October 05, 2011
Dark Souls is a hard game. We all know this, and from the moment you slip the disc into your console, it'll punish you. A lot. But like a sadomasochist or a moth flying into a flame, you'll die, die, die, then die again, then die some more. But you'll keep on coming back for seconds, as you grow to realise that death is all part and parcel of Dark Souls. Therein lies the innate beauty (if you can call it that) of Dark Souls; that for all its uncompromising rock-hardness, you'll be inexplicably compelled to keep on trying, keep on pushing, even when it seems like the odds are hopelessly stacked against you and the winding, moss-laden corridors snake ever-deeper into an impenetrable abyss. You'll pass the point of no return and keep on going, because Dark Souls is simply sublime.
More often than not, Dark Souls does seem like a hopeless grind, as you very slowly edge through the game with tiny, tentative baby steps, shield raised ready for the next skeleton, demon or scaly beast waiting to kill you dead and dance all over your corpse. You'll form a passionate love/hate relationship with Dark Souls as you progress, spouting more expletives than Gordon Ramsay with red hot soup down his pants, so infuriating is the game's constant die, die, die routine. It's the closest a video game has ever come to torture with spiritual predecessor Demon's Souls being the only comparable thing. Both are the equivalent of being water-boarded while being repeatedly kicked in the balls, except Dark Souls plunges rusty nails into your eyes for good measure. And still you'll love it.
But that's just Dark Souls. You go in knowing exactly what the score is, so you can't bitch and moan when the game smacks you down repeatedly then clubs you over the head numerous times. That's the game, and if you can't stand the heat, you'd best get out of the kitchen. It's an acquired taste then to say the least, but there's no faulting the core mechanics of the game, which are intrinsically brilliant. The thrust and parry of swordplay is excellent, but there can be a lot to take in for the beginner. Managing your vitality and stamina is the key to mastering Dark Souls' combat, and once you understand when to raise and lower your shield to regenerate your energy and know when to back off for a swig from your Estus Flask, you'll get a lot more out of the game.
There's one thing that you'll require more than anything else for playing Dark Souls though, and that's mountains of patience and persistence. Persevere with repeatedly dying and plodding from bonfire to bonfire to progress, and you'll discover one of the most rewarding gaming experiences money can buy. You'll also come to realise that dying is not just a form of punishment - as maddeningly unjust and loathsome as it might seem at times – but actually an integral aspect of the game. If you play it properly, you can die over and over without incurring any sort of penalty, as your souls and humanity are dropped wherever you last fell. Die once and you can return to the scene to restore your power, effectively continuing where you left off. Die twice and you'll lose your souls, but them's the breaks. Bonfires are always a welcome sight though, where you're awarded a hard-earned checkpoint, a topped up Estus Flask and the opportunity to level up in exchange for souls.
There's a downside to the bonfires too, as they resurrect all enemies except for bosses, which means you'll have to repeat the same sections over and over. It's classic risk versus reward stuff. Do you carry on and accumulate souls from fallen foes or do you play it safe, rest at a bonfire and bring back enemies you've already killed on several occasions? We lost count of how many times we had to wade through a certain part of the Undead Parish trying to kill a trident-wielding sub-boss. Once bosses are vanquished – usually following a long war of attrition – you're often rewarded with a powerful item, such as the formidable Drake Sword for defeating a huge fire-breathing dragon. It's weapons and items like these that can turn the game around, transforming a grind into a joy as you bully previously tough enemies into submission. Have some of that!
Risk and reward is presented in other ways throughout Dark Souls too, with glowing loot waiting to be pillaged just tantalisingly out of reach behind a powerful enemy. You think engaging a 9-foot centurion with a giant sword and shield is a good idea? On paper it's suicide, but cut him down to size and you'll get a pick-up that enables you to boost the effects of your health regenerating Estus Flasks. You'd best leave that Black Knight alone until you're strong enough though, right? Then again, maybe if you throw a firebomb at him while his back is turned... Bad idea.
You'll begin Dark Souls by choosing your class from a selection with varying statistics and specialisations, such as the shiny-armoured Knight, the fire-spell packing Pyromancer or the Deprived class, who has nothing more than a loincloth and a wooden club. We'd recommend steering clear of that particular class. It's rubbish. It all then starts as it means to go on, dropping you into the small tutorial-driven Undead Asylum dungeon, where you're introduced to the simple mechanics of the game. There are no frills whatsoever in Dark Souls, so forget being able to consult any form of map and forget any kind of hand-holding once you're whisked off to Lordran by a giant crow. Hell, given the game's 'always online' state, you can't even pause for a breather.
