It’s been twenty minutes since I last died; a lifetime in the world of Dark Souls. In that time, I’ve defeated a horde of ghoul-like warriors, survived several traps, and killed a boss which resembled a Minotaur. I have 5000-odd souls to my name to prove it – enough to level up three times at this stage in the game – but I’ll lose them all if I can’t make it safely to a campsite. I’m bricking it, in all honesty.
I’m on a bridge. At the other end there are a few lowly soldiers – enemies who prove little trouble for me at this point. I should be OK. I raise my shield, just to be safe, and make my way across, hopeful that a safe zone is on the other side. I’m about halfway across when an unearthly screech rings through the air, and a dragon descends from the heavens, spewing a torrent of fire from its gaping jaws. It’s a one-hit kill. Without a word of warning. Without a hope of evading. All my souls gone.
I’m not going to pretend that I screamed or shouted, or threw the controller across the room in a fit of rage – no, what happened was far less dramatic. I put the pad down, stared at the words ‘You died’ haunting the screen, and just contemplated how little fun I was having at that point in time, how utterly demoralised I was, how much I wanted to stop playing and find something less painful to do – like hammer a bag of rusty nails into my rugged ballsack.
And yet here I am. Another twenty hours down the road, still playing. Still dying.
Full disclosure: I haven’t completed Dark Souls, yet – doing so is a herculean task that requires more time, patience and mental stability than I can muster. Honestly, play the game for long enough and you’ll be driven to the brink of despair, to the dark recesses of your conscious where you’ll truly begin to loathe yourself. You’ll feel like a part of you is trapped in the world beyond the screen, and if you’re the kind of person that hates giving up on something, you’re in for a world of hurt.
This isn’t just because of the difficulty level (although mostly it is), the feeling is also derived from the world itself. Dark Souls isn’t much to look at, technically speaking, but it’s rich and beautiful from an artistic perspective. The environments are dank and harrowing, with medieval architecture, gloomy forests and filthy dungeons. After a brief introductory cutscene, there’s nothing to contextualise any of this. You’re left to infer what you will from the world itself – make up your own stories, give your doomed hero his (or indeed her) own quirks and traits. From Software wants you to have your own experience with the game, and to that end it doesn’t offer anything in the way of help, directions or context. This is why the game is such a haunting and lonely experience.
Your enemies do wonders in contributing to this overall theme, a combination of their frightful appearances, screen filling size, hulking suits of armour, and habit of driving sharp implements through your chest every five minutes. Dark Souls defies convention in terms of its enemy placement. In most games, there’s a gradual slope upwards in terms of how tough the enemies you’re fighting are. Here, though, you’ll randomly come across a knight who can deplete the entirety of your health bar with a casual swing of his sword. And, once again, you’ll all lose your souls and find yourself staring at the ‘You Died’ screen. Like its spiritual predecessor Demon’s Souls, you can fight your way back to your place of death to recover your souls, but if you die again along the way – they’re gone for good.
Unlike Demon’s souls, which forced players to restart the level when they inevitably snuffed it, Dark Souls returns you to the last bonfire you’ve visited. These little camp-sites are few and far between, and finding a new one (often after trekking through the wilderness for what feels like hours) comes with the greatest feeling of relief you’re likely to experience in a game. It heals all your health, refills your Estus Flasks – potions for restoring health – and offers a range of options for character development and equipment restoration. Oh, and it also respawns every enemy you’ve killed (excluding bosses) up until that point.
Once you’re sat all cosy behind the flames, there are numerous options available to you. Most importantly, you can use any souls you might have to level up. With each level, you can choose to boost one parameter. I’ve been focusing on Strength and Vitality, as I’m playing as a character that’s keen on getting up close and personal with his adversaries, and I need the HP and hit power. Others might choose to concentrate on dexterity, or intelligence, making use of ranged weapons and magic.
The game won’t try and make you stick to one combat discipline; if you want to switch from a tank to a mage, go ahead – it’s as simple as swapping out your equipment and equipping the right accessories. If one approach to a boss isn’t working for you, use another. This can be frustrating when you consider certain weapons aren’t usable until you’ve met certain stat requirements, but start farming some more souls and it’s doable. Just.
