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Life's A Bitch, And Then You Die: 45 Hours With Dark Souls

A fascinating exercise in self-flagellation, Dark Souls is one of the most unique gameplay experiences you could hope to have in this console generation.

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Rilke once wrote, to a young writer who asked him to critique his poems, that “ultimately, and precisely in the deepest and most important matters, we are unspeakably alone; and many things must happen, many things must go right, a whole constellation of events must be fulfilled, for one human being to successfully advise or help another.” That effectively sums up the experience of playing Dark Souls, a game which features one of the most bizarre implementations of online play that you’re likely to encounter in this generation of consoles. This is a game that is perfectly playable offline, but becomes something different and wonderful when hooked up to the Internet. You’ll spend the vast bulk of your playing time by yourself, but the moments when someone reaches out through the ether with a helping hand (or a knife to plunge in your back) are among its most exhilarating.

(Before we proceed, a note: this editorial was written based on 45+ hours of gameplay on the Playstation 3, both before and after the game's release. I make no claims to having beaten the game, but I have sampled quite a bit of it, and these are some collected thoughts.)

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Apparently a change of publisher made it impossible to call this game Demon’s Souls II, but make no mistake: this is a game that is intimately related to the From Software title that made such a splash in 2009. It feels more iterative than evolutionary; it features essentially the same interface, and the bulk of the mechanics are identical to Demon’s Souls. You still kill enemies and collect their souls, which are used both as currency and as a means to increase your level; you still lose all the souls you’ve gained if you die and are forced to march through a horde of resurrected enemies to reach your corpse, and if you fail to make it back, all the currency you’ve earned, sometimes representing hours of grinding, is permanently destroyed. Two strikes, and you’re out, in essence.

That’s not to say that nothing’s changed, though, with the biggest innovation here being a largely loading screen-less open world that, in typical Souls style, you’re dumped into early on and left to explore for yourself. You can choose your direction at the outset, but you will quickly find yourself with a bit of a Hobson’s Choice: you have three directions to head in, but two of them offer little rewards apart from a swift death, while the third will allow you to make slow, painstaking progress if you proceed exceedingly carefully. This is essentially all the feedback you get to help you decide which way to go: the correct route is usually the one with enemies that don’t kill you in two hits as your weapons bounce futilely off their impervious armor.

As you proceed, you find the keys to locked doors, and other passages open themselves up, allowing you to skip enemies and move more quickly about the game world via shortcuts between areas. In typically punitive Souls fashion, though, there’s no map to guide you. Unless you bust out the old graph paper, you’ll be tasked with memorizing how all of the various zones lock together and keeping it straight in your head. A fair amount of backtracking is inherent in the game design, though, and you’ll wander through the hallways often enough to make a map eventually feel unnecessary. The unfamiliarity of the world and the danger lurking around each corner makes exploration immensely satisfying and tense; each time you discover a new zone, you’ll be tempted to proceed by the search for new items and treasure, but you’ll also likely encounter new enemies that will have entirely new ways of chopping you down to size.

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To replace the old routine of warping in and out of the Nexus in Demon’s Souls to save your game and quit in a safe spot, bonfires are scattered throughout the world of Dark Souls. They effectively act as checkpoints, allowing you to rest, restore your health, remove most status afflictions, and regenerate your healing potions. Resting at a bonfire also respawns all enemies across the world, which will make it difficult to cover any dangerous territory you’ve traversed, but also allows you to farm easy-to-kill enemies for souls. Opinions will vary on the necessity of grinding, but it’s likely that you’re going to spend at least a few hours of your playtime cranking through enemies and obtaining souls, both to increase your stats, buy equipment, and improve your weaponry through one of the various smiths that are scattered throughout the game world. Helpfully, you can quit your game at any point during play and come right back to the same spot when you load your game, without respawning enemies or having to retrace ground you've already covered.

The mechanics of combat are virtually identical to Demon’s Souls, save for the introduction of a kicking action that can make it much easier to knock lighter enemies off of high places to their deaths. Enemies can now parry and counterattack you for severe amounts of damage, and many of them also now have grapple attacks that will often be the source of consternation the first time you face off against them. Some enemies can grapple you through a shield block and remove your entire life bar before you can struggle free, forcing you to recognize the wind-up animations that precede these attacks and back away. That said, the movement of your character feels precise and responsive; when you die in combat, it’s almost always the result of a mistake you’ve made rather than a game mechanic that can’t be avoided.

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In a similar fashion to the previous game, you can choose to travel around as a full-blooded human, or as a character that’s undead (known here as being "Hollowed"). There aren’t a lot of statistical differences between the two states, but you’ll have to be human in order to partake of the various PVP facets of the game. The online interaction is, as it was in Demon’s Souls, one of the more fascinating implementations of co-operative and PVP gameplay that you’re likely to see in this generation of gaming. The scattered messages left on the ground by other players return here, and are just as likely to be meaningless or malicious as they are helpful. If a true secret is to be found (a destroyable wall, a hidden bonfire), there’s likely to be a message pointing it out, but there’s also just as likely to be messages telling you to jump off a cliff in search of treasure or spurring you to attack friendly NPCs.

