Hard, difficult, frustrating, troublesome, tough, problematic, arduous, herculean, vexing, trying, backbreaking, grueling, challenging, tricky, rough, rocky, baffling, fractious, and down-right embarrassing [Ed: You forgot ‘soul crushingly infuriating’]. These are all synonyms for Dark Souls. In the Oxford English dictionary under the word ‘difficult’, the definition simply says; ‘Dark Souls’. I have never played anything like it; it’s unique. At first I used all the above words and many unprintable ones to describe it, often at the top of my voice and sometimes through my teeth, hissing in frustration. But with time I gradually found other words for Dark Souls; reward, respect, learn, skill, elation, win, gratifying, gain, reach, advance, make headway, satisfying, enjoy, rise, and earn it! Find out how Dark Souls beat me down, tore me a new one, and then slowly built me back up and won me over… after the jump.
I enjoy RPG games. Ever since my first foray into the brilliance of Baldur’s Gate, I’ve been hooked. I love building up my character, choosing stats, finding the best kit, and succeeding. The important bit, of course, is ‘succeeding’. The problem is, in our busy day to day life, spending time playing games can often feel like a waste of time, most notably when you don’t succeed or move forward. Sure, it’s digital success, but most of the time it’s no less sweet than the real deal. I have even tried my hand at the most successful RPG of all time, World of Warcraft. I enjoyed it for a while, and then the repetitive grinding required for success lost my interest. Dark Souls, however, is a different kettle of demons.
The thing about kettles is that boiling water burns. In all probability the most frustratingly hard game I have ever played, Dark Souls dunks you into the deep end of the kettle, sits on the lid, and leaves you to burn. It’s definitely the hardest game I have played and yet kept playing! In Dark Souls you’re going to die, often and messily. You’re going to die when you least expect it. You’re going to die in one hit, in two, in a hail of arrows, crushed to death, bludgeoned to death, and many more creative ways. Sometimes you’ll die simply by falling off a cliff. You’re going to die in the first few minutes and you’re going to keep dying all the way through. In Dark Souls, death is inevitable, death is around every corner, and death is your friend. Yes I said it, your friend. You see, in Dark Souls, dying is part and parcel of the game. In some ways, without it you can’t move forward. Because through death you will eventually succeed, you will learn from your mistakes, and you will gain another step or two, until you die again…
Every time you die you’ll lose all your accumulated souls, and in Dark Souls, these are your currency and your experience points. You earn souls by killing your enemies and collecting soul-giving items. You trade souls to buy items at merchants, to upgrade your character statistics, and eventually you’ll need to hold onto thousands to level up. Fortunately, you can fight your way back to where you died and collect your lost souls from the bloodstained ground. If, by some dint of hard luck [Ed: or stupidity] you manage to die a second time before you collect, that’s just too bad. The first bloodstain is gone, along with your hard earned souls. You will be doing a lot of this, trust me.
One of the most interesting elements of Dark Souls is the interaction between players. In Dark Souls, you’re alone in your world, but your world is not alone. Every player’s world is a parallel dimension to every other, and Dark Souls’ developers, From Software, has included in their game a level of communication between these worlds. You can leave messages in your world which are visible on every world. Warn other players of impending danger, give helpful tips or… you can even deceive them, if that’s how you roll. These messages will help you every step of the way and it’s certainly one of the most interesting devices I have encountered in a game. And no, they are not scrawled in blood. In addition, you can eventually enter other players worlds, to help them defeat a difficult boss or to kill them for their souls. There’s no voice chat, not even text chat. You can’t join a friend’s game, you’ll be thrust alongside a random masochist like yourself, and you’ll die together!
Somehow this level of communication is enough. I found myself loving the dynamic of these messages and there is no denying their usefulness. I left a few myself; mostly the words “I can’t take this”. You can even learn from the bloodstained ground left by other players. Touch a bloodstain and you’ll see the last few moments of another player’s life: you’ll watch a ghostly image of them die at the hands of an enemy and you’ll learn from their death just as you learn from your own.
The game itself looks incredibly pretty. Being based on the equally hard and frustrating Demon Souls (reviewed on this site some time last year), the graphics aren’t new. But they’ve been polished and refined and they look good, especially with regard to the effects when you cast spells. The landscapes are more open than Demon Souls’, and there are some fantastic views. In other words, you get to die in some interesting, scenic, pretty places. I enjoyed the level designs, the long walkways along cliff sides and the inevitable slip to your doom. The open areas where large numbers of enemies can surround you and hack you to death and the small corridors where there’s no escape from the knives in front of you. The enemies are varied and many are fantastic to gaze upon, just as they slice you apart. Beating each different type of enemy will require different tactics, different weapons, and spells. Some are only vulnerable to slashing attacks, fire, or lightning. Some you can’t even touch before you’ve consumed an item. All these things and more you’ll be faced with and you’ll die and die and die… until you discover the key to their demise. It’s a good thing we didn’t have to learn like this at University. The student turnover would have been stupendous.
Masochism doesn’t come naturally to me; I skipped self-flagellation class in high school [Ed: You missed some fascinating lessons]. In the beginning, Dark Souls destroyed me. I decided to play as a class called ‘deprived’, because that class started with even stats across the board and I like choice (as evidenced by my review of Deus Ex: Human Revolution). Later on, I was doing some research, and discovered that I had chosen the most difficult class, reserved for seasoned players. Turns out I’m not a masochist; I’m a sucker for punishment. I pushed on with this class for days. I screamed, I shouted, I swore, I told myself that I wouldn’t pick up the control again. But I did. I tried another class; it was ever so slightly easier. But soon enough I was in the same position as before. A frustratingly difficult mini-boss had me stumped; I was dying repetitively and had nowhere else to go. Several hours later I finally ‘got it’. He swung twice left, once right and if I timed my parry perfectly I could score a vital hit. Success! This time the controller was thrown in the air not in frustration but in exaltation!
Here’s the rub. Success in Dark Souls really means something: you earn it in blood and sweat and broken controllers. You earn every single, hard-won yard, and when you finally break through a frustrating situation you will, like me, feel it to your core. It’s a heady experience. The corpse of the boss lay at my feet and I picked up the controller in my sweaty palms and, adrenaline pumping I resumed my journey.
Twenty feet onwards I died in a mass of skeletal blades, hacked into tiny pieces.
Dark Souls is not for everybody. I certainly did not think it was for me, but it grows on you like a rash [Ed: Or a bubo. In all seriousness, you do not want to find pictures. Don’t say I didn’t warn you]. You keep coming back for more agony, because when you do succeed, it feels great, wonderful, amazing, brilliant, exuberant, thrilling, fantastic, sensational, spec-freaking-tacular. My advice is thus: try it, and push yourself past your usual tolerance boundary. If after that you’re still not interested, go stick your hand in a boiling kettle and get it over with. If you’re still going, then I advise you stock up on expletives. You’re going to need them.
Score: 8.5 out of 10 prawns (Because it’s really really hard and made me feel like a beaten child)
Publisher: From Software
Distributor: Megarom Games
RRP: R599 (PS3, Xbox 360)
Release Date: 04 October 2011
Age Rating: 16