Sixty hours. Spending that much time with a game is hardly a rarity, especially an RPG. According to the timer within Dark Souls, I have played for about sixty hours. What strikes me about Dark Souls, beyond that I still have a decent chunk of the game left to play, is HOW I spent that time. The hours I’ve spent in the world of Dark Souls is truly just that…spending time in a WORLD. Most games funnel you toward objectives and side missions in someway. A character’s path is almost always determined in advance in some manner. That isn’t true here. Dark Souls does have a main quest and does have side missions, but the game dispenses with such labeling. This hands off approach that basically says “Here’s the land, it’s up to you to find out what’s going on!” is something that is rare among games, especially modern ones. It’s been called the most difficult game ever by some, and while I’m not quite sure I agree with that, it certainly makes a compelling case for it. It’s not so much the foes you will face (there are many and all can easily kill you) or the maze like dungeons. It’s the experience of taking on both without assistance of any kind. Dark Souls does not hold the player’s hand. It demands thought and focus to make progress. It’s that unique quality that sets it apart from most anything else on the market.
The mechanics of Dark Souls will be familiar to any of you that played it’s predecessor Demon’s Souls. Third person, swords, spears,bow and arrow, magic, kill enemies, etc. It’s a very traditional fantasy type setting. The combat is very timing based, with a combination of blocking with a shield and/or dodging out-of-the-way of incoming attacks the best way to approach most fights. Running up to anything and just mashing on the attack button *will* result in a quick death every time. Even when venturing back to the starting areas and fighting the first skeleton enemies I encountered has killed me when I try to just power through it. Waiting for the right time attack is key. One of the most impressive parts of Dark Souls is the weapons you’ll be doing the attacking with. Swords, spears, axes, bows and arrow, scythes, whips, fist Weapons, magic, maces, morning stars, crossbows…..there are a TON of weapons in this game. Each type has its own animations and those vary greatly between one-handed and two-handed fighting styles. Weapons in RPG’s can fall into the habit of just being a cosmetic choice, but Dark Souls is about as far from that as one can get.
The story of the game is…practically non existent and is probably the biggest criticism I have with the game. The lack of a true straight forward plot does give the whole affair a quality of mystery though. The small pieces of information that we do get about characters or events just spawn more questions, but it’s tantalizing enough to make you think that there is a bigger picture to be discovered if only you pushed ahead a little more. The game starts with you turning undead, a mindless zombie locked up in a fortress with other mindless zombies and left to die, except you’re not mindless. Zombified as you may be, your senses and ability to think remain intact. With only a part of a prophecy about you being the one to bring this land engulfed in darkness back to the light, you break out of the prison and try to find your way in a world almost overrun with monsters, demons, or insane undead that you’re lucky to not be among.
It’s the exploration of this world that is the most rewarding part of Dark Souls. Unlike Demon’s Souls, this is an open world. There is a HUB type area to help you get your bearings, but shortcuts and hidden paths to traverse the many locales abound. Castles filled with zombies (and a dragon!), dangerous toxic swamps, lost cities of giants, haunted forests, flooded ghost towns, it’s truly amazing to find a small path and come across a whole new area to explore. Littered about this world are bonfires which serve as checkpoints. Touching one means an instant refill of health and a refill of healing potions but in a nefarious move, also resets all enemies but bosses. The last bonfire touched will also serve as the respawn point after your death. This is important because you will die A LOT. Not only are enemies dangerous in combat, but the perils of a new area will usually mean doom at least three or four times, if not upwards of ten. Enemies hidden away will surprise you or large spears will shoot out of walls and impale you. Also, there are pits you will fall into and rolling boulders that will crush you. It sounds like I’m talking about a Mario game, but I assure you, it’s much more violent and scary. I never found the game to be unfair though. Souls are earned for every kill and serve the role of experience points and currency. Death will result in you leaving a bloody mark on the ground that can be touched to retrieve any lost souls but only if you survive long enough to get back where you were before. Of course, all enemies respawn. Die again and say goodbye to all the souls! As harsh as it sounds, this serves a purpose. There is a strategy of exploring an area expecting to die, finding a good spot to grind some souls in, using them to gain levels and buy things, then press on with the game.
