Prepare To Die
Dark Souls is a flawed masterpiece. It’s a masterpiece because of its fascinating universe, brilliant level design, awe-inspiring boss battles, and an enrapturing story. Dark Souls has the power to truly immerse you, much like Skyrim, and is the kind of game where you won’t realize you’ve been playing it for hours on end. But Dark Souls is also deeply flawed, not because of its brutal difficulty (more on that later), but because the beginning of the game is far too punishing.
Dark Souls takes place in the fantasy universe of Lordran. Lordran began in an age of light and goodness, but has descended into darkness and misery because of the undead curse. The undead curse brands people with the Darksign and brings them back from the dead repeatedly until the undead has become hollow (insane). You are one of these undead, but have been chosen to “link the flame” and restore light and hope to the world. This is done by slaying the Old Lords who have gone hollow and reclaiming their souls.
The gameplay is simple in concept, but frustratingly difficult in practice. Use your shield or dodge to repel enemy attacks, then strike after they do with either quick or heavy attacks. The only difficult thing is that all enemies are more powerful than you are. Any little mistake or wrong button press results in half your health bar gone. These enemies are often in groups of three or four. So while you’re busy fighting one, you’re often surrounded and attacked by the others. Dark Souls is often filled with traps that instantly kill you, enemies that hide behind corners, and not even chests are safe.
You will die and you will die often, but this is a different kind of death than most games. Rather than appearing again at, or near, the spot of your death with enemies remaining killed like you would in Halo, Call of Duty, or even The Last of Us–you have to start over at the last bonfire (checkpoint) you rested at. Oh yeah, and all of your enemies respawn. Not only that, but all your souls (in game currency earned from killing enemies for equipment and leveling) are dropped at your death. You can retrieve them by returning to where you died. But if you die on the way, they’re gone forever. This is the most frustrating part of the game, and you will find yourself shouting in rage at your television and throwing your controller across the room. I’ve beaten the game several times, and still do this.
Based on those last two paragraphs, you’re probably why you should even bother playing Dark Souls. For starters, it has the most memorable boss battles in video game history hands down. It’s not even close. Nearly every boss is beautifully and terrifyingly designed to inspire awe, fear, and wonder. There is the beautiful singing butterfly, who rains arcane attacks down upon you. Then there is the minotaur, twice your size, that drops down on you unsuspectingly from a tower while wielding a massive axe. Then there is the enormous goat demon with his two pet dogs, that overwhelms you with powerful strikes while his dogs surround you and rip out your jugular. My personal favorite is the gaping dragon. These bosses are incredibly difficult, larger than life, and require genuine skill to defeat.
These bosses are why you play the game. Defeating them is the most cathartic gaming experiences I’ve ever had. You’ve been slamming your head against a metaphorical wall over and over again, until finally you break through. You finally block the attacks, leap over the area of effect attack, then plunge your sword into monster’s breast, ending its life. With a gutwrenching roar, it bellows its last breath and you stand triumphant with your adrenaline pumping. It’s an amazing feeling–the kind you read about in real epics like Beowulf and The Iliad.
Not only are the boss battles epic, but the world is hauntingly beautiful. Lordran looks dark, empty, and full of despair. As you travel through it, slaying hollowed enemies and monsters, the environments are decayed and decrepit. Castles are run down and half-destroyed. Once beautiful forests are now overgrown and filled with slimy creatures. Even a beautiful city is only an illusion. The creators did an amazing job of creating a world that was once thriving and beautiful. But is now corrupt, black, and empty like all of its inhabitants. It reminded me of the first Bioshock.
The level design is brilliant. Your hub point, Firelink Shrine, has several divergent paths. From those, you begin your exploration of this accursed world. But all the areas twist and loop naturally back to Firelink Shrine. This inter-connectivity makes the world feel alive and sprawling, like all the strands of a spider web (there’s probably a less creepy simile I can use). Each area is unique, but well within your standard fantasy RPG. There’s the forest level, castle levels, underground sewers, and demonic fire areas. The only issue is that some of these have serious technical problems. The poison-filled swamp of Blighttown is a nightmare, but for the wrong reasons. It’s not difficult, it’s just full of lag and framerate issues. It’s already hard enough traversing a poisonous swamp while poisonous mosquitoes bite at you, without having serious lag. This lag also makes PvP incredibly annoying.
Yes, Dark Souls has multiplayer. If you’re in human form, which you become by using humanity items within the world, you can summon NPCs or other real life players into your game. The problem is you can be invaded while human. Players can use an item to invade another player’s world. You appear as a red phantom and hunt down the player. Killing him/her grants you humanity (but also makes you kind of an asshole). The main issue is that there’s no balancing. I was only ever invaded by players who were at a significantly higher level than me. It wasn’t fun, just really irritating. The extreme lag during multiplayer fights doesn’t help either. It reached a point where’d I see that I was invaded, sigh and mumble several curse words, and resign myself to death. In a game already this difficult, these invasions made the game seem unbearable.
Therein lies Dark Souls‘ biggest issue. It’s too unbearably difficult in the beginning. Dark Souls is a masterpiece, but you have to beat your head against wall, for at least four hours, until you reach all the things that make it great. It wasn’t until my third attempt, when I literally had nothing to do but play Dark Souls, that I was finally able to break through the wall and “get” Dark Souls. I quit both of my other first attempts because it was so difficult. I understand reacting against the “casual” nature of modern games, but the beginning of Dark Souls is too extreme. The fact that the beginning of Dark Souls requires a Wiki, a few Let’s Plays, and a degree in patience and anger management, is a knock against it. There’s also some serious artificially difficult aspects at play. Most heinous is that you can’t pause the game. Are you kidding me? I’m a father of two children both under two, I’d like to pause the game to pick them up when they’re crying at night without having to start the level all over again.
If you have the time and patience, Dark Souls is a masterpiece that you absolutely must play. But unless you have a significant amount of time that you can devote to it, I can’t recommend it. The opening areas are too unbearable, and unless you’re able to break through the metaphorical wall, you will hate Dark Souls. You’ll find it a boring slog and rage quit. I love Dark Souls and am eagerly awaiting tomorrow’s release of Dark Souls III, but the difficulty of the first game is an almost deal-breaking flaw.