Dark Souls Review
It takes a certain type of person to get a kick out of something so crushing, so oppressive and so downright sadistic as Dark Souls. The kind of person who could happily lose over and over to a more skilled opponent in Virtua Fighter in the name of simply improving little by little.
The kind of person who always disables tutorials and tips when starting a new game; the kind of person that would gladly delete their Skyrim save and start over should their character kick the proverbial bucket.
Going into Dark Souls without an iron will, the patience of a saint and a ready acceptance of the fact that the odds are stacked against you from the off is gaming suicide – you may as well just chuck your balls and your sanity in a jiffy bag and post them off to From Software is you even consider going in unprepared. Don’t actually do that though, obviously.
Probably not a good idea to attack that bird, not now, not ever.
You’re probably wondering, then, just how we can justify recommending a game so unfair as this. And that’s precisely the point – Dark Souls is seldom, perhaps even never unfair. It’s cruel, sure, and it wants you dead more than just about any other game you’ll ever play. But whatever it throws at you, there’s always a way to come out on top.
Be it running off to improve your gear before returning to the problem area, learning to spot windows in enemy attack patterns or simply mastering the basic combat controls until your dodge rolls and parries are perfect, the route to victory is gruelling but all the more rewarding for it.
It doesn’t help that the game’s open world structure and lack of signposting means it can be easy to stumble into a near-impossible area where the first warning sign is a giant sword caving in your skull and killing you instantly. In an age when games are generally designed to be as accessible as possible, Dark Souls is a grim breath of fresh air.
Where other games hold your hand from start to finish, From Software’s latest instead looks at your outstretched hand in disgust, turns up its nose and punches you in the face. Over and over and over again.
They’re the ones setting you the monumental challenge at hand, after all – having them then help you through it would be like newspapers printing crosswords and Sudoku puzzles that had already been filled in for you.
This dragon will kick your ass many, many times. Just avoid it.
Slowly but surely, the lay of the land becomes second nature. Exploration will often uncover shortcuts, alternative routes and connections between the many areas and it won’t take long to isolate and avoid the death-trap areas while finding a levelling spot that works for you. Souls are the universal currency of Dark Souls, acting as both money and experience for pretty much everything in the game.
Just like in Demon’s Souls, these can be stockpiled to your heart’s content but should you die (and you will), you drop the lot. If you can make it back to your corpse, all your goodies can be reclaimed but if not… yeah, that’s all gone forever. Losing several thousand souls in this way is absolutely gutting but with so many ways to die, it’s pretty much inevitable.
With your soul wallet empty, though, it makes it far less stressful to just get out and explore – with nothing to really lose, suicide runs into impossible places to grab some sweet gear become a valid strategy and testing the water gets ever harder as your soul balance slowly creeps up.
Luckily then, there’s no shortage of things on which to spend your fickle currency, much of it only possible when you find and activate a bonfire. These camp fires are as close to checkpoints as Dark Souls will allow, rest areas which restock potion supplies and spell uses but there’s a catch – of course there is – and resting also allows all enemies (bar bosses and mini-bosses) to respawn.
Don’t get grabbed by these plants, it will be the death of you.
Still, while chilling by the fire, souls can be poured into each of your stats to grow your character as you see fit. Early doors it’s easy to boost several levels in one go but as the cost spirals later on, it can take hours just to earn enough souls to boost a single stat by one. Select NPCs scattered around the game can also sell you goodies, from ammo and accessories to class-specific gear and abilities.
A word of warning, though – try not to accidentally hit a friendly character if you value your shops. If they get angry, you’ll be forced to kill them and although this does net you a fair few souls, losing access to some of the stores could make aspects and areas of the game nigh impossible. Well, even more nigh impossible.
But Dark Souls never tells you this. It barely tells you anything at all, actually. It’s one big voyage of discovery, one reliant on first-hand experience and trial and error (with a lot of the latter) rather than advice and explanations.
Just as in Demon’s Souls, it’s possible for players to leave messages for one another but where these mislead as often as they help out, it can be hard to know which of these to heed and which to ignore.
Fodder like this are easy to kill, but give you very little souls.
Far more useful are the bloodstains that paint the land, each one all that remains of some brave soul or another that died in that spot. Checking these will even show a ghostly replay of how the unfortunate sap met their end, a perfect indication of impending danger and one that’s far harder to abuse than the often cruel message system.
Those that prefer more direct interaction with other players will be pleased to hear that Dark Souls offers such functionality in a pair of flavours. The first is co-operative play, allowing you to jump into another hero’s world and lend a much-needed helping hand.
Even when not directly co-operating with someone else, nearby players can still be aided by your actions – certain spells have a resonance effect that can heal or buff others in the vicinity while kindling a camp fire gives everyone around it a healing boost. On the other end of the spectrum is the ability to invade another player’s game, with rewards up for grabs if you can successfully murder the host.
Knowing this can happen at almost any time is utterly terrifying, especially when making your way back to a huge pile of souls you just lost – there are few quicker ways to meet your maker in Dark Souls than to rush things, but with the ever-present threat of invasion, taking your time isn’t exactly an option either.
Cowards can always opt to play the game in Offline mode, though to do so is to miss out on one of the most original aspects of the game… plus invasions can still occur offline, albeit seemingly far more rarely.
It’s a horribly depressing world, but you won’t want to leave.
But if so much of Dark Souls is an intimidating, imposing tour of obscene difficulty and abject horror, when exactly does the fun start? Fun might not even be the right word at all. Far better would be ‘satisfaction’ and that, you’ll be glad to hear, is rife in this hellish world.
Every perfectly timed roll, every expertly executed parry and bone-crunching riposte, every discovery… everything from finally working out a basic gameplay mechanic to felling a massive boss by the skin of your teeth just feels so rewarding that it’s almost impossible to name a game that even comes close to offering such an immense sense of achievement and success in even its most trivial moments.
It’s dangerously moreish, too, the total freedom making it easy to burn hours just grinding souls, farming rare drops or doing whatever you like – even when you feel like you’ve hit a wall, all it takes is to find one new tunnel and you’ll be hooked anew, desperate to see what evil lurks around each corner and how you’ll possibly overcome it.
From Software has, once again, stumbled upon some secret formula that lets it make a game simultaneously soul-crushingly tough but also almost impossible to put down.
Every failed run at a new boss spurs you on to try harder (as do the frequent ghostly visions of other players struggling and the sound of bells that peel in celebration of another’s success), and every soul drop piles on the pressure to make it back to your corpse in one piece.
Bonfires. You’ll weep with joy when you find one.
It gets to the point where there’s even a masochistic thrill in seeing what horrible way you’ll get killed to bits next. It’s stressful, sure, but if it sinks its grotty, diseased teeth into you, you can pretty much forget sleep, clear your social calendar and wave goodbye to free time of all descriptions.
Make no mistake, though – this is far from a universal recommendation. Successful applicants to From’s School Of Ridiculously Hard Knocks will be able to demonstrate patience and restraint, be able to cope with the idea of spending several hours at a time for potentially no real progress and be equipped to make on-the-spot, game-changing decisions without fear of the repercussions.
Think you tick all those boxes? Enroll today and prepare to die. And even if you don’t normally go for RPGs or like difficult games, we’d still recommend you take a look at Dark Souls, if only to see what you’re missing. This is brutal. This is terrifying. This is oppressive. This is punishing. This is one of the best games of the year. Grow a pair and get involved.