The first time I died I was crushed to death by an ugly club-toting prison guard demon.
The second time, death came to me as I was shoved off a cliff. The third time skeleton warriors wielding cleavers overran me. The list continues: I was burnt, impaled, frozen, pummeled, squished, eaten, poisoned, slashed open, cursed, stunned, bashed, stuck full of arrows, you name it.
And it was all a painful, aggravating but ultimately rewarding learning experience.
I was being educated.
Enter Dark Souls, From Software’s follow up to Demon Souls. And I can easily say it’s the hardest game I’ve ever played.
The third person action RPG dungeon crawler Dark Souls is a fickle beast, one that doesn’t care if you’re good or not, the epitome of hardcore and the gatekeeper of victory and happiness. Its tagline, “Prepare to die,” is no joke. Even in the tutorial, you will die.
Sounds terrible, right? Wrong. Not only is Dark Souls the hardest game I’ve ever played, but also the most unique and rewarding.
Through death, a player learns survival. This doesn’t quite make sense, I’m sure. It can be compared to touching a hot plate. With your hand burnt from the contact, you know not to touch it again or, perhaps, to hold it with a cloth to reduce the heat. It is no different when dying in Dark Souls. When an enemy parries your attack and returns it with their own instant-kill thrust, driving a large sword through your torso, you now know you should not attempt such a route when fighting said enemy. It’s all a huge lesson on versatility and thinking outside the box, a game that will keep your mind spinning and your heart pounding with every encounter.
Dark Souls furthers the intrigue by its openness and lack of direction. Once out of the Undead Asylum tutorial, the world is open for you to explore and scavenge. Players are merely told to ring bells and “something will happen.” Pretty vague, right? The story is sparse and barely described, although the opening scenes and cut scenes are beautifully done and graphically stunning. The story is weak, however, as you find yourself wandering, sometimes aimlessly, through broken down churches, dark forests, poison swamps, tombs and underground villages. But that doesn’t matter. The story is far from important. Dark Souls is just one epic and massive adventure when it comes down to it.
The game will push you in a basic direction by the difficulty of the demons you encounter. I knew immediately that going through the poisonous Blighttown before I rang the first bell was not the smartest move, mainly because I was too weak to handle the beasts within. Then again, it’s completely arguable. Some may think one section is harder than the other merely based on the fact that their stats are distributed differently. It really is open for debate.
With its refusal to hold your hand, Dark Souls makes gamers’ hearts pump faster and sweat build on their brows. As they enter a dark unknown area with no idea what is around the corner, they’ll either march proudly and arrogantly or inch their way through with their shield up and a strong paranoia sinking in. The tutorial is brief and lacking in description, forcing players to figure it out on alone. Once brought to the Firelink Shrine, the official starting place in Dark Souls after the escape from the Undead Asylum, the world completely lacks a linear path. You are given a simple objective, how you accomplish it is up to you.
This beginning is vast and intimidating. Words like “overwhelming” don’t seem to do it justice. The start of your exploration will invoke awe due to its size. As you further your escapades and plunders, however, you’ll find small shortcuts, making each area interconnected. By the time you make it halfway through, you’ll have paths to so many areas around the Dark Souls realm, it will make travel easier. The realization of shortcuts were always a huge victory when I was playing, and I found myself rejoicing each time I found my way back to the Firelink Shrine. Being a safe haven, it was always comforting to know that the Shrine wasn’t as far away as it seemed.
Again, death is stressed to be the ultimate teacher. You’ll find through error and exploration what enemies are weak against and their attack patterns. You’ll learn that some enemies are weak against fire, while others are immune. You’ll find that divine forged weapons will halt the revival of skeleton warriors, opposed to struggling as you battle the reanimating bastards over and over again for no gain. There isn’t a moment that the game isn’t teaching you something. Players must be wise enough to take note when things happen, especially in combat and death.
In no way is Dark Souls a hack ‘n slash game. Running into a crowd of undead soldiers with your sword drawn may seem like a fun idea at first, but will lead to your inevitably quick death. The game is about patience and testing your limits. With an endurance bar acting as both your defense and your strength, players must truly come to balance with their actions. Swinging a heavy weapon could use up half your endurance bar, leaving you susceptible to an onslaught. To attack or not to attack, that is the question.
But the combat system is the heart of Dark Souls and is extremely unforgiving for beginners. I think I died far more in the beginning trying to get used to the combat than later. The learning curve is brutal, and can push players into fits of anger as they attempt to figure out their hero’s limits and the attack patterns of their enemies. But as time progresses, you’ll get stronger, level up and conquer. It’s all a matter of taking risks and knowing when to pull back from a fight.
The gamble is a huge playing point in Dark Souls. To act or not to act. Play it safe and miss out, or take a chance and risk annihilation? It’s a rush every time and players are faced with it frequently.
Scenario: There is an item on top of the roof a structure. The gap between you and the structure is quite large. Falling into said gap is a most certain death. Having no idea if the item is worth the jump, do you take a chance anyway, risking all your collected souls and progress in the area?
Let’s say you jump. You don’t make the gap and plummet to your demise. “You have died” shows up on your screen and then fades to black. You respawn at the last bonfire you rested at. This sucks, but is the norm. You can, however, try try again, which eventually will lead to success, and a swelling rush of pride.
Bonfires are a player’s saving grace, their haven, the light in the pitch black. Bonfires are scattered few and far throughout Dark Souls, acting as a checkpoint where you can level up, change your spells, replenish you spell count and safely re-arrange your inventory. You’ll recover your health and refill your estus flasks – potions that heal you out in the world. But it comes with a price, as does everything in the Dark Souls universe.
