As the spiritual successor to 2009’s much-loved PS3-exclusive Demon’s Souls, From Software’s Dark Souls cranks up the difficulty and lets its monsters run amok on a group of gamers that simply can’t get enough of dying. It’s almost insufferably tough, and yet a series of clever design decisions and a unique multiplayer component elevates it to one the best games you’ll play this generation. The medieval-fantasy setting and crushingly foreboding atmosphere might not suit everybody, but if you can settle in for an hour or more and give it your full attention Dark Souls is rewarding in a manner that’s rarely achieved elsewhere.
For those unaware, this is an action RPG series with a brutally tough learning curve and absolutely nothing in the way of padding or concession to modern design sensibilities. You initially craft a rough character built to suit the usual tank/mage/thief play styles, and then – following an intro cinematic chock-full of sorrow and despair – you’re dumped into a jail cell as a walking undead. From that point, you’re absolutely on your own to explore. The melee fighting mechanics are barely explained; none of the gameplay mechanisms are covered; there are no maps; nobody tells you where should go; and every enemy you encounter in the trap-laden corridors is capable of felling you with a couple of sword strokes.
It’s a tough, tough start, and many won’t make it through those first few hours into the larger world. And even if you are one of those whosticks it out, things quickly ramp up when you hit the mainland.
The primary mechanism of character progression is centered around the collection of ‘souls’ dropped from vanquished enemies, as they act as the currency with which to level up, improve weaponry and purchase consumable items. When you die, you drop all of your unspent souls in the world and you only have one shot to go and recover them; should you perish again, they’re gone forever. It doesn’t help that all the enemies you just killed are respawned in the process (aside from boss characters), and that your cache of souls could represent anything up to 30 minutes or an hour’s worth of progress. There have been multiple times when playing Dark Souls that I accomplished absolutely nothing tangible in the space of two hours or more. Be warned.
Thankfully, there’s usually a glimmer of hope to stay the annoyance of those lost souls and keep you forever pushing forward. Bonfires are spread throughout the land (although at times decidedly sparsely) representing your only vestige in the gloriously-rendered fantasy world. Reaching one acts as a checkpoint and sets a new respawn location, and also offers up safe ground in which to level up your character and refill your health-regenerating Estus flask. If you’ve consumed any of the ultra-rare ‘humanity’ that acts as a secondary currency, you’ll also be able to stoke the fire and increase the number of slots that flask uses. Outside of that mechanic and a few rare herbs and consumable items, your health is only replenished through death and a reset to the last fire you sat at.
Difficult doesn’t even cover it.
As a bit of background, I’m the exact opposite to the type of player you might expect to be attracted to the difficulty level here. I’m happy to play through most campaigns on normal mode, I despise grinding, and repeating boss encounters or tricky choke points more than a couple of times always infuriates me. Aside from the likes of the significantly undercranked Halo and Gears of War series campaign modes, the only time I’ll notch things upwards is in a full co-op session, and only then because I get to share the pain and bitch about the experience with other people. It’s not that I can’t do it (as progress in Dark Souls has proven to me), but I normally play to relax, to take time out, to enjoy a story and to be challenged on a sensible level.
It’s a small miracle then, that I not only made it through those initial dungeons and a first true boss encounter that can (and will) kill you in seconds, but I literally cannot stop thinking about the game world and end up biding time until I can get back to it. There are reasons for this, and they all boil down to brilliant design.
Firstly, the melee combat on offer in Dark Souls is consistently rewarding. You’re only afforded a heavy and light attack in conjunction with a block and, should you equip a shield, parry, but the sheer brutality of the opposition makes every move matter. Enemies circle and unleash their own volleys or can be taunted with a quick swipe, and it’s purely a matter of timing and skill to avoid or block their attacks and turn defence into offence for split second. The flow is fantastic. Opponents work in groups and look for openings, they rarely fall into routines, and they’re capable of surprising even at the most basic level. Above all else, it’s ridiculously satisfying to fell any of the tricky enemies, and the combat rewards you for getting better rather than just upgrading your equipment.
In that respect, running back through areas you’ve previously conquered is much less of a chore. Enemies that killed you multiple times in a row can be vanquished with skill and precision, and yet those same foes can just as easily destroy you in a matter of seconds if you let your guard slip. It demands concentration and patience, but both born from experience. Ranged weapons, magic, curses and enchantments all enhance the variety and opportunities for experimentation, but Dark Souls keeps boiling down to that melee; and it’s all the better for it.
The level design too is at times utterly ingenious. There are occasions spent wading through enemies and making what you think are monumental strides forward, only to realise that you’ve spent the last four hours essentially reaching the platform above, and that you now have a handy shortcut with which to quickly jump back to a previously conquered area. In the absence of a map or any form of overland transport, those hidden paths and shortcuts imbue the environment with a real sense of cohesion and connectivity, in a manner that’s akin to the best Metroid or Castlevania games. There are no fade-to-black moments here, and every journey is made within the world rather than a loading screen (with one exception near the very start).
And yet despite those positives, it’s the implementation of multiplayer – and more importantly community – that really shines brightest for me.
Anybody coming in from Demon’s Souls will know what to expect here, as the online systems that underpin Dark Souls are essentially the same. Players are able to scrawl notes on the floor for other players to read, some of which are extremely helpful (warnings of tough enemies ahead, or boss weaknesses etc), whilst others are purely comic or devious in nature. Touch any of the blood stains that dot the landscape and you’ll see a replay of somebody that died in that very spot, whilst every time you hear one of the bell towers ring, somebody somewhere in the world has just conquered a specific boss. Sitting around a bonfire, you’ll see the ghosts of other players jumping in and out of action as they reach the same place, whist converting yourself to human and laying down specific stones allows you to either invade somebody else’s game or summon someone into your own. Once in, their behaviour isn’t bound by any set of rules.
Dark Souls is a lonely, lonely place without those features (we delayed the review to sample them fully), and, to be honest, I would probably have never made it as far as I did without them. Spotting a glowing orange scrawl on the ground becomes an integral part of the experience, and the knowledge that other players have been to your very location and conquered the same enemies gives you the drive to try again. It’s a brilliant way to connect people running through what is essentially a singleplayer environment, and it’s just as impressive that the community is as supportive and helpful within the confines of those tools. It’d be good to see this sort of approach take root elsewhere too.
Of course even with those positives, a huge caveat to any recommendation still lingers with the difficulty level. Dark Souls won’t be for everybody as a result, but if anything has been proven to me in the last couple of weeks playing and dying, it’s that even experienced gamers can be pleasantly surprised by a concept and experience that doesn’t sound like it would normally fit.
I can only encourage those of you on the fence to give it a try. You might find yourself hurling a pad or switching off after an hour or two, but for those of you that it grabs, Dark Souls is an unforgettable experience.