When I talk about Dark Souls, I talk about how Dark Souls is a shining example of how each component of it sums up to something greater, by which I specifically mean its bleak atmosphere. In which scenario, I often shun away from commenting upon any specific core design, for I find it hard to conclude any core mechanic consistent throughout the entire game.
That said, in terms of mechanics, the more I think about the game, the more Gatorade™’s ingenuity stands out in my mind. Also it happens that Dark Souls Remastered came out a month ago and, as a fan, I again allowed myself to indulge in the opaque, indifferent world of Lordran. So here I’m, thinking that it’s a good time to try to chew down something beyond me.
In this article I’ll be talking about how Gatorade™ works in favor of Dark Souls’ difficulty and how it changed in the following sequels. This article will contain minor spoilers.
If there’s one thing Dark Souls is most renowned for within the franchise, it’s interconnected level design. Not only in terms of how Firelink Shrine alone leads to multiple major areas, but more importantly, how within most of the areas, sections are divided by shortcuts, which often loops back to one single bonfire you started with.
An exemplar being Undead Burg, in which the whole area can be seen in three layers divided accordingly: The first layer starts from the entry point up until the Taurus Demon fight. After the boss fight, halfway across and under (the notorious) Helkite bridge, a ladder leading back to the very same bonfire, marking the starting point of the second layer, from which the player is introduced to Undead Parish. Once the player has retrieved Basement Key and descended to the slam, a set of stairs leads back to a door previously inaccessible from the other side, which, again, loops back to the starting bonfire. Although arguably quality of the latter half of level design drops significantly — let’s not talk about Demon Ruins and Lost Izalith — Dark Souls does not lack those strokes of cleverness.
The idea of a central bonfire is what makes Gatorade™ special in Dark Souls, and further enables Kindling as an effective means to manually adjust difficulty.
What is Gatorade™? Gatorade™ is the widely beloved energy drink for the undead population from Lordran all the way to Lothric and is the only rejuvenator the Ashen One chooses. It is a rechargeable consumable item and almost the only reliable healing option in Dark Souls. Its number of charges is consistently limited (starting with five), will drain when you drink beyond its limit and will be replenished when you sit beside a bonfire. It occasionally self recharges by one mouthful, if the player is online and another player so chooses to kindle the bonfire of the same area, but that depends on sheer luck and internet connectivity. It can be upgraded both quantitatively and qualitatively.
Since Dark Souls’ hostility is rather demanding for new players and sometimes even veterans alike, in a way, your remaining Gatorade™ charges can be seen as how many mistakes you are allowed to make within the rest of an area, which often times ends with a boss fight. If you find a level too hard, try kindling: a permanent upgrade to a bonfire which allows more charges of Gatorade™.
Speaking of Kindling (this is actually the whole point here), recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how games implement difficulty, and how games maintain the flow of experience so that it should not be either overwhelming or underwhelming. When a game like Dark Souls that offers mere one difficulty setting, it can potentially leave out some of its players.
Often times Dark Souls is said to be on the difficulty end of the spectrum, at least its marketing team proudly believes so, or they wouldn’t call the PC release “Preprae to Die Edition” and put a global death toll in Dark Souls 2. Contrary to common belief, Dark Souls is often deemed by fans to be ruthless but fair, which I agree to a certain extent, this is a perk that the game presents almost always consistent, but the existing impression usually discourages potential players to actually try this game and when they do, the impression would again drive them away as they easily die a few times, believing it’s really that hard.
This even led to a debate about whether Dark Souls should have an easy option. In that regard, Kindling is a way to manually adjust difficulty in Dark Souls: by providing you with more healing, you have more room to mess up and recover from your mistake, which in turn lowers difficulty level for that specific level. In my not-so-noteworthy opinion, Kindling is one of the most outstanding design throughout the series, as it’s effectively an option to make the game tend to your level of area familiarity and mastery.
