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Dark Souls came out in early October of 2011 around the same time that games like ‘Batman: Arkham City’ and ‘The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’ were also releasing. Because of this, there is a good chance that many gamers who otherwise would have picked this game up in a dry season, passed it over in favor of other games better covered by the gaming media and whose names were more familiar.
Many gamers might have missed this title, but there is good reason, now that “Skyrim Fever” is starting to simmer down, to take a closer look at Dark Souls.
What is Dark Souls about?
Who knows? Japanese story-telling can be notoriously opaque, convoluted, and hard to follow, but Dark Souls barely gives you a taste of what’s lying under the game world and why it is happening. It leads you on with vague hints and a few stray references in item descriptions, but that’s really all you’ll get to go on.
However, it doesn’t really matter. What you need to know is that you play as an immortal, undead warrior of sorts, and you’ve got to take down some of the most enormous, horrifying, grotesque bosses you have ever seen in game design. There are more than a few moments during Dark Souls that will freak you out more than any horror movie you have seen in the past year, but the game is also capable of landscapes and light as beautiful as any you will find in the real world.
An RPG or an Action-Adventure?
When you pick up Dark Souls, you will tell yourself, and the box will tell you, that this is a role-playing game. You level up (both your character and your equipment), increase your stats, and replace your old weapons with new, better ones.
But in many ways, this doesn’t matter either. At level 100, you can still be killed by the very first enemies you encounter in the game if you are not careful. At level 100, you are only marginally more death-resistant than you are at level 1. You must be on your toes at all times while playing Dark Souls, because you are not Mario here: you are the Goomba.
Weapons and armor make only a slight difference, when all is said and done. The real changes to battle mechanics come when using rings and other items that have a tangible effect, such as increasing your health bar, making your movements undetectable to enemies, or allowing you to cast more spells. You don’t level up in Super Mario Bros., you grab a Tanuki Suit or Invincibility Star, and that is what it is like in Dark Souls as well.
You can spend 50 hours gaining levels in Dark Souls, but you will often find that a single item would have given you all, or more, of the benefit of that time spent.
Candy and the Whip
There is a saying in Japanese, 飴と鞭–“candy and the whip”–which expresses the mentality behind some of the design elements in Dark Souls. There is an element of motherly care and provision when you do the right thing the right way and also vicious punishment if you mess up.
Powerful items are placed in areas that are accessible early in the game, but are guarded by difficult enemies that will likely kill you in your attempt to retrieve them. NPCs eagerly seek to help the player in whatever way they can. If you are playing online, the help of other players is also available to fight bosses, warn of ambushes and traps, and provide strategies and tips.
However, the game can feel rather unfair. You would be forgiven for thinking that Dark Souls is not a game, more of a death simulator. Levels, bosses, and common enemies seem designed with only one thing in mind: to kill you in many ways as quickly as possible. Everything that is not helpful is unwaveringly set against you, and even if you have acquired certain abilities or strengths, the next area will find a way to render them totally irrelevant. Victory often feels, not like an outcome of effort, but a fluke.
Let’s Get Together
So, why should you play this brutal, unfair game that seems designed by people who want nothing more than to frustrate the hell out of you? For one thing, the sense of accomplishment is tremendous when you finally pull through against a game whose only goal is to make you fail over and over again. However, the real diamond in the rough is co-op.
Joining a friend to romp through the desolate world of Dark Souls is like a breath of fresh air compared to solitary offline play. The difficulty does not scale up, so what seemed impossible as a lone warrior is at most a stout challenge with one or two friends. Online play also lets you read comments from other players (which are often very funny) and re-watch the recent deaths of players in your area. There is something relieving and humorous about watching a stranger unintentionally back off a cliff to his death while trying to fend off an unseen enemy.
All the elements of exploration and character customization that make great games so great are here in Dark Souls; and the music (sparse as it is), graphics, voice acting, and sound design are nothing short of masterful. Dark Souls has a lot to offer.
It is a truly open fantasy world where you can go, be, and do whatever you want, with your friends or on your own, and it has a steep, but very rewarding learning curve. All this amounts to one of the most robust replay value experiences of any game in recent years and is well worth the price tag of $40.
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