By resting at a bonfire, the enemies slain have respawned (except for some of the tougher enemies like the Dark Knights or bosses). After tirelessly clearing out an area of blood-thirsty beasts, it might not be worth the risk to rest a bonfire if you don’t need to. Then again, players will learn to expect death everywhere, so it may be worth cashing in on the souls you’ve collected.
Souls act as currency. Killing an enemy will yield a specific amount of souls. These souls can be used to level up at bonfires, where players can up their stats. They are also money, in the sense that you can use them to purchase items or services from merchants and blacksmiths. There, you can forge new weapons, repair weapons and armor or enhance your belongings with materials found throughout the world. The game is especially difficult and, at points, unfair, with it’s distribution of souls through victories.
Perhaps it was the developers’ way of discouraging grinding, but it is tedious and risky to attempt it. Even some of the (respawning) toughest demons only provide a few hundred souls, making it more and more difficult to level up or ascend weapons and armor as the game progresses. There are some areas of the game that seem to be made for soul farming, but they’re spread far and thin in between.
Not only that, but weapons and armor have durability stats, meaning that you can only hack away at enemies for so long before your sword breaks. Just adding to the difficulty, Dark Souls? Yeah, I’d say so.
Playing Dark Souls makes you feel small and insignificant. Your hero will face creatures 1,000 times their size, with a bleak chance of survival. But yet, it’s all possible. It makes the victories a million times better. I distinctively remember standing up and dancing after I defeated the Bell Gargoyles (giant stone creates with huge lances, axe tails and breathe fire) and rang the first bell. Winning has never felt so good.
But as small as you are, you are not alone. The most genius part of Dark Souls is the online world. Playing it on a PS3, I was always connected to the Internet, which made for a fantastic gaming experience. Often, players will see ghosts of other players briefly running through an area or fighting an invisible enemy, but then they will disappear. Glowing orange markings on the ground are also left by online players, which provide hints (or sometimes trolls provide fake hints) that help your hero prepare for the worst. Although the specific player who wrote the note won’t show up in your game play, their message will, creating a strong sense of unity.
Even better is the act of summoning. White writing on the ground can give players the prompt to summon spirits to aid their adventures. These spirits will be other heroes that are online, willing to provide their services to defeat difficult bosses. Together, you’ll work silently by the side of a stranger to face nightmares you’d hopelessly be crushed by if you were by yourself. Once you defeat the creature, the summon will disappear, and you’ll most often never see them again. Whenever I utilized this option, it gave me a warm feeling that I wasn’t alone as I thought I was.
It’s a strange sense of unity that the online game play brings into Dark Souls. You’re all in this together, and you’re all just trying to survive the worst.
There is also the option to become a phantom yourself, helping out fellow heroes to take down bosses you’ve already slain. By writing on the ground with a white soapstone, you can be summoned by someone and reap the benefits of victory together.
Again, this wouldn’t be Dark Souls if there was not a yang to the ying. With online game play enabled, it gives gamers the option to invade other worlds. Being completely honest, invasions are terrible. Players will invade other’s games with the one purpose of massacring the other player. At one point, I was invaded four times within an hour, hopelessly fighting off much stronger foes, and dying with each invasion. It was probably the most frustrating thing I experienced.
But this leads to the idea of covenants, a brilliant side quest-like option in Dark Souls. Players will meet NPCs throughout game play, and can be offered to join different covenants. Each have their perks and their specific purposes. One secret covenant has the single mission of invading players who invade players. Every time a person chooses to invade another’s game, they are sinning. These sins are recorded in a Book of the Guilty by Dark Souls. It was quite the cool experience.
Dark Souls is truly a massive game that gamers can pour their heart (and many, many hours) into. It’s something I’ve never quite experienced in a videogame. Some of the battles gave me a sense of Shadow of the Colossus, where the enemies were just so massive success seemed out of the question. The victories were made so much sweeter because of it.
Graphically, Dark Souls has an incredible way to pull the gamer into the mood it’s conveying. There are moments where players will have a chance to gaze at a beautiful landscape and truly appreciate the texture and time put into their surroundings. Other times, players will be begging to see grass again as they crawl through the Depths filled with giant undead rats and cursed demon frogs. The game’s environment finds a way to dig under your skin and give you a feeling of loneliness, claustrophobia, fear, or, at times, comfort. Just another genius aspect, I suppose.
Not everything about Dark Souls is innovative and wonderful though. As said before, the learning curve is outrageous. The first 10 hours or so of game play is so harsh, it could make even the most hardcore gamer quit. Leveling up is especially difficult because there isn’t a marker telling you how many souls it will take to improve your stats. It’s impossible to know when you have enough, you can only estimate. Some of the scenarios breach the intense difficulty to the “completely unfair” zone too. Many times Dark Souls was turned off from my television in a flurry of cuss words and rage. Luckily, my controller is still intact, although it did fly across the room once or twice.
It’s a give and take kind of game that really is not for everyone. Those who expect a linear, baby-steps, simple game need not apply. It takes grit, patience and time to make it anywhere in Dark Souls. Not every gamer prefers that, and that’s fine, but for those up to the challenge, it’s beyond worth it. The adventure is epic and far too hard to turn down.
BLAST FACTOR: Dark Souls is only for the select few that want to put the time into it. It’s harsh on all levels and extremely difficult in the beginning especially. Getting past the amount of times death overtakes games is where players will find solace. It’s a genius learning game, forcing you to think outside the box. It defies the new wave of gaming that is all quick time events and only 12 hours of game play. Dark Souls is visually beautiful, terrifying and will completely take over your emotions. It’s an epic journey where only the bravest and wisest succeed. It would be a shame to pass up such an experience, but with its insane difficulty level it’s completely understandable. Dark Souls has breached my favorite game titles and definitely made it into my top five. I wouldn’t pass it up.