Summary Judgment: Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition

            I’m not typically a person who is a huge junkie for extreme difficulty in video games.  I like your Super Meat Boys and Hotline Miamis as much as the next guy, but I’m not self flagellating and I rarely tick the difficulty slider up past normal in any scenario.  Suffice to say, I don’t hugely enjoy losing or dying, and I try to avoid doing that whenever I can.

So when I came across Dark Souls my expectations for enjoyment were not exactly stellar.  I’d heard of the game’s reputation for extreme punishment and demanding difficulty and expected to get frustrated with it after a while and stop.

But Dark Souls has a way with the resistances of weaker men.  I found myself totally enraptured in the game for a vast number of reasons, and with each new death I found myself more compelled to keep going, keep seeing what the game had to offer and how I would confront it when I got there.

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He looks pretty friendly.

Dark Souls is, fundamentally, an action-adventure based RPG in which the player explores an extremely deadly world with the objective of acquiring certain objects to move the plot forward.  At face value, the game is very straightforward with its mechanics and it’s easy to get a handle on your basic actions.  Different weapons tend to differ more in terms of movesets than pure stats, and so the way you equip yourself tends to end up a function of your preferences of playstyle more than a simple statistical analysis of what’s best.  The bottom line, though, is simple.  Get equipped, get oriented, get going.

Some multiplayer elements peek through as well.  Players will often see ghosts or phantoms of other players as they move through the world, bloodstains on the ground will perform a replay of another player’s last moments, and players can leave helpful (or misleading) notes on the ground for other players to read.  When certain conditions are met, players can cross over into other players’ worlds directly to engage in PVP, or even to team up with the player to defeat the area boss and take other benefits back into their home world.

WORLD BUILDING MASTER CLASS

            The thing about Dark Souls that really grabbed me and refused to let go, though, was the frankly genius way in which the world is assembled.  There are virtually no load screens in the game, and areas move into each other seamlessly, but what really struck me is how perfectly they conveyed how connected everything is.  There are elevators that act as shortcuts between areas, and the blinding obviousness of how neatly the world fit together slammed me every time a shortcut opened up that effortlessly connected a new area right to a previously gated part of an old one.

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I look like a good guy, right? RIGHT?

            The world of Dark Souls is just in no way beholden to the player.  It exists in such a pervasive and consistent way that it permeates everything, and you really feel like this was a place that was around before you got here and will be around long after you’ve left.  Much of this is due to the way that the game handles its general plot and lore exposition, which is to say that the game generally does not engage in plot or lore exposition.  Aside from a cutscene at the start of the game and some occasional cutscenes later on, the game largely places the burden of figuring out the history and plot on you, either by inferring things from item descriptions and visual cues, or by talking to NPC’s enough to get them to spill some of the secrets of the game’s history.

And what a history it is.  Once you start to piece together the bits of lore and story the game puts out for you, the world gains a huge amount of weight and reality to it that makes some of the areas to which you’re able to travel blindside you with significance.  The game goes to great lengths to utilize this feeling, adding in whole areas that are largely pointless to the overall progression of the game, but nonetheless scream with lore significance and history.

MY BEST FRIEND DEATH

            That lore is what drives home the difficulty of the game as a useful storytelling device.  The task that has been placed before you is undeniably herculean, and the game all but directly refers to the players who’ve failed as being the ones who came before you.  Death is your teacher, your master, and your constant companion.  But it’s rare that death is unfair.  Dying in Dark Souls is almost always a learning experience (even if the teachable moment is “don’t roll off of cliffs”).  Once you know what you need to do, death is largely your own fault; the game has high expectations of you, and death is your reward for failing to live up to those expectations.  After the mistake is made, death is a reset back to the checkpoint to start over, this time (hopefully) armed with the knowledge of how to defeat whatever it was that stopped you.

The things that are put there to stop you are the real trick, however.  The enemy design in Dark Souls is phenomenally diverse and skillful, right from the start of the game.  Even the basic Hollow zombies have variability to their attack patterns; that zombie might hold his sword up for slightly longer before swinging it, requiring you to always be paying attention if you want to dodge or parry it, never allowing you to get into a routine of defeating them.

Boss fights are, by and large, similarly clever.  Bosses have very thematically unified move sets, and for the most part they become a straightforward affair of searching for a winning tactic amidst the hailstorm of blows.  They’re all visually and historically compelling, and almost nothing about the way the boss encounters are constructed is an accident; many of them have cleverly hidden aspects that enable the fight to become very different or easier, and all of the boss entities are very carefully justified by the world’s history.

Granted, Dark Souls is not without problems.  There are some flawed aspects of the core design; I’m not a fan of some of the longer corpse runs to rechallenge bosses, which are compounded by the respawning enemies.  Some bosses also repeat too often, causing me to roll my eyes when I was forced to with the third slight permutation of an old boss enemy. There are also some areas that are obviously unfinished (looking at you, Lost Izalith) and the gameplay in those areas is a starkly noticeable drop in quality from what you’ve come to expect.  It’s partially because of the incredible quality of the rest of the game that this area sticks out so badly, but it’s not particularly long and can be circumvented entirely with some sidequest machinations.

Dark Souls is beautiful agony, a defiant and impressive challenge clothed in staggeringly gorgeous visuals, a haunting soundtrack, and an almost unrivalled example of the power of showing, not telling.  If you can get around the fact that you’re going to die, and die a LOT, it’s easily one of the most unique, challenging, and rewarding experiences that exists in gaming today.

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition can be bought on Steam, PS3, or Xbox 360.  It’s best (read: necessary) to have a controller if you plan on playing it on the PC.

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