Few games create a reaction quite like Dark Souls does. For most people, it exists merely as a curiosity, they know only of its gruelling difficulty and as such refuse to touch it for fear of losing their minds. For others, it’s a rite of passage, a true test of your gaming mettle, the ultimate gauntlet, a game fair enough that people can try, but devious enough that those not prepared will give up entirely. Then there are those that just plain love it, a sort of Dark Souls family, comprised either of those a good chunk of the way through the game, or those that have completed it, they rattle off jokes and references to the brilliant Knight Solaire, ensure that they’re always praising the sun, and patiently wait for the next gauntlet From Software throw their way. Usually players begin as the first kind of person and work their way towards the other end of the spectrum, but not everyone makes it, and that’s what makes Dark Souls the game it is.
I am proud to say that I have finally become part of that final group, just recently I completed Dark Souls for the first time. It’s funny, really, this article was originally going to be a review, not a feature, I expected to meet the end of the game with pure elation, accomplished, but with no desire to ever go back to it or touch its sequel. But after slogging through 60 hours of one of gaming’s most cruel creations, I fear I have instead fallen in love, and this will no longer be a review, but an article declaring said love for one of the greatest games I have ever had the fortune of playing.
On the surface, Dark Souls is simply a horrible, unfair game that exists purely to make its players mad. Offering no real challenge, but instead a multitude of brick walls one after another, leaving you to charge through each one headfirst until you’re concussed and unable to go on. From your first steps wielding your straight sword hilt and carefully treading through the narrow corridors of the undead asylum, you’re petrified with fear, after all, you already know this game isn’t going to go easy on you. You dispatch the first few enemies, becoming a little more confident, wondering what all the fuss concerning this supposed difficulty was about. You then ascend a rusty ladder into a large, open room and rest at the game’s first bonfire. Ahead of you lies a giant door, you’re hesitant, but with no other way to go, you open it, only to find the room beyond empty. Breathing a sigh of relief, you step across the threshhold and wander around a bit, when out of nowhere a giant creature crashes down from above you and delivers your first death, welcome to Dark Souls.
It’s true, the game is difficult, it can feel downright unfair at times, in fact most of the time. But those brave or stupid enough to venture on will discover something brilliant, something magical, a game in a whole class of its own. So what makes Dark Souls so special? Well, first and foremost are the online capabilities, for the most part it’s a strictly single-player RPG, but the power of the internet turns it into a hybrid of sorts. While adventuring through the lands of Lordran you will notice a variety of different markings on the ground. At first you’ll see the orange signs, these are messages from other players, just like you. These orange signs can convey a variety of information, from tips to commentary, what makes them interesting is that, as they are player-created, you have to make the decision of whether to trust them or not.
The next thing you’ll notice are bloodstains, activate one of these and you’ll be rewarded with oftentimes hilarious recaps of player deaths. Finally there are the white signs, these are what transform Dark Souls from single-player to co-op, activate one of these and you may summon another player to your world in order to help you complete a tricky section, or even fight off other players who have invaded your world. Invaders are the final online component to the game, while in human form you can be invaded by another player who will then attempt to kill you, which can become a major annoyance if you’re trying to overcome a difficult obstacle. These online functions really help create a sense of community in the game, I spent most of my game in undead form so didn’t experience much in the way of meeting other actual players, but even the orange signs alone can really transform your experience, adding a whole new layer of gameplay in trying to figure out whose advice to heed.
But the thing that really makes Dark Souls special, is the game itself. Sure, while at the outset it may seem cruel, unfair, ridiculous and oftentimes plain annoying, but, like anything, if you keep at it, you will succeed. When I started the game, I felt I was doing surprisingly well, until I ran into the game’s first real boss, the taurus demon, I eventually overcame it, but then the boss after gave me even more trouble, I likely exceeded 50 attempts trying to beat this thing, but eventually, I did it, and I couldn’t be happier that I persevered. No other boss in the game gave me as much trouble as that one, which is not to say that the other bosses are easier, but rather, as you play, you grow, both in skill and in knowledge. You begin to gain a far more intimate understanding of your character, how much damage you can take, the time is takes for animations to finish, your weapon’s attacks and how much damage they do, you learn enemy behaviors, boss mechanics, you grow and grow and grow until Dark Souls can no longer beat you. Yes, you will still run into trouble along the way, but like everything else that stopped you before, you know you can overcome it. It’s that sense of achievement, that feeling of learning as you go along, making light work of things you couldn’t dream of doing earlier, that transcends Dark Souls from an incredible game, to a masterpiece.
I urge anyone that has so much as a passing interest in this game to play it, not only play it, but persevere with it. It’s a real gem, an incredible experience from beginning to end, and a rarity in today’s world of games holding your hand and essentially helping you to complete them. Dark Souls is unrelenting, it makes you throw all of your preconceptions out of the window and forces you to shape up if you can’t manage something. It’s difficult, it’s unfair at times, but it should be respected. The fact that a developer in this day and age had the courage to put something like Dark Souls, and Demon’s Souls before it out there into the world should be commended. Do yourself and From Software a favor, play their game, see where it takes you. I hope I’ll see you in Drangleic when Dark Souls 2 comes around.