Those interactions are downright picayune compared to the meat of the PVP, in which players can invade your world and attempt to kill you, or leave a summoning sign to let you bring them into your world in an attempt to kill a boss. Again, you can avoid PVP by simply wandering around the world in undead form, and the penalties for doing so are mild, although you do lose the thrill and satisfaction of warding off another player’s intrusion into the world. The PVP here has shifted to a client-host setup from the old server-based system, and there’s been some noticeable lag on the occasions when someone has attempted to gank me, but nothing too awful. The goal is, of course, to survive, with the winner of a match gaining a bit of humanity, a kind of alternate currency that has a number of obscure uses in the game (it can shift you from undeath to human form, for instance, and carrying around a lot of it will increase the chance that you find items on dead enemies). There’s no penalty for being invaded and dying, though, aside from turning undead and making a corpse run back to your body. Up to three players can converge in a single game to help down a boss; completing that objective will, again, earn all of them a bit of humanity.

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What I find most fascinating about Dark Souls are the limitations of knowledge that the game places on you. The manual has a scant two pages of information on mechanics, and the in-game tooltips are often barebones (and occasionally outright incorrect) in their descriptions of how things work. Players are at times punished for lack of knowledge; some enemies can be killed in specific ways to drop rare items, but only spawn once, so unless you were reading a wiki or FAQ beforehand, you can easily lose out on the chance for those items. Or a character you rescue from a locked cell might wind up returning to camp and murdering other friendly NPCs while you’re out killing bosses. Or you might see a distant character and accidentally attack him, not realizing he's a friendly NPC, thus forcing him to fight you to the death without any way to make amends, and thus lose his services for the rest of the game. The constant autosaving feature makes the results of your choices permanent, but the game itself makes informed choices at times impossible to make. Kinda like, you know, real life.

That’s not necessarily a criticism, just an observation. The game is, of course, difficult, but mechanically speaking it’s quite fair: most of your deaths will come as a result of over-extending yourself, attempting to take on monsters more powerful than you can handle, or simply letting your guard down at just the moment when such a slip is most likely to cause the most amount of damage. (There are the occasional "enemies that can walk through walls attacking you while you climb a ladder and are defenseless" moments, but they're luckily rare.) It’s the difficulties that arise through lack of information that I found most interesting: not knowing which way to go, not knowing how to use a certain item, not knowing what the end result of a very expensive crafting experiment might be, not knowing what will happen when you join a covenant. (Covenants are a new mechanic, via which you can effectively join groups of characters in the game, united by a common purpose; each has its own rewards and perks, some of which even help you in online play, but these are almost never described in any manner in-game.) There’s an item simply called “Rubbish” that I picked up early on, with a description as follows: “Who in their right mind would bother carrying this around? Perhaps you need help.” And yet, I of course have kept it in my inventory since the beginning of the game, on the supposition that at some point it might, just might, come in handy or serve some function. I don’t know, and that's kind of the point: the game's obsession with obscurantism forces you to suss things out for yourself (players are even prevented from using voice chat on Xbox Live), and the results are frustrating and rewarding in equal measure. This is a game to play through from beginning to end without resorting to any kind of external information; playing through it again with a wiki or guide by your side will likely make for a radically different experience the second time through.

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Graphically, Dark Souls is noticeably brighter than Demon’s Souls, with a wider variety of zone types to play around in. Much of it affects a gothic sensibility, with crenellated spires looming above drawbridges populated by gargoyles, and so on, but you do spend a fair amount of time in forests, lava caverns, sewers, ruined underground cities, etc. It is a game that has some impressive vistas to admire when you’re not fighting for your life, and it generally looks great, save for intermittent framerate issues. The framerate will drop precipitously from time to time, often when an enemy suffers from a pathing issue, but one zone in particular, a swamp area called Blighttown, has a uniformly awful framerate that directly affects your ability to control your character, which in turn can lead to some cheap deaths. Such issues are thankfully rare, at least in the PS3 version I've been playing.

If I had to sum up the emotion that Dark Souls elicits in a single word, I’d choose “satisfaction." There are any number of immensely frustrating encounters to faced had here, but with a few more levels or an upgraded weapon, or a bit more practice with the combat system, you’re going to overcome the challenges you face, and when you do, the feeling is unlike anything that any other contemporary game can offer. This is a game that demands skill on the part of its players, to a degree that is almost unparalleled, but rewards that skill with moments of triumph so sublime that I was often moved to actually yell in triumph. Dark Souls offers you a brutal, uncompromising, and downright lonely world, but the act of conquering it is utterly unique.