I am not the type to be attracted to brutally hard games. I am just not the type of person to get a thrill off beating an uber difficulty challenge. It is just not how my brain works. But then I started to watch this Let’s Play of Dark Souls. It not only made me fascinated with the game, it almost made me a bit obsessive about it. Since it is a game I could potentially hate though I didn’t buy it right away, instead I was going to wait for a sale so if I didn’t like it I wouldn’t lose too much money. And it just happened that the latest Humble Bundle had Dark Souls on it. As you can imagine I bought that Humble Bundle and have been playing the game for the last few days. Much to my surprise I am enjoying the game a lot!
If you never heard of Dark Souls before, the game is basically a medieval fantasy with some light horror elements action RPG. It is infamous for being very hard. Although I wonder how much of that infamy is actually deserved. Don’t get me wrong, the game is challenging and in these few last days I died more times than I can count. However I never felt like any of those deaths happened for unfair reasons. It was always either because I was getting confused with the controllers (I don’t play much with the controller nowadays and my mind is still stuck in the SNES era as far as those go), because I was reckless or wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings. This is a game where that kind of thing can be lethal. It is a game that rewards patience, observation and thinking in strategic terms. And in a way that feels very Old School, like in some PC RPGs of the 90ies.
This kind of “reward” system, for lack of a better term, isn’t limited to just combat. It is also applied to level design and enemy placement. There is a lot of loot that you can see in some area but then have to figure out how to get there. Some times it is something simple like jumping from a higher place, other times it a piece of broken ledge that is hidden behind some breakable barrels and there are times where it is just a promise that you will eventually get to that area to loot it.
The level design also leads to some risk vs reward tension. You can keep exploring, with the promises of better rewards and getting closer to another safe spot but at the risk of dying, losing your souls and have to fight back your way to where you died the first time and reacquire the souls you lost. And if you can’t make it back to where you died the first time those souls are lost which can be quite painful since in this game souls are what is used to increase your stats and as currency to buy items in the merchants.
Death is also an intrinsic part of the game. While in other games it would be a fail state, in Dark Souls it is a setback. Granted it can be a very annoying and aggravating setback, but it something you learn to accept. It is a lesson that you should have been more careful or that you should rethink your strategy on how to tackle a certain challenge.
Despite it being a single-player game and all the challenge, it is not one where you are complete alone either. Throughout the game you can find messages left by other players that can give warnings like “Be wary of corner” or “Tough enemy ahead” and prepare accordingly. Yes, those messages can also be used to say useless stuff like “Tears” or even trolling like “Try jumping” just next to a cliff. But I found the latter to be very rare. We can also leave messages to other players after acquiring an item early in the game. That item also allow us to rate other people’s messages.
Another way to get a sense of the danger ahead is by finding blood stains on the floor. By touching those we can see the ghost of another player and have an idea of how they died. And if something is too challenging there is also a way to invite other players to help out. But since everything in Dark Souls is a constant tension of risk vs. reward this too can be dangerous as it allows other players to invade your world to PVP with you. I haven’t tried that though as so far I haven’t felt the need. Plus I am really scared of someone invading my game, killing me in three seconds tops and stealing my hard earned souls. :p
And I feel these are just the tip of the iceberg of this game. I haven’t made all that much progress so far so there is a lot about it I don’t know yet. I also didn’t say anything about the game’s lore, not because it is unimportant but simply because I don’t know what to say about it. The best way I can describe it is that isn’t told in conventional cut-scenes or making it all about your character. A lot about it is vague and told mostly through some conversations with NPCs and item descriptions. Or at least that has been the case so far for me. Again, I haven’t made much progress about the game so things may change at a later point but I am not expecting it to change that much.
Anyway, it is a fascinating game, definitely a masterpiece of design where everything seems to have been carefully thought. If you feel like it wouldn’t be the kind of game for you then I recommend to at least try watching a “Let’s Play” about it (I recommend the one I linked above although it is incomplete right now). Myself, I am glad I bought this game and after I am finished with it I might give Dark Souls II a try and maybe even Bloodborne which shares much of its DNA with Dark Souls.