I just want to love you.
I had an assignment for my Intro to Game Design class to review one of my favorite games. I chose Dark Souls.
After a few multiple-hour playing sessions of Dark Souls with nothing to show for it other than a broken controller and some ripped out hair, I began to wonder what makes the spiritual successor to From Software's notoriously difficult and sometimes downright asshole-ish Demon's Souls, so utterly compelling. At first glance, Dark Souls doesn't look like anything out of the ordinary it has a standard Gothic themed fantasy RPG environment and swords and sorcery abound. But once you delve even a little into this game you notice very quickly some of the things it does differently. Before delving into the nuances of Dark Souls' mechanics, I would like to very quickly touch on the story elements of the game.
First of all, Dark Souls' story plays second fiddle to the rest of the gameplay, a staunch contrast to other modern RPGs such as Skyrim and Mass Effect which set up incredibly interesting characters and settings, but have less complex or action-oriented gameplay. Dark Souls' story, though very complex, is not as directed or compelling as something like Skyrim, but it does prove to be incredibly effective for what the game tries to do, which is to have very sparse directions and leave most of the interpretations to the player. The player is an Undead which has yet to turn hollow (basically mindless and murderous undead), and after escaping the Undead Asylum, is revealed to be the chosen undead who will succeed Gwyn as the new Lord of Cynder and link the bonfires, prolonging the Age of Fire. Now it would be pointless to go into any more of the story than that due to the sheer volume of unspoken context and implications that are present throughout the game, so instead of going into the incredible intricacies of the Dark Souls story (which I could probably do for hours) I will press onward to where Dark Souls really shines; The gameplay.
Hacking, Slashing, Stabbing, Smashing, Casting, and Shooting are the basic elements of combat in Dark Souls, and while the starting classes you can choose are a bit more elegant about how they describe their fighting style, you will quickly learn that the classes mean nothing because as you level you can invest your skill points wherever you want. Leveling up in Dark Souls is just like any other RPG, kill monsters, get experience, or in this case, souls. However, since the game is called Dark Souls, you may have already guessed that souls play a much larger role in the game than just experience, they also serve as a currency used to buy goods from merchants scattered around the game world. Since souls are used for both leveling and buying items, the player is presented with an interesting system of balancing levels with upgrading their equipment and buying useful items, this system also plays a large part into whether you will love this game or hate this game. Like Demon's Souls, when the player dies in Dark Souls you lose ALL of your souls and humanity and have only one chance to make it from the bonfire to where you died and reclaim your souls. If you die on your way to pick up your souls and humanity? Poof. Gone. All those hours you just spent grinding souls? Gone. You just defeated that boss and got a boatload of souls, only to fall into a dark pit and die on the way back to your body? Gone. This is where Dark Souls will make or break you. There is no middle ground with Dark Souls, you love it or you hate it. I personally love it and believe it is incredibly well made, and the sense of accomplishment that the player achieves after finally defeating that boss, controller half broken, spirit all the way broken, is nothing short of cathartic.
Most action RPGs use the face buttons to use different attacks and combos, but Dark Souls uses the face buttons primarily for menu navigation or rolling out of the way of danger. The main control method of combat comes from the shoulder buttons, the left shoulder buttons raise and lower your shield, the right swing your weapon in either heavy or light attacks. This method of combat gives Dark Souls a more tactile feel than many of the other RPGs available. Dark Souls has two primary character resources, Health and Stamina. Health is obvious, but stamina, in this case, determines the amount of swings you can take before resting, or the amount of damage your shield can absorb before your character is damaged. This, combined with the tactile feel of the combat thanks to the use of the shoulder buttons, makes Dark Souls have some of the most satisfying combat I have ever experienced in a game. The line between using your stamina to attack and damage the enemy or to keep your shield up and stay alive is very delicate and takes a bit of finessing but once you get a handle on it, it becomes almost second nature.
Boss fights can define a game, and in Dark Souls they are definitely a huge factor in what makes the game so challenging. The bosses are anything ranging from golems made of pure fire, a giant wolf with a giant sword in its mouth, giant lava spiders with the top half of a naked lady on top of it, a dragon with a gaping hole in its chest that grabs you with its exposed ribcage, a tree, or even a giant skeleton made of smaller skeletons that swings a giant sword made of skeletons. You get the picture. It's nuts. The art style also adds to how awesome, unsettling, or downright horrifying some of the bosses look (Google Gaping Dragon, I dare you.) and the slow, droning music and vast range of environments, from dingy gothic castles, to crystal fortresses, to dense enchanted jungles, lakes of lava or even pitch black catacombs truly give the player an extremely immersive environment. The pacing in Dark Souls is centered around bonfires. Bonfires are essentially checkpoints that characters can rest at and heal themselves and level up, the player also respawns at their most recently visited bonfire when they die. The game is not linear and there are often multiple paths you can take from each bonfire, and while one of the paths may be the one you are supposed to take, the game lets you explore for yourself and when you get smashed by a man with amazing looking armor that is wielding a giant dragon tooth as a hammer while you are still dressed in rags, you may have realized you took the wrong path. Generally after a bonfire there will be a few different areas you can visit, and when you progress through the area, you fight the boss and either continue forward through the area, or return back to the bonfire. It is short of an open world game, but like many modern RPGs, is straying away from the linear progression.
Multiplayer in Dark Souls is nothing like anything else that has ever existed in games, unless you count Demon's Souls, and it is the shiny red ribbon that ties the whole game together. It isn't required, and sometimes it isn't even noticeable because for all intents and purposes, Dark Souls is a single player experience. The multiplayer aspect comes in the form many different cults that the player can join, some of these cults require you to invade another player's world to kill them and others to help them. For example, say you are fighting your way back to your body so you don't lose all of the souls you have been saving up, when suddenly you get a message across your screen that states “Black Phantom [player name] has Invaded!”, if you are new to Dark Souls you may say “huh?” and shrug it off and keep moving only to get stabbed through the back with a giant spear a few seconds later, but Dark Souls veterans will know when you are invaded you have to immediately be on your guard because they can appear at almost any time, as long as the conditions of the cult they are in are being fulfilled. On the other hand, players can also lay down markings next to bosses, and other players who are having tough times defeating the boss, can touch the sign and summon the player into their world for assistance against the boss. The player being summoned will receive a portion of the souls from the defeated boss, so this is a useful way to farm souls while gaining favor in your cult.
No good game is without flaws and Dark Souls is no exception to that rule, it is a great looking game, and sometimes gets a little to ambitious with its graphics and ends up chugging quite a bit in the framerate department, this is especially present in an area known as Blighttown, and even worse on the Xbox than on the ps3, due to hardware limitations. Aside from the framerate issues the only other bugs that really exist are some small clipping issues where you may find yourself getting stuck in part of the environment, and while rare, this can be extremely frustrating, especially when you are progressing through an area very well.
Masochistic gamers will absolutely love Dark Souls, the extreme challenge it provides along with the incredible feeling of accomplishment make it one of the best Masocore games of all time and its M rating assures that it does not have to shy away from violence. Dark Souls is certainly not for everyone, but at the same time I urge everyone to try it out simply because there is no other game like it, the tactile combat, the seamless multiplayer integration, the head-poundingly difficult boss fights and the incredible atmosphere make Dark Souls one of my absolute favorite games of this generation.