For twelve days, Dark Souls enslaved me. Using guile and addictive design, Dark Souls left little room in my mind for other engagements. In my thralldom, I suffered the deaths of a hundred heroes. Unlike them, however, I came back. I came back and made it a little farther using the knowledge of my death. The final hours of the game dangled over my head like an imminent disaster, and I rushed to the final confrontation out of a desire for freedom. There was only one way out of this mess: forward, to the end, to the fire and light. And once I was there, I was free, and I walked away with priceless memories.
I never expected to have fun playing Dark Souls. I played, but never completed, Demon’s Souls and found not a moment of fun there. Considering Dark Souls’ pre-release reputation of being even more difficult, I expected a similar experience. Within moments of starting the game, however, I found fun. I don’t say this from any sort of machismo or male insecurity; those that use the Souls games as a measure of one’s worth are themselves worthless. I say this still astonished at its truth: Dark Souls is fun. I must fail as a critic, however, because I can neither explain exactly why nor promise a similar experience for you. Dark Souls defies objectivity. This is my story; yours may differ greatly.
In a rare and deliberate move, Dark Souls tells a minimalist story that never feels lazy or underdeveloped. Story plays a small role in the game, yet it never comes off as ignored like in so many other combat-heavy games. In the beginning, a narrator introduces the setting, lore, and basic theme: the dualities born out of the discovery of fire. During the game, only a few NPCs give vague guidelines and goals, and players are left to fill in the blanks, of which there are many. This free-form style of storytelling requires the use of one’s imagination with the atmospheric dark fantasy setting and bits of impressive lore as inspiration. Players are thus left to create a narrative themselves from ashes and tinder, making their stories infinitely varied. Dark Souls makes one work for everything.
Dark Souls makes progress more valuable than anything by making the risks severe and the work required immense. The foremost way to make progress is through battle with terrifying enemies, and Demon’s Souls’ slow, methodical combat makes a refined return. The precision and depth of combat gives the game half of its appeal. Cautious timing, measured retreats, and persistent shield blocks characterize survival. Failing to learn the system and correct common errors like running out of stamina lead to a pair of all-too-familiar words in blood-red capitals: “you died.”.
Given how precisely the system controls, combat feels tight and almost never leads to a cheap death. Unfair deaths can be blamed instead on imperfect targeting and an oft-awkward camera. Such a challenging game would be better served with a more versatile and intelligent targeting system, preferably one that can more easily recognize enemies. The camera becomes an issue in the game’s many tight spaces, where it grabs a wall and gives a skewed view of the battlefield. As intriguing as close-ups of enemy crotches can be, they are not altogether helpful. That said, I died more unfair deaths in my ten hours of Demon’s Souls than in my fifty of Dark Souls.
Exploration is the other major facet of making progress, and this is perhaps where much of the aforementioned fun comes from. Dark Souls’ unparalleled level design gave me as much incentive to continue on as my stubborn personal vow never to give up. The world of Lordran exemplifies dark fantasy and features over a dozen unique areas, all ingeniously connected by pathways and shortcuts that remove some of the repetition that marred Demon’s Souls. The settings themselves often pose as much a threat as the enemies within them, and the combination of the two results in insidious, but expertly designed scenarios. Exploration, though deadly, yields artifacts of power and essential items, bonfires that serve as checkpoints and fonts of healing, and even entirely new areas. Though most of the action occurs on the main drags, the dimly lit alleys and hidden chambers offer moments of special accomplishment.
Impeccable art design makes exploration all the more enjoyable. From the mounds of bones beneath the waters of a forgotten city to the demons of Lordran’s deepest crevices, the art style compels players onward to see what else the designers brought to horrid life. The graphics, while competent, can’t quite do justice to some of the game’s vistas, although anything that moves looks fantastic. There are also significant framerate drops in two or three areas that may cause some frustration, although I never died because of them. Regardless, all is forgiven when Dark Souls retches up another magnificent boss.
Mention must be made of Dark Souls’ excellent use of music and sound effects to create atmosphere. Applied sparingly, the music makes certain moments indelible. Some tracks augment particular bosses while others make a bonfire feel more like home or make the edge of the world seem more breathtaking. Sound effects are also employed creatively and effectively, particularly those that signal the presence of a monster; the coming of another death. The dog-like heavy breathing of the skeleton beasts of the Tomb of Giants still won’t quit my mind. Many other ambient sounds probably went unheard, however, because of my own worried breathing.
Aside from combat and exploration, one can also make progress through character building. Although Dark Souls could probably be beaten at level one, few have such heroic and inhuman patience. Thus, by gathering the souls of the slain, players can improve their characters one statistic at a time. Equipment usually offers more in the way of improvement, but great treasure often has a price. By the end of the game, the beginning areas seem easy, but this has more to do with hours of practice than improved statistics. Gaining levels helps overcome challenges, but only to a limited extent. Even the most rudimentary foes can kill a high-level character, so skill is king here. Mastering the type of character one decides to build means much more than having a nice blade and cuirass. Many character types are possible, and each plays differently and requires a different set of skills, giving the obsessed fan more reasons to replay. Given the amount of customization possible, however, a few imbalances arise. A dexterous fighter, for example, has a great disadvantage for many encounters compared to a strength-based fighter. His advantages, on the other hand, don’t quite compensate. Any character can probably beat the game, but it might require aid from another Lordran.
Aside from cozy bonfires in the midst of death and darkness and rare glimpses of the sun, the only other source of comfort in Lordran comes from other players. Continuing the unique multiplayer capabilities of Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls allows up to three players to fight together with the goal of killing an area boss. Players can also write messages on the ground to expose hidden passages and treasure. Unfortunately, as of now, connecting with other players proves difficult at times with little obvious reason. When needed, however, I eventually found competent assistance, and I heartily thank all those who helped me defeat the game’s most deadly enemies. Those fights never felt as satisfying as those I did by myself, but this comes from a personal distaste of asking for help. Again, your story will differ from mine.
In keeping with the game’s themes, there is a dark side to multiplayer: world invasion. One player may invade another’s Lordran and attempt to slay him or her for souls and humanity. Another form of currency, humanity allows players to become human, which is required for these multiplayer offerings (among other things). Unsurprisingly, leaving messages has a dark side as well. One can, for instance, trick someone into killing an important NPC that makes the game much more difficult when dead. I may or may not have been so stupid as to trust such a message.
Such a succinct summary of Dark Souls doesn’t illustrate how full the game feels. There are things I probably never saw during my fifty hours with the game. There are covenants with NPCs to explore, more co-op possibilities, new game+, and so many more unique deaths to discover. I never found all the equipment shown on loading screens, and I probably missed something out of never being human for more than twenty minutes at a time (for fear of invasion). Dark Souls keeps giving (and taking), and perhaps more than anything else, this will hold the attention of the RPG community for months to come.
If one descends deep enough, one can reach the bottom of the world, the depths of the depths. The place is closer to Heaven than Hell, and I will never forget the moment I fully grasped the vastness and scale of Lordran. Looking up from the bottom, I felt a sort of cosmic horror at the bigness of the universe and the smallness of my person. More exactly, however, I felt a staggering influx of feeling that cannot be characterized as only fear or only awe. Moments as unique and intense as this make Dark Souls much more than just a difficult video game. When I freed myself from my twelve day imprisonment, I took with me moments of immense determination and potent beauty. I carry these with me into the future, but I carry scars as well: memories of deep darkness and baleful things no human being deserves to encounter.