Remember throwing and almost breaking your controller as a kid due to losing or dying? It seems for me that Dark Souls has brought many of those old feelings to the surface as there was a few times I felt like launching my controller off the balcony. For those not in the know, Dark Souls is the spiritual successor to Demons Souls which was an exclusive to PS3 until recently. Demons Souls was known for its brutal difficulty and was a truly humbling experience. I thought I was above average on my playing skills of most games, and then along came Demons Souls. I never saw it through to the end, and to be honest, I actually wasnt able to complete the first level after many hours of trying. I gave up out of frustration as no matter what I tried, it just wasnt working for me. I heard the sequel was coming and I was excited to give it another chance and start fresh with a new perspective, knowing what Im going to get myself into since Ill now be able to play it on my 360.
From Software brings us Dark Souls and many of the games mood and charm have also returned. Weve become accustomed to games holding our hands, telling us where to go, and pacing games in a specific way so that players can (hopefully) enjoy themselves and maybe even complete the game. Dark Souls will not hold your hand in any way; actually, its more likely to make you cry than help you. Prepare to die many times (even their website is preparetodie.com).
Dark Souls is centered on Risk vs. Reward. Youll fail many times and become extremely frustrated but the feeling of accomplishment once you finally kill that specific enemy or boss is very rewarding. Casual players will struggle with the difficulty curve and wont make much progress where returning players will thrive on the challenging difficulty. You simply cant grind your way to victory in Dark Souls; every battle requires knowledge of your enemy and abilities. Trial and error (mostly error) is the only way youre going to learn how to progress and gain the knowledge needed.
Dark Souls has a very thin veil masquerading as a story. Truly, theres no real story and no side quests. Its about you, your isolation against impossible odds. You arent told where youre going or why other than ringing a bell after defeating some of the bigger guardians. Essentially youre going to see how many times you can throw yourself against the same enemies and if youre capable of learning from your mistakes.
Just like Demons Souls, Dark Souls starts off which seems borderline impossible. I apparently didnt go the correct path from the very start and got myself killed by the first skeleton enemies a dozen times before trying to go elsewhere. This is because the world layout of Dark Souls is radically different than its predecessor. Rather than having a central hub where you pick which level to go to, Dark Souls is now comprised of one massive world that is seamless separated by regions. Every area you see once you make it to the top of a tower is all completely accessible eventually. Eventually youll unlock shortcuts between regions as you progress and youll need them quite often when trying to fight your way back to where you died. As you progress, beat bosses, and unlock doors and gates, new pathways will open up for you to explore. Keep in mind that just because a new area opened up, its not always the correct path and youll be met with a vastly overpowered enemy blocking your path. You are not told where you need to go, why, and what to do next. This can be terrifying, leaving you to your own choices in every aspect and will sometimes (lets be honest: most times) lead you to somewhere you shouldnt even think about being at yet and will more times than not send you back to your last bonfire (more on this later).
I was curious how the controls would transition to an Xbox 360 controller, luckily it feels natural and I have no real qualms with this aspect. Your bumpers are whats going to get the most use. Left Bumper is held to block (which youll be doing 99% of the time) and Right Bumper is your quick/light attack. Left Trigger is to parry (though your timing has to be absolutely perfect and if you mistime the press, youll most likely end up dead) and Right Trigger is your heavy attack. I do wish I could swap the bumpers with the triggers in the options, but Dark Souls doesnt care what you want, youll play it their way (and to be honest it felt just fine after the tenth death or so).
The menus and equipment screens will be confusing and does nothing to help you understand it better. Its very cumbersome and you better hope you completely back out of the menus because youre unable to block or attack with them up. Did I mention there is no pausing in the world of Dark Souls? Yup, youll want to be in a safe area clear of enemies before loading up your inventory screen or youll pay the price and learn quickly that there is no pause.
