“You died”, reads the blood red text.
I know the exact shape, size, shade and duration of the fade-in for those two words. I know them more precisely than I know my own post code. No matter where you are, what you’re doing, who you’re fighting or how much health you’ve got, those two words never feel far away in the world of From Software’s Dark Souls.
Today’s games tend to treat a ‘death’ as a rarity, a means of telling the player that they’ve performed remarkably badly in a specific section or task. Many modern games are so enamoured with the idea that games should be cinematic that their developers make death something that’s increasingly difficult to ‘achieve’, in fear of disrupting the immersion.
With Dark Souls it’s the opposite; it’s that constant threat of death that creates much of the immersion. This is a game where the most feeble of enemies are treated with the utmost respect, where corners are not rounded without first turning up the volume and listening for footsteps, and where each vial of health potion is as coveted as your own genitals. The institutionalised pampering and hand holding of contemporary players by contemporary developers is not part of the agenda here.
And yet, from such a dark formula, From Software has managed to create something of incredible quality, finesse and beauty.
Unlike almost every other RPG in history, for every death there’s a moment of magic – be it pre-planned or organic. That magic can come in the form of a stunning vista as viewed from the confines of a medieval castle, or it can be a battle against an undead knight that seems to play out differently every time you attempt it. It could be a moment of elation as a vanquished foe drops some item that you would take for granted in any other game. It’s the little things that Dark Souls is so accomplished at making grand. By the same token, it’s the grand things that seem epic, almost biblical.
Defeating a boss is legitimate cause for putting the controller down, walking down to the local council office and having the town crier spread news of your accomplishment far and wide. Of course, you’ll want to make it a quick journey because Dark Souls doesn’t allow you to pause the game and dragons/the undead/trolls etc wait for no man.
Bosses in Dark Souls do not arrive in the usual videogame manner of a flashy, fast-cut, multiple lens filtered FMV. Instead, bosses in Dark Souls either arrive unannounced or are unwittingly stumbled upon. Inevitably, the first time this happens you’re unprepared and quickly succumb to the attack in a manner resembling a fight between Mike Tyson and Elton John; you get torn apart and you look like an idiot throughout.
You try again. You get beaten again. You will continue to get beaten until you’ve mastered your foe’s attack patterns, you’ve memorised the layout of the environment and you’ve equipped the best tools for the job. The half-assed approach does not cut it. When you do manage to win, though… town crier.
Like its forerunner, Demon’s Souls, combat is deliberate and tactical; movement is slow and a stamina bar limits your ability to attack, block and run. If you’re unfamiliar with Demon’s Souls then the slower-than-normal pace may seem clunky, but like everything else on offer here the combat style is a result of well thought-out and well implemented design. Encounters mirror the cautious approach required elsewhere in the game and within a few hours you’ll come to appreciate the freedom it provides.
Slowing things down is essential given the ability of even the most unassuming enemy to end your existence with only a couple of cuts, slashes or stabs. No matter what kind of character you play as (knight, pyromancer, sorcerer, thief etc) you need to think about every attack before executing it; any impatience or illusions of superiority over your enemy is a recipe for death and prolonged frustration.
Unlike Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls plays out in an open-world environment. Despite the size and complexity of the world (you’ll often be navigating through winding interior passageways or mutli-tiered castle ramparts) there’s no help whatsoever when it comes to providing directions. There’s no mini-map, there’s no map in your inventory and there’s no Fable/Dead Space-esque breadcrumb trail. NPC’s will very occasionally give you an objective but will stop short of telling you where to go or how to achieve it.
To say you feel isolated is an understatement. You feel lost. Lost and knowing full well there’s no real help at hand.
What occurs from this is the desire (the requirement, even) to explore every room, walk every path and climb every ladder. Dark Souls is a breath of fresh air in this regard, further destroying the prevailing industry rules of immersion coming from heavily controlled linearity and/or a well-defined series of missions provided by fleshed out characters. In Dark Souls you know next to nothing about the characters, causing you to approach them with extreme caution and further enhancing the feeling of isolation.
Even the messages that players can leave one another on the floor (via PSN/XBL) cannot be trusted entirely with some of your peers mimicking From Software’s love of sadism and writing false messages. Anyone who writes that the path ahead is clear, only for me to find out that it actually houses some of the toughest enemies I’ve ever seen, is immediately going on my revenge list.
Your only real friends in this world are the ‘bonfires’ that dot the world and act as checkpoints of sorts. By lighting these you can refill your health bar, upgrade your character with souls that you’ve collected through beating enemies, and tweak your inventory and equipped weapons. It’s at your most recent bonfire that you’ll respawn when killed, challenged with replaying the same section again until perfected.
Don’t get your hopes up too much, though. Bonfires are usually sandwich either side of challenging gameplay sections that force you to work hard to earn that health refill and chance at upgrading.
Despite the difficulty and the uncompromising approach of From Software, what makes Dark Souls so special is the sense of accomplishment that it generates when you get things just right. There’s never a moment when the game feels unfair, even the most abrupt (seemingly random) deaths are preceded by some kind of warning. For example, at one point early on I should have noticed that a section of wall had been smashed before walking up some stairs and being crushed by a giant ball of rock.
The beauty in Dark Souls rests with the moments when you notice such clues. Avoid the rock, make it up the stairs, patiently kill the enemies, rest at a bonfire and take in the lush scenery as you prepare for the horrors that surely await. It doesn’t get better than that.
It’s those kinds of memories that make Dark Souls one of the finest games I’ve played.
PlayStation 3 version reviewed. Also available on Xbox 360.