fellow players make important progress in their own games. And, when you're finally ready to take on a boss, co-op friends come in handy—you really don't want to be the sole target for some slimy abomination standing between you and the next area. While co-op comes easier in some Souls games than others, there's never any shame in relying on strangers who can only communicate via canned animations. Sure, when you become more confident, you can take on some of the most harrowing bosses by yourself, but if you're just starting out, most of them tend to melt like butter when confronted with a team of three players.

Keep a Wiki at Your Side

Above, I said you shouldn't play Souls games by following along with a FAQ or a strategy guide. That's still true, but there's no harm in looking something up from time-to-time—just don't be slavish about it. If you, say, want to take a weapon down an upgrade path, and are itching to see if it's worth your time or effort, jump onto a wiki and see for yourself. Since the Souls series offers so many options, it's impossible for one person to test them all out—thank god for crowdsourcing. Souls also has a healthy YouTube community that produces countless informative videos about the series, so you might want to check those out, as well. We've even put together a list of the best SoulsTubers if you have no idea where to start.

Learning how to successfully take on groups of enemies stands as one of the most important strategies of any Souls game.

Find a Helpful Community

Because so much of Souls' content has to be mined for meaning, FromSoftware has fostered a helpful and collaborative community around their games. Sure, you'll see some jerks now and again, but for the most part, Souls players have a real "we're in this together" mentality, making them a more helpful and friendly community than most. Jump onto your favorite message board or online discussion space, and don't be afraid to poke your head into whatever Souls-based activity is going on there. Also, if you personally know anyone (online or off) who has experience with Souls, gradually work your way under their wing. Souls veterans love getting new people into the series, and they'll gladly give you some basic survival tips with their invaluable mentoring—just be sure some of the biggest surprises aren't spoiled for you ahead of time.

Now that we've covered the basics, you may be wondering which game you should approach first. There's no science behind this, and you're welcome to disagree, but each entry in the Souls series contains distinct qualities that make some games less friendly to newcomers than others. Here's the best way to approach Souls if you're just starting out.

Dark Souls 2

Before it released, we all feared Dark Souls 2 would dial back on the difficulty. Thankfully, it didn't, and this sequel makes some of the more opaque and convoluted systems from past installments much easier to understand. The level designs aren't quite as good as the original Dark Souls, but part 2 makes a great starting point for newcomers, simply because help is everywhere. Since the game runs on a central server—unlike Dark Souls—the world is filled to the brim with other players, waiting to jump into your world, or have you jump into theirs. Dark Souls 2 also cuts back on player invasions—where non-CPU opponents enter your world for the sole purpose of killing you—making progress go much smoother overall. It might not be the most authentic Souls experience, but Dark Souls 2 retains the series' spirit and sense of challenge while welcoming new players with open arms.

Though they've been softened over the series' liftime, skeletons in Demon's Souls are incredible jerks.

Dark Souls

Dark Souls might just be the best game of the series, and it provides a much more polished take on the brand of action-RPG pioneered by Demon's Souls just a few years earlier. Though it's much easier to understand than its predecessor, Dark Souls still contains a few elements that are either poorly explained, or just completely broken—like its underdeveloped "covenant" system, for instance. It's still an excellent game, and the most thoroughly documented entry of the series, but at this point, its once-reliable co-op crowd has dwindled to staggeringly low numbers. You don't have to play with other people, but newcomers may find a few bosses downright impossible without the help of some new friends.

Demon's Souls

Demon's Souls is extremely... experimental, and not everything works. In fact, it's plain to see what the developers disliked about this game, because these annoying elements aren't present in the sequels. Since FromSoftware developed Demon's with a smaller budget, some of the game feels unpolished, and these unfair segments could have been improved through further testing and refinement. That said, Demon's Souls remains a great game, with some of the finest moments of the entire series—but its developers have learned much about making this type of RPG over the past few years. By all means, don't miss out on Demon's, but you may want to save it for last if you're just getting into the Souls series. By then, you'll have more than enough experience to take on its unique challenges.

