I beat Dark Souls. I realize that opinions on this game are cheap and easy to come by, I still feel compelled to write something- anything about an experience like this. Considering all the time and... learning... I put into it, I feel it would be a waste not to put down some of my thoughts even if I end up talking to myself. It's Dark Souls, yo. You probably already have an opinion on the matter even if you haven't played the game yet.
But some of the things this game does is absolutely fantastic. I don't mean to imply it doesn't have its fair share of problems, but even then, Dark Souls doesn't really give a shit about that.
Dark Souls (Everything Trying to Kill You: The Game)
Before I get started it might be important to mention that I didn't play Demons' Souls. So what I might find good or bad could be older than I realize, but I just wanted to give you a frame of reference. One of the reasons I even bothered playing Dark Souls in the first place was the awesome enemy design like the Gaping Dragon, the mimic, and other creatures. The difficulty, the setting, and the "story" are really just secondary in the grand scheme of things. And if there is one thing I can give Dark Souls, it has made me say "what the fuck is that?" probably more than any video game I have ever played. It starts kind of slow with basic skeletons and zombie-ish enemies wielding swords...
But once you get past Undead Burg into the sewers and on to Blighttown, it gets awesome... err... gross. There is a lot of nasty stuff that wants you dead. And since death carries so much weight in this game, I found every new encounter a high tension, who-will-blink-first showdown. Considering how unforgiving this game is, dying is as natural as jumping or running. It might as well be considered a natural ability.
How Hard is Hard?
I won't try to sell this as the hardest game ever or undersell how difficult it is in an attempt to go against the grain. It reminds me of Ninja Gaiden on the X-Box in a lot of ways, and Valkyrie Profile 2 in others. Dark Souls, at the very least, is a high stress, damn unforgiving game that constantly makes war on your patience. I find it hard to play this game for long stretches as it eventually grinds my concentration to dust so I'm making stupid mistakes over and over again. The way bonfires work as checkpoints means you'll spawn miles away from bosses requiring you to play the same part over and over again just to try a fight over. Sometimes you get poisoned on the way. It's a game with some high-ass highs, low-ass lows, and literally nothing in between. Your results may vary.
I can say with certainty that Dark Souls is the greatest horror game I have ever played. When you can lose so much in a single death, it's easy to fear for your life even when nothing is happening. That's the true nature of horror and fear to me. Jump scares are cheap and easily over come. It's much harder to overcome fear of the unknown when I've fallen deep into a sewer filled with man eating blobs, bug eyed things that spew poison gas, and rats the size of a fucking school bus. Fear is when you're standing perfectly still in a hallway, nothing is happening, and you're dead afraid to round the next corner. And that's not even mentioning Blighttown, Tomb of the Giants, and other wonderful places to get killed.
But if you play long enough to get into the Dark Souls mindset, you can see ambushes or cheap shots coming a mile away. If there's a dude (most likely an archer or magician) blasting you from the other end of a hallway, you can bet that there are other enemies lying in wait to stab you in the back when you charge forward. Or you can bet that the narrow doorway is probably obscuring a runaway boulder that can push you into a bottomless pit or crush you flat. Narrow walkways will always be covered by snipers or assholes in white robes. Sometimes suspicious video game generosity is really too good to be true. Eventually (if you stick with it long enough) you get wise to the game's tricks before long. Dark Souls can't help itself.
The Dark Souls Flow
Probably the most damning thing about Dark Souls is that the game has no pacing. My game clock says 45 hours, but it felt way longer than that. When you're dropped into a the world with hardly anything but a few suggestions to move forward, there are a lot of opportunities to spin your wheels. The game is so mysterious about how it operates and what does what that it's not going to bother to point you the right direction. Some item descriptions drop hints, some enemies are obviously too powerful sometimes, but there are moments where you can edge your way in the wrong direction despite the odds. I made the grave mistake of picking the Master Key item in the beginning thinking I could get my hands on sweet weapons and armor... only to bypass several areas and reach the bottom of Blighttown way before I was supposed to be there. Unlike games with similar exploration like Super Metroid where you're always getting stuff to go "oh shit, now I can go there", Dark Souls drops no such hints. I certainly didn't do myself any favors with the Master Key. But that was something I had to find out on my own.
