It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. In Dark Souls, you are going to get hurt. In fact you are going to die… a lot. Good luck; have fun.
When From Software released their follow up to the cult classic, Demon Souls in 2012 I was interested to see what the hype was about. I did not know a lot about the Souls series, just that they are games of punishing difficulty that require a player to have a good understanding of things like: hit boxes, frame data, and archaic statistical upgrade systems. As a recovering fighting game addict I had plenty of experience with fighting systems in games, and lifetime of playing RPG’s had adequately prepared me for leveling up character in a game where upgrades are paramount to success.
So what exactly is Dark Souls?
As you can see, the story and setting of Dark Souls is basically that of a high fantasy novel. From the ages of 10-16 I probably read somewhere in the neighborhood of a 100 fantasy novels, so playing games that involve dragons, sorcerers, knights and the undead is kind of like a nostalgic field trip to those sleepy, summer days of my youth spent with a Robert Jordan book. When people ask to explain Dark Souls in a sentence or two I say that is basically Zelda for grown-ups who have a bit of a masochistic side, but this is really generalizing what makes this game so brilliant and at the same time so infuriatingly difficult.
The layout of Dark Souls is that of a giant maze. You start in a hub area and from the beginning of the game you are allowed to access end-game areas. If this is your first time playing the game you could spend hours hitting your head against a wall of super powerful enemies that you will only be equipped to deal with after about fifty hours of play. When you do find your way to what could be considered the first "level" of the game, you quickly learn that even the lowest leveled enemies of the game can kill you in a moments notice. It takes a couple of hours of practice to learn the correct way to block, attack, counter-attack, and manage your stamina. There's a learning curve in this game that is not present in the vast majority of games that are being released today.
To make things even more difficult the game uses a checkpoint system that punishes players who are not patient. Scattered throughout the world there are bonfires that serve as places of safety and also are the only places in the game where you can level up your stats. As you make your way from one bonfire to another you will kill enemies and collect their "souls." You use these collected souls to level up you character at bonfires, or your weapons and armor at blacksmiths. When you die, you return to the last bonfire you rested at, and the souls you have worked so hard to collect will be near the spot of your last death.
So say, for instance, you just beat these guys: which in this game can take upwards of an hour or more to do. You're excited. The king of all you survey. You're now the proud owner of 50,000 souls. Souls that you need to level your character up to the point where you will finally be able to use that weapon you've had for hours, but were not able to use because you were under leveled. You're strolling along, bathing in the glory of your recent conquest, when out of nowhere an enemy you forgot all about shoots you in the back with a giant arrow, knocking you off a 100 foot ledge to your doom. OK. No problem. Just have to get back to that spot and get those souls without dying again.
You got this!
Only you forget to unlock the short cut from the boss to the last bonfire, and now all the enemies that you spent all day beating on the lead up to the boss are back. You're upset about dying, and just want to get your souls back as fast as possible. Then this happens:
That, my friends, is Dark Souls in a nutshell. It's a brutal, and at times, completely unfair game. There are systems and items in the game that are not explained at all. For instance, there is a item you pick up about halfway through the game called a Peculiar Doll. The game does not explain it's importance at all, but if you take this doll to a random painting you come across in a level that is on the other side of the world, it unlocks a giant side world that has about two hours of content. The only way to access the world is to have that doll in your inventory, which is not something that you easily come across. I missed out on this side world the first two times I played the game.
Did I mention that there is no world map for this gigantic world you have to traverse? You have the learn the layout of the game by memory. You also have to beat about half of the game before you get the ability to warp between bonfires, so you can expect to spend hours back tracking back and forth to different parts of the world, and remember, every time you rest at a checkpoint enemies respawn.
So why play such a difficult game? Well, for one, there is no other experience quite like it. Every encounter in the game carries a weight to it, because dying has real consequences. When you play a game like Call Of Duty, or even the new Mario games, dying doesn't mean much. The game does not punish you for making mistakes. In Dark Souls, there are these moments where you are carrying a ton of souls that are vital for progressing in the game, and you are trekking into an area of the game you've never been in before, and you have no idea where the enemies are gong to come from, or what the terrain is going to look like, and you've never been more nervous playing a game in your life. Your adrenaline is flowing like a stream after a torrential rainfall.
There's one area of the game that you find yourself in right after beating a boss, and I don't think I can even properly describe it, so watch this:
Yeah. Imagine traversing that area for the first time. It will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. I've had nightmares about that part of the game.
I find one of two things happen when someone picks up this game. A person will either play for a couple of hours, get completely frustrated with the experience and quit, or they will come to terms with the fact this game requires a large dose of patience, skill, and adaptability and completely fall in love with all the things that makes this game great. For these people, one play through is usually not enough, and it's not uncommon to hear stories about people who have played the game dozens of times. I'm on my fifth, and probably final playthrough (?) as of this writing.
There are quite literally hundreds of ways to play this game, and depending on the weapon, starting class and a armor you chose, each playthrough will have a distinctive feel. Playing as a lighter character with a katana is much different than rolling around in heavy armor and a great axe, or as a sorcerer, or as a pyromancer, etc. The way you approach a group of enemies, or a boss, or a tricky bit of a levels geometry will change radically depending on your build.
The developers have also created a ingenious system for cooperative play. As you are making your way through the world there are messages that will appear on the ground from time-to-time. These messages are left by other players who happen to be in a similar part of the world in their own game. So if there is an illusory wall with a bonfire behind it, a player can leave a message to give a heads up to anyone else who may be lost in the same part of the game. There is also a way in which a player may summon a real life player to join their game in order to beat a boss, or difficult section of a level. In return, the people being summoned are able to collect 50% of all souls earned while in the other person's game. It's a great way to influence cooperative behavior between players.
The other multiplayer aspect of this game is invasions. To be able to summon a player to your world you must 'become human', and when you are human you are also susceptible to have hostile players enter your game and try to kill you. For a lot of the more experienced players in the game, this is also how you play PvP as opposed to just trying to beat the game. The game does a good job of matching you up with other players who are around your level, so you don't have people invading your game who are too overpowered, and you can not summon someone who is going to be able to beat the bosses by themselves while you kick back and enjoy the view.
It's this combination of difficulty, learned skill, and cooperation that makes Dark Souls an experience unlike anything else in the world of video games. The game is challenging enough that even the best speed runners still struggle mightily at parts. In fact, it is incredibly engrossing to watch people try to tame such a brutally difficult game, and the fact that there those who can beat it in under an hour is astonishing. There are even truly sick people who purposely play the game without leveling up, or use horrible weapon intentionally, just to make the game even more challenging.
On March 11th Dark Souls 2 comes out. I am among the millions of devoted fans who absolutely can't wait to experience a whole new world of terrible delights. The developers of the game have mentioned that they were trying to stream line some of the more archaic systems of the franchise in order to appeal to a wider player base. This news was met with nothing but skepticism and worry from the truly hardcore nutjobs who, if nothing else, want an even more difficult game to conquer. Then this trailer came out and put all those worries to ease:
Yup. That is the Dark Souls so many have come to love: at once hauntingly beautiful, horrifically difficult and irresistible to us who have fallen under its spell.