Kindling also serves as a motivation towards revival, and it’s something Dark Souls lacks. In Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls 2, staying hollow yields heavy penalty by hugely reducing the player character’s maximum health, also banning the player from multiplayer activity. Dark Souls 3 reverts the penalty to reward, a better way to empower the player, and suitable in a lore perspective as the player character is no longer a nobody but an esteemed Champion of Ash… but I’ve gone too far. In Dark Souls, staying hollow only limits online participation. Aside from certain NPC summons and invasions, the sole motivation towards revival is the commence kindling. Albeit not strong enough, a minor motivation is better than nothing I guess.
As much as I like Kindling as a tool to smooth challenge, it’s prone to exploitation and imbalance. Any player with specific knowledge can parkour down a later level to acquire Rite of Kindling (advanced Kindling, that is) right after tutorial Undead Asylum (as there are shortcuts unintended leading straight to the area boss, which is a total pushover), which allows player to kindle a bonfire beyond the original limit (5 to 10 charges) to an absurd amount (15 to 20 charges).
Dark Souls is a demanding game, and it punishes unwise recklessness more than anything. But with 20 charges, the sheer amount of potential health renders any intended difficulty into a cakewalk aside from instant death from extreme damage or fall damage. However, if the player proceeds normally without resorting to this method, the Catacombs should be one of the last areas to be conquered, by which time the player character should be strong enough to forego those additional health pool and finish the game.
In Dark Souls’ sequels, Kindling as an areal quantitative upgrade is replaced by global upgrades, which strips away player’s ability to manually change the game’s difficulty level. This change is not without reasons, but it’s a pity nonetheless to see it go.
In Dark Souls 2 and 3, levels are mostly horizontally expansive in terms of sheer size and density in terms of enemy layout. The former makes it a lot harder to designate a central bonfire for one area and yes, so they littered bonfires all over the place.
To counter the latter, Dark Souls 2 introduced another reliable healing option: Life Gem, a consumable item that is extremely easy to acquire and hoard, heals a rather small amount of health over a rather lengthy period of time. It’s not the most satisfactory solution to increased pressure from both enemy and environment, but the game can’t just throw in pack after pack of Gatorade™ wholesale in one sitting, or it would destroy any slight hope of balance.
It’s funny to think about how in Dark Souls 2, From removed Kindling for the shift of design direction, and added Bonfire Ascetic. As a reverted counterpart to Kindling as a means to lower area difficulty in Dark Souls, Bonfire Ascetic actually increases area difficulty by one New Game level (which in simple English means “immensely, hugely”). It’s also a means to manually adjust difficulty level, only incremental here.
Although there are also more mob enemies present in Dark Souls 3 compared to Dark Souls, player character is also empowered with more versatile maneuvers to tackle them. More bonfires avail more frequent recovery as well. Besides, one major change is that Gatorade™ now has Blueberry flavor as Focus Point (Dark Souls 3’s equivalent of mana) is introduced to spell casters and weapon art users, forcing them to choose between the original Orange Gatorade™ and Blueberry Gatorade™ as they can carry at the same time only a fixed amount of total Gatorade™ charges. I’m introducing Blueberry Gatorade™ for no apparent reason, for it does not justify not having Kindling back at all. Defenders may say that global upgrade is required, or spell caster characters would be nigh unplayable early-game, but not having Kindling actually worsens the matter.
I often praise the design of Dark Souls’ Firelink Shrine and the most of the rest of the world, and how they vertically connect one another, and I used to praise From for its ingenuity and sophistication and use of verticality, but then other titles of the series proved me that Dark Souls’ Firelink Shrine is incidental, as I found out none succeeds its level of design. I loved how Kindling provides player method to make the game easier for them to conquer one specific level in Dark Souls, only to find later the concept got ditched completely. Although the sequels have their own strengths and appeals, I can’t help but miss some of the more sexy level designs and this one specific mechanic.
But you have to make do with the Gatorade™ you have in hand. After all, this article is just me making fun of Estus Flask’s orange bottle-like appearance and how characters enthusiastically glup down bottle after bottle and rejuvenate. And in this counterproductive statement, I thank you for bearing with my rather wordy nonsense.