Review: Dark Souls

November 10, 2011, Author: Ray Willmott

There are ways of punishing yourself without being as dramatic as to end it all. You could disallow yourself from eating your favourite food for an amount of time, you could lock yourself up in your room and refuse to let yourself out, you could say that you’re not allowed to buy the game release you’ve been waiting months for, or deny yourself watching the film that everyone is talking about.

That, or you could play Dark Souls; a callous, venomous, merciless beast that will not stop punishing you until you break down and cry in front of your television set.

Believe me, this isn’t a company line that has been spewed out to all journalists. One thing we can all harmoniously agree upon is that Dark Souls is a punishing experience that will rob you of your dignity. It will make you question your abilities as a gamer.

Playing this will hurt…

Rite of Passage? Pfft…
I’m just going to come out and say it; I cannot understand the infatuation with this game. I just can’t. It’s not because I’m not a Role Playing game fan; I’ve been playing RPGs since I was ten years old, and Skyrim is my most anticipated game this year. It’s not because I’m a new gamer who is green to anything that doesn’t checkpoint me for every millisecond I move, or because I’ve unlearned the brutality of the 80’s gaming catalogue. It’s not because I’m adverse to a challenge and don’t like a game to test me or push me to my limits.

It’s because I eventually got past the stage of caring about Dark Souls to even want to drudge through its arduous, unrelenting shit-storm of self-importance and high and mighty “I’m better than you” horsebollocks. If you’re masochistic, however, this is probably the biggest wet dream you could have ever possibly imagined…

Spiritual successor to Demon Souls, Dark Souls is an equally, if not more, challenging experience. The story opens by telling us dragons are the sole, dominant entities in the world, until four beings come together and embrace the power of the Fire of Lords. This enables them to defeat the dragons, thus making humans the new dominant species.

Enjoying their newfound ascendancy, the humans live their lives to the full. However, their indulgences are not without consequence. An unknown affliction has taken hold of the humans, placing a Darksign on them. This branding turns a human into an immortal undead. While the idea of that may seem incredibly appealing from the offset, the Darksign means that humans can return to life after they pass away, but will gradually lose their sanity over-time, becoming increasingly violent, eventually degrading into a tormented creature known as a Hollow.

You will start the game as an imprisoned undead who has not yet become a hollow. With the help of another undead, you manage to make your escape, and learn of a prophecy that one undead will leave the Aslyum and ring the Bell of Awakening. Dark Souls is focused on your character’s journey as an undead, with a thought that you may indeed be the chosen one, but to fulfil your destiny you must traverse a tarnished, cruel, overturned world, whilst dealing with your character’s dissension into depravity.

Truly, it’s a great premise, and has real scope to deliver a compelling video-game. Unfortunately, from the opening sequence on, Dark Souls merely serves as an instrument of torture, rather than something I could genuinely come to love.

This game will beat you...

No, it’s not just the difficulty…
No, before you say it, it’s not just because the game is too hard, though that does certainly play its part. The point of Dark Souls (as was with Demon Souls) is to create something so hideous and vile that you will give up before the end. The game wants you to tuck tail and go home. It wants the majority to find pastures new somewhere else, so that only a select few will discover its secrets.

This is where Dark Souls creates a beautiful illusion for itself, by making you think and feel the good events are extra special because of how hard you’ve had to work to get to them. Never have I seen such fiendish, borderline ingenious game developing, and yet, I cannot see past the ugly because the whole experience has left me apathetic.

I understand why people would want to see the best in a game like Dark Souls. After spending hours, close to snapping their fingers on a pad through repeated button tapping, their eyes bleeding from the anguish of staring at the same scenes over again, they will want at least a hint of recognition for that. So, when the game does finally show some mercy, providing that key sequence, or that defining moment, it does make you grin, and makes you believe that somewhere buried deep beneath this suffering, there is indeed a diamond in this rough.

