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Best Levels in the Dark Souls Franchise

FromSoftware's Dark Souls 3: The Ringed City DLC expansion caps off the third installment in the trilogy. According to series director and FromSoftware president Hidetaka Miyazaki, it also marks the final piece of SoulsBorne content, at least from his studio. Last fall Miyazaki clarified that while he'll never say never, he was ready to move on.

For now, the Age of Fire—or the Age of Dark, if you prefer—is at an end.

What a ride it's been. In October 2009, seconds after finishing Demon's Souls, I turned to my wife and said, "I hope they make another one." FromSoftware responded by making four "other ones"—a trilogy of Dark Souls titles bulwarked by 2015's Bloodborne, a Souls game in all but name. (You don't fool me, blood echoes.) These games became a fixture in my life. I've poured over 1200 hours into the series and anticipate playing at least that many more. My wife and I bought a second PS3 and copies of Demon's Souls and the first two Dark Souls games so we could play them together. We own two PS4s for the same reason. If the trilogy comes to Nintendo Switch, I'll buy it again so I can play Dark Souls everywhere.

Whether it's forever or for a while, I'm not embarrassed to admit that the end of Souls has me emotional, and feeling more than a little reflective. SoulsBorne fans know that each game is defined largely by their maiden voyage through its derelict castles, its moldy sewers, its poisonous swamps, its shining cities and ashen shores. I spent some time selecting one favorite area from each game, and asked our Shacknews Chatty community to chime in with their picks.

Boletarian Palace

Demon's Souls (PS3; 2009)

Demon's Souls offers a tutorial level, and while representative of what awaits you in the game proper, it's short and can be skipped after going through it with your first character. As any player-wrought message at the foot of its archstone will tell you, the real Demon's Souls starts here, in the first level of Boletarian Palace.

The entirety of Boletarian Palace comprises my favorite area in Demon's Souls, but its first level deserves special mention. From the guided path ending at a portcullis that shows you how the level wraps in on itself to create shortcuts, to the red-eyed knight who's way out of your league, to the charred remains of soldiers who fell victim to the colorless demon fog, to raiding a dragon roost while ducking one wyrm's swishing tail and dodging its mate's fiery breath, this level tells you everything you need to know about what lies ahead. 

It took me nine hours to beat this level my first time through. Nine glorious hours of trying, dying, learning, and dying again. Every death taught a lesson. Every inch of ground gained since my previous death felt momentous. Every retrieval of my bloodstain and the precious souls it held aroused a surge of heady triumph. I pursued that feeling for hundreds of hours, sweaty-palmed, shaking, and delirious from joy. 

Boletaria Castle (all 4 zones) is my favorite area in a Souls game for two reasons. The first is because it was my introduction to Souls and you always remember your first time. The more serious reason, however, is the level design. Things that still stand out: the approach on the first bridge and figuring out how to open the portcullis, the dragon nest, the red eye knight guarding the door to a secret boss, the executioner grounds, running on the bridge to avoid the dragon, The Tower Knight, chasing the fat minister to the Penetrators fog door only to have him killed by the boss, rescuing multiple NPCs, that damned blue dragon, learning to parry to deal with all of the red eye knights in 1-4, the three red phantoms representing the first three bosses, and finally the false king boss fight. -Grumbeld

Sen's Fortress

Dark Souls (PS3, Xbox 360, PC; 2011-12)

You could point to Sen's Fortress as the pinnacle of Dark Souls level design, and I would probably agree. Sen's struck me as the archetypical Dungeons & Dragons campaign. No longwinded backstory, no plot twists, no exposition. Just you matching your wits against a crumbling old fortress rotten with boobytraps, narrow walkways, a healthy mix of monsters carefully selected to challenge any character build, a shortcut at just the right spot, and a boss you can slay in a couple of ways.

What sets Sen's Fortress apart is its remarkable sense of place. Early on you have to run up a cramped and tenebrous stairwell, timing your sprint to avoid boulders caroming down at you. You emerge on the rooftop of the fortress and see a giant, shackled and dropping boulders from a pile down a hole. That hole leads to a contraption, and the contraption is responsible for sending those boulders at you. Turn the camera and you can see the cathedral roof where you killed not one but two giant stone gargoyles some hours beforehand.

In a franchise venerated for telling stories through progression and environmental cues, Sen's Fortress could very well be the cream of that crop.

Sen's Fortress is the best zone in the series. A player can reach Sen's with bad habits. Lack of environmental awareness. Timidness. Poor timing. Reliance on one singular tactic. A player has to be truly dedicated to those habits to make it through Sen's Fortress with those same bad habits. It's a master class in taking a player and breaking every possible bad habit, from the moment you step on that pressure plate at the front door. -ConfusedUs

Sens Fortress was one of my favorite areas in all of the Souls games. It has what I like about Souls most, exploration, areas that connect to each other in interesting or unexpected ways, awesome shortcuts that are a relief to unlock, a cool NPC to talk to and an even cooler NPC to summon for the boss fight. Boss fights are generally one of my least favorite aspects of the Souls series so the fact that the boss at the end of Sens is a pushover is not a dealbreaker for me. I let Tarkus handle him and sit back and enjoy. -grendel

The Lost Bastille

Dark Souls 2 (PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC, and hopefully Nintendo Switch; 2014-15)

A chaotic development caused FromSoftware to scrap most of Dark Souls 2 approximately halfway through development. The team performed triage, salvaging what areas they could and building the rest from scratch. Pre-crisis, many environments were designed as sprawling, interconnected zones like the first game's. Post-crisis, the majority were shorter—densely packed with items and secrets, but lacking the grander scale and connective tissue that conveyed that quintessentially Dark Souls feeling of, "Oh, that's where I was an hour ago!"

The Lost Bastille balances density and length. There are two primary wings of the prison. You come to each from a different zone, and connect them by opening a gate where they meet. Secret passageways abound, including one that lets you skip the Ruin Sentinels boss, one of the toughest encounters in Dark Souls 2. All of that, and great lore—King Vendrick feared the curse, so he ordered his jailers to round up the afflicted and quarantine them in the prison, leaving them to rot alone and afraid—to boot.

Dark Souls 2's DLCS are regarded by many as the best areas in the game, and I agree. But Lost Bastille deserves recognition. It did a fine job appealing to players who preferred the first game's approach to level design, while achieving the density of secrets, routes, and goodies that helped Dark Souls 2 carve out an identity of its own.

Yarnham

Bloodborne (PS4)

Bloodborne is my least favorite chapter in the SoulsBorne story, but that has little to do with level design. It's second to Demon's Souls in regard to atmosphere, and those two elements work hand in hand to set a mood bordering on terrifying. Yarnham, the game's main city, shines as a model example.

Gothic architecture, feeble lantern light, winding streets choked with abandoned carriages and piles of rubble, enraged enemies dragging swords and axes and pitchforks—that's all well and good and creepy. When a certain action triggers the appearance of eldritch horrors straight out Lovecraft's most unsettling tales, Yarnham goes from disquieting to horrifying.

The idea of unknown and unfathomably powerful and vile beings inhabiting our world, freely visible to those with an abundance of curiosity, chills me to my core. Returning to Yarnham to see FromSoftware's rendition of those beings hanging around areas I'd passed through dozens of times previously made me feel small and afraid. My mind trembled. I found it difficult to look at them for long. I knew it was just a story. I knew they weren't real. Even so, a chill spreads through my chest and a pit opens in my stomach every time I look at them. I go so far as to avoid Google searches that might cause them to rise from the depths of search results.

Lovecraft would be proud.

Lothric Castle

Dark Souls 3 (Xbox One, PS4, PC; 2016)

Lothric Castle complements Boletarian Palace. You begin each respective game in its castle milieu. Over the course of the stories, you delve deeper. The castle reveals new enemies, challenges, characters, and items roughly commensurate with where your skill level should be.

Setting aside Boletarian Palace, Lothric Castle makes excellent use of Bloodborne's tech, which undergirded FromSoft's swan song. Listening to the heavy tread of knights (complete with glowing red eyes) stomp around corridors never fails to get my blood bumping. Analyzing the layout of a room to figure out the optimal way to kill off the priests that heal those knights before they see you and rush you, and rewarding victories with shortcuts that deposited you at the most convenient points in the level, makes progression firm but fair, and memorable.

Honorable Mentions

Tower of Latria

Demon's Souls, World 3

Creepy, brutally difficult, packed full of secrets, and host to some of the coolest bosses in the game, as well as one memorable NPC who is not to be trusted. -Rehevkor

Tower of Latria, particularly its prison section, remains one of the most nerve-wracking areas in any game I've played, and a high watermark for the entire Soulsborne series. The constant chiming of the bell, the ever-present death falls as you walk along narrow rails which make combat mobility impossible, the unnerving torture devices everywhere, the ball of tangled bodies in the basement, the massive arrow contraption on the bridge, the red phantom with the baby nail near the end, the deceiving boss with the balcony follower as well as the congregation. I'm not saying Latria my favorite--in many ways, playing through that area is torture for me--but it's so creatively twisted I can't help but admire it. -kallanta

Majula

Dark Souls 2

DS2 isn't my favorite overall, but Majula really sticks with me. the music and the sunset is very mournful and evocative. -dirge23

Darkroot Garden

Dark Souls

Darkroot garden stands out because I realized it was a game about much more than castle environments. Dark Souls is my favorite gaming experience of the last 10 years because it surprised me throughout. -digweed014

The Research Hall

Bloodborne

FROM had done areas like this before, it has a more than a little bit of Duke's Archives in there...but the Research Hall is interesting for me and I spent more time co-oping there than just about any other area in the game. The music is muted, I don't really remember any until the boss fight. The puzzle of figuring out how to get through it was fun, and there are side rooms to explore and various paths that take you through the zone. -grendel

Brume Tower

Dark Souls 2: Crown of the Old Iron King DLC

Brume Tower has some really solid level design with incredibly challenging bosses and monsters, wrapped in a really cool aesthetic. It uses a design that the Soulsborne games do really well: descent (see also Great Hollow, Blighttown, Stonefang 2), and makes you fight like hell for every shortcut, every room, every damn inch with a level of challenge that feels fair but also balanced exclusively toward Souls veterans (which it should be, as optional content). And it ends with one of the most challenging (and fun as coop) boss fights in the entire series: The Fume Knight. Great stuff! -kallanta

It's great in a classic "Find the key to unlock your way to the next section" and all the elevator action with multiple levels with challenging enemies and amazing boss fights (main and optional) and the extra 'Challenge Dungeon' and boss. That was such a fun area that I went through it with randoms. I mean not just the boss fights, the whole area. -AxeMan808

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