The mere whisper of the name Dark Souls is enough to strike fear into the hearts of many gamers. The now infamous soul-crushing, rage inducing, haemorrhage causing, will-breaking, slice of sadism has been with us nearly four years now. So let’s look back at this bloody masterpiece and just how fucking brilliant it is.
I’m a more recent convert to the Souls series. I foolishly followed the crowd (the crowd being my friends) and got myself an Xbox 360. Therefore I missed out on some fantastic exclusives (The Last of Us, Heavy Rain) and had to feign interest in titles like Gears of War. So having neglected Demon’s Souls I was unaware of the series, until around three years ago a friend of mine told me to try a game called Dark Souls. So I did, I played it for roughly thirty minutes and utterly despised it. I found the controls to be sluggish, the enemies far too difficult and story made no bloody sense. I couldn’t understand why this game was remotely popular, never mind deserving of such monumental praise.
Flash forward a few years and I had new friends telling me that the game was brilliant and I should try it again. Eventually I relented out of a mixture of annoyance and pride. I can’t stand the idea of a video game making me its bitch, because fuck that noise. So with renewed interest I went out and bought a copy of Dark Souls. I took it home, put it in my Xbox and the hatred came rushing back to me. It possessed me, making me curse out loud as the opening boss carved me up like a Christmas turkey. Only this time, the rage was different.
Perhaps as I’m slightly more mature now, I didn’t feel the need to throw my controller at the wall every time I died. This rage compelled me to press onward, learning how to get around each enemy encounter, sustaining as little damage as possible and taking extreme delight in sucker-punching those skeletal shit-heads with the sharpest part of my sword. My earlier complaints of sluggish controls were put to rest as I learnt the crucial first lesson of Dark Souls; you can’t button-mash your way through this one. It would seem that tactics had to be employed.
Once I finally beat my way through the skeletal hordes of the first major area, I found myself on a bridge fighting a giant Minotaur who promptly flattened me. Once again frustration turned to motivation; after several attempts and numerous impressions of a used tube of toothpaste, I slayed the foul beast. My time to revel in victory was cut-short however. As I swiftly progressed to the newly opened area, a dragon come out of fucking nowhere and turn me into a pile of undead ashes.
And thus began my painful odyssey into Dark Souls.
In terms of gameplay, Dark Souls is simple in theory but complex in practice. You must traverse through the vast fantasy world of Lordran and kill anything you come into contact with. Defeating enemies gives you souls which are used to buy items, weapons, spells and upgrade your stats. You pick a starting class, the typical Knight, Thief etc. and then add the necessary trimmings. You’re plonked into the game world and off you go, cutting down anything that gets in your way. You have your primary weapon and your shield, or if you’re playing for strength, you can dual-wield for maximum damage. For HP you have the Estus Flask, a limited supply of health boosts that refill every time you reach a bonfire. Then there’s your light attack, heavy attack and block button, it’s all very standard of the genre. Then there’s the RPG elements, like different armour to wear, magical effects, status effects and all the rest of the standard troupes. It’s very familiar but not as friendly.
There is also an online function in which players can summon each other for aid or outright murder each other. The main use for the online is so that players can leave messages around the game world. These messages will point out hidden walls, reveal the best tactics and be generally helpful. I however do not use Xbox Live, so I played the game without this function. Sadly you won’t be getting an analysis of how that works, but I imagine it’s nice to know you’re not the only person in the room being slaughtered on an endless loop.
Dark Souls is a “Metroidvania” game. For you non-nerds, that means a game set in a large interconnected world that slowly unravels as you meet certain requirements or vanquish certain bosses. A lot of the world is open to you from the start but you’ll need to improve your stats before you can see everything. Sporadic bonfires are placed around the land as checkpoints/levelling-up stations, along with some NPCs that you can choose to engage with. As you progress, you’ll uncover secrets and hidden short-cuts allowing you to bypass some of the more treacherous areas you’ve already traversed, having lost your patience and bone marrow in the process.