Yet, the harsh reality is that I’ve found greater entertainment elsewhere, and not at the expense of wanting to stop playing games forever, wanting to tear out the remainder of my hair, or put my face through the television set.

The moments of splendour which Dark Souls offers, to me, just aren’t worth the trouble, especially when that sense of accomplishment sometimes boils down to successfully finding an exploit in the game’s code and taking advantage of it, rather than anything you’ve actually achieved within the rules and boundaries of the game.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the game’s difficulty was solely determined by how much health an enemy takes off you in one hit, or how many times you have to hit an enemy to kill it, or how difficult a boss is, or how long a particular section will take to pass. It’s not even so bad that you will spend the majority of your time holding down L1 to block, waiting for the counter strike, or picking the right moment to strike your enemy, even if that sometimes means waiting for a full minute. It’s not even the fact that the enemy hound on you in packs, ranged foes throwing Molotov cocktails at you while you’re fighting three or four enemies with a simple sword and shield.

The game is also riddled with glitches and exploits which, more often than not, will work against you. The enemies can get in lucky shots if you’re slightly exposed and completely obliterate your health bar. At times, you’ll swear you’re blocking, but they will break through your defences and crush you. Enemies will just appear and destroy you, catching you completely unawares. Some will even pop potions in the middle of a fight, restoring their health completely. Every foreseeable nightmare you can envisage has been completely catered for and allowed to thrive in this package.

...and beat you...

The game does have glitches that will work in your favour, though, there’s one boss that can actually get stuck on an archway, enabling you to finish it off with relative ease. You can also push some enemies off the edge, just as easily as you can fall off them yourself. This is also quite fortunate; because there are some enemies you will never be able to kill in the game, no matter what upgrades you’re kitted out with. So, unless you get lucky and find a glitch, or you kick them over the edge, you’re just going to have to run.

If only that was the extent of the issues. Frankly, the checkpoint system is completely unfair and unnecessarily annoying. Checkpoints are bonfires maintained by Fire Keepers, which allow you a moment to rest, but also to level up your character, reinforce your weapons and even rekindle an undead character, reanimating it as a human again.

However, with the incredible distance between some of these bonfires, on some occasions, you will need to go back as far as half hours worth of game-time if you die, and there is no way of saving in-between. You can’t even kill a batch of enemies, run back to the bonfire and save it, because, guess what, the enemies will respawn. The game will cheat you, but you cannot cheat it.

Oh, and by the way, you can kill the Fire Keeper at the bonfire, and if you do so by accident, you won’t be able to save at that bonfire, ever. So, there is a chance you can go without saving your game for a full hour or longer if the worst should happen. Just thought I’d warn you…

Every time you defeat an enemy, they produce souls. You collect souls and use them as currency within the game. So these souls can be used at the bonfires to develop key attributes, but normally, they can be used to barter with vendors you find scattered around the game. Vendors, by the way, which you can also kill, accidentally or (if you’re clinically bat-shit mental) on purpose.

The bosses are also marvellous in scale and stature. There are few other games where you can look at a boss, and genuinely want to turn around and leave. You know that undertaking this battle could well be the death of you before him. Dark Souls lays it on so incredibly thick, that you will pray for a hint or to be shown a weakpoint, but it will never give it to you, it will never take pity. The game forces you to take the initiative and find out what you need to do yourself, rather than spelling it out for you in block capitals.

One thing I will say for Dark Souls, I’ve never felt such terror and fear just from turning a corner. The thought of dying when I’ve put such distance between that last checkpoint is a thought I can hardly bear. Not since the days of the original Silent Hill and Resident Evil with the lights turned right down has a game ever had me this petrified.

Basically, if I’m not painting enough of a picture here for you, I’ll say it in the plainest possible terms. If games annoy you, if they bug you, if they make you angry, if you get easily frustrated, if you’re prone to performing murder if pushed over the edge, then please, for your health, for the health of your family and everyone around you, never play this game…

...and beat you...

