Wait, TAY doesn’t have a proper Dark Souls review? Hot diggity, I guess I get to write it myself. This should be good. I just beat the game and I couldn’t wait to gush over how awesome it is.
Dark Souls is a difficult game, and that’s often how many people choose to define it. But what makes Dark Souls as awesome and fantastic is the depth and purpose behind that otherwise inaccessible world. There’s a story hiding beneath the surface, a purpose and intention to communicate and you can only find it if you’re really looking at it hard. That may not seem exciting, “I only play video games for fun” or “I don’t want to read item descriptions to find the story”. But when you actually engage and find the answers you didn’t know you were looking for it turns out to be much more rewarding than you would expect. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get into the meat of the game.
I’m going to go ahead and get this out of the way first, YES, the game is hard. It is unforgiving, cruel, tricksy, and often confusing. The enemies do lots of damage, traps can kill you out of nowhere, and some new frustration will make all kinds of things difficult. But though the difficulty is the most easily noticed part of the game, it does more than just deter those who don’t have the patience to work through the rest of it. The difficulty is important because it teaches you how to communicate with the rest of the game world.
By killing you in unexpected, unforgiving ways early on, it teaches you to keep your eyes open, to prepare for any eventuality. Each area of the game world has a particular mechanic that it tries to teach you about. Some of them are one-offs, some re-appear later mixed into other new formulas. But all of them add to your ongoing knowledge of the game. As this knowledge grows, mechanics get smooshed together in new combinations to create new challenges. It adds to your ever-expanding, ever-growing knowledge about the game world and how it communicates with you. By the time I was done with the game, I knew my way around this world like the back of my hand. I can map every inch of Undead Burg, Undead Parish, Darkroot Basin, Sen’s Fortress, Anor Londo, Darkroot Garden, Duke’s Archives, Crystal Cave, Tomb of the Giants, The Catacombs and I know a variety of ways to reach all kinds of other areas. Because I died so many times, because I had search and explore through every depth and crevice of the game world to survive, I became intimately familiar with all the different places. Best of all, once you spend all this time with the game, it’s actually quite easy to master. Yes, sure, each new mechanic you encounter will once again bring back the brutal difficult curve you’re familiar with. And when you occasionally mess up, its unforgiving natures makes it frustrating once again. But when you master the timing of your swings, the strengths of your particular playstyle, you truly do begin to feel like a badass. And it’s not because you got some new gadgets, it’s not because your character is tremendously overpowered, it’s because you, the player, have actually grown. If nothing else, this sense of accomplishment is why those who have run the gauntlet love the game as much as they do. This very frustrating, very complicated system which pushed many people away, is the very thing that the people who beat it come to appreciate the most.
The meat of the game is the combat. It’s what people talk about, it’s what you spend the whole game doing, it is the core part of the game. And here’s the important part, everything about the combat always feels fair. There are plenty of games that are hard and unfair. Uncharted 2, crank up the difficulty to the max and pray that your random spread of bullets eventually hits the target and whittles away at the impenetrable meat shields blocking your path. In Dark Souls, every single enemy does a fair amount of damage, and has a fair amount of health. There are no meat shields. There are no DPS demons. You’ll never have to just stand in one place and whale on an enemy til they die. There’s always an angle to make it work better, to adjust your playstyle to their weaknesses. Best of all, every time you take damage and die, it is explicitly your fault. You screwed up, you weren’t prepared, and it is always your fault that you died. This might be discouraging if you let it get to you, but if you choose to channel it and figure out what you did wrong then you improve. There’s a guy up there with a bow, if I move too far left then the third skeleton engages. After this one’s sword strike bounces off my shield, I have two sword strokes before I have to put my shield back up. You can learn, because the system can be understood. It can’t be cheesed or cheated. You don’t have to grind (mostly), it’s all based on how well you know the mechanics.
On top of this, there is no “perfect playstyle”. At the beginning of the game, you can choose your “class” for your starting equipment, but the time you get anywhere in your playthrough, you’ve massively adapted based on the weaponry you like the most. I started off with the knight class, full defense, heavy roll, and a broadsword with a shield. By the end of the game, I had crimson robes with a Black Knight Sword +5 and Havel’s ring which halves my weight load and increases my roll speed. Instead of a slow plodding defense build, I was full DPS with frequent two-handing my weapon and rolling like a speed demon. Even so, I dabbled in a little bit of miracles for healing, built a little bit of pyromancy, and an awesome sword that I never actually used (Artorias Greatsword [non-cursed], my intelligence didn’t get high enough by the end of the game). There’s room to experiment with the various things that you like, and you can find almost any piece of equipment in the game world or for purchase from a merchant. Chances are, you’ll change your build 2 or 3 different times throughout the game. And you can clear the final boss as low as lvl 50-60 on your very first run through.
