Japanese publisher From Software were responsible for dozens of broken controllers in 2009 with their release of Demon’s Souls, an action-adventure RPG that became notorious for its unforgiving difficulty. The game enjoyed a niche success for the few thousand sadists willing to dip into the devilish game-world, and suffer frequent trips to the Game Over screen. It became somewhat of a critical darling for its unique gameplay and the innovations it made to online play.
This year From Software released Dark Souls, an indirect sequel that promises more of the same nightmarish game design, and for some reason after playing Demon’s Souls (A game I own and have been stuck on for two years), I said “Yes, I’d love to be reduced to tears by a videogame! Direct me to your nearest store, good sir,” and bought a copy. Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results – I’ll check myself in after this review.
Dark Souls begins with an equally gorgeous and vague cinematic that forms the basis of the game’s lore and history; dragons and powerful beings at war for power, the birth of fire and the rise of humanity. It is revealed that you are one of many humans branded with the ‘darksign’, a symbol marking you as an immortal undead, damned for all eternity to rot in an asylum until ‘hollow’.
You begin the game by escaping your prison, at which point you are chosen to travel to Lordran, Land of Lords, to ring the bells of awakening and remove the darksign. There’s little in the way of exposition – in many ways the story is as indifferent to handholding as the combat, but that’s the point – Like the gameplay, Dark Souls’s story expands and unfolds through exploration and interaction, found in small tidbits such as NPC dialogue and item descriptions, so the more you see and play around with, the more there is to learn and do. This philosophy is what drives the experience of Dark Souls and while it can be immeasurably hard to penetrate and endure, the reward for succeeding is a sense of achievement that you will not find anywhere else in a video game.
The majority of Dark Souls’s design carries over from its predecessor. Like Demon’s Souls you create a character by specifying your desired class (Mage, warrior, thief, etc.), although this time there are a few more levels and specifications to apply which can affect your play, such as starting gifts which can boost certain stats or open elements of the game-world earlier on. While it’s a good idea to select a class that reflects your play-style, Dark Souls never completely punishes you for your choices; if you select a class with low magic stats for example, certain magic attacks or NPC interactions may initially be cut off, but if you’re willing to grind and build your stats you’ll eventually gain access to whatever you desire. In this way, I managed to build a melee-focused Wanderer class who was also quite adept at pyromancy.
Once you’ve given your character life (Or the game’s nearly-hollow equivalent) it’s time to go out and slay some demons. In keeping with Demon’s Souls’s established system, souls are your experience points and currency. Killing enemies rewards you with their souls and the more powerful the demon, the larger the purse. By successfully surviving for longer and longer you’re able to afford more powerful weapons, armor and spells, as well as boost your own statistics. It’s a true-RPG format that forces you to decide where those souls should be applied. A strong weapon is only useful in the hands of a strong enough wielder, so you have to think hard about when to purchase what item.
Making each soul even more precious is the fact that whenever you die, your souls are depleted, you’re returned to a spawn-point and all the enemies you’ve defeated (Bosses excluded) are brought back to life. Your ‘lost power’ is left where you died and you have one chance to reclaim it – you die before then, and it’s gone forever. This is the mechanic that can drive the player insane: Impatience, distraction or a misplaced attack can lose you hours of work. I have slain several bosses in one run only to be stabbed in the back by a generic weak enemy, losing me thousands of souls.
So sure, be careful. You’ve played a video game before, you know the deal. The risk-reward system doesn’t sound too evil until you experience Dark Souls’s difficulty. Mid-way through the tutorial level you’re faced with an enormous boss you have no business fighting that sets the tone for what you’ll have to face throughout the game. His attacks are devastating and a huge change of pace from the easily defeated undead warriors you’ve faced up to this point. It takes a bit of trial-and error to discover the proper way forward, and eventually how to exploit his weakness.
This is how every new enemy is taken care of. It’s a different pattern of blocking, dodging and attacking for each foe you encounter, and several hours in you’ve already mapped the combat tactics for dozens of enemies. The first time a new monster one-hits you it feels like a cheap and impossible attack to overcome but with patience and a level-head you learn its tells and the maneuvering necessary to take it down. The suffering you’re forced to undergo doesn’t seem worth it until you feel the elation of killing a demon three times your size. It’s a satisfaction earned entirely from your own skill and strategy, none of it simulated by gimmicks like quick-time events or restricted by contextual set-piece moments.
The last main aspect carried over from Demon’s Souls is the online system which introduced an entirely new way to interact with other players. For the most part, there’s no direct contact at all with other people playing the game, although every now and then you’ll see the ethereal silhouette of another player moving through the landscape. They can’t be interacted with, but there are several ways they can affect your experience. Most notably, there is a system in place to leave basic messages on the ground for other players to read, which can be helpful or detrimental depending how sincere the message is. Some will advise against tough enemies ahead or reveal their weaknesses, while others will encourage you to jump to your death. How much you follow the advice of other players is up to you.
Additionally you will sometimes find bloodstains of fallen players on the ground, which you can touch to replay their last moments before death. It can serve as a warning for players entering a new environment. There are also several ways to trigger ‘invasions’ where you can battle other players for their souls, as well as summon other players to help you fight for a time, but it’s possible to avoid this altogether if you prefer to play solo. In Dark Souls you’ll have a few more subtle elements that incorporate online play which deepen the sense of camaraderie, like the stony remains of a cursed player or the ringing of a bell signifying a nearby boss has been defeated by a fellow player. Small incidences like this help to richen what could otherwise feel like a lonely endeavor.
Dark Souls’s biggest departure from its precursor is its lack of a hub-world between levels. While Demon’s Souls was composed of 5 large ‘levels’ linked by a safe, nuclear base of operations, the sequel boasts an entirely open and interlinking world comprised of a myriad of different environments. While many of these are available right from the beginning and you are free to tackle each area in any order, there is a general route to follow in which the enemies will scale gradually in difficulty – Stray from this path and you’ll likely find yourself smashed to pieces by a demon far above your capabilities. Finding this route can be a painful lesson in experimentation, but coming back to cut apart an old nemesis when you’ve eventually built the strength to do so is a powerful feeling.
Safe zones are few and far between, but you will be able to rest and upgrade your character at bonfires you’ll find scattered throughout the land. By lighting them you can sit by the flame and fix up and alter your player in all sorts of ways, depending on purchases and upgrades you apply to the fires. The bonfire element is probably Dark Souls’s biggest refinement to the franchise in that it allows the player to progress more efficiently and with less travel back and forth. It also means load times are almost non-existent once you’re in.
From Software have done a fantastic job of expanding on the medieval and mythical influences they drew upon in the first game. Dark Souls oozes with atmosphere and history, not only in the beautiful landscapes which showcase everything from crumbling ancient castles to gloomy, dense forests but even in grotesque and inspired monster designs that could give Guillermo Del Toro a run for his money. There are some frame-rate issues which can almost bring the game to a stand-still, and ragdoll physics that can either be taken as hilarious or incredibly annoying, and these are issues that can really bring down the otherwise amazing presentation. Besides that, you’d be hard-pressed to find another game that can boast an equally deep, immersive world.
It’s hard to advocate Dark Souls as a must-play because it’s such a polarizing game. There is such a high learning curve, and the gameplay is so unforgiving that it’s just too hard to break into for many people. If you’re really into games and you can handle the challenge, there are very few RPGs out there that can match Dark Souls’ refined combat system and action-adventure gameplay.
Take it from me, as I stand stuck for weeks on the final boss, ready to fly to Japan and murder-punch everyone at From Software: Dark Souls may be one of the best games you’ve ever played, and I hate it.