The following article was originally published last fall on a gaming blog that I used to write for. Unfortunately, the site has since removed it from their archives, so I am reposting it for the benefit of my beloved readers. Enjoy!
A deafening smashing noise splits the silence of the ancient church I am investigating. Terrified, I turn around to see an enormous black behemoth of a knight towering over me, and barely leap out of the way as he brings his mighty mace down on me a second time. I retaliate with my own trusty broadsword, but my attacks merely glance off of it. The knight swings a third time, and this time I’m not so lucky, as the force of the blow knocks me back into a column. I know I won’t survive another hit, and, picking myself up, I retreat to a nearby flight of stairs. As I flee from the great figure lumbering towards me, my progress is halted by an unseen figure from behind. It’s another knight—surely he wasn’t supposed to be there! Between the hulking brute with the mace and his smaller, rapier-wielding accomplice, I don’t even have a chance, and am relentlessly picked apart.
This is Dark Souls. You will die, and you will die often.
Dark Souls is developed by Japanese developer From Software, most renowned as the talent behind the Armored Core series. In an age of rebounding health meters, frequent save points, and other concessions to make games more accessible, Dark Souls (and its predecessor, Demon’s Souls) has been a breath of fresh air to gamers clamoring for more challenge in their titles. And challenging it is; Dark Souls hangs its hat on the appeal of its difficulty, and trusts that, despite the punishment, its fans will come right back to it saying, “Thank you, sir, may I have another?”
For the uninitiated, Dark Souls is an action-RPG for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, tasking players to crawl through dungeons, defeat enemies and bosses, loot the place clean, and repeat ‘till all are one. Gameplay combines third-person melee fighting, ranged attacks, and magic spells, both offensive and defensive. Combat is a much more measured affair than in most games, though—weapons generally need a wind-up to properly swing them, and spells take time to cast. In this way, design-wise, Dark Souls feels like Diablo by way of Monster Hunter.
Dark Souls does offer more than the promise of epic bosses and sweet drops. Dark Souls makes use of a persistent online feature, giving players the ability to interact with the community of players, sometimes in less-than-expected ways. For example, certain items can summon other players to your side, aiding as you clear a dungeon, or do battle against a gigantic boss creature. You can also leave messages for others to find, which range from helpful warnings like “Weak against fire,” to trollful advice like “Treasure ahead” at the end of a yawning chasm. Lastly, players can gain the ability to “invade” others’ games, with the potential to defeat them and steal their experience points—this does work the other way, though, if you are able to repel your invader.
Dark Souls‘ most infamous feature, though, is its extreme level of challenge. Regular enemies can, and often will, kill you, and will take advantage you if you underestimate them. Certain dungeons harbor more death traps than Dragon’s Lair, and large, fearsome boss monsters can appear from nowhere and promptly hand your ass to you. You also forfeit your experience points/currency (the titular Souls) upon death, though the game offers you one chance to find them and reclaim them—after one more death, however, they disappear forever. Check points are few and far between, with some areas requiring a ten- or fifteen-minute slog back to its respective trouble spot. Dark Souls never quite feels nasty insofar as making the player suffer, but it absolutely refuses to coddle anyone who dares pick up the controller.
Regarding Dark Souls‘ much-hyped difficulty level, I’m a bit ambivalent towards how I feel about it. Sometimes the game feels like the challenge level is deserved, and that every death you experience comes from your own mistakes, rather than any particular shortcoming of the game. At the best of times, Dark Souls feels like an 8-bit Mega Man game: absolutely punishing, but predictable in its challenges, and with enough practice, its previously-unbeatable segments can be cleared with ease. Alas, whenever I started to feel this way, like the game’s hardships were all by design, the controls would fail to react the way I wanted them to, or the camera would swing a direction that made the action hard to see, or the targeting would stubbornly refuse to pick up the charging skeleton warrior barreling towards me. At its lowest points, Dark Souls feels sluggish and cheap; an absurdly high challenge level only feels rewarding when I’m learning from my mistakes and acting on them accordingly, rather than spinning my wheels until I “get it right.”
Because the game is always challenging, though, Dark Souls is afforded an atmosphere the likes few games can achieve. The player is constantly aware of their own mortality, making each new area seem newer, stranger, and more frightening than nearly any other title in memory. Dark Souls‘ penchant for throwing great, powerful monsters at you from nowhere also adds to the sense of dread and mystery about the game, helping to sell the idea that, hey, this is a nasty, unforgiving place, and only the mighty survive. I can think of no title that sells the idea of its medieval, Excaliber-esque world better than Dark Souls.
Presentation-wise, the game is a mixed bag, with the balance tipped in favor of the good stuff. Dark Souls incorporates a deep and wholly-convincing dark fantasy aesthetic, and is far dingier and grimier than many Lord of the Rings-inspired settings that make up today’s fantasy landscape; fans of Conan the Barbarian or Disney’s The Black Cauldron will find the visuals rather appealing. The game also boasts a grand sense of scale, with large, expansive vistas, huge castles, mountains, and dungeons to explore, all presented without loading times. Some of the creatures can be rather epic in scale, as well. On the other side of the coin, enemies regularly clip through the environment, and, on occasion, I ran into some pretty severe pathfinding hiccups. There’s also a bit of slowdown when the action gets too frantic, which can spell death if a rogue skeleton gets a cheap shot in. Sound design is largely positive, with fearsome calls from incoming enemies, clangs and swishes of weaponry, and decent, if campy, voice acting throughout—the only thing missing is a good score, and as a result, Dark Souls is a largely silent experience, though surely it doesn’t hurt its ambiance.
You’re probably wondering why I’m not calling this a “review.” The truth is, after nearly eleven hours of play, I am still on roughly the third hour of content (near the middle of the Undead Parish, for those keeping score at home). Dark Souls is a massive game, with ten character classes and numerous lands to explore, leaving this not-quite-taster of an experience feeling unrepresentative of the game as a whole. In a podcast I listened to last week, Game Informer editor Phil Kollar mentioned that he put nearly sixty hours into his review build; I do not have that kind of time, especially on a rental, so consider this write-up to be more of a sampler than a definitive description.
Undoubtedly, many will be turned off by Dark Souls; its nearly impenetrable difficulty, high fantasy setting, and decidedly Japanese feel to the gameplay given the whole proceedings the unmistakable air of a game destined for “cult classic” status (though if first week sales are any indication, Dark Souls‘ success is anything but “cult”). However, for gamers looking for a different experience, greater challenge, or simply something to tide them over until Skyrim comes out, Dark Souls is a well-put together piece of gaming craftsmanship, keen on keeping players coming back, even as they beg for mercy.