It was recently announced that Dark Souls II will be getting an expanded re-release, and that’s plenty of excuse to reflect back on a series that has driven even the manliest of men to tears.
If the horror stories are to be believed, Dark Souls is a punishing game that only those with infinite patience will ever see the end of. As with so many legends, there’s a grain of truth to these claims; yes, Dark Souls is a merciless beast whose demanding nature will put off a lot of people. But is it insurmountable for the average gaming enthusiast? Perhaps not.
After a cryptic intro that raises more questions than it answers, Dark Souls places you in a prison cell armed with only a broken sword. On top of that, your character died before you even had a say in their life. All this sets the tone for an adventure that pulls no punches, and by the time you find a decent weapon you’ll have already run into some lethal creatures. But there’s nothing inherently unreasonable about the opening section; you’re told what buttons do what, then given a weapon and left to figure out the most efficient means of killing stuff with it. The result is a game that trains you to approach new areas with caution, never underestimate an opponent, and always have an escape route if things go flamingo-up. It’s an intriguing hybrid of old and new game design, sans most of the cryptic nonsense your nostalgia doesn’t let you remember.
The combat is the dominant feature, of course, and there can be little doubt it’s some of the best around: a dagger feels completely different from a giant hammer, and neither can be called definitively better than the other. Dodging attacks and getting backstabs is a legitimate tactic, but so is tanking damage and punching through blocks with heavy weapons, not to mention the abundance of magical options that take some figuring out. It’s a strategic experience that something like Skyrim can barely dream of unless modded to high Heaven.
Speaking of strategy, Dark Souls is one of precious few games that actually give meaningful penalties for death. Every time you die, you lose your accumulated points and have precisely one chance to retrieve them. If you mess that up, the points are gone forever. It’s harsh, to be sure, but checkpoints are never obscenely far apart and you learn early on that if you know your downfall is imminent, you might as well try and die in a spot that can be reached easily. It’s just another system to use to your advantage and will only punish you over if you push your luck. That the entire world respawns when you use a checkpoint is bizarre at first, but it means sitting at a bonfire becomes a tactical decision, since it provides safety at the cost of undoing your progress elsewhere. And as crushing as it is to lose your hard-earned points, those moments are also the best times to throw yourself at a boss or speed through a tough area to grab items.
Navigating the metroidvania landscape is the other great art of Dark Souls. Locales are varied (along with their inhabitants) and frequently bigger than they first appear, overflowing with hidden loot, shortcuts and even optional bosses. Backtracking does become a nuisance beyond a certain point, and the teleport option is hard-earned, but the only irritating places are the handful suffering from framerate dips (on consoles) and finicky platform segments. Other than that, the game’s setup is enjoyable, not least due to its role in perhaps Dark Souls’ most surprising triumph: storytelling.
There’s a wealth of lore to be found in subtle background details and item descriptions, and it really felt like I was piecing together the world’s history from the clues left behind. The slow realisation of just how doomed the land is fits perfectly with the sense of dread pervading the gameplay, and even your character’s ability to rise after death is contextually justified. For a game that could’ve relied solely on its combat, it’s doubly impressive that Dark Souls manages to have a memorable world, and with a minimalistic style that’s refreshing in an industry whose attempts at storytelling often rely on overwritten cutscenes.
At its core, Dark Souls represents a raw yet fair challenge where death is almost never anyone’s fault but the player’s. And while your initial perception may be one of cruel chaos, dig deep enough and you’ll find a sense of order. The only question is whether you’ll enjoy an action game which requires you to be methodical and treat every fight like a matter of life and death.
Dark Souls is out now for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.