The sprawling world of Dark Souls offers many wondrous locations to visit like the Gothic castles of Undead Burg, the luscious yet deadly Darkroot Garden and the hellish pit that is Blighttown. The twisted land of Lordran is crafted to perfection with plenty of imagination and diversity to each location you visit, but keeping in tone with what has preceded. I’m not usually one who’s swayed by graphics, but these visuals are simply stunning.
As you’ve probably heard, this game is harder than frozen turds. There’s no hand-holding here and the “tutorial” sets the tone perfectly. You’re given some basic equipment and are then set upon by a demon roughly twenty times the size of you. It’s pretty intense for an opening five minutes. You’ll more than likely be flattened by the hulking monstrosity and forced to keep fighting it until you succeed. Essentially, you must prove your worth to Dark Souls before it pulls away the curtain to reveal the buffet of nasties to carve away at. Once you’ve defeated the first boss you’re transported to the oddly peaceful Firelink Shrine. It’s a nice moment of calm after the stressful opening. After a small briefing with a stranger, you’ll be off on your own to paint the land with blood. Most of which will be your own.
Death is inevitable in the world of Dark Souls. Trust me, you’ll die more times than you’ll care to admit, but death is fundamental to the experience. Every time you fall in battle, you will leave a big puddle of blood and a glowing mass of souls. If you can make it back to them without dying you can reclaim your souls and continue on your merry way. If you don’t, those souls are lost forever. This may sound frustrating, but every death is another lesson learnt. You’ll kick yourself for allowing that low-level warrior to land a death blow, but at least you know exactly where you went wrong. To succeed you must fail. It’s harsh, but it’s the only way you’ll learn in this world.
Therein lies the power of Dark Souls, it thrusts pain and despair onto the player from the beginning. You must adapt and exploit the weaknesses you find in the darkness to push on. It’s the moments of retribution and success that make Dark Souls so endearing. The rush of adrenaline and subsequent release of endorphins this game can give you is highly addictive. More often than not this game will force you to the ground but you will prevail eventually if you keep pushing on. The gratification that comes with these achievements is unrivalled by many other games regardless of genre.
For a game that’s proudly claims to be an RPG, hack-and-slash hybrid, Dark Souls has more in common with the survival horror genre than anything involving Kratos or Bayonetta. The combat is weighty, with a large emphasis on timing and blocking as opposed to the tried-and-tested smash the controller with your palm until everything is dead approach. Your every action is dictated by your stamina bar so careful management is required. Every enemy you encounter in the game is more than capable of throwing a spanner into your works if you don’t approach the situation properly. The zombie you just slaughtered with relative ease could have been distracting you from the rapier wielding knight who is about impale you from behind. The placement of enemies also factors into the gameplay. Some areas will be smaller and more claustrophobic, making you want to lure foes into a wider space to get a more strategic advantage, but alas this can once again prove to be your downfall as the wide-open space could be home to more enemies who will rip you apart with little to no effort.
The enemy placement really shines when you inevitably have to back-track through earlier realms. As you progress into a new area, the placement of enemies seems natural and you can handle them one by one, however on the back-track, you’ll find that their placement proves to be more of a hassle. This time around the group will see you coming and launch an attack, meaning the strategy you had beforehand is now useless. That right there is solid video game design.
Dark Souls can be described perfectly in two words, those being “grim” and “vague”. The beautifully crafted world of Lordran has all the appeal of Western fantasy, but slathered in a thick layer of grime and darkness. It establishes the mood early on and makes you question what must have happened to this once majestic world. That’s where the vagueness comes into the fray. There is a story to Dark Souls, but it’s up to you to discover it for yourself. The only cut-scenes here are boss introductions and environmental shifts, no exposition-heavy dialogue exchanges here. There aren’t any diaries, audio-logs or collectables to tell you either. You must talk to the handful of NPC’s you meet on your travels and study the landscape to put together the bigger picture. The NPCs all have stories of their own you can watch unfold but you are a silent protagonist, shuffling through the decay in search of answers. Even if you do manage to piece it all together, the story is open to interpretation and is a talking point amongst fans.
