By all rights, I ought to hate Dark Souls. I can’t think of a single game that’s responsible for causing me so much sleeplessness and stress, yet From Software’s viciously difficult role-playing game is still something of a masterpiece. Described as the spiritual successor to the developer’s previous title, Demon’s Souls, the game puts players in the role of an Undead, a human being bearing the accursed “Darksign”, a circle of flame which brands the skin and causes them to be resurrected after death. While the Undead are persecuted and jailed, an unidentified ally helps you break out from your prison, and you are soon told that you have been chosen to embark on a significant journey.
You’ll notice straight away that there are many character customisation options on offer, and the game in fact allows you to choose from one of ten classes, which range from Warrior to Pyromancer. One hardcore class even starts you off as a weak and barely clothed hero. There are positives and negatives to each class, but the balance between weapons-based and magic-wielding classes is much better than that in Demon’s Souls; while magic is effective towards many of the mini-bosses you’ll encounter, there’s a practical equivalent to every magical solution, and certain styles of play will suit themselves to specific classes. It’s a matter of personal preference and interest, and fortunately there’s little unfair advantage to those who choose one class over another.
The game’s combat system isn’t particularly special, but much of the trouble in fighting enemies is their patience and strategy. Enemies will bide their time and circle you for long moments before choosing to attack, and some shield-bearing foes’ defences are almost impenetrable unless you manage to dodge a heavy blow and flank them, or perfect the timing to pull off a tricky parry. I also found myself making the mistake of hitting Square to attack often in the early portions of the game, even though this is actually mapped to using the currently selected item; awkwardly but sensibly, light and strong attacks are mapped to R1 and R2 respectively, and shielding and parrying to L1 and L2 respectively. Mini-bosses are a different matter altogether, their strength and speed regularly annihilating the prospect of shielding and parrying their attacks, forcing you to rely on agility, items, and special moves like a plunging attack from a higher elevated surface.While it does feature a storyline, it should be made clear that Dark Souls is not a story-driven game. The story elements are sparse, and while deep, the player’s immersion in the game plot is ultimately at their own discretion. You can recklessly skip through the occasionally occurring piece of dialogue without much consequence, or pay attention and learn some details about the game’s rich, albeit dark, universe. Once you’re told where to go, you can play for hours towards your goal without having to speak to another character, but even with a light story aspect, the game’s overall atmosphere is nothing short of stunning. The stark contrast between light and dark in story is accentuated by the actual contrast between the bright red of fire and the cold, grey locations in which the action takes place; the graphics aren’t ground-breaking, but they’re certainly beautiful.
Story aside, you’ll spend most of the game either exploring, fighting, or dying. A Twitter acquaintance of mine joked that were you to down a shot of liquor upon every death, you’d be hammered within ten minutes. He wasn’t kidding. The game’s difficult can’t be attributed to strong enemies alone; if you’ve been playing it right, you’re not underpowered, and the enemies are far from immortal, but clever level design and challenging enemy AI makes even the shortest of levels a considerable task. Adding to this, the only checkpoints are Bonfires, which are activated when lit. These Bonfires serve as your save point and respawn point, and activating a Bonfire will restore you to full health – unfortunately, it will also bring every defeated enemy, aside from mini-bosses, back into the game world, and even though your inventory is intact, you won’t recover any items you used to kill them in your last life.
Bonfires are the central point of a whole host of functions as well, including levelling up; should you collect enough Souls from enemies to level up, you can return to a Bonfire to distribute a skill point to an appropriate attribute; optionally, you could use those Souls to purchase items and weapons from merchants instead, and the freedom of choice is refreshing. Should you die and be returned to your last Bonfire, you’ll lose all of the Souls in your possession, but they can be recovered from the scene of your death by activating a glowing blow aura in the vicinity. Bonfires also allow for Kindling, which increases the number of Estus Flasks you’ll receive upon spawning; these flasks restore health when drunk, but Kindling doesn’t work if you’re Hollowed.You might sense that things are getting a little more complicated, gameplay-wise; basically, as an Undead is revived, it loses Humanity, and becomes Hollowed. The enemy Undead that you fight throughout the game are clear representations of what exactly a Hollowed Undead is like. Only by collecting Humanity and returning to a Bonfire to reverse the Hollowing can you avoid the same fate, and only in this state can you perform Kindling. It seems almost superfluous to go through the bother though, considering the loss of Humanity upon each of your inevitably frequent deaths, and this feature seems to be consistently underplayed throughout the game.
The truly impressive thing about Dark Souls, though, is its online functionality; it’s engaging, and so subtle you might not even realise that it’s there. If players are connected to the Internet while they play, their game world will interact with others, exchanging small amounts of data. If you buy Orange Guidance Soapstone from a merchant, you can use it to leave notes in key areas, giving useful hints like “strong enemy ahead”; these messages will then appear in some other players’ world, helping them through the tougher parts of the campaign, and they can use soapstone to rate the value of your tip. Some of the soapstone messages from the start of the game are left by the developers, but as you delve into the game world, they could be from anyone, and that’s one of the most immersive aspects of the game.
In case there were any doubts as to the existence of these other players, bloodstains left by other killed players will sometimes become visible, and by touching them, the player’s last moments are replayed by a translucent ghost. These translucent ghosts occasionally occur briefly in other places, especially near Bonfires, strengthening the sense of kinship with players facing a common challenge. The way in which the game worlds are merged is unparalleled; there is nothing quite as subtle or useful as this. Should you desire to directly engage with another player, there’s also an item which permits players to “invade” other game worlds as a phantom and fight the other player face-to-face, as well as a co-operative function that allows you to invite Hollowed players into your world briefly to assist; it’s a relatively underplayed aspect, but also fun, and a reminder that there is no absolute safety in the world of Dark Souls. Joining different covenants in the game also subtly influences the way your online interactions are handled, directing which worlds you’re sent into.That last point deserves some emphasis; there is no pausing in Dark Souls. Menu screens and the inventory do not pause the game when opened, and can even be navigated while you’re walking around (although we wouldn’t advise that, in the case of combat). If your sword breaks in the middle of battle and you need to equip a new one, you better do it quick, because you can’t do anything about your opponent’s efforts to take off your head if you don’t have a blade at the ready, and they certainly won’t have the courtesy to hold back while you rummage around for a fresh one. This is actually one of the things I really like about Dark Souls, as it further immerses the player and destroys the ridiculous preconception that you should be able to go through menus at leisure in the centre of a hostile city.
Overall, Dark Souls is not your typical role-playing game; while some would have you believe that Japan’s export of RPGs is limited to the sexy, steampunk likes of Square Enix’s Final Fantasy franchise, it’s titles like this that continue to dispel that notion. The era of truly masochistic gamers might have ended with the succession of the NES, but it’s to those punishing and unforgiving retro games that this particular title harks back. This is as far from a cutscene-heavy masturbatory adventure as you can get: it’s difficult, it’s detailed, and it’s damn good.
Some might be intimidated by its difficulty and its predecessor’s notoriety, but persevering through the most frustrating moments rewards players with an astonishing feeling of success, and the promise of recovering lost Souls at the scene of your previous death is enough to tease you into giving a difficult segment at least one more shot. Dark Souls is easily one of the best role-playing games released this year, and the dozens of hours of immersion, challenge, and enjoyment you’ll derive from it makes it well worth the thirty pound price tag.