Any enemy can kill you quite easily if you arent playing properly and dont study their attack patterns. Even the first skeleton in the game can destroy you if you dont learn and adapt quickly (which I found out, many times). In an attempt to balance out some of the difficulty, there is now a checkpoint system built into Dark Souls that was lacking from the first game. These checkpoints are called bonfires and are scarcely spread out among different regions. Resting at a bonfire allows you to level up with any souls youve acquired from defeating enemies, fully restores your health and stamina, and even refills your Estus Flasks (health pots). Now, it would be too easy if you could rest at a bonfire at any time to refill your health and continue on. So to balance this, you better hope you really need to recover and refill because every bonfire you rest at, every enemy will respawn (aside from bosses). Its a balance of recovery vs. fighting through the horde of enemies again to hopefully find a new bonfire further ahead. Later in the game itll actually become part of your strategy to use them or not.
So what happens when you die exactly? For starters, any souls youve acquired (souls are used in currency for items and leveling up) remain where you died. To get them back you need to recovery your soul where you previously perished, but without dying again. Die again and youre out that original amount of souls on your first corpse. When you die you leave a bloodstain on the ground where you died and you may even notice bloodstains that arent yours along your path. These are from other players that have recently died nearby and clicking on it will show you a ghost of how they died, hopefully letting you learn about how to avoid an upcoming death yourself. Sometimes youll want to spend your souls right away to level up while other times you might want to hang onto them and move forward. It becomes a very delicate balancing act just like deciding to use bonfires or not.
The feeling of isolation wars on you throughout your journey, but now and then youll see a ghost of someone nearby which is actually another player in their own parallel world. While you cant interact with them, it almost brings a feeling of closeness, knowing someone else is going through what you are right at this moment as well. That is until you come across your next enemy of course. Another way to branch out and go outside of your own world is the ability to leave messages on the ground for other players to see. This means you can leave a helpful message like watch out! or advice on the upcoming situation or be devious and leave a hint that gives false information. I actually enjoyed coming across these messages as they gave me helpful tips for the most part on whats about to transpire.
Like the first game, Dark Souls does have a multiplayer component, but its not anything in the traditional sense at all. Other players are able to invade your game and try to kill you or help you and you can also do the same. Figuring out how to do so like everything else is left up to you (even the instruction book is useless) and youll quickly realize that the game isnt really played co-operatively even when you do have someone in your game world for very long. Theres no way to directly invite a friend into your game to help you out on a tough section and even though the box says multiplayer, undergo this adventure knowing youll be alone for it.
The only major gripe and disappointment I have with Dark Souls is that nothing is explained to you and you will literally have to figure out what everything is and does on your own. I understand not holding the players hand for the sake of difficulty but giving zero information about key game elements is a flaw in my opinion. Some will argue that this creates a more knitted community, but what if I dont know to go look up the wiki for the game? A perfect example of this is the Kindle option when at a bonfire. Until I tested it and tried it, I had no idea what it did. Maybe to some this is part of the charm of Dark Souls, having to figure things out on your own, which I understand. Aside from that major issue there was really only minor issues to point out such as frame rate problems in specific areas (the dragons breath the first time you see it going across the bridge for example), underwhelming voice acting (for how little spoken dialogue there is I would have expected a stellar outing), and a clumsy targeting system that will get you killed a few times because youre locked onto the wrong enemy.
You will die, a lot and in almost every way possible. Death is knowledge in Dark Souls and you learn from your mistakes and how to achieve simply surviving. Dark Souls caters to a specific audience and does so wonderfully. Players picking it up for the first time may be shocked with the games brutal difficulty and how youre left on your own without a map or what to do next. Frustration will turn into rage and at times I needed to take a lengthy break from it to prevent controller damage that was self-inflicted.
If you enjoy games to relieve stress, this isnt the game for you. If you love feeling accomplished for completing something innately difficult, then youll feel right at home. The high difficulty shouldnt be looked at as a fault as its a very humbling experience, but rather what Dark Souls does right in its own existence; if the game was simple it wouldnt be anywhere near the same game. Dark Souls doesnt care if youre having fun or not and it will punish you mercilessly, but thats where the fun begins.