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  • Avatar for Voncaster #1 Voncaster 4 years ago
    Personally I would rank the games: Demon's Souls, Dark Souls II, and Dark Souls. I agree that Dark Souls II is probably the best entry point into the series.

    I think Demon Souls and Dark Souls II are very doable without a guide, and do reward exploration and learning from deaths. I think playing the souls games sans guide is the way to go; unless your a PvP player. I'm not. I would rather explore the worlds of the souls games than have someone tell me how to play it and which gear to wear at what points in time.

    The Nexus in Demon's Souls is one of my favorite hub locations in any game I've played. And I like the ability to choose worlds. If you are beating your head against the wall, warp to another world.

    Dark Souls is far and away my least favorite of the series. Bed of Chaos is the poorest designed boss in any souls game, and ranks among my least favorite bosses ever. The centipede demon is not a whole lot better, as you are confined to a tiny space and the camera flails around if you get picked up by him. The travel in Dark Souls is longer because the ability to warp is not unlocked till the end of the game. Dark Souls seems to get most of the souls love, but I think its the weakest of the three.Edited September 2014 by Voncaster
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  • Avatar for Vinheimer #2 Vinheimer 4 years ago

    Great article, Bob! I commend the sound advice you offer to newcomers. Souls is a series that builds on prior knowledge, so it's hard to offer much more detailed advice without "spoiling" something that really ought to be discovered the old fashioned way.

    I suppose we're all conditioned to prefer the game we played first--in my case, it's Demon's Souls. Although borderline humorless, and thus perhaps even less genial than its Dark successor, which is interspersed with a fair bit of humor and absurdity, Demon's Souls is packed with moments of raw, sublime terror that hearken back to Silent Hill 1 and 2 (A comparison I doubt that I've ever made before).

    Each game in the Souls series has its flaws. With each entry, From has experimented in different ways with mechanics largely drawn from the Shadow Tower and Armored Core games--sometimes succeeding (as with DS1's weapon variety and balance), sometimes falling short (as with DS2's nigh-useless natural poise stat). My point is that it's hard to find a narrative of gradual improvement in this series--each game handles core mechanics differently.Edited September 2014 by Vinheimer
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #3 SatelliteOfLove 4 years ago
    "Before it released, we all feared Dark Souls 2 would dial back on the difficulty. Thankfully, it didn't, and this sequel makes some of the more opaque and convoluted systems from past installments much easier to understand."

    Very important final tip: Difficulty is NOT synonymous with execution. Harken back to those other tips! Get together and push that car up that snowy incline!

    Also, DeS has the game's best combat, best areas, and best overall quality of level-design. World Tendency being affected by other's play and the ease of breaking other's gear in PvP are it's only actual flaws.
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  • Avatar for Y7748837 #4 Y7748837 4 years ago
    I recently went back to Demon's Souls for a replay after replaying Dark Souls after the summer Steam sale (haven't picked up DSII yet) and it's a bit of a mess. World tendency is nonsense and the healing system encourages repetitive grinding. Not to mention, repairing worn-down equipment is far more expensive than in Dark Souls which is another hurdle for newcomers. It also has a smaller moveset. My overall impression from my recent revisit was Demon's Souls does not allow for as much forward momentum as Dark Souls, making it the weaker installment.

    I much prefer the lore in Dark Souls, too.
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  • Avatar for DogNozzle #5 DogNozzle 4 years ago

    "The best parts in any Souls game come when you're creeping down a dark hallway, holding your breath, completely unaware of the terrors lurking around the next corner."

    ... * 10^7

    The difficulty hype tricks people... it's supposed to be fun- and it IS.
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #6 kidgorilla 4 years ago
    Nice list, Bob. I think the order your suggest that people play the games in is pretty accurate, even though I personally enjoy them in reverse. I love me some DeS, but there are just too many things opaque about the game and really rough without some prior knowledge or a lot of homework. I get everyone's criticism of World Tendency, but I personally love it. I just wish it wasn't effected by everyone on the servers at all times.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #7 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    I'd personally recommend Dark Souls as the best jumping on point for people new to the series. It has the best world design and level designs in the series, a lot of the best boss fights, and it's just a joy to explore. There's nothing like a first time experience with Dark Souls.

