More Demon's Souls...Hurray!
I had a 100+ hour affair with Demon’s Souls back in 2009, so I was elated when a second game was announced. There was a lot of high talk about how Dark Souls was the “spiritual successor” to Demon’s Souls rather than a true sequel, but the first gameplay trailer made such hair-splitting unnecessary—except maybe to SCE’s copyright lawyers. Dark Souls is Demon’s Souls 2. And like any sequel should be, it is bigger, harder, and more impressive than the original. Is it better? I’m not sure, actually. It’s just…more.
The opening cinematic is dire and grand and terrifying. There’s something about darkness falling over the earth and hell, and a group of mighty beings banding together to enslave the dead for all eternity. You, the player, are a long-prophesied champion who will free the dead souls from their torment by bringing light back to the world. It’s a fairly tired concept that is nevertheless executed with wonderful creativity. For example, one of the enslavers is a clever but scaleless dragon who betrayed the other dragons to raise his own status in the dark, post-apocalyptic world. Never seen that before!
Like Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls doesn’t precisely “tell” its story. Rather, the story oozes from the broken landscape, from the occasional gruff NPC who, like you, is surviving their bleak world one grim battle at a time. In fact, the game’s world map tells the most interesting story of all. It is absolutely massive, and ingeniously interconnected with no loading screens whatsoever.
The developers have said they designed Dark Souls in such a way that the further the player progresses in the game, the farther down into the world they go. I didn’t have much attention to spare on this concept my first time through the game, but during my second and third, when survival wasn’t quite the second-by-second struggle it was the first time, I realized how well realized that vision actually is. There is a huge tree in the center of the map, and in almost every zone you can see some part of the tree—one part has you falling down the dry, dusty husk of the trunk, terminating in a silent, mostly empty beach made of ash rather than sand. And if you pay attention, if you dig deep enough into the lore of Dark Souls, you can learn why the underground lake is surrounded by ash, and why it’s guarded by a sentient dragon.
After a while you begin to understand that every detail in the environment has its own story. I’ve never seen such a close relationship between level design and story. Simply put, there’s nothing else like it out there.
But enough about story and level design. The soul, if you will, of Dark Souls is the perfect, desperate combat. There are so many ways to pick fights in Dark Souls that I’ll just tell you what I did so you have an idea. I like to wield a longsword and shield while at the same time outmaneuvering my opponents. This means I need to focus my character upgrades on Strength, Dexterity, and Endurance, the last of which determines how much weight you can carry, how long you can run, and how many times you can block or attack without getting tired. In my build, it’s a more important stat than HP.
But all the upgrades in the world don’t mean squat if you aren’t a careful fighter. Especially starting out, you’ll want to let each new opponent take a few swings at you so you can see how quick they are and how well you can withstand their attacks. Hopefully you’ll survive your initial observations, but even if you don’t, you will still have learned something. Truly, knowledge of your opponents is the most potent weapon in Dark Souls. Every enemy, just like every human player, has strengths and exploitable weaknesses. And it’s these strengths and weaknesses that make the enemies in Dark Souls feel so terrifyingly alive.
Having earned a Platinum trophy in Demon’s Souls, I feel very confident in saying that game was never unfair. Infuriating at times, sure, but never genuinely cheap. Dark Souls…isn’t quite there. You will come across some cheap deaths and cheaply designed bosses, the most notable of which is the groin-kickingly difficult battle with Ornstein and Smough, two powerful knights who seem to exist solely to demoralize you until you quit playing Dark Souls and find a new hobby.
But even fighting Ornstein and Smough, like most of Dark Souls, isn’t so bad when you’ve got a buddy at your side. You can summon the souls of other live players on PSN, Xbox Live, or GFWL who will divide the attention of enemies and bosses alike, giving you an extra sliver of hope at victory. Players without an internet connection aren’t completely screwed, however. Dark Souls introduces a couple summon points for NPCs. They aren’t even half as skilled as human players, but they will still draw an enemy’s attention away from you for a few precious seconds.
Invading players are the dark side of the summon ability. If you play in human form rather than “hollow”—requiring the use of a rare item called Humanity at a campfire—other players can invade your game for PvP. In my mind the PvP system is pretty broken on whichever platform you choose, and is even more of a nuisance than it was in Demon’s Souls. Admittedly I might only think that because I suck at it. The PC version has a dedicated PvP arena, but that won’t keep away the true dickholes who delight in invading low-level players’ games in especially difficult areas to steal souls and humanity from them.
Still, there may be some “justice” for those troublesome invaders, as the game’s servers record their actions in a long ledger that more civil-minded players can access and then invade the invaders to mete out some righteous vengeance. There are many different guilds you can join—if you can find their leaders, that is—and each one grants certain rewards for accomplishing certain tasks mostly related to online play.
You know what? It’s even harder to review Dark Souls than it was to review Demon’s Souls. Both games are tough and scrappy and grim and strangely beautiful. They aren’t precisely action or adventure or RPG games, nor are they “old-school” or “next-gen” or any other tired descriptor. They are the Souls games, and they want you to die until you learn to survive.