The Dark Souls series, developed by FromSoftware and published by Bandai Namco Entertainment, has a notoriously steep learning curve that can be intimidating to newcomers.
If you’re new to the franchise, you might wonder which game you should start with first. While the answer to this question can vary depending on your personal preferences, there are pros and cons to each game in the series.
Knowing what makes each game different from the others might give you insight into which one you should play first. It can also help you decide which game not to play at all.
Let’s start with a direct recommendation and then talk about each Dark Souls game. I’m here to help you choose which Dark Souls game to play first.
Each Dark Souls Game Is Unique
If I was to give you a straight answer, I’d tell you to start with the first game. Many people will say you should play the first and skip the second. Although I can see why they’d say that, Dark Souls 2 is my favorite game of the franchise, so it’s hard for me to agree. Besides, Dark Souls III starts to feel like something else entirely, in my honest opinion.
On the other hand, the first Dark Souls has many reasons that make it easy to recommend, especially if you play the latest version.
It is important to mention that we are only talking about Dark Souls here. Bloodborne is a very similar game gameplay-wise, made by the same developer, but it is a different franchise. The same goes for Demon’s Souls and Elden Ring.
As for actual Dark Souls games, they aged like fine wine. Yes, there are elements that might feel old and clunky. Still, time only reveals what makes those games so good amidst games that fail to capture players’ interest even when they are triple-A titles.
All that said, and considering that my first recommendation would be the first Dark Souls, let’s compare the three games in the series to help you decide which one you should start with.
Dark Souls: Remastered
The first game in the series, Dark Souls, is often considered to be the best by many gamers. It is a challenging game that requires patience, intelligence, and skill to complete.
It’s not difficult to see why Dark Souls is such a good game. The first thing that makes Dark Souls such a good game is its gameplay.
The combat system follows the famous tough-but-fair style. It feels like playing an old game. If you learn what enemies do, you can be ready for them. Until then, you will suffer.
Enemies are able to get the player’s health down to zero in just one hit if they are not careful enough. This makes for an adrenaline-pumping experience for players, who are always on their toes when playing this game.
Another thing that makes Dark Souls such a good game is its world design. The world of Dark Souls is very well crafted, with each area having its own unique feel.
Besides, the map is entirely interconnected in a way that frequently blows your mind. These things show how good FromSoftware is at game design.
Dark Souls is the pinnacle of level design, and no other game of the franchise gets near what this game was able to do in that regard. However, the combat is a bit clunky and slow when compared to FromSoftware’s newest games.
Although I feel like it is an integral part of how the game feels, since it makes you rely more on your knowledge of enemies, I can see why this would be a turn-off to some. Still, if you have never played a Souls game before, I recommend starting here.
Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin
The second game in the series, Dark Souls II, is also an excellent choice for those looking for more of an easier experience than Dark Souls provides. You can go through the game with magic and ranged weapons without much difficulty.
However, things become very different if you go with Scholar of the First Sin. This version of the game has more enemies and some really frustrating enemy positioning. Although I had a blast playing this game, it’s not like all players will enjoy it.
Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin has many things I love, which is why this one is my favorite. It comes with cool-looking armor sets, powerful spells, beautiful regions to explore, and power stance battle techniques.
This game is incredibly robust with content, which would be a good reason to play it, especially regarding the DLC available for this game.
The Dark Souls II DLC is an excellent example of how to do DLC right. It has huge, self-contained areas with new enemies, boss fights, and even puzzles. There’s a good mix of new content, new challenges, and old content that you can find mixed in each DLC that make them so good.
Not only it significantly expands the Lore, but it also has some of the most fun areas to have ever existed in the franchise.
The thing I love the most about this game is the lack of fan service. What I mean by that is the fact the story progressed instead of being super attached to the first game.
Dark Souls II happens during a lost era among many other lost eras. It makes you wonder what happened to the world of the first game. I often feel like an archeologist when I’m trying to find connections between knights and giants in this game and the ones you see in the first Dark Souls.
Dark Souls III
Many players choose to start with the first game in the series, Dark Souls. What they don’t know is that, while there are significant improvements in both the combat and story departments, there’s a downside. Starting from Dark Souls III might end up being a lot easier than other games in the series.
This is why I don’t like to recommend this game as the first one. Once you play Dark Souls III, enjoying the much clunkier Dark Souls and Dark Souls II might be significantly harder.
Besides, this is the most linear game of the three, so you won’t see anything related to the famous Dark Souls level design.
Now, as for the game itself, Dark Souls III is fantastic. It is a much faster game than its predecessors, which we can probably thank Bloodborne for, and it is much better looking as well.
Although the level design is pretty linear, there are many beautiful areas and some opportunities to take alternative paths. Although some of the bosses might feel unoriginal, they are much better than the ones you generally find in Dark Souls II.
The sad thing here is the lack of power stances, which was everyone’s favorite mechanic in Dark Souls II. Using two weapons in this game isn’t nearly as effective.
This game has many nods to Dark Souls II, but it does feel like a direct sequel to the first title. To me, this is not a good thing. It makes me feel as if the series was afraid of being innovative at this point, which is why I admire the team behind Dark Souls II.
The DLC in this game is also pretty good. Although nowhere near the ones in the previous game, they have enough content to make them feel worth it. The areas feel different and new, add new enemies and bosses, and give the series a fantastic ending.
Why Are Dark Souls Games So Acclaimed?
The Dark Souls series is so lauded for its brutal difficulty and gripping storytelling. These games ask you to learn from your mistakes instead of just being forced through them.