    Demons Souls is great too, though. It has my favorite soundtrack in the series, the best atmosphere, and my favorite single level in the whole series (Latria.) It's harder to play than the others, being PS3 only, but if you can get it it's well worth playing.

    Dark Souls 2 is the weakest in the series, so I really don't recommend it as a starting point. I think everyone should at least play Dark Souls 1 first. Still, Dark Souls 2 has enough great stuff in it to be well worth playing.
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  • Avatar for Voncaster #8 Voncaster 4 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 I've finished Dark Souls, and by no means do I hate it. But it has problems or flaws of its own.

    It may indeed have the series best boss fights. It also has the series worst boss fights: Bed of Chaos and Centipede Demon. I would argue that Bed of Chaos is the nadir of the entire souls trilogy. There is a long approach to Bed of Chaos and how to defeat him is at best poorly communicated and at worst illogical.

    I also think the covenants and weapons upgrades are every bit as cryptic as the world tendency in Demon's Souls.

    Its a good thing that the level design in Dark Souls is well connected because fast travel is not unlocked until 2/3s of the way through the game. Demon's Souls and Dark Souls II let players warp about much more easily.

    I think Dark Souls II is the best entry point. It has fast travel, you can clear areas of monsters if you are repeatedly going through them, and all the stats and upgrades are clear. Both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls are great games, but I think Dark Souls II is the most inviting to new players of the three.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #9 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    @Voncaster Bed of Chaos is maybe among the worst boss fights, although personally I enjoy it as a puzzle boss. For me the worst boss in the series is definitely Ancient Dragon from Dark Souls 2. Or if we're not counting optional fights, then Demon of Song for being so ridiculously easy. More than anything, I hate bosses that just let you roll over them without any effort, and it's especially sad in the case of Demon of Song which was such a cool concept, but no one ever remembers it because it dies so fast. DkS2 has a number of bosses that feel lazy, and a number of contenders for worst boss in the series.

    I think weapon upgrades are definitely an improvement in Dark Souls over Demons Souls. Although they are still a bit obtuse in how they work, they feel less random and more structured, with all of the modifications happening on +5's or +10's. That coherence alone is a big help.

    I actually love that fast travel is not unlocked in Dark Souls until late game. It's a feature, not a bug. That's a great thing because it forces the player to explore the world and learn how everything is connected. Ultimately this creates a more satisfying type of exploration, and I think it's a great example of why convenience in a game is not always better. I think it was a big mistake for Dark Souls 2 to enable fast travel from the beginning.

    I really disagree that DkS2 is the best entry point. I actually think that it's possibly the hardest in the series for new players, especially at the beginning. And I just don't think it's as rewarding as the other two games, and it feels too padded. It's certainly not a bad game, I like it a lot, and it's far from a bad entry point... I just think that the other two games are better entry points, and better games.
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  • Avatar for touchofkiel #10 touchofkiel 4 years ago
    For someone who just picked up Demon's and DS1 on the cheap, what do you recommend for a starting class? I prefer stealthy rogue/ranged type roles, but in all the videos I've seen, only occasionally do players pull out the bow to pick off the odd enemy. Is class really that important in these games?

    Perhaps I should be asking this: are there any classes that are NOT recommended for new players?
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  • Avatar for bobservo #11 bobservo 4 years ago
    @touchofkiel Class doesn't really matter, outside of the starting equipment it gives you. If it's your first time through the game, you may want to pick one with a catalyst, which will let you use magic earlier.
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  • Avatar for thewonps #12 thewonps 4 years ago
    I prefer hard-hitting tank melee builds so this brought back memories of me grinding for titanites for my great club by farming those big armored sentinel guys in anor londo for hours. This was my first playthrough and i absolutely did it "wrong" by maxing out strength even though stat gains diminish after 45-50, but man could my big amazon knight lady dole out the punishment. Most everything died in 1-2 hits.
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