I have written this opening many times, hands still shaking and scalp still bleeding from the most recent bout of hair-pulling induced by From Software’s latest: Dark Souls. This has been written over, deleted, and rewritten. It’s been drafted again while considering the ritual destruction of my Xbox 360 after failing – again – to move past a particularly difficult area or boss. I have written it while feeling the thrill and elation that comes from finally defeating an enemy that, all those hours ago, seemed so impossible, and again when moments after the elation comes the crash as a more difficult opponent steps up to crush my newly swelled chest.
This game has come close to breaking me. That much is evidenced by the scrabbled, hastily jotted notes I took as I ventured through From Software’s twisted creation. Does that scratched ‘48’ on the wall denote the number of attempts I made at the Bell Gargoyle encounter? Is that my fingernail?
Dark Souls is the spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls and proves to be a cruel, challenging and demanding third-person action-RPG that throws players into a world full of grotesque and unsettling manifestations that try their hardest to end the players' lives as quickly and brutally as possible. It is up to the player to crawl, inch by hard fought inch, through this seemingly endless torment in the hopes of making it out alive.
Standing between the player and that freedom is 50 to 60 hours of unspeakable cruelty, ever more creative enemies and gigantic bosses that take a special kind of persistence to conquer.
This is not a game that hand feeds the player accomplishments; there’s not a safe and trusted tactic with which to move quickly through this nightmare. The only thing more predictable than death is its frequency. Just when the players think they have an understanding of the game they will turn a corner and be crushed, stabbed, poisoned, eaten or succumb to any number of awful fates, and they will resurrect at the most recent bonfire and have to go through it all again. But with death comes experience. Every crushing and humiliating defeat is a tutorial on how not to play. It’s within the classroom of utter failure and total submission that the most valuable lesson is taught: simply surviving in this world is an accomplishment worthy of song.
It is this attitude, this cruel and unusual treatment of players that allows Dark Souls to ennoble and unleash the purest and most thrilling reward of all: success. The hours spent dying, spent being repeatedly molested by the darkness are all ultimately worth it. It is because survival and the chance of success is so small that each minor or major victory feels absolutely colossal, beyond compare.
There is no safe haven in the new open-world structure. Instead there are bonfires placed purposefully around the world. Bonfires are checkpoints, a place to restore lost health, replenish health flasks and level up both the player and their weapons with the souls of defeated adversaries. Any thought of clearing out a group of enemies and high-tailing it back to restore health should be quickly quashed, as with the use of a bonfire all enemies not of a ‘boss level’ return.
When killed in Dark Souls players are returned to the bonfire they most recently took respite at, and any accumulated souls are lost. Should they return to the place of their most recent demise, they’ll be able to reclaim their lost currency. However, die before this reclamation and the souls are lost forever.
As the currency used to level characters (through the increase of statistics capable of increasing the health pool, magical ability or gaining the dexterity or strength to use a newly acquired weapon), as well as to repair or improve upon weapons and buy items from the occasional merchant – the loss of a large saving of souls can be a crushing experience. Dying before the retrieval of captured souls can make hours of work seem utterly pointless.
‘Humanity’ is a much more precious resource that is received from items or by defeating bosses. It can be used to revive a character to its human form, and lets other players be summoned to the player’s aid. It also leaves the player’s game open to invasion by a less helpful denizen of the Internet bent on taking the player’s life and with it their humanity. Finally, it can also be used to kindle bonfires to burn brighter, thus increasing the number of health flasks carried.
So it is with a constant sense of dread that the player must move on from these bonfires and continue through environments and enemies that grow more hideous and creative the further in they get.
Starting out in a decrepit asylum for the undead the player moves through a huge interconnected world of cursed churches, marble palaces, trap-ridden dungeons and bleak underground tunnel systems; cloying swamps and murky forests, run-down towns and much, much more. While deep within these environments, as the very walls seem to crowd in around the player, it is common to yearn for the open beauty of a sunlit sky. The settings and environments play on the senses almost as much as the new horror waiting round ever corner.
While sparse, bonfires are generally found in places that, with the right amount of exploration and the uncovering of secret shortcuts, grant quick access to much of the world. The overwhelming size of this world is made a little closer and feels a little more manageable. As these discoveries are made traversing the world of Dark Souls becomes second nature.
Combat in Dark Souls has to be as varied as the enemies the player must overcome. Each new enemy must be studied until a safe tactic to deal with it is discovered. The player can change from an armoured tank to a dexterous thief with the switching out of weapons and armour. To be a mage or miracle-casting healer the player simply needs a talisman or a catalyst. Players are never pigeonholed into to a certain play style and with unlimited inventory space anything found in the game can be equipped or used later to deal with a foe as long as the required statistics are met.
The use of magic has changed since Demon’s Souls, as this time around it is slightly more difficult and less reliable as a fallback plan. Instead of a magic bar each spell has a set number of uses before it must be recharged at a bonfire. Powerful spells will often be limited to just a few uses. It’s still an attractive and relevant path for players to choose only it’s no longer an economical and easy long-range, high-powered option. In the end players will have to get up close and personal, most commonly in boss battles.
Melee weapons can be equipped in each hand and the corresponding button or bumper denotes quick or powerful attacks, or blocks with shields. This means that some enemies require a highly defensive style of play, enduring until a weak spot becomes available. Others must be taken down with a quick combination of heavy blows lest the player be overcome.
A stamina bar is the fuel for both defensive and offensive play. Defend a series of heavy blows and the stamina bar is depleted, try and defend with no stamina and the player can be knocked off balance and left open to devastating attacks. Unleash a series of attacks that drain stamina and again, the player is open to counter-attack. It is the careful management of stamina and good movement during a fight that will result in triumph. Play too offensively or defensively and death is the assured outcome.
Some of the more intense and seemingly impossible situations found in Dark Souls can be overcome with the help of the community. With special items littered around the world players can leave messages for others to help them get through encounters, just as others’ notes will help the player. Players can also help one another by taking the form of a ghostly presence and join forces with other players to take down a particularly hard boss. Click a bloodstain and players will be able to witness the death of an unknown hero who, like them, is making their way through Dark Souls.
These little interactions amplify a sense of togetherness, a sharing of the experience. The tolling of a bell in the distance signifies that someone has defeated a tough boss and ghostly characters occasionally pop into view offering a glimpse of their own games. While at times these may seem pointless, the help occasionally offered can turn the tide in some of the more difficult encounters or simply help point the way to a secret stash of magical weapons or armour.
A game like Dark Souls is particularly hard to review. This is not a game designed for relaxation. The joy of defeating an enemy is always tinged with memories of the hours spent getting much too familiar with the loading screen. Dark Souls is not for those who simply play games for easy fun. But there are many who are weary of being coddled to a game’s conclusion. Those wishing to test themselves against a game that doesn’t care if they are having a modicum of fun, a game that will strain their resolve and largely leave them with an utter sense of defeat; those seeking a high they’ve not experienced ever since success became gaming’s most debased currency need look no further than Dark Souls. Get into the Dark Souls mindset and be prepared for repeated failure in one of the most engrossing gaming experiences available.