Demon’s Souls gets a bit of a bad rap, if you ask me. It’s damn hard, to be sure, but it never crosses into the realm of cheap dickery – every death could usually be traced back to some mistake the player made. It rewards patience and technical proficiency, but it’s never unfair. In that sense, the learning curve is akin to a fighting game – moving forward is a game of skill. Dark Souls, however, has a challenge all of its own to overcome: how can a game be harder than Demon’s Souls and still be fair, fun, or approachable in the slightest? Granted, it’s not a sequel – different IP, different publisher – but it’s a spiritual successor of the winkiest, nudgiest wink-wink-nudge-nudge-definitely-not-a-sequel variety, in the same way that Demon’s Souls felt related to King’s Field. A dedicated group of fans are anxious to overcome another difficult game, and with the recent media blitz in Europe and the United States, a whole new demographic is probably interested in dying over and over again.
Dark Souls sets out to provide a slightly different challenge from the get-go. Instead of featuring worlds and stages, the game takes place in massive, free-roam areas, in the sense that everyone is welcome to freely roam into an area filled with enemies that will kill them in seconds. The sense of risk and reward gives exploration a great sense of adventure, and players who value finding hidden objects, passages, and other perks of nosing around will be in paradise in the twisting labyrinthine world of Dark Souls.
Much like Demon’s Souls, there is a story, but it exists more as a backdrop than a reason to keep going. Your character is Undead, and humanity is fading away. Humanity exists in a literal sense – it can be used to make your character return to human form, which brings several benefits besides not looking disgusting. The rare moments of character interaction and dialog in the game are cryptic and melancholy, and leave a lot to the imagination. The sparse soundtrack is mostly comprised of dirge-like strings, breaking into bombast only during boss encounters. The world and atmosphere are, in a word, oppressive.
While the game does its best to make sure you understand how hopeless and alone you are (try talking to the man sitting near the camp after the tutorial for a general sense of the tone), it provides many little glimmers of hope for people invested in seeing the adventure through. Instead of save points, Dark Souls features bonfires, which are dotted around the world, and provide a place to level up, return to human form, and refill your Estus Flask, which serves as a health item. Bonfires will, essentially, provide you with five health potions every time you visit, and more if it is upgraded through a process called kindling.
The catch is that resting at these fires respawns all of the enemies around the world. This is beneficial for people who want to grind – it’s never really necessary, but can help – for souls, which serve as both currency and experience points. The amount of souls it costs to level up (which involves increasing one attribute) goes up every level, but bigger enemies drop higher amounts. Balancing souls between character development and purchasing items or item upgrades is key – as well as actually making it to a bonfire or merchant with all your souls. Dying means losing all of your souls, and you can only recover the last set of souls you lost, so if you die on your way to picking up your souls… you get the picture. Dark Souls punishes rushing, so memorizing enemy placement, shortcuts, and bonfire locations is vital to success.
The combat is equally tough to master, but simple in theory. Most foes can be killed in a few strikes, but so can the player character. Blocking, dodging, parrying, and rolling are important features that make it possible to avoid getting hit, and even maneuver into positions where enemies can be backstabbed for huge amounts of damage. Managing enemies is also a big deal: characters who aren’t wearing tons of armor or don’t have high vitality are prone to getting swarmed, or stuck in a corner, or pushed off a ledge. Characters who are wearing tons of armor are still at risk, too – just incrementally less so. Even with a high level character, there’s never a moment where letting your guard down is advisable. It’s unfortunate that the targeting system doesn’t manage multiple opponents well; equally unfortunate is the way the camera gets stuck in tight indoor spaces. Overall, though, it works wonderfully, even if it looks a bit slow and deliberate at first.
There are a dizzying array of ways to fight, too. There’s the standard sword and shield combo, but even then, there are many different sword types that attack in different arcs. A shortsword might be better for hacking away at something, but stabbing an enemy from behind with an estoc will yield a much larger amount of damage. Then there are bows, spears, knives, katanas, axes, halberds… and then magic, which is a different ballpark altogether. Everything is useful in some way, and mixing in some ranged or magic combat is rarely a bad idea – even if only to pull enemies away from a group to make encounters less daunting. The choices of armor are equally robust. Wearing full plate armor may protect your character (and look awesome), but it’s not going to help if you prefer to roll out of the way of attacks. Likewise, lighter armor might benefit characters with high dexterity who need to get behind things to deal huge damage, but missing a roll or parry will get you smacked dead fast. Finding a comfortable niche might take a while, but virtually every style of play is viable, be it brute force or magic (or somewhere in between).
Much has been made of the multiplayer component of Dark Souls, which is far from standard. Instead of openly allowing players to invite friends and play cooperatively, the experience is built into the logic of the game. Phantoms from other planes are summoned into your game to help you, and no communication outside of the game’s own gesture system is permitted (at least, on 360, voice chat is disabled). Items can also be used to break into other realms to deliver a beatdown to other adventurers. However, things are much less lopsided towards aggressive multiplayer this time around.
Covenants, a form of player faction, exist to establish certain styles of online play. For example, one early covenant makes it more likely for you to be summoned to help in somebody else’s game. Another covenant rewards you for killing other players who dare to venture into a certain forest. Yet another covenant provides you with a list of players who have killed innocent players, and slips you into their games to deliver justice. For people who just want to play a hard game with their friends, this system can be disappointing; however, for fans invested in the atmosphere, it’s ingenious. It’s also possible to leave messages around the game world for others to find, offering either cryptic help, words of encouragement, or mischievous misdirection. There definitely aren’t dragons hiding around every corner, but you can make people think there are if you feel like being a jerk.
Dark Souls looks fantastic, thanks to art direction that enhances the stark tone. Dull greys, sickly greens, and eery blues are the order of the day, broken up by beautiful touches of sunbeams, forests, or water. Characters and armor look great, although human faces (particularly player characters) can look decidedly silly up close. Some monsters are downright horrifying, and everything animates well. Unfortunately, these details can make the open world chug. There are sections of the game that features terrible slowdown, and not just for brief moments. Whole areas suffer from dire framerate issues, which can really mess with the precision many encounters require.
Dark Souls is hard, but it succeeds – once again – at never feeling overwhelmingly cheap, or plain stupid. Patience and precision are rewarded, and getting used to the way things work never takes too long. The game definitely throws some curveballs, even in early stages (mess with the rats, I double dare you), but aside from the occasional death-by-camera-issues-or-bad-framerate, nothing is insurmountable. If an area is filled with enemies that rip you apart in one or two hits, there’s somewhere else to explore until you’re strong enough to return. If there’s a boss that’s kicking your ass, there’s probably a helpful message nearby, or even a player willing to help you in your fight. Wonky performance aside, everything feels balanced and polished, and for many players, the disquieting atmosphere will scratch an itch that few games ever can. Granted, it requires that people improve their technical play, but the difficulty is always a curve and never a wall. It’s absolutely an adventure worth checking out, even for those intimidated by the idea of game that doesn’t pull any punches. You’ll die a lot, but hopefully, you’ll learn something.