Dark Souls games demand patience and skill to defeat any enemy or boss. On top of that, they constantly present the player with different tests that require new strategies each time you attempt them.
Finally, these games give players incredible freedom in exploring the world and tackling obstacles, not holding their hand or telling them where to go. With this level of difficulty combined with the freedom of choice, it’s no wonder that this series has been so acclaimed.
These games became so popular that they created an entire genre, souls-likes. Even the developers themselves started making games similar but different to Dark Souls due to its success, which is the game Bloodborne.
In fact, games like Bloodborne have encountered some level of success in the market by trying to mimic Dark Souls’ formula. So what is this formula exactly?
The idea behind Dark Souls is that your failures are either entirely your fault or that they will be entirely your fault after the first time you are caught off-guard. If you die, enemy placement will be the same. Once you go through the same area again, you will know precisely what to find.
This is what I often call Dark Souls’ methodical approach to combat. Some lesser enemies can indeed send you back to a bonfire with a surprise attack you didn’t know about. However, if you fall for it again, that’s on you.
Learning where the enemies attack from, how they attack, and dominating the famous dodge roll are essential things to do when playing souls-like games.
So, are Dark Souls games excellent just because of this combat system? Not really.
The first Dark Souls was mysterious in many ways. The story is told in a very cryptic way. Information is withheld from the player purposely so there can be speculation and discussion.
There is a dark mood going on in a world that seems to be ending from when you start to when you finish any of these games. Having this weird, different theme behind a power fantasy game already sets Dark Souls apart from many other fantasy games like Dragon Age or Dragon’s Dogma, for instance.
Even Dark Souls II, often considered “the bad dark souls” by many players, has over 85% positive reviews on Steam. I attribute all that success to a fair challenge, an entertaining world, and the fact developers trust their players.
As I mentioned above, Dark Souls doesn’t hold your hand. You don’t have quest logs, the NPCs don’t wait for you to finish a quest, and there is no map to guide you.
You must explore, learn, and remember what to do. It might be overwhelming at first, but you get used to it.
In fact, most people who like Dark Souls eventually notice how polluted some UIs are and how they dislike NPCs guiding them through the game with immersion-breaking lines.
The Other Games
As I’ve mentioned before, the article is mainly about the three Dark Souls games. That said, I do think I should mention the other “official” souls-like games. By official, I mean made by FromSoftware.
Many people don’t know that the first Souls game is actually Demon’s Souls. It very much feels like an experimental game. It had wild concepts and design choices you wouldn’t usually see in PS3 games.
Demon’s Souls is, very much like Dark Souls, a tough but fair dark medieval fantasy in which the world is about to end. Dark Souls, the original one, is actually that game’s spiritual successor.
That said, if you skipped Demon’s Souls because it is old, you could try Bluepoint’s remake of that game. The PS5 version of Demon’s Souls plays pretty much the same way, from animation timing to how items work, but it looks like a PS5 exclusive.
If you are done with Medieval Fantasy, I can easily recommend Bloodborne. This is the weird son that Demon’s Souls had with Castlevania — or something like that.
This game places you in a victorian city where a weird kind of blood is used to cure people, but it also turns them into monsters.
In this game, you play as a Hunter, someone stuck in a contract to kill beasts in exchange for the Church of Yharnam saving your life.
Bloodborne is probably the most frantic of these games. It doesn’t even have a shield for you to use, so you have to rely on attacking and dodging. On top of that, this is a very fast-paced game. Especially when compared to Demon’s Souls and the first Dark Souls.
I particularly love the way the developers blended cosmic horror with gothic horror themes and made a world that is addictive to explore and learn about. Besides, Hunters are super cool with their trick weapons.
Finally, we have Elden Ring. We’re back to medieval fantasy this time, but for a good reason. Elden Ring feels like a goodbye to Dark Souls. This is not necessarily bad, but one can see how this game feels like a Dark Souls asset dump.
Elden Ring is often referred to as FromSoftware’s Skyrim. That comes from the fact it is an open-world game with endless possibilities. You can skip bosses, make the weirdest builds, lose sight of NPCs, and much more.
The world is vast and beautiful, the gameplay is on point, and the characters are charismatic and mysterious.
At this point, it kinda feels like FromSoftware is showing off. They know how to make good Souls games, so they made the ultimate one. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next time.
There is no bad Souls game made by FromSoftware.
I recommend you to start from the first one if you intend to eventually play them all. It has the best level design of them all, and it takes you back to a time when FromSoftware started to understand the formula of their own success.
The second one works as an easier game if you use ranged builds, especially if you are not playing the Scholar of the First Sin version of Dark Souls II. In my humble opinion, the second game works better as a second game, as weird as it sounds.
Dark Souls III is the best game to play if you don’t have the patience, time, or energy to dedicate yourself to the clunkier, older games of the franchise.
In case you want to play a souls game that looks gorgeous, go for Demon’s Souls. It is a lot like the first Dark Souls in pacing. Although its level design is not nearly as good, the PS5 version of this game is a thing of beauty.
If you want the ultimate Souls-like experience, go straight to Elden Ring. The open-world game is much more beginner friendly than most souls games. Don’t get me wrong, though. The game is quite hard, but at least there is a lot to explore and grind “experience” before you have to face the main bosses.
Finally, if you don’t want any sort of medieval fantasy at all, try Bloodborne’s Lovecraftian horror in a victorian setting. Not many games have an original visual style and plot like this one.