Dark Souls lives, breathes and worships death. It is the story of one undead soul’s tormented journey from the depths of their own hell to recover its humanity. It is bleak, disparate, depressing and it will ultimately tear you to pieces.
Similar only to its predecessor (the Playstation’s Demon Souls) at the bottom of Dark Souls’ black heart is an action-RPG, but quite unlike any other RPG, or game at all for that matter, you will have witnessed before. Developers From Software have stripped the flesh away from all the common bones you might expect from a Role-Playing Game: character interaction, quests and a backstory have all been left in a putrid mess far behind. Dark Souls just wants you to think about death and then die.
It is not too much of a hyperbole to state that this is the most difficult game that has ever been created. A bold statement, and one that is not taken lightly, but to understand just why it is so difficult you will need to understand the mechanics of the game.
Firstly, the difficulty level cannot be adjusted. Dark Souls wants to be undiluted, unadulterated and unrestrained. Just to further compound this, you cannot pause. The game still plays, and kills you if you are not in safety, even while you browse your inventory. The only way to end the unhindered defeat is to quit. At least then it brings you back where you left it.
Secondly, there is no save game, just an instant auto-save feature after every event. When you die you respawn at the last bonfire you rested at. These bonfires act as checkpoints, a place to level up and the only place to regain all your strength and magic. They are the bright beautiful saviours in the darkness. However, when you die you also leave behind all your unspent souls (the game’s experience points and currency gained from killing enemies). The only way to retrieve them is to retrace your steps back to your corpse. Unfortunately, all the monsters you slew in that previous life will also be resurrected. If you die again, and you will, all those souls will disappear into the ether, leaving you screaming in agony as you realise you just wasted hours of your own life. Dark Souls wants this. Dark Souls enjoys this.
Thirdly, Dark Souls is an open-world environment, not in the flowing open fields of an Elder Scrolls game, but in a huge complex maze of conjoined linear paths, like the dying roots of an old and rotten oak tree. Unlike other RPGs that will guide you along the correct path or adjust the difficulty as you progress, this game will simply kill you if you pick the wrong route. It will not explain why. Which brings me to my next point.
Fourthly, Dark Souls will not teach you anything about itself (beyond a basic description of the controls). Throughout the game you will find a bizarre array of items, each with mysterious descriptions and properties that are left entirely unexplained. The only way to understand is to experiment and if that kills you, well, at least you will have learnt something.
Perhaps the one guiding hand Dark Souls allows you is the faint connection you have with other souls wandering through this game. Littered throughout the world are cryptic messages eerily left by other players around the world who have trodden your path before you. They might warn of imminent danger on the road ahead, or they may point you in the direction of hidden treasures, or they may be lies drawing you into a deadly trap. It is up to you to decide whether you should trust them. When you find the item that enables you to return the favour you discover that your words are limited to a small selection and writing a message to relay your intent becomes almost an art form. It is unique and very clever multiplayer aspect and one that shows you the kindness, as well as the black hearts, of strangers.
Fifthly, and I learnt this the hard way, Dark Souls will never let you undo your actions. A message left early on by one kind gentleman told me not to trust one of the very few NPCs found within the game. I wondered what this meant. Was this, admittedly scary looking, merchant going to stab me in the back while I walked away? I trusted this messenger and decided to slaughter this back-stabber before he had the chance. Looking back, I’m sure this was a mistake. Because there is no save game, I had to live (and die) with my decision. I would never be able to buy any of his wares or find his, albeit limited, companionship again.
One could go on, listing every painful event, every cursed moment, every dying torment that Dark Souls unleashes, but the truth is beyond all this suffering there is a beautiful and elegant game hidden. The fighting action, which is essentially the purpose of the game, is a joy. Different fighting styles, be it with a giant two handed sword, a spear and shield or firing volleys of fireballs, feel completely different and each requires a different approach. Furthermore, every enemy, and there are at least one hundred types, invites a different strategy, one which you will learn through your previous deathly mistakes. The monsters all feel individual and some, especially the enormous bosses are built on some very original concepts. A brilliant example is the gaping dragon. At least thirty times your size, it’s small head rises out of the water to reveal a massive writhing, dripping tentacled body.
The action, for comparisons sake, follows a similar, though far more fluent, form to the Gothic or Risen series. Like these games, it is a combination of finding the enemies’ weakness, outwitting them and then clever timing. Ravenous button mashing will inevitably result in another untimely demise. Every battle needs careful thought; even some of the weakest enemies can potentially destroy you if you go in unprepared. In a world where health is scarce you must constantly be on your guard.
While in essence Dark Souls is a single player game, the other interesting multiplayer mechanic is the ability to offer your help or to hinder fellow travellers. By leaving your mark somewhere in the world, players can summon you to help them defeat the harder bosses and in return you will receive a large amount or souls and gain some humanity. Or, if you so choose, you can use certain items to invade an unsuspecting player’s world and kill them just for the pure evil pleasure. However it must be noted that Dark Souls with its constant lonely bleak atmosphere almost feels scared to let you escape on these outings. Only players with humanity, which is a scarce resource and one that is lost in death, can break out of their world. It is a shame that such an interesting mechanic is limited to such a rare occurrence as to be almost invisible, though perhaps any more than fleeting encounters would have broken the sheer sense of foreboding that Dark Souls wishes to create.
However, for all of its redefining of gaming boundaries, mechanics and ideas, Dark Souls does get a lot wrong. The visuals stink decided of a last generation engine pushed to its limits. The resolution of textures is almost unforgivable, the models especially of humans look decidedly rough and to compound matters there are often drops in frame rate in the more detailed scenes. There is also virtually no music to speak of except some uninspired battle themes during the boss fights. The designers clearly felt that music would take away from the overall depressing nature of the game and sound effects, the clang of sword on steel, the heavy trudging of boots are all the player should hear. One strange omission is the almost complete lack of noise uttered by any enemy, it simply makes them seem... soulless.
Further disappointments come when trying to interact with the few NPCs in the game. There are no conversation trees, just the pointless odd binary response to a few questions that inevitably you can change your answer to next time you speak. The voice acting without exception is dreary, and while I imagine that was what they were told to achieve, it just makes everyone dull and expressionless. Add in the fact that there is no lip sync, or movement of the mouth at all, you begin to understand why it is tempting to put them out of their misery just because an eerie messenger told you to.
Dark Souls is certainly different to any other game released on to the market recently. Whether or not you will enjoy it will depend almost entirely on whether you can overcome its sheer overwhelming depressing, demeaning and difficult nature. If you push on through the first ten hours of pain (and there is at least 70 hours worth of intense suffering to be had) and realise that death is just the beginning, the point, and something you need to get over, there is a certain masochistic pleasure that can be afforded. The gameplay then becomes addictive, and despite the continual cries of anguish as you fail, there is always that drive to try and get just a little bit further. One word of warning, to progress you will need to grind, repeatedly killing the same group of enemies for valuable souls to level up enough to attempt harder areas. If all of that seems like something you need in your life then Dark Souls may just be the answer. That or a psychiatrist.