“The following is a guest post by The Writing Beige Mage.”
“If you obtain the Dark Soul, you can get anything in life.”
There will always be a place in my own soul that Dark Souls holds with a fierce grip. Not unlike my dog holding onto my arm above a bath. This is the best description of my feelings toward the series; it digs into my arms, but I can’t help loving it. Dark Souls: Prepare to Die is a special 1-cup brutally punishing, 2-cups consistently rewarding mixture that has grabbed innumerable fans since it’s initial release in 2011. I could go on for far too long about this game, metaphors of masochism included. It is often said that “If you obtain the Dark Soul, you can get anything in life.”
Prepare to Die:
Digression aside, let us get into the meat of this game. From the first moments in the game, you will not doubt experience the same uneasy feeling that you would when you hear a creak in the floorboards at the end of a dark hallway. If you happen to completely ignore the game’s early clues to be cautious, it will teach you, not show you, that you should be very afraid. Dark Souls has no care for your sanity or disposition, for mere moments into the game your adrenaline filled struggle for survival begins…
There is no tutorial in Dark Souls, save for a few somewhat easy to miss texts blocks marked on the ground. The game owes a large portion of its eerie feel to its at times frustrating and limited third person view. This camera positioning causes otherwise open spaces to feel all the more cramped as you back yourself into a corner whilst in the shadow of a towering, yet common, foe.
The basis of the gameplay is relatively simple. Your character’s progression and increasing lethality is boosted through the use of Souls, the game’s aptly chosen system of currency. Small to moderate amounts of Souls are acquired for every enemy you defeat and through the use of Souls are items found on the sparkling loot markers hidden throughout the game. The largest amounts of Souls are received when defeating the game’s horribly grotesque and terrifyingly cool bosses. These bosses can be used by the uninformed to grant large sums of bonus souls, or be used (by the patient) to gain boss weapons later in the game.
There are an abundance of weapons and different spells to use. All weapons have a small variety of attacks which allow an innumerable number of play styles. The game’s loot can feel equally daunting as you struggle along, wondering if you are using the right weapons and armor. Gear is upgraded in a less robust yet by no means displeasing fashion with the aforementioned souls.
The bulk of the game feels like walking on eggshells with track cleats on, but it does remove you from its hell-scape for brief moments via bonfires. Bonfires are the game’s thematically in tune system of checkpoints. Upon every one of your varied deaths, you will be returned to the last bonfire you at which you rested, with your bounty of collected souls being left at your death site. Bonfires are the only location in the game where you can rest to regain health and Estus Flask (health potion) uses, as well as level up your various skills. Despite the momentary reprieve from your fight onward, the bonfires are a double-edged sword. Every rest re-spawns all the enemies in the location, and every new bonfire forces you to face a new host of enemies. Enemies that will often treat you like a fly hitting a windshield on their own trip to ruin your day.
While I do believe in saving best for last (we will get to the best part soon), I do not entirely believe in reserving the first for the worst. That is why I am now mentioning multiplayer. Now now, put the pitchforks down, die hard Souls fans (get it?).
The multiplayer mechanic in this game is fairly simple. As a player you can place a glowing marker on the ground, which when activated, allows players to summon you to their game to aid them with a boss or whatever. This works both ways of course, as you can summon other players to your game to aid in with whatever tribulation you are struggling with. Where my personal issues come in is that on PC this is a wildly inconsistent system, as the summoning fails a majority of the time. My other gripe (Probably because I need to ‘Git Gud’) is that players can enter your world as enemies and duel you. This can happen at the worst of times and I will admit to being very bad at the PvP, so it resulted in me losing a very large number of souls over the course of the game. The system is by no means bad, but it will sometimes just throw me out of the mood as I get ganked at an already difficult part of the game.
Now how about that best for last? Bosses. I have tiptoed passed the topic because it can be hard to properly summarize the sheer terror of both you and the boss having no health, or the indescribable feeling of finally triumphing over your new most hated character. I won’t spoil any of these bosses, because the journey of discovering your next prescription to blood pressure medication is such a treat. Every boss is so wildly unique, and dare I say something so simple as memorable. Every boss has its own location-themed art style, and their movement and attack sets will always keep that fast learning side of your brain in full gear. Another fantastic part of the boss mechanic is that it always leaves you wanting to know something more about that hulking beast you finally buried. You never really will know what lies waiting in the next boss room, or whether or not you will be up to the challenge, yet that is exactly what makes this experience so special.
