After finishing Dark Souls I was struck by how original the game was. Beyond its originality it takes two very big risks. For one, it leaves the player with very little guidance. NPC dialogue is cryptic at times and blind explorations can sometimes lead to dead ends or areas of the game that your character cannot face yet due to an undiscovered item or overwhelming enemies within that area. If you decide to play this game without ever consulting an online guide or video walkthrough then it might feel maze-like in its construction. It immediately reminded me of Legend of Zelda in that way. You’re given the basic tools for killing enemies and then sent on your way to discover the secrets of the world and become more powerful along the way. You feel very naked when the game begins. You’re lusting for better weapons, armor and spells and hoping that the next enemy you kill or the next area you discover might proffer some treasure to that end. This type of heated initiative is the engine behind most successful RPGs and Dark Souls does a particularly good job of creating a vast array of armor sets and unique weapons (all upgradeable, by the way) that keeps the hunger for discovery at a fevered pitch. You can wield anything from a dagger to a katana or an enormous dragon tooth. You can be whatever type of player you want to be and mix and match your weaponry and spells in several ways. You can tailor your character to the type of RPG class that you may be devoted to from other games. The only hitch is that you will probably need at least 8-12 hours to master the very steep learning curve and to understand how different items benefit the kind of playing style you’ve chosen. But if you do manage to break through that wall you will you really start to appreciate this game. It requires patience and it harkens back to the true progression games where dying was the only way to learn from your mistakes. The developers almost always make your discoveries valuable ones as the price for attaining them is dire. That leads me to the second risk that the game takes…
…It is incredibly hard. The kinds of hard that will make you hit your couch or throw your controller when the inevitable death occurs during zone or boss progression. By making a game this difficult the developers are almost banking on a certain kind of gamer to buy it. It was almost as if they didn’t care how many people bought the game. In a sense they were saying, “We don’t care if it is too hard, this is how it is.”
If I had to compare it to previous games other than its predecessor Demon Souls, it would be something like and amalgam of Devil May Cry and Resident Evil 4. It is equal parts suspense and adventure but at its core is an enigmatic world that you can’t quite put your finger on. I was almost glad that I didn’t know everything about the world while I was playing. It added to the heightened sense of discovery and in some ways a fear that I didn’t know what I’d be confronted with next. You feel dread, claustrophobia and the incredible sense of euphoria once a zone and its boss are completed. Because the difficulty setting is so punishing on the first playthrough it forces players to adapt to different situations and develop a deeper repertoire of combat skills.
The variety of zone design is another cornerstone of this impressive game. Sometimes you will need to navigate dimly lat caverns where it is impossible to glimpse the opposition until there are within a few feet of your face. Conversely, you will experience the gorgeous, sprawling and palatial feel of Anor Londo, the games challenging halfway marker for most players looks so picturesque that you’d want to set up camp there. It becomes easy to get distracted by the scenery until the player realizes that he must navigate across thin beams set hundreds of feet off the ground where the slightest misstep will mean death – Or battle sinister gargoyles clad with lightning spears while archers with impeccable aim take cheap shots at you from impossible distances; only to find that once you’ve reached the boss chamber that you need to take on two enemies simultaneously, both capable of killing you with a few blows. Completing a zone in Dark Souls is more satisfying than most games because of the odds stacked against you. You will rarely luck into a kill and must always try to outthink or out-gear your opponents. The bottom line is this…you’re going to have to work for it.
Once the player acquiesces to the fact that death is a part of progression in Dark Souls does the game become truly enjoyable. The player becomes a thinker and a planner and more cautious with the leveling process and how they spend their precious souls, the currency garnered from killing enemies and discovering hidden treasure. If you die with 50,000 souls in your inventory and you haven’t spent them, you have one chance to get back to the spot where you died to reclaim them. If you die on the way there then your bankroll of souls is gone forever along with several hairs from the top of your head. The currency system forces you to plan ahead and to not get greedy or ambitious once you’ve conquered a specific challenge. There is nothing more demoralizing than beating a tough boss only to go boldly into the next zone and drop 90,000 souls that you just labored for 3 hours to attain. If I can impart one very valuable piece of advice to new players it would be this: Once you have enough souls to level then do so. If you try and explore a new area you are guaranteed to die and will have a 50/50 chance at recovering your souls. Discretion is at a premium and the safest and least frustrating way to explore a new area is with the least amount of risk to your soul bank should you perish and not recover.
The PVP aspect of the game is a very enjoyable one if you understand how the “humanity” tool/item works. Throughout the game you will find the humanity item or gain it by killing monsters within a certain area. When you use humanity at a bonfire you can reverse your undead persona and revive in human form. This has great benefits and also great risk. The benefit is that you can summon in-game NPCs to assist in a boss fight or other players that are at or near your level if you click on “summon” signs on the ground. They will be glowing white if they are a friendly NPC or player that is offering help but you will only see these signs if you are in human form. The risk is that you can get invaded by other players at or near your level in human form. There are items that allow other players to invade your world or for you to invade other worlds. This is a good way to gain souls or humanity as that will be your reward should you triumph during an invasion. I once grabbed 440,000 souls from a player who invaded me as well as gaining +1 humanity in the process. It is a fun part of the game that should be experienced as it is an exhilarating accomplishment to defeat another player and some of the most memorable combat moments I had were battling against or alongside other players. Humanity is a valuable item and it is recommended that you spend them carefully as there are a finite number of them in the world unless you indulge in pvp where you can amass humanity in short order after successful invasions. If you follow the path that allows you to join the Darkwraith covenant, there is an item that will let you invade other players without consuming the item in the process. I recommend this path strongly if you are deadest on experiencing pvp as without this item you will not be able to invade other worlds as often as you’d like.
One of the shining stars of Dark Souls is the boss encounters. They are always intimidating and leave no room for error. If the player is able to reach a boss chamber then the game expects them to be good enough to beat that boss. Ironically, the only boss I killed in one attempt was the final boss, and that was only because he was susceptible to soul magic, the caster-class sorcery within the Dark Souls universe. I took the time to level my magic skills to an overpowered state before that encounter and it proved to be too much and it basically trivialized the boss. Every other boss in the game took several attempts to complete and if you enter every new zone without grinding out several levels on your character then the difficulty level may feel ultra tough.
Finally, enough cannot be said for how the gaming community has rallied around this title. There are so many useful wikis and walkthroughs so that players who are stuck can find a way to unlock the next secret or figure out the strategy for a boss. I encourage everyone to check out a walkthrough now and again when you’re stuck. I enjoyed trying zones without them but I always found something valuable later on when I consulted a video or a guide that revealed a secret room or item I overlooked. This is a fantastic game and like all other RPGs it takes patience and understanding to unlock the secrets of the world. Once you do it will be a difficult game to put down.