I had my moments of weakness and looked up the map of Sen's Fortress and Blighttown. I'll admit it. Not that it really helped. Areas in this game are pretty complex. But there were a few moments when I found it hard to go on. Things didn't really click for me until I got to Sen's Fortress and had a clear objective to conquer that shit. Then it kinda hit again when I got lost inside a tree, got beat up by mushrooms, messed around with the Darkroot areas and got killed by a butterfly. You know, Dark Souls stuff.
This also applies to the boss fights, mostly because Dark Souls' engine can't handle group combat. Is it any surprise that the hardest bosses in the game involve two or three guys coming after you at the same time? Smough and Ornstein can be tough if you kill them in the wrong order, but as far as I'm concerned, no boss is harder than the Capra Demon. The last boss of the game ain't got shit on this guy, his two fucking dogs, and his tiny alley where he has you at arms reach at all times. And he's only the third boss of the game. I had an easier time with a crystal dragon the size of a three story building. If you can handle this guy, you can handle anything.
You could argue that an improved engine where you could manage more than one enemy is against the spirit of Dark Souls... but the game could still be tough even if you had the ability to go back and forth between enemies like Batman. It seems like poor form to exploit the weakness of your combat engine in order to make bosses harder. But that may be no small amount of bitterness talking. I just wanted to put that out there that it's odd you can slay monsters the size of cars. But as soon as three dudes are on you it's too much to handle.
The Best of Abominations
My favorite thing about Dark Souls is the enemy design. I love the monsters in this game. The best would have to be the Mimics that pretend to be treasure chests. Monster Chests are not a new concept in the year 2011/2012, but their design in Dark Souls is pretty terrifying/great. The first one I stumbled on damn near killed me. I had the tiniest tick of health after I tried to open it. Of course, when you attack it they sprout arms and legs and stand nine feet tall. They tower over you and make hideous noises that sound something like demonic giggling and a bird call rolled into one. And they still want to eat you. The only thing that breaks the tension is that Mimics can do a flying spin kick that would be right at home in Street Fighter. Like they were taking notes from Ken.
The Gaping Dragon is also pretty good, but an obvious choice as most people have seen it in the Dark Souls trailers as the wall of teeth that crashes down on the knight guy. Nito the Gravelord is pretty cool as a moving mound of corpses with a sick blade and plenty of skeleton homies. There are also these things found in the magma area that are like cylinders of flesh and teeth covered in eyes that spit acid and look absolutely disgusting. I kept those things at a bow and arrow distance at all times.
Building a Better Deathtrap
At some point Dark Souls is a little too mysterious for its own good. The game is too busy withholding every bit of information to bother with exposition or story. Yeah, you're ringing bells and grabbing souls and other stuff. But I never had a real connection between my supernatural massacre and where I was in the scheme of things. Bosses sometimes get underwhelming intro cutscenes (if they get anything at all). They could use some more personality in the game rather than blurbs on item descriptions. I would have loved if they had any dialogue at all so I could figure out why the half-lady, half-lava spider was trying to kill me. Or why I had to hack a tree fetus to death to defeat the Bed of Chaos (or whatever the hell that was). This game could probably get away with sparse cut scenes without going Metal Gear and give me the tiniest motivation to check out the world's grossest slum.
I do have to mention that the interactions with the random NPCs are pretty well done along with the voice acting. My favorite is the Onion guy who hangs out around Sen's Fortress. He doesn't do much, but his armor is pretty cool and his bumbling nature more so.
This might fall under personal taste, but it's funny how all the enemies in the game just stand around rooted to one spot until you show up and activate them. They don't have routines or patrol routes. They have their one spot in the world until you enter their radius. It certainly works for combat as you can queue up enemies in one big line so you can kill them one at a time. But they never actively seek you out or corner you unless you moved too far ahead and attract too much attention. It certainly comes off kind of silly how a zombie dragon will wait around in one spot while you pump it full of arrows without coming after you or retaliating in some way. Although some of them will chase you to the ends of the earth if you piss them off. Even still, the world is extremely static. If they make a sequel, I hope they would find someway to make things more active. Hopefully without breaking anything or finding new and exciting ways to screw you over.
I certainly enjoyed my time with Dark Souls. The enemies and various areas you explore were everything I hoped for. Player invasions... not so much, as I never won a single one of those showdowns. So I spent most of my time as a corpse. I am a little sad I got this game after they patched some of the English text. It doesn't feel quite as good without the translation quirks. It's hard to say if I will play another Souls game. But for now, it can have its own merciless corner in the wide range of video games. It's certainly made me appreciate games like Okami and Dead Space for the different levels of challenge.
Also, fuck the Capra Demon. Fuck him.