Talking of online, Dark Souls continues the fantastically innovative online components that made Demon's Souls such a refreshing work of genius. You can still leave messages to help or hinder fellow players, read said messages, touch bloodstains for a ghost of a player's demise and invade the worlds of other players. You can also band together for co-op, making that daunting boss encounter slightly less so, or you can go it alone and pay heed to the orange messages scrawled on the floors. Play offline, and Dark Souls is truly frightening, as there's absolutely no help in any shape or form. Exploring the world is insane enough given its mind-boggling scale, which seems to keep unfurling even further like it's infinitely expanding into space. Get to a high point to admire the gorgeous god rays breaking through the clouds, and you'll be able to see the outline of the castle battlements where you've just been on the horizon. Not only does Dark Souls look stunning, but its world is a massive, cohesive whole with zero loading screens to break the immersion. Unless you die that is...
Darks Souls bosses are an eclectic bunch too, letting the art design team off the leash beyond the usual fantasy standards, with its own take on scaly, leathery-winged dragons, hulking axe-wielding demons and undead knights alongside ethereal glittering butterfly creatures that spit gaseous death your way, or the headless, whip-tailed Titanite Demon with its crescent-bladed weapon. There's always a new surprise lurking around the corner, to either leave you slack-jawed as you're crushed by a single devastating attack or to take your breath away with their immense scale or unique design. Nothing else can invoke such a palpable sense of dread and wonder as Dark Souls' bosses. They're incredible.
Being such a relentlessly difficult game, Dark Souls' achievements are every bit as demanding as you'd expect, asking that you defeat certain bosses, acquire the best versions of weapons through certain reinforcement methods and a whole lot more besides. You're easily looking at tens of hours to complete the full list, which if you're in for the long haul, will partly come naturally as you make your way through Dark Souls. There's also two endings to discover, with each awarding a different achievement. All in all you could conceivably be chasing Dark Souls' achievements forever.
Dark Souls is quite possibly the hardest game we've ever played, but it's also one of the most rewarding and compelling experiences around. You'll get irrevocably drawn into its world of bizarre, beautiful and bastard bosses, overcoming obstacles with your sword and shield primed, braving the dark dungeons, dense forests, stony castles and subterranean sewers, hoarding items and souls to trade with the giggling merchant and the blacksmith, or just levelling up. Sometimes you'll question whether you're actually having fun or not, and you'll swear, scream and shout at Dark Souls with alarming regularity, but ultimately, you'll love it. And once it pulls you in – and it will - you won't be able to break free from Dark Souls' irresistible clutches. Prepare to die.
The orchestral score blusters when you fight a boss, but it's mostly atmospheric sounds and the clanking of steel on steel that you'll be hearing the most.
Dark Souls has some glorious vistas to behold with deeply foreboding environments and stunning dark castles, dungeons and catacombs to explore. There's also ethereal glowing forests, ghost-laden underground caverns and other surprises to unearth. There's occasional slowdown when things get busy, but otherwise the game looks amazing.
One minute you'll despise Dark Souls, the next you'll be punching the air as a boss fades out of being with a final killer blow. Playing Dark Souls is a rollercoaster, but it's one that plays brilliantly.
Mind-bogglingly vast, Dark Souls could last you a lifetime if you're as rubbish at it as we are. It's world is seemingly endless, yet you'll want to explore it and soak it all up. There's stacks of weapons, items and creatures to discover, ensuring you remain constantly compelled to push on.
Dark Souls' achievement list is hardcore. To complete it, you'll need to acquire the best weapons, beat a menagerie of insanely tough bosses and sink tens of hours into the game to start unlocking cheevos. The thing is, you'll probably want to.
Dark Souls could prove to be gaming Marmite for some players, who'll either love it or hate it. Dark Souls makes no bones about being unrelenting in its difficulty though, although it's by no means insurmountable. It's a rare game that's unlike anything else, refusing to pander or compromise in any way, shape or form. In this day and age, Dark Souls is hugely refreshing then, and well worth the time and effort.