PlayStation gamers were treated to an action RPG that broke the mould; Demon’s Souls, a genre-shattering Dark Fantasy that played almost as if it was The Legend of Zelda for grownups. Praised for its exceedingly high difficulty, wonderful setting and tight, meaningful combat, Demon’s Souls garnered a cult following and sales enough to warrant a successor.
Dark souls, available this time for Xbox 360 as well, is that successor – and like Demon’s Souls it’s designed to give players a hitherto unseen amount of grief. Like grief, Dark Souls is experienced in stages.
Stage 1 – Denial
“I’ve been playing games for over twenty five years!” you’ll say, tough, old-school gamer that you are. “I’ve beaten Mega Man 2, Ghosts and Goblins and even Battletoads…Hell, I can still breeze through Contra without up-up-down-downing my way to 30 lives. I’m not afraid of anything,” you’ll eagerly remind yourself as you peel back the game’s shrink-wrapping.
“Prepare to die?” you’ll mockingly question, rolling your eyes at the game’s tagline you read from the back of the box as you slip the game in to your console. “What? This game has a tutorial? Yeah, it’s obviously not half as difficult as they’ve been saying, if it comes with…pfft…a tutorial.” These “zombies” are EASY!
And then comes:
Stage 2 – Anger
“Really? I’ve started the game as a guy who’s already dead and all I’ve got to fight this giant monster is a bloody broken sword?” Of course, avoiding the monster entirely – for now – is your best bet. Soon afterwards, the game dumps you at the Firelink Shrine, which acts as your central hub within the immense and beautifully atmospheric world of Lordran. From there, it’s largely your choice how you’ll proceed. Dark Souls dispenses with all that hand-holding nonsense so common in modern, cinematic games – and it’s up to you to find your way around and the the game, where the environment is often just as deadly as the enemies you’ll encounter. “Where the hell am I supposed to go? Where’s the golden cookie-crumb trail that leads me to my next objective? There isn’t even a goddamned map!”
No, Dark Souls requires that you know – intricately and completely – your enemy, the environment, the limits and extents of your abilities and equipment – and use this knowledge to conquer the seemingly insurmountable challenges you’ll face. The game is – as its marketing and the smarmy comments from those who’ve played it suggest – brutally difficult – but never impossible. That doesn’t mean that it won’t make you want to throw your controller at the wall – because it will. It’s just that when you die for what seems like the umpteenth time – losing the souls and humanity you’ve worked so hard to acquire – you know (KNOW) that it’s because of your own carelessness or lack of forethought. And though it seems like it’s all a game of trial and error, it’s more than that; it’s about learning. Mostly through dying.
It’s a game that, through masterful, genre-defying design is genuinely challenging; not because of infinite respawns or monsters with sky-high hit points or any of the other tricks many games use to increase difficulty but because you’re left to your own devices. “It hasn’t even got a proper story! What kind of RPG is this?” It’s true that Dark Souls is missing the backstory and lore you’ll find in other games that get lumped in the genre. You’re granted some brief insights and background about the world and the big beasties populating it – but never enough to develop any real understanding. With most games this would be a negative – but the unfamiliarity of it all, and the high stakes involved in death perpetuate a genuine feeling of dread. And when you’ve tried to navigate the same area – filled with moving blades, and spikes, and traps, and murderous monsters – for 4 hours straight, inventing new swearwords, without the slightest real progress, you’ll move on to:
Stage 3 -Bargaining
“I’d give anything – my first born, my particularly furryy testicles, my sense of pride – ANYTHING to make it to the next bonfire.” Unlike this games equally unforgiving predecessor, the PS3 exclusive Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls allows you to use checkpoints. These aren’t the sort of checkpoints you’re used to though. When you die (and you will, lots. I can’t state this enough), you’ll lose your humanity and souls, and start at the last bonfire you used on your journey. You can recover much of whatever you’ve lost by reclaiming it from wherever it is you met you untimely demise – but all enemies (excluding bosses) that you’ve encountered up until that point are dutifully brought back to life as well. Cursed? You’d give up your own nipples for a purging stone. Being afflicted with such a calamitous plague, which leaves your HP halved is reason enough for
Stage 4 – Depression
“F*%$ this. Honestly. Why Do I even bother? I…I NEED help.” Though Dark Souls is a lonely, solitary experience, there is help available. The game has a persistent, pervasive online element, where the multiplayer is intricately weaved in to the single player experience. You’ll see ghostly phantasms, other real-world players experiencing the same adventure. They can leave warning messages, providing admonition of impending traps, enemies or treasure. Or just trolling. If you’ve sacrificed a humanity point to revert from being undead to human, you’re able to summon other players in to your world (or invade others’ worlds) for aide. There’s still a pervasive sense of loneliness through this MMO sensibility though, as you can’t choose to play with friends and there’s no means of communication other than a few simple gestures. Some might decry this sort of multiplayer, but it’s really integral to Dark’s Soul’s dark fantasy atmosphere.
Dark Souls will test you; your skills and your patience and though it will cause you anger and even despair there’s a point where it all comes together.
Stage 5 – Acceptance
“I’m Ok. You’re OK…and this game is F$#*ng AWESOME!” Once you’ve managed to get over how challenging the game is, and gone past the frustration that multiple, recurrent deaths bring – the initial impenetrability of it all, it will begin – slowly at first – to consume you, and you’ll think of little else other than Dark Souls. You’ll be devising strategies on just how to kill that dragon while you brush your teeth in the morning. You’ll pick the bits of Danish Feta from your not-quite-as-healthy-as-it-should-be lunchtime salad wondering what equipment will best help you overcome that fiery-tentacled demon, and wonder if it would have been better to pick off Onrstein before stupidly going toe-toe with Smough. Dark Souls isn’t about some fantasy story; it’s about survival, one undead man’s fight against the world. It’s also one of the most evilly compelling, rewarding and brilliantly addictive games I’ve ever played.
This is a real game; a gamer’s game – not one of those hold-your-hand cinematic experiences, that though awesome in their own right, barely have the right to call themselves games. This is a game where everything you do…everything…has a consequence.
Design and Presentation: 8.5/10
The Dark Fantasy setting of Dark Souls and the world; it’s monsters, enviroments and arenas that have been built around it are breathtaking, and genius.
This game will easily swallow 80 hours of your life whole, and leave you feeling compelled enough to go and do it all again on New Game +.
Not everyone has the right temperament or masochistic bent to fully appreciate Dark Souls, which is a pity as it’s easily one of this generations best games – if you’re willing to give it the patience to persevere. This is the gaming equivalent of a fine, but strong whiskey. It’s a wonderful, unforgettable experience that’ll put hairs on your chest.
Last Updated: November 8, 2011