Death is grey
I can understand the graphical style in Dark Souls, it’s dark, grey, and is a world full of misery, that’s the environment we’re dealing with, but that’s still no excuse for sloppiness. The environments seem clippy and blocky, as if they’re lacking an extra coat of polish and they need some more fine-tuning. Frankly, they look the standard of a five-year old PC game, which, still looks ok, but is quickly becoming very dated.

It also doesn’t help with the amount of glaring glitches you find in the engine. For example, corpses will get stuck on your feet and you’ll find yourself running around with bodies stuck to you. You’ll find yourself clipping through walls; at times my feet were falling through the floor. The movements of the characters look as if they’re missing several frames of animation, and the actions don’t seem at all fluid.

That said, the enemies are well characterised and do have their own identities, some of which are incredibly creepy, and again harken back to the days of old school gaming horror. In that regard, they do fit very well in this ambience. It’s also quite remarkable that loading screens aren’t the bane of your life here, in fact, they’re miraculously conspicuous by their absence, and considering the amount of content here, that is certainly quite a magnificent achievement.

Groans of despair
Not surprisingly, Dark Souls can be a mostly quiet experience, with its sole focus on significance, such as a giant’s footsteps, or duelling swords. The game is designed to create atmosphere, and it does just that. It’s all about the small details, and it actually forces you to listen harder because you’re wanting to make sure you are not caught out as a victim of an ambush.

Of course, the various swings of music, which go from tranquil to dramatic, pale to the genuine fear, intimidation and panic the boss fight symphony induces into your bloodstream. For a moment, you can find yourself frozen to your seat in sheer terror, knowing that you’re about to get pulverised and violated. Games rarely make you feel this paranoid, and rightly so.

A friend in need
Interestingly, while Dark Souls is primarily a single-player experience, it does offer something very unique, which inspires community as much as it triggers thought. Perhaps it’s not so necessary now the game has been out for some time and there are solution guides galore swarming the web, but you can actually leave pre-programmed hints in your game and they will appear in the worlds of other gamers.

These can be subtle hints which will be enough to get the cogs turning, or you could make it even more obvious. It’s a very clever way of getting a community spirit together for what, on paper, is a single player driven experience. With those hints available, the game can certainly seem more open to you, and allow you to plan newer strategies when setting yourself against the enemy that’s thwarted you twenty times previously.

...and beat you, until you can't stand it.

Dead to me?
I’ve been working with This Is My Joystick for over two years, and this is the first time I can genuinely say that I’ve battled with myself over which badge to give this game. I was never going to tell you to buy Dark Souls. Based on my own experiences, that just wouldn’t be good judgement on my part as I play the role of video-game reviewer.

That said, I also couldn’t tell you to avoid this game, because there is so much content available to the user, a wide open world to explore, a unique story sewing it all together that encourages multiple path choices. It’s a package that will easily last you over 60 hours if you will allow it, and its one of those rare titles that you will talk to your friends about, trading strategies and comparing war stories.

So, I’m going to recommend you try it, but with the strongest of cautions. You need to be aware right now that trying it will require investment on its own. You probably won’t know if this game is for you until you’ve sunk at least fifteen hours into it, and even then, there’s no guarantee it will still be the right fit for you. It’s certainly a gamble, the type of devil’s advocate that Dark Souls likes to play, but that’s the risk you’ll have to take if you’re going to face this beast head-on.

Dark Souls throws the gauntlet down to every gamer who fires it up, and it will beat 95% of them. Like the Grim Reaper himself, it will get you in the end, and it will happen when you least expect it, whether it’s very early in the game, or much deeper in the campaign. That said, it’s not a battle I can say isn’t completely worth fighting for, who knows, you might be the exception to the rule. As long as you don’t come in here with delusions of grandeur, you may just find yourself pleasantly surprised by what’s on offer, but you’re going to have to really, really work hard for it.


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