The easiest way to sum up the masterpiece that is Dark Souls would be comparing it to a Rothko (Look up the paintings if you don’t know them). You will stand there in front of it slack-jawed and confused. A few moments later you will find yourself infuriated that you can’t grasp what seems like a simple concept. Eventually the pieces start coming together, only for them to be thrown back in your face as you are treated like an idiot. Then you throw up your arms in frustration and walk away. Once you’ve finally cooled down, you will come back (I guarantee it). Then, after plenty of struggling, you figure it out! Suddenly you feel like the toughest and smartest person in the world. This game is like finally understanding a confusing piece of art, and with that said, there is nothing else like it.
The 8-bit Review
Once the 5 minutes is taken to install a few fixes made by the community, this game looks brilliant and has aged very well in the PC gaming world. Dark Souls carries its uneasy and tension fueled experience on the back of a gritty and almost tactile engine. The grime of the world covers your character, and every step you take is across a run down and cracking world. The textures rarely feel out of place, save for a few times where areas feel lacking in assets and too clean. There are a few connection points between buildings that are a little too sharp, but it would take a keen eye to notice them. All in all the textures and lighting place this game on a pedestal of excellence.
Music is a powerful aspect of any work of art, that will never be argued. Dark Souls puts you in the shoes of a desperate soul trying to find some semblance of recompense. The score, the likes of which I have rarely seen, takes your sense of being the hero and scales it down. The music during the boss fights is particularly prevalent as it reminds you that the beasts and demons you fight are gods and creatures from an existence far beyond your own. There is an air of wonder to large portions of the track as your take your firsts steps from the dungeon that begins your journey, or stumble breathless into the city of the gods. This wonder is dripping, every step of the way, in callus and eerie underscores that keep the hairs on your neck standing straight up. I listen to this soundtrack while I work on papers and other projects, it drives inspiration and reminds us of our limitations. A video game soundtrack does that.
The core gameplay is a series of mini-loops as you figure out how to defeat the next enemy or boss. There is this fluid give and take with every new zone, yet don’t mistake gaining some ground as a sign that things will be smooth sailing. Every aspect of the game’s main mechanics work together as you discover the patterns of bosses and enemies and the combos that you can create yourself. One of the most remarkable parts of the game is that it does force you to drastically (or for the seasoned, minimally) retool your strategy at every new area.
While I personally complained about this earlier, I cannot say that it is a poorly designed system. With certain criteria met other players, or better NPCs, can invade your world and challenge you to an acrobatic trial by combat. These battles can either be a harrowing two-man duel amidst the corpses of your already defeated regional foes, or an inconvenient mess as you try to not only avoid your hunter, but the wandering fiends of your personal underworld. With the game’s balancing over the years, this system has been greatly refined and I wouldn’t argue that it has no place in the game.
Dark Souls is always sipping on the same nihilistic concoction throughout the hours of frustration. Motifs of light and dark run away from danger hand in hand with death and rebirth. The feelings of hopelessness that Dark Souls will no doubt instill in you are fitting, yet they have a nice juxtaposition with the unmistakable feeling of safety and warmth that rush over you at the triumph of a boss. While the game rarely steps outside of its ambiguous narrative comfort zone, the tried and true feelings that it instills are at the heart of the human will to persevere.
It feels redundant to even talk about the challenge of this game. What else is there to say? It is the pinnacle of challenge. A game that scares you more around every corner than any twanging jump-scare of the survival horror genre ever could. A game that makes you truly feel like the ‘The Man’ when you beat down one more boss. The game that has you talking with friends and co-workers about how on earth you managed to make any progress in just one hour of playing. The game is conquerable, of course it is, yet it drives home the point that the greatest of feats are the most grueling.
Upon completion of the game you are given access to the NG (New Game) and NG+ modes that gift you with a scaled up version of the base game to challenge your fully equipped, ever hallowing, warrior. This is not the main reason to replay the game, though it is fun to sit down and play through the game with your semi-comfortable and familiar character. The real magic is from the game’s extremely varied number of play styles. From Pyromancer to shield-wielding Warrior, from Miracle and Spell throwing magic users, the game won’