Dark Souls: Why is it Still So Effective?
By Tristan Rivard
In today’s casual player oriented market, Dark Souls stands as a monument to the unforgiving, unnerving, unrelenting games of earlier generations. Prepare to die. Over and over.
From Software’s title, a follow-up to 2009’s Demon’s Souls, is sort of an anachronism in an age where game difficulty is often suited to the broadest audience possible. You can kiss goodbye to manual saving, contextual tips, button-mashing, regenerating health and the likes. Dark Souls makes no concession to the player, whom, in the face of ruthless enemies, is left to rely solely on his wits, reflexes and adaptability. Even then, death is inevitable.
The game is set in an open dark fantasy world, with locations stretching from imposing dragon-guarded castles to perilous forests to water-filled dungeons. The world of Lordran is as vast and varied as it is mysterious and treacherous – which is to say, extremely. At times, the scenery will either urge you to gaze in awe at the dream-like panoramas or curl in fetal position before the gloomy surroundings. Most of the places on the player’s adventure are interconnected, thus preventing too much linear progression and backtracking.
Concerning the theme and tone of the game, Dark Souls is to Skyrim what Lord of the Rings is to Narnia. The wildlife and jolly waterfalls of the latter game are quickly shadowed by the gritty atmosphere and innumerable perils of the former. To the inattentive player, every new room, ever corner and every enemy can mean death. Each situation must be approached with care, as any neophyte will be quickly forced to learn.
What makes Dark Souls truly shine is that its difficulty, albeit high, never dabbles in unfairness. This is thanks to the game’s mechanics which are, in regard to this very type of game, almost irreproachable. The hit-detection, both on the player and his foes, is incredibly precise, making combat a never-ending battle of wits where timing is a key element. Although combat is not turn-based, you will often find yourself holding on to your shield and waiting for the appropriate time to strike. Doing otherwise will quickly result in one’s demise.
In fact, death is an inherent part of the mechanics of Dark Souls. Whereas in other games, termination is synonymous with the infamous “try again”, From Software offers a different take adapted to its purgatory-like setting. Death will bring the player back to the latest visited “bonfire” – scattered across Lordran and serving as checkpoints – with all progression intact, yet stripped of gathered “souls,” the game’s precious currency. Your hard-earned reaping is left upon your still-hot corpse, from which it can be recovered; however, dying before reaching it means adieu to your souls. A worst case scenario, since these are collected from fallen foes both to obtain new gear and items from the sparse merchants and to level up your character’s abilities. Visit bonfires to anchor down your position, replenish your few health potions and spend your souls – in short, reaching one of the small campfires will feel like an achievement in itself and soothe you in temporary relief. I say temporary, well, because sitting down next to one of them makes all of the normal enemies reappear. Yes, Dark Souls is a masochistic game.
In some ways, Dark Souls’ discover-it-yourself approach can be both positive and negative. To some, the absence of any gameplay explanation whatsoever is a breath of fresh air from the usual handholding. To others, the almost total lack of direction and narrative might be intimidating. Indeed, the player is briefly introduced to the realm by way of an initial cut-scene before being let completely loose, free to visit the different areas in any order (although some of them are a death sentence at earlier levels). Furthermore, all functionalities, abilities, icons and items are left to be figured out by the player through trial-and-error and experimentation. Whether this is a good or bad thing is up to the player, but it is certainly stands in stark contrast with contemporary games.
Another original feature of From Software’s title is its “integrated” online component. Rather than being a separate mode, the multiplayer overlaps seamlessly with the single-player through well-implemented ideas. As you scour through the teeth-clenching swamps and dungeons, you will stumble upon luminescent writings that warn of enemies, point to treasures, or simply gloat of success. These are left by other players, travelling the same location as you are, in their own single-player game. There is also a certain kind of unity in seeing the ghosts of players gather up around a bonfire, before each disappears onward to his own adventure. Such a system creates a certain fraternity between adventurers faced with the same incredible odds. You will also find the occasional pool of blood, which upon interaction re-enacts the last living seconds of a helpless player, so that you may prepare yourself to confront the same peril. Also, players can actually share the same world temporarily to help vanquish the (merciless) bosses of the game. The less attracting possibility is to be invaded by another player for a PvP (player versus player) face-off amidst the already troublesome enemies. Did I say Dark Souls was masochistic?
Dark Souls is definitely not for the faint hearted. It pummels you, squashes your hopes and punishes every wrong move. What it also does is provide a tangible sense of achievement with each enemy slain, each bonfire reached and each boss defeated. This is something that can be seen as lacking in modern game, where challenge is often mild enough to appeal to anyone. Dark Souls strips bare the superfluous, pitting you, your weapon and your wits against a wide variety of creatures whose sole intent is to destroy you. The combat system forces you to analyze your opponents, adapt to their style, be on your guard and strike true. The scenery transports you to an eerie world where you can never anticipate what lies beyond the corner. The openness allows you to craft your very own experience and discover the realm of Lordran at your own pace and liking. Dark Souls is like a very shiny pearl inside a thick dark clam. At first, you will fight tooth-and-nail to crack open its secrets and inevitably end up biting the dust more times than a gamer’s ego can stand. Yet with enough stubbornness, you’ll figure out its nooks and crannies and be graced to lay eyes on its somber magnificence. Praise the sun!