There are movies which I go to which I don’t particularly enjoy but which I recognize as being big and important. I refer to these films as “good for you movies” – they’re movies that you should watch but which aren’t necessarily easy or fun to sit through. I never really thought of any videogames falling into that category until Dark Souls arrived last week.
The spiritual successor (and made by the same folks at From Software) as Demon’s Souls, the point of Dark Souls is to throw you down into a world which you know nothing about and have you work it all out. Oh, you’re given some hints (like how to swing a weapon once you get one), but that’s about it. That game doesn’t take you through how equipping stuff works, how magic functions, how to combine items, how to proceed, or just about anything else. It just says “here’s the world, figure it out yourself or with help from someone else, we’re not going into it.”
Dark Souls‘ world is huge (there are shortcuts which you’ll eventually find), its bosses are tough, and there is a whole lot of stuff to learn about the game. And—and it’s best to get this out there early—you’re going to die a whole lot in this game. In fact, truth be told, you kind of start off dead, or “hollowed,” if you will. You can find humanity in the game and use that to make you human again, but after you die, you’ll be hollowed once more (and just need more humanity to fix yourself up).
You are actually going to want to be human, you can do a whole lot more in the game as a human, but you’re still going to die. You are going to die over and over and over again. To some extent, that’s the point of the game.
From Software kind of figures that the gaming world has become too easy, that you’re able to go through RPGs and shooters today with relative ease, and they, it seems, want to combat that by making a game that is insanely difficult. They have succeeded, but more than that, their argument has some merit – it only takes time to go through the most recent Final Fantasy games, but that first Final Fantasy requires some serious skill.
Let us take it from the beginning (of the title). The first thing you need to do is to create a character from roughly a dozen different classes, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. The game then starts and you’re in a dungeon and need to make your way out. Soon enough though you’ll encounter the game’s first boss and you’ll realize what sort of a hellish time you’re in for. You are not going to beat that boss the first time you see him—it isn’t even in the realm of possibility—you’re going to run and have to figure something else out. When you do finally get a chance to beat this beautifully rendered, horrifically ugly baddie, you’re probably still going to die. Then you’ll try again and again and again until you get it.
On more than one occasion going through Dark Souls I hated what I was doing. I wanted to put the controller down, walk away, and forget about it. A t least, that was a regular feeling I had, there were moments I wanted to put my controller through my television screen and drop my PS3 out the window. And yet, for all my dislike of the grueling intensity the game dishes out over and over again, I felt utterly compelled to continue playing – not out of sense of journalistic integrity for the writing of this review, but because I was not going to get beaten by [insert name of horrific in-game creature here]. As hard as the game may be, From Software has managed to put out a title which you’re going to want to beat, no matter what it takes, and no matter what you lose going through it.
You will be helped on your way by the outside world (literally). Other players can leave hints and suggestions about how to proceed or where bosses are or where treasure may be find or anything else. They can also enter your game and help you when you can’t beat a baddie, and you can do the same (killing other people is allowed, but kind of frowned upon).
Now, let’s look at this whole dying thing for a minute. Energy is restored not just by taking whatever it is you may have purchased from a merchant in order to restore energy, but by sitting in front of a nice bonfire. If you’re human and have extra humanity, you can kindle the bonfire so that you’re HP-restoring flask can hold more servings – it too is restored at bonfires, but more fully restored at kindled ones. So, great, that’s how you get your energy back, but it’s also how the bad guys (regular, not bosses) respawn.
Need an example? Let us say a big bad resides at the top of a tower, you have to fight your way past 20 guys to get up the tower, and a bonfire sits at the bottom. You hit the bonfire, restoring your energy, and then make your way up the tower, but in the process drain your flask so that you have no way to heal yourself before going in front of the boss. So, what do you do? If you go down the tower and back to the bonfire, all those baddies you just defeated on the way up the first time will be there again on your second time up. If you just go forward, you’re going to die and start back at the bonfire anyway. But, if you die, you also lose the souls you’ve collected (XP and currency in the game) from slaying the baddies, and any humanity you may have. You can pick up the souls and humanity again if you make it from the bonfire to where you previously died, but that just means seeing the thing that killed you once more. Now, should you die again before making it back to the spot of your previous death, all the souls you lost are gone forever.
The truth of Dark Souls is that it doesn’t matter whether you go and face the boss or go down the tower to replenish your health only to have to climb back up – whichever way you choose to proceed you’re going to die. You can try just killing lower level baddies in an attempt to gain enough souls to level up to the point where beating the boss is easier, but no matter how much you grind, you’re going to find that it just doesn’t make a big enough difference. What you really need are better weapons and they’re probably somewhere down the road after the boss.
Another good thing to know is that any creature you see is killable. For instance, if there’s a nice guy who tosses you a key to get out of your cell and you see him later and take a swing at him, he’s going to swing back and you’re going to be in trouble. Swing at a guy like that and dying won’t save you either, every time you’re reborn at the bonfire, he’s going to be there and he’s going to try to kill you. Also killable are merchants – don’t like the price they’re offering something at, chop off their heads. Just be sure you get the job done and that you’re never going to need anything from them again.
While the game does look truly beautiful and has a great system for leveling up (done, once more, at bonfires), where you get to choose which aspects of your character to improve (which in turn affects what you can wield). The title falls down a little with its physics. For instance, take a swing at a huge rock wall and it’s entirely possible that your weapon will, just because there’s a problem with the coding, go through the wall just enough to destroy a box on the other side. That is a problem and a frustration, but it’s a frustration greatly overshadowed by the fact that the entire game is frustrating from start to finish.
Dark Souls isn’t a game you will necessarily enjoy playing. However, every time you beat a boss you will find yourself feeling such a huge sense of accomplishment and wonder that you’ll keep going, and every time you die you’ll still feel the need to keep going so that you can get back at whatever foul creature from hell ended your life. It is an wonderful, epic, horrible, awful, game, and an experience not to be missed.
Dark Souls is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Partial Nudity, Violence. This game can also be found on Xbox 360.