Repetition is an essential ingredient in the Dark Souls recipe. You’ll replay huge chunks of the game, ten, twelve times before reaching the next area. You’ll be forced into perfecting a routine, doing exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time, and hoping lady luck is on your side at the same time. Is this enjoyable? Not especially, but – and the same goes for the game as a whole – a certain type of person will be conditioned into loving it. Like Stockholm Syndrome, spend enough time with it, respecting its regime, and you will (probably) grow to like it.
At times, you’ll come across areas where enemies yield more souls than normal, at which point it’s a good idea to set aside some time for grinding. Again, this is something many people will hate, but if you want to start lowering your frequency of deaths, it’s worth it.
Death – as outlined in the anecdote at the beginning of this review – often feels inevitable. Unless you know what’s round the corner already, you could be about to run into a trap that’ll kill you in seconds. Thankfully, you’re not alone on your journey, not really. Other players are able to interact with your game in the form of signs scattered about the world. These are formed from a small library of set words and phrases. ‘Tough enemy ahead‘ one might warn. ‘Use magic‘ another might say, preparing you for an enemy ahead. Often you’ll see the phrase ‘I did it!‘ decorating the ground after a boss battle, where players are so chuffed with their feat that they’ve felt the need to share it with others – to let you know it is possible.
The online functionality is inspired, frankly, and anybody playing without it will not only struggle, but will also miss out on a unique sense of togetherness. Every decision you make in the game is based on a collection of pointers you’ll piece together from everybody else. You learn from their mistakes, and they learn from yours. Dark Souls is a bastard, and you’re all working together to beat it.
Not everybody subscribes to the same train of thought, though. Certain morons take great pleasure in abusing the system. In front of an NPC at the start of the game I found a sign that read: ‘Try attacking‘. Clearly the scribe of said message had done the same and pilfered some sweet-ass armour from the corpse, or something. I decided to do the same. Bad idea. You give him a few whacks of your sword and he flips out, relentlessly attacking you until you die. “Well I won’t be doing that again!” I chuckled to myself, but that didn’t matter, because even after dying, this NPC continued to chase me around the area, and as he was much, much stronger than me, he killed me over and over again. The only solution I could conjure up to solve this problem was to restart the entire game. Which was obviously a complete ballache.
As you move about the world, you’ll see the ghostly outlines of other players going about their business. Dark Souls is a lonely experience, but these phantoms are a constant reminder that others – other real people, just like you – are going through the same thing. Inspect a blood stain on the floor, and you can watch the last few seconds of another player’s life, possibly making a mental note not to let the same thing happen to you. If you’re in a human form, you can even summon other players to join you in your world, which can be helpful when tackling harder areas.
It can’t be ignored that the game is plagued with countless show-stopping bugs. I can’t say whether the 360 version suffers from the same issues, but the PS3 version crashed on a regular basis. Once every couple of hours, in fact. Although inadvertently, this is something that contributes to the hellishness of the experience. As does the fact that you can’t pause the game. Now I’m all for giving players a challenge, but not letting me nip off to the loo in the middle of a dungeon? Ugh.
Dark Souls is very much a gamer’s game, and if you’re going to have any fun with it, you need to go into it with precisely the right frame of mind. Even then you might struggle. It takes a precise kind of person to really enjoy what the game has to offer. Games journalists happen to fulfil the criteria for that type of person, and so the game has been seeing some impressive reviews. True, there’s much to praise here: the innovative use of connected features, the expertly designed environments, the huge amounts of satisfaction you’ll reap from downing a particularly fearsome foe, but you really have to work for your fun. The amount of investment required to get even the slightest return will put off all but the hardiest of players – but if you’re one of them, I salute you.
Dark Souls isn’t a game you play for fun. It’s something you do to say you’ve done; like running a marathon or climbing Everest. You won’t enjoy it like you will other games, but you won’t forget it either, and you’ll be damn proud of yourself for seeing it through to the end.