This is where my earlier comparison to survival horror comes into play. There’s a genuine sense of fear to this game as you explore a new area. You have no map, no indication of what you’ll be fighting or how to defeat it. It can be very overwhelming. The story also factors into this, you know that you must go forth in this mysterious land and kill mythical beasts, but you’ll stop to question why you’re doing it all. You may also question why you start the game in an asylum of the dead? The only way you’ll find out is to uncover the truth for yourself. That perhaps sounds more like Shadow of the Colossus than Silent Hill, but it shares a lot of flesh with latter, placing you in a beautiful but idyllic environment full of grotesque beings that will try to separate your head from your shoulders. You inch your way through the gloom, trying to avoid your inevitable death, only to be defeated and forced to repeat your trudge through the once whimsical sludge.
One thing a game of this calibre lives-and-dies on is its boss fights. Well, you’ll be glad to know that Dark Souls has some of the most memorable boss fights of recent years. Bar a few cut-and-paste fights toward the end, the multitude of nasties you must kill never fails to impress. There’s some troubling creativity going on at From Software, the Gaping Dragon being one of the more unsettling designs. I obviously don’t want to spoil the surprises, but as you’d imagine, the further in you get, the bigger and more elaborate the bosses become. However your initial fear of them will eventually turn into an almost sadistic need to brutally stomp them all. You’ll be riding on high, feeling invincible as you dispatched the last few bosses with relative ease, then you’ll encounter Ornstein and Smough, which is hands down one of the most unforgiving boss fights you’ll ever play through. On the down-side sadly is the final boss, who is awesome in design but the fight itself is lacklustre. It’s not the epic showdown you’d imagine, just a tedious back and forth of parrying until you whittle his health down to naught. A wholly unsatisfying conclusion if you ask me.
That in mind, there isn’t a lot else you can fault Dark Souls on. Elements such as the difficulty, vague plot and demanding nature would often be highlighted as negatives in other titles, but with Dark Souls it’s different. These are the ingredients that make it so immersive and appealing in the first place. Although there are certain gameplay functions that could be included in the tutorial. You will often find items, be unsure of their purpose and use them willy-nilly, only to discover that these would be vital to later success. In the same vein, certain enemies can seem unbeatable, when in reality all it takes is a simple weapon alternation that the game doesn’t tell you about. I’ll admit that I had to turn to a walk-through several times as I played the game, I’m not proud of it, but I had no choice.
Above all else, the biggest issue with Dark Souls is the frame-rate. Many reviewers have mentioned this before, but it is necessary to highlight it. Once you reach Blighttown the frame-rate will drop significantly, never reaching unplayable levels but it’s very noticeable. I’m sad to say that it broke the atmosphere for me, Blighttown wasn’t so intimidating when everything moved sluggishly towards me. This technical hitch is understandable, with the game world being so vast there’s a lot for the game to process and load at one time. Thankfully it only effects one or two areas of the game. It’s certainly forgiveable, but it will always stand out as the biggest blemish on an otherwise perfect game.
Dark Souls is in fact more than just a game, it’s an experience. The grim fantasy world offers a journey the likes of Skyrim could only dream of. This isn’t a game about meaningless side-quests and the pursuit of treasure. This is a journey through a dying world, trying to piece together what has caused the pestilence that plagues its inhabitants. You need patience, skill and resilience to brave the trek across Lordran. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart or the Call of Duty inclined. Dark Souls will push you to your limits and demand absolute dedication. You will feel a multitude of emotions from white-hot rage, to sadness and even a fleeting sense of tranquillity along the way. It can be physically and mentally exhausting to deal with the constant cycle of death forever weighing down upon you, but that is where Dark Souls truly succeeds. It shows you that suffering is only temporary and that message resonates throughout the game. If you give in to it and get on its wavelength, you’ll find it to be one of most rewarding games you’ll ever play.
Having beaten the game, I can say that I’m not the same person I was when I started.