From Software’s Dark Souls is a modern masterpiece that breathes new life into the action RPG genre.
The coast seems clear, there’s not an enemy in sight and deep down, I know I can pull this off. But as I cross the bridge that gets me closer to the nearby tower, a bunch of undead archers land some precise shots. I’m dead. There’s a long bridge ahead of me and I haven’t found a bonfire in a while. I must save to replenish my health as soon as I can, but as always, I have no idea what dangers lie ahead. I kill some enemies, but as I walk through the bridge, a large creature that resembles a bull lands on top of me. I try to dodge it, but it’s maze is too big. I’m dead. A couple of insignificant rodents attack me in the musty sewers. I get cocky and the rats poison me. Seconds later, the same rats are eating my remains. I’m dead. Two weak skeletons attack me on top of a tower, one of them pushes me and I fall. I’m dead. This description might make Dark Souls sound like an overly punishing title that makes fun of your misery, but while you might die often in this game, From Software’s action RPG is a masterpiece that breathes new life into the classic genre.
Like its predecessor Demon’s Souls (which came out in 2009 as a PlayStation 3-exclusive,) Dark Souls is a special action RPG that caters to a niche audience. This is one of the few titles I can think of where every review written about it is probably right. Dark Souls is a divisive game that’s definitely not for everyone, but regardless of what you’ve heard about the game and regardless of the opinion you’ve created in your head about it, you owe it to yourself to be part of the experience it offers. Worst case scenario, you dislike the game, find it too punishing or time-consuming and if this happens you can always leave it and play something else in your collection. Best case scenario though, you appreciate everything this game’s trying to do and it might even become a personal favorite. Whenever I think of Dark Souls, the latter comes to mind.
A lot has been said about Dark Souls and its hard difficulty. So is the game as difficult as people say? Not necessarily. See, Dark Souls uses death both as a mechanic and a learning experience. Here’s how it works: as you explore different environments, you run into different types of enemies and when you kill them, you collect their souls. Should you die, you leave a bloodstain in the place where you perished and you can go back, touch the bloodstain and reclaim all the souls you had before dying. But whenever you die, all the enemies you’ve killed are revived (with the exception of bosses) and if you die a second time, all the souls you had are lost forever, since the bloodstain disappears for good. At first, this seems like an overly punishing way of handling death, but it also makes you think twice before taking risks and the adrenaline rush you get in return is something unheard of in games.
Death comes in myriad forms in this game. Each enemy has an attack pattern you need to figure out and if you’re not careful, pretty much any foe in the game can kill you in a few hits. There are also hidden traps, dangerous ledges and so on. It seems like everything around you is designed to kill you, but soon, you’ll realize that the game is giving you the tools to conquer this harsh and brutal world. So if you’re willing to learn from your mistakes and be patient, Dark Souls can be one of the most gratifying experiences you can have. Whenever you find new equipment, defeat a boss after dying dozens of times, reach a new area, figure out something by yourself or get to a bonfire, you get a sense of satisfaction that’s rare and special, especially in this day and age.
In many ways, Dark Souls tries to emulate the feeling proper of classic games. A feeling of wonder and mystery that was only possible in a pre-internet era, where whenever you got stuck, you couldn’t read a detailed guide. Instead, you had to rely on a friend you talked in the playground or workplace. Also, in an age where there’s a sea of titles that insist on holding your hand, Dark Souls takes the opposite approach and that’s refreshing. Dark Souls isn’t just a game that punishes your mistakes. This is a title that puts an obstacle that seems insurmountable at first and when you finally succeed, not only do you feel satisfied with your performance, but you want to share your tales of success with someone else. And anyone who played this game has several of those stories.
As I mentioned above, defeating enemies grants you access to their souls. These work as experience points you can use to improve your stats and as currency you can use to buy equipment or repair weapons. If you die, you leave a bloodstain behind that contains all your souls. You can go to the place you perished to get them back, but should you perish a second time without retrieving your bloodstain, all your souls are gone forever. That’s the harsh reality of this game and let me tell you, there’s nothing as disheartening as meticulously collecting thousands of souls to then lose them because you died twice. At the same time, there’s nothing as fulfilling as defeating a boss when you’re about to die. In Dark Souls, the lows are disheartening and the highs are triumphs.
Apart from souls, you also collect humanity. This weird substance is a separate statistic that you obtain in the form of consumable items by killing powerful enemies but you lose it whenever you die. Using humanity increases the number of estus flasks (potions) in a bonfire and the higher the humanity you have, the more chances of getting rare items. You can also use humanity to become human. Being human has some advantages, such as the possibility of summoning NPCs that help you in boss fights, something that comes quite handy in specific parts of the game. It’s worth pointing out that at no point did the game explain the benefits of humanity, so I was forced to do some research of my own.
Although the game appears to be a single-player experience, Dark Souls has some online options. You can play the entirety of this game offline, but the online mode is so creative that you should definitely give it a chance. When you’re connected, players can leave messages on the form of a bloodstains which alert players of nearby dangers, provide advice on how to defeat enemies or simply mislead you to make mistakes. This sort of asynchronous multiplayer works remarkably well and provides the game with a sense of community even if you’re playing by yourself. Additionally, you can also summon other human players (or NPCs if you’re playing offline) to help you defeat some of the more difficult boss encounters and your game can also be invaded by human players.
Up until this point I’ve described pretty much everything except the game’s narrative. Dark Souls has a story and while I wouldn’t call it obtuse (you find out about the story through item descriptions and talking to NPCs,) it’s certainly unconventional. But what I like about the narrative is that the game encourages you to have your own adventure and that adventure will differ to that of other players. Also, you never know what you might find on the next turn and that’s amazing because it perpetuates this feeling of wonder and insecurity. It could be a gargantuan fire-spitting dragon, it could be a majestic tower, it could be a field filled with dead adventurers who were on a quest similar to yours or it could be a bonfire. But no matter what you find, it’ll be memorable.
I could go on and on about this game, its mechanics, enemies, environments and multiplayer, but that would be pointless, since Dark Souls is an adventure that you shape as you progress. I could also tell you about the time I summoned an NPC to help me fight two of the hardest bosses in the game using my last shard of humanity. I could tell you how much I cheered and jumped when my strategy worked. I could meticulously describe the sense of satisfaction I felt when the credits rolled. But I’ll refrain from doing that because those stories are too personal. Even if you don’t intend to finish this game, wouldn’t you want to at least try a game that makes you feel like that? I’ll praise the sun that you do.