Dark Souls is about fighting the forces of inevitability: whether it’s that inevitable plunge into the depths of a darkened chasm; an untimely demise that reduces you to an unintelligible mass; or that inevitable moment when, despite it all, you decide to push forward in the face of great odds. From Software’s sadistic quest is about avoiding the unavoidable and reaping the rewards – and thankfully, these are just as inevitable as its follies and frustrations.
Here, every tragedy is an opportunity to learn. Indeed, Dark Souls invites you to learn solely through the experience of playing. And dying, of course.
Dark Souls can be aptly dubbed as a ‘boss-beating brawler’, a tale steeped in the typical trappings of a third-person action RPG. Yet, should you push past initial impressions, this endeavor is profoundly atypical. It continuously conveys a pervasive sense of wonder and unfamiliarity. Regardless of its Dungeons & Dragons exterior, Dark Souls‘ innards and sense of difficulty are very much alien.
Throughout all of Dark Souls‘ difficulties, however, one caught me completely off-guard: the world itself. A series of tightly woven and cleverly interconnected locals, the game’s open nature essentially allows an adventurer to wander freely. Should one fancy delving into the bone-ridden depths they can, provided they have the know-how and equipment to do so. In this dark-fantasy universe, the only restriction is you.
Bonfires are arguably the game’s cornerstone mechanic. Imagine a piece of thread (blood-soaked) tying your hero to your last visited bonfire. Should you die, this thread will effectively pull you back to that location with your souls and Humanity deposited at the place where you met your demise. The length this thread can stretch is ultimately determined by your skill, stats and equipment–if you’re not skillful enough to defeat a particular foe, your thread will never stretch beyond that particular point. Or in that direction, at least.
Besides acting as checkpoints, bonfires also restore Estus flasks: a healing item that, once expended, can only re-stocked at these locations. These flasks are the backbone of your thread. The distance your capable of traveling from a fire will, to an extent, be determined by your healing capabilities. Death or resting at a bonfire will revive the area’s ‘trash’ enemies. To a start-up explorer, things can become incredibly tedious, incredibly quickly.
Thankfully, though, Dark Souls‘ combat is indescribably compelling. Unlike the medium’s typical hordes of disposable enemies, the game–through a tangible feeling of weight and substance–makes falling even the smallest foes feel like the biggest victory. It’s not ridiculous to imagine that, even tens of hours in, one of the game’s weaker enemies could kill a clumsy or inattentive adventurer.
It forces you to consider everything. From the speed and size of your foe, to the weapon in your hand or the surrounding terrain, you’re given little respite from tactical considerations. And if you’re not trying to calculate your roll-dodge in relation to your enemy’s attack pattern, or which weapon type is most suited to bypassing their brick-wall defense, you’re likely to be on the path of impending doom. Here, density is death.
And any given player’s considerations will vary wildly. A Thief would focus on dodging enemy attacks and unleashing critical hits, for example. A Knight, on the other glove, might attempt a static, damage-sponge approach. In reality, then, its almost impossible to tackle the game’s challenges incorrectly. If an attempt happens to be unsuccessful, the eery glow of a wood-lit flame will be quick to inform you.
From the game’s boss-bashing outset, Dark Souls feels clumsy, cumbersome and heavy. Your adventurer is all-too-sluggish in recovering from a beat-down blow, and your stamina drains after just a few swings, but that’s the beauty–Dark Souls feels like a physical being. Everything feels weighted, substantial, and real.
In fact, this powerful sense of physicality may initially act as a deterrent. Dark Souls’ protagonist isn’t an explicit hero. And they certainly aren’t imbued with any world-breaking abilities. A handful of blows will kill you, whilst your ability to repel incoming attacks is limited at best.
Rumors of Dark Souls‘ difficulty have been greatly exaggerated. From Software’s epic is most accurately described as a series of strenuous learning curves. Every time you stumble into a new part of the world–typically indicated by the presence of a bonfire–this curve resets. New bosses, new enemies and new environments constantly demand that you re-asses your approach. It’s not a fundamentally unbeatable quest, it’s just one that requires observation and patience.
Nothing expresses this sentiment more elegantly than its grandest encounters. Almost disappointingly so, the discovery of a boss’s fatal flaw can reduce a once intimidating enemy to little more than a novelty, fodder for ‘epic’. But yet demonstrates how brains, not brawn–strategy, not strength–is key.
Death is not an endpoint, but a punishment. Perish, and souls are deposited at your blood stain. Die again, and Dark Souls will pillage your cold, crumbling corpse of those souls. In other words, you’re scolded for making the same mistake twice (or a hundred times). An idiot tax, if you will (and one that I often subscribed to).
‘Prepare to die’ isn’t a gross misrepresentation of Dark’s offerings. Worlds of blood (and lost souls) will be shed in the game’s variety of environments long before any semblance of satisfaction and completion is reached. But when the latter inevitably arrives, little can rival the feeling of reward it dispenses.
And whilst death and its built-in frustrations will undoubtedly irk you, Dark Souls comes packaged with frustrations not inherent to its design. Its framerate will surrender its fluency to a point beyond playable for no apparent reason, and enemy grab animations catch you despite being beyond or under its reach.
Dropped by foes and decaying corpses, souls are the title’s universal currency. From weapon upgrades to attribute points, every facet of consumption stems from a single pool of resource. You’re often torn between whether to upgrade a particular stat or buy that seemingly game-beating piece of kit. And that’s without the myriad of choices within those categories.
But despite its ostensible dependence on level hiking, Dark Souls is far more ‘action’ than it is ‘role-playing’. Soul levels–which enable your hero to add a single attribute point–are largely a means to an end; some are primarily a path to that next armor set or weapon. Not even treasure troves of stat buffs can save the most fortunate player from a lack of strategy and timing. If you’ve yet to master the ‘action’ aspect, the ‘role-playing’ component is useless. By no means is it a fall-back position.
If you can’t beat that infernal foe at Level 50, don’t feel entitled to be able to beat them at Level 75, either.
Naturally, online co-operative play is effectively Dark Souls‘ ‘imminent mental breakdown’ button. If an area boss proves to be too ‘boss’ enough, three additional players–should you see their Summoning Symbols and be within a relatively close level–can join to lighten the load. Whilst this might immediately scream ‘game breaking,’ summoning can only be done by those with Humanity: a farmable resource that can be spent on boosting a bonfire’s Estus yield, or, of course, calling others to arms (and death). It’s strictly a ‘no friends allowed’ experience, though.
If combat and exploration are two pillars underlying Dark Souls‘ foundation, then online is undoubtedly its third. If recruiting others isn’t a viable option, From has ensured that players feel constantly connected to others in similar scenarios. Fellow adventurers can leave helpful messages—though, so may also aim to hinder you. Bloodstains documenting the demise of others are also a much welcomed reminder that you aren’t the only one falling prey to the silliest of deaths.
To wax lyrical about the depth and nuance of From Software’s genius would be to dismantle much of Dark Souls‘ mystique. Indeed, despite a marketing campaign that would argue otherwise, this isn’t an experience about death. This is an experience about exploration: the exploration of your own skills; the world; its inhabitants; its loot and, of course, of your own dedication and sanity.
Underneath a disappointing layer of technical tarnish lies a fantastically coherent world. And whilst it’s a world that will demand investment from players at sword edge, it’s one that, to me, is entirely unique and unparalleled in our beloved medium. A tough and challenging experience Dark Souls can be.
It’s also one that you’ll never, ever forget.
Dark Souls was reviewed on Xbox 360. A single playthrough was completed, with over 100 hours clocked. Early segments of New Game+ were also attempted. Dark Souls released on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on October 4, 2011 in North America and October 7, 2011 in Europe.