This might be one of the best combat systems I’ve gotten to experience in any game ever, and this alone is one of the biggest strengths of the game. It’s sometimes slow, and maybe a tad deliberate, but it perfectly fits the rest of the game and I wouldn’t change a single thing in it. (To be fair, I haven’t played with all the different playstyles, but I was more than satisfied with the ones I got to play.)
The world telling its own story
So maybe you’ve heard about the lore in Dark Souls, you might have heard that it’s entirely hidden in sparse sentences from NPCs and item descriptions. That’s not entirely correct, but it’s understandable that would be the general consensus. Taking this piece-meal, secretive approach to storytelling is bold and creative itself, BUT here’s where I think the strength of the story actually comes from. It comes from the exact same mentality that comes from the rest of the game. If you choose to actively engage in the game and figure out its mysteries, just like with the combat and the difficulty, then you can learn a lot about the world just by paying attention. Here’s a real simple example, Anor Londo and New Londo Ruins.
When you get to Anor Londo, you kind of figure out that this was the city of “the Gods”. The architecture is huge and majestic, but it seems completely empty except for a few solitary animated suits of armor and the one God that you do find there. On the other hand, there’s “New Londo” which is another city much lower down geographically. It’s flooded and filled with ghosts. There are some undead who are laying there in agony. Not attacking you, just lying there rocking back in forth in terror and despair. In the basement, after lowering the water and unlocking the “Abyss” you find “Four Kings” who you slay. This tells me that sometime after Anor Londo was built, some other party decided to build their own city in honor of Anor Londo, it went badly and ended up becoming a place where the souls of the undead cannot be put to rest and are tortured by an unknown prescence, probably the imprisoned aforementioned “Four Kings”. I didn’t figure this out using the internet, all of that was because I chose to engage with the game and find the story it was trying to tell me. The whole world works this way, it has a story hidden just beneath the surface that’s just ripe for plucking out of the air. Each part of the world has its own story to tell, and if you work hard, take the time, you can figure it out.
And these are the icing on the cake. Bosses take these three other strengths and merges them together into a beautiful, interesting, and exciting blend of elements. Almost every boss has some deep connection to the world and a reason that they’re located where they are. These bosses also take advantage of the mechanic that they taught you during the level, for Pinwheel that might mean target prioritization. For the Bell Gargoyle that means dealing with multiple targets.
For the Taurus Demon it means getting rid of archers before you deal with the main threat. Some of these bosses, like Queelag teach you more about the world based on where you find them (near Blighttown), and other things you find around them (her sister behind the illusory wall). Most of all, a lot of these bosses are a lot of fun despite the frustration in trying to beat them. And when you finally do beat them, you feel an incredible amount of tension release and accomplishment. When you finally kill that little hussy who’s been killing you repeatedly for the last hour and a half, I jumped out of my chair a couple times. I remember every boss I faced, something that cannot necessarily be said for something like Legend of Zelda.
The Final Area
(Major Spoilers, like seriously you shouldn’t read this if you want to experience it for yourself)
The point where I got it, where I finally understood what the game was trying to tell me, was when I entered the final area of the game. As I walked down steps, past the ghosts of knights past, to slay Gwyn, the Lord of Cinder, I was struck with an overwhelming feeling of sadness. And then the light breaks and I look out and see nothing but Ash. Mountains of ash and melted rock and the words flash across the screen “Kiln of the First Flame”, it was so incredibly striking.
I’m suddenly reminded of the first cutscene that I didn’t quite understand when the game started. This, this place is what happened. Everything else in the game makes sense, The Bed of Chaos, the Gravelord, Seath the Scaleless, the bonfires, Anor Londo, it was all about this tragedy. As I slowly plod across the mountains of ash and run into a couple of Black Knights who stand there menacingly, but go down like sissies compared to your first encounter with them in Undead Burg. It’s all just very sad and pathetic. So tragic.
Most of the game doesn’t have any music, that’s okay, that’s fine. The only exception is Boss rooms where a huge epic song with chanting and bombastic sound comes forth. Those always set the tone for the upcoming fight against the boss. But after plodding across these mountains of ash and entering the final boss room, I see a simple man with a flaming sword standing next to a bonfire. And then a slow, heartbreaking piano melody comes through my speakers and I can’t help but feel sorry for him.