It’s not any of the above that is the true challenge and uniqueness of Dark Souls. The game is different from almost everything else because of one design choice: Dark Souls does not hold your hand. At all. There is no funnel to get you to the next area. There are no objectives markers on the map. Hell, THERE ISN’T A MAP. Yes, this open world game with interconnected areas forces you to just remember how to get places. There isn’t a quest log either. NPC’s will talk to you, some will give you things to do, most of the time in vague hints, but it’s up to you to remember these things. It’s amazing to me that Dark Souls has the balls to do this, because From Software (the developers of the game) have built-in a huge risk of many players not experiencing huge chunks of their content. There’s more than one area that can only be accessed by secret or very confusing methods, and I believe that at least fifty percent of the player base will never see it. These are not small rooms with easter eggs in them. I’m talking a whole zone inside a massive tree, full of items, unique settings and enemies, and even a covenant (the factions in the Dark Souls universe, I’ll get to them in a second) that can’t be found anywhere else. I’m sure a massive amount of time and work went into making those. That From Software is ok with many players not seeing this area makes finding it exhilarating. The lack of hand holing in any form goes a little TOO over the top though for me, namely in the fact that you cannot pause the game. You can quit and save anywhere when not in combat, but I dislike the fact that if I’m fighting a giant crystal golem and my phone rings, I’m put in a bind. Pausing does not give you any advantage and should be in the game.
The online portion of Dark Souls is entirely based in the game lore. This is basically a single player game with the ability to call in RANDOM other players at specific points. Finding and playing with a certain friend is impossible. In the game, other players around you can be seen as phantoms, just skeleton outlines of other players actually adventuring around you. At bonfires these skeletal outlines become full character models sitting with you, which gives a nice sense of “hey that guy keeps dying and respawning back here too!”. Finding soul signs on the ground lets you summon in other players to your game, with their job being to help you defeat the area boss. There is no voice chat, the only communication is a basic emote system, but it’s fun to bond with a stranger over the insanely hard boss fights. Pvp is present as well, with the ability to invade another players world and murder them for precious humanity (humanity lets you activate bonfires to give more healing potions and you need to be in human and not zombie form to summon other players to help you….plus it’s just fun to beat somebody down once in a while). The aforementioned covenants are how most PvP action takes place. For example, as I explored a haunted forest, I came across a large talking cat. (This game is pretty Japanese). The cat was the guardian of the forest and said I could join her, which would mean I could walk around and explore without being attacked by the NPC’s around…her only request was that if I was needed to defend the forest, I would heed the call. I said sure why not (She was a giant talking cat she had me at hello) and she gave me a ring. Wearing it means that AT ANY TIME it’s possible I will be summoned by my feline overlord to fight an unforunate soul who wandered into the forest without being a part of her forest covenant. I love that Dark Souls has no breaking of the fourth wall, even the online pvp stuff is wrapped in the story. Other covenants give bonuses to working WITH other players, such as medals earned that can be turned in for items. No matter if you’re the adversarial or cooperative type, there’s a covenant that will help you do what you want to do, all within the game world.
I’ve glossed over a ton of the nuts and bolts of the Dark Souls experience. There’s a deep and somewhat confusing weapon and armor upgrade system, a stamina meter, what certain symbols on the ground mean and even the ability to level up in covenants. There are entire wiki’s devoted to character builds. If Dark Souls takes hold of you like it did me, there’s plenty of sites out there that cover all of that. My aim is merely this: being a voice that gets more people playing this game. The difficult combat and sense of freedom from having none of the niceties commonly found in today’s video games makes Dark Souls truly stand out. It is most definitely a challenge. You will get frustrated, the game will take a very long time, and you’ll miss things. But the sense of finding something epic is there around every corner, and is rewarded enough times to keep that feeling a constant companion. It’s a game that sucks you in to its world completely. I’m lost as hell in almost every other game, constantly checking the mini map. In Dark Souls I can tell you exactly how to get to the bottom of Darkroot Basin from Firelink Shrine, no map needed. Why? Because Dark Souls made me THINK. It makes me focus on and inhabit the world like no other game does. Dark Souls demands your full attention and quite frankly, it deserves it.