You can’t just dive into Dark Souls. It’s no quick a trip to the shops to buy milk; it’s a trek across a dangerous land filled with more horror than a Twilight movie premiere on a Saturday night in Cineworld. You need to prepare. Make a plan. Set goals and do your research. Train. Dark Souls is a jungle filled with man eating plants wrapped around a desert of stinging scorpions atop a mountain of razor-sharp cliffs and dragons. Not literally. Look, what I’m trying to say is Dark Souls is hard. Fuck-you hard. And to go in unprepared is to die…. a lot. If you go in prepared you will die a lot too, but at least you will have a tiny sliver of hope.
Hope. It’s a strange thing to talk about in a game review, but you need hope in Dark Souls. You need to cling to it. Use it like a life preserver. Hope will get you through. The thin beam of light breaking through the oppressive clouds and darkness, hope will drive you forward. Hope that you can make the next bonfire. Hope that you can get to your souls and collect them before you die again. Hope that the dragon hasn’t seen you. Hope that you won’t fall off the platform to your death again. Hold onto that hope. In the end, its all that you have.
So I prepared. To foster hope I trained. I watched Youtube videos. I read FAQS. I visited wiki’s. I was like Rocky; I trained so much it warranted a montage. There was a reason for my training too. I had been beaten before. Demon Souls had taken me down. Defeated me. Broke me. Now I was back to take on Demon Souls bigger, badder brother. This time I would be triumphant. This time I wouldn’t give up.
This particular version of Dark Souls includes the extra content added to the recent PC port. This DLC, called Artorias of the Abyss, adds extra content to the game including bosses, enemies, equipment, and NPCs. You can also buy the whole thing as Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition on consoles now as well. If ever there was a time to experience the grim but glorious world of Dark Souls, its now.
“Tom, what Dark Souls?” Let me tell you traveller! Dark Souls is an action RPG. In it, you travel through a bleak fantasy world. You try to survive. Sure, there’s a story that’s being told and a quest of some sort and dragons that must be slain and such, but basically, you survive. Well, you try to survive. The route to success is paved with failure, and in Dark Souls the path to survival is made up of all the corpses you will leave throughout Anor Londo and the surrounding lands.
From then start there’s a lot of customisation and little guidance given to the player. Learning the rules of the world of Dark Souls is a big part of the experience and using online guides will help. Going into the experience cold can leave you hurt and confused. Dark Souls is a game that positively revels in setting up unfair traps for you and situations where you have almost no hope of success without forewarning and a plan. It’s an unnerving experience that breaks you out of the apathetic state we play most games in. Modern games just aren’t as harsh; they protect the player to some degree. Dark Souls meanwhile doesn’t care if you think its unfair to put a hidden archer on a platform where he can knock you off a narrow path to your death. Dark Souls laughs at you. And while you might think this would be a big turn off, curiously it has the opposite effect. It makes you grit your teeth, take up your sword (or mace or fiery spell-hand) and try to get across the path again. It’s a curiously old-school approach, and its hard to emphasize just how different it feels from modern games. Different in a horrible, wonderful way.
And when you do succeed the rewards are immense jubilation. The relief you get when you clear a difficult section or boss are immense. It’s because you have earned that jubilation. You could have failed over and over again. You could have timed the parry wrong. You could have missed the riposte. You could have fallen off the ledge. You did before, but not this time. This time you made it. This time you succeeded and you will never have any problems agai…. what the hell is that thing with the giant sword? Auuuggghhh…….
A number of things make Dark Souls hard. When you die you drop all your souls. Souls are everything. Currency and upgrade points all rolled into one. If you make it back to where you died you can pick them up again. If you die though…. You can lose hours of progress. It hurts. In your heart.
Therefore much of your time is spent mitigating this risk. You travel slowly, carefully. You light bonfires that act as checkpoints. There aren’t many, and they are far apart, but when you find one the relief is immediate and palpable. Resting at a bonfire lets you level up, and when you do this you relieve yourself of all those loose souls you’re carrying around thus reducing the potential loss of progress death would bring. You also get all your health and your health potions (called Estus flasks) back. Kindling a bonfire (which is done by spending a rare humanity soul) will make it give you progressively more estus flasks. In this way, you reinforce your bonfire as you die, slowly improving your chance of progressing further. You play the same areas over and over and over until you know them perfectly, and on the occasions where you die at a point you know well because you were reckless you feel frustration the likes of which few games ever manage. But that’s the genius of Dark Souls. There is consequence. There is real risk. Other games might encourage you to be a hero, but Dark Souls punishes hero’s. It rewards the cautious and the clever. In Dark Souls, all the graves are heroes graves.
Apart from the traps that the game sets you there are a number of other ways that it makes things difficult. If you get hit by an enemy there is no period of invincibility or any effective way to get out of trouble. If three enemies come at you with swords, once the first one hits you the rest will weigh in too. Each hit will put you in hit stun and you will be simply massacred. In this way group combat is lethal. It’s not like Assassins Creed; enemies don’t queue up to fight you one at a time.
You can also go anywhere in the game, including areas where the enemies are far too tough for you to possibly fight. The game will do nothing to tell you that you are going the wrong way. Add to this the number of precarious platforms you will navigate, and how easily you can fall off them, and you have some insanely challenging areas. You can easily lock onto an enemy, roll to avoid an attack and fall straight off a sheer cliff. Your character has no safe guards to prevent falling; there’s no animation to show that you are about to fall. Enemies will also mercilessly nudge you off cliffs, but thankfully you can do the same to them too. In fact, one of the earliest bosses in the game I managed to defeat by swinging my axe at him, only to see him dodge backwards and jump straight off a castle wall. THAT was satisfying!
For all the frustration and pain, Dark Souls rewards you with one of the most gorgeously dark and atmospheric game worlds ever created. Its pure gothic fantasy, and the tone is helped by the weird characters you encounter who talk in poetic, distant, otherworldly patois. The themes of death, undeath and cyclical fate are prominent, and the story even manages to tie in the games multiplayer features, where players can invade your world to fight you or join you as companions, as a part of the plot of multiple colliding worlds and realities merging. Dark Souls world reminds me of the dark fantasy I loved as a child, and by merging elements of Lovecraft, Tolkein, Moorcock and Howard, it makes a fascinating and terrifying world that stays with me long after I have turned the game off. Best of all, its one big continuous world rather than the series of levels that made up Demon Souls. As a result, you feel like you really are taking a long, dangerous journey and there’s a good sense of progress throughout.
There’s so much more I could say about Dark Souls. About how I love my pyromancer but hate how vulnerable his spell casting makes him. About how the lack of music and windy, desolate soundscape helps build the games atmosphere. About how it felt to defeat Havel after hundreds of tries, even though a single hit of his club would have killed me, or how I love the way that my character swings an axe about as effectively as I would in real life (not at all). I could even talk in-depth about the brilliant community around the game, the hint system that lets players write messages to aid there fellow adventurers or the PVP element. Instead I will simply say this. Play Dark Souls.
If you found this feature interesting. If you hate tutorials. If you think games today are too easy or too scripted or too linear, or if you just want to play a game that treats you like an adult, that sets you a challenge and asks you how brave, clever and cunning you can be. Play Dark Souls.