This King, the Lord of Cinder who sacrificed it all to preserve this land. And then he killed me. Again, and again, and again, and again, and then I didn’t feel sorry for him. I was pissed. When I would parry one of his attacks I’d shout “BOOM!!”, one after the other. I spent 4-5 hours on that boss alone over the course of two different play sessions. He probably is the hardest boss in the game, not because you can’t figure out his attack patterns, but because he’s so friggin’ strong and fast. That sad swelling melody had become spit in my face. And when I finally had Solaire help me kill him, and I stared at him as he died, I realized that I too had become a monster just like the bosses that I slayed before me, and it was my duty to set myself alight for the good of the realm. That was what Dark Souls taught me, and that is why it’s on my top games of all-time list alongside games like Arkham City, Ocarina of Time, Transistor and Banjo Kazooie.
Now, this game isn’t perfect and those opportunities when a game as difficult as this screws you on accident make it twenty times more frustrating. There were more than a few moments when the camera pulled me away from X, Y, or Z and got me killed in some stupid way. The lock-on works well most of the time, but that small inconsistency is incredibly frustrating when it does make problems. The titanite demon is the best example of this. There are a number of times where you can fight an enemy called the Titanite demon, and he’s usually in a small enclosed space. One of his primary attacks is a leaping attack where jumps up in the air and stabs down with his spear. The problem is when he jumps in an inconsistent manner, you roll away, and even though you had perfect timing, he still crushes you. When you get killed by some kind of inconsistency of the system, in a game entirely built on consistency and difficulty its frustrating. It feels like the designers didn’t play that part of the game enough. Imbalanced, unfair, whatever you want to call it. Dark Souls difficutly works because it’s fair, and when those scales change then the game stops being fun.
Things the game can’t and won’t teach you
Much of the game is based upon figuring it complex systems out for yourself. Unfortunately, some things are so obtuse that you have no way of figuring it out for yourself without looking it up on the internet. It took me ages to figure out how humanity, hollowing and kindling worked. I found out how to craft certain weapons from the internet, I had to figure out how to backstab by learning from the internet, there’s just not enough given information to figure out what you need, especially in those early difficult hours. Honestly, I still don’t know how to slide down ladders. Don’t be afraid to go to the internet, the only real spoiler is the one I mentioned a bit earlier, and that’s more an emotional reaction than an actual spoiler.
The PC port and other quirks
I played on PC, you need a controller to play this game. If you want to get yourself a copy, go for it, but don’t do it unless you have a standard controller (12 buttons, 2 joysticks, and a d-pad). You need every button, every stick, every pad at your disposal to play this game well. I play Batman: Arkham games with a mouse and keyboard and people think I’m crazy, but for this game you need a controller. If you have a Xbox 360 controller, great, plug it and get going. If you have a PS3 or PS4 controller, you can download a tool called SCPtoolkit, which works beautifully, even over bluetooth. If you have another USB controller like a Logitech controller, then you can find XB360ce which is a controller emulator to make your games think it’s an xbox controller.
Additionally, I highly recommend get a mod called DSfix which fixes a number of graphical problems and offers a variety of other fixes to various bug, etc. (The biggest ones are custom resolutions and an unlocked framerate). The only issue I had was during certain boss cutscenes where special “effects” were used and they would blur over the whole of the screen until the camera changed angles. I probably just did something wrong while I was setting it up, but I thought it was worth mentioning. Some people have frame-rate issues in Blight-town, but I never experienced that myself.
Overall, the PC version has a variety of issues, but with DSfix and a controller all of them become considerably minor issues.
I put the DLC in this category because I literally couldn’t find it. It might have been awesome and incredible, but I won’t be able to play it unless I finish a whole new game on NG+ or start a new character from scratch. The fact that they had to hide it in such an obscure way is absolutely ridiculous and arbitrary. To be fair I didn’t actually look that hard, or beat all of the side bosses, but still. Thankfully I loved the main game so much that I didn’t even notice it was missing.
Now some of this information I absorbed from other people and sources, some of it I figured out on my own. There’s a lot about this game that I didn’t even touch on at all. I didn’t speak about the multiplayer which is surely fun in its own right for a lot of people. And it speaks to the popularity of the game that you can still find people who want to play co-op and PVP online. I love this game, it’s a good game. You should try it, and then get frustrated, and put it down for 2 months, and then come back later and beat it because you can’t get it out from under your skin.