Dark Souls is one of my favourite games of all time, the setting, the exploration, the combat, it all comes together to create a brilliant package. I think one of the many reasons the combat works so well is a pretty simple but ingenious element, the healing system. Dark Souls uses an item called the Estus Flask as its primary method of healing. Not only is it an undead favourite, it’s probably the most important item in the game.
The Estus Flask works like this: you get 5 chugs before it’s fully depleted, dying or resting at a bonfire, the Dark Souls equivalent of checkpoints, refills your uses. There’s a lot more to it than that, such as the kindling system, but we’ll get into that later. These rules are perfect because it means that the player can never get into the situation where they’ve ran out of healing items and need to grind for more. Given the challenging nature of the Souls games the player will likely rely on healing a lot, but often when players run up against a challenge they have a feeling of “just one more try” the fact that you have this reliable healing source means that the flow of playing the game and taking on challenges is never broken by the need to grind for more healing or even the threat of running out. This is especially important for how the bosses work in Dark Souls, it may take several attempts to learn their pattern and finally defeat them, but you can keep going back to confidently fight the boss knowing you will never need to grind.
Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne, the predecessor and successor to Dark Souls respectfully, both have these problems. They both have healing items you pick up throughout the game and attempt to supply you with it regularly, like how potions work in many games, but if you reach a particularly tough section your supply can be easily depleted, creating unnecessary annoyance on top of the challenge you’re already facing. One of my biggest issues with Bloodborne was, despite it releasing after Dark Souls, it had this inferior healing system.
There is another, rather contrasting, problem. If players do grind they can end up with far more healing items then they actually need, making the game easier. This is very possible in Demon’s Souls. The Estus Flask’s limited uses manages to solve this. This combined can create an interesting risk/reward situation in the game, that I’m sure many players have experienced, where if you run out of Estus uses or are close to doing so while in an unknown area you may contemplate whether to go back to the previous bonfire to gain back your Estus uses and try again, or continue in the hope another bonfire maybe be nearby and risk dying.
As the player progresses through the game, you find Fire Keeper Souls, which are used to upgrade your Estus Flask, so that it heals more HP. A pretty standard idea, to keep it relevant as you upgrade your health stat, but it does give you a nice little piece of lore about the fire keepers and you can also choose to kill fire keepers for more if you’re a terrible person, though you will need to keep one alive to upgrade the flask for your awful self.
The Estus Flask, as a game mechanic, manages to fit in with many other mechanics of Dark Souls perfectly. Considering 3 or 4 hits from many enemies can kill you healing regularly when on low health is really going to help get you through an area. Unlike Dark Souls, in many other games you heal by pausing the game, going into a menu and selecting the healing item, which then instantly restores your health. Not only is this unimmersive it can also trivialise combat. Instead the Estus Flask can be used by the press of a button during real time gameplay, but most importantly, much like every attack in Dark Souls it has its own, fairly lengthy, animation and timing. An element you think would be so simple actually means a lot as it allows healing to fit in as a strategic part of the combat. When fighting an enemy and you’re on low health you will have to prepare for the right opportunity to use the Estus Flask or they will likely punish you during the drinking animation. Meaning healing is not too easy to pull off, but works just like attacking an enemy would in Dark Souls’ combat, something you have to strategically do at the right moment.
There are other ways to heal in Dark Souls, such as Humanity or Divine Blessing but those are both depletable resources so would generally be used as a last resort. You can also gain use of healing miracles with enough of the faith stat, though magic in general does make the game a lot easier, it’s worth noting that these healing miracles have a pretty long animation time which means it would be very hard to fit them in during combat, and are mostly intended for use in-between combat encounters, so Estus Flask still remains the primary healing source.
Which brings me to a very important mechanic that I’ve avoid until now, the kindling system. It has not appeared in any of the other Souls games, which I think is a shame, because it’s brilliant. The reason I think this is because there’s a lot of debate about whether Souls games should have an “easy mode” and I’m sure I’ll write about that another day, but the short answer is: no. The slightly less short answer is: there are already in-game solutions to make Dark Souls an easier experience. The Kindling system is just one of them. It works like this: throughout the game you collect a resource called Humanity, when resting at a bonfire Humanity can be used to reverse hollowing which enables features such as co-op but most importantly, kindling. Use another Humanity to kindle the bonfire and now you have 10 Estus uses after resting at that bonfire! Doubling your Estus usage makes a huge difference and should enable players to take on challenges they struggled with earlier. This is a far better solution than just having an easy mode, as it relies on an in-game resource and mechanic, meaning it fits into the setting more than just an option in the menu and there must be some kind of sacrifice of resources before kindling, making it a trade-off. Even if Humanity isn’t a particularly rare resource, the “too good to use” factor will make players consider before just kindling every bonfire straight away. If you’re finding a specific area challenging, kindling the bonfire for that area means you just get extra uses from just that bonfire and you can take on any further areas at the default level of challenge (5 Estus uses, unless you have over 5 Estus left over.) Whereas many players would stick to an easy mode even if they have the ability to take on a harder challenge. You also gain the Rite of Kindling later in the game which allows you to further kindle the bonfire for 15 and even 20 uses of the Flask.
For what Dark Souls does, the Estus Flask works perfectly as a healing system. It prevents unnecessary grinding, stops the player from having far more healing than is needed, creates a kind of dynamic difficulty setting and fits in perfectly as an element of Dark Souls’ combat. It’s one of the biggest improvements moving from Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls. I can confidently say it’s the best system of healing in any game that I’ve played.
Okay, so this is the first post I’ve written out on here and feedback or other opinions are always welcome. I’d like to improve my writing, as I don’t think it’s great, but I do hope I’ve put across my ideas successfully. I hope to do more more discussions of game mechanics and also some reviews, but I’ve never ran a blog before so this is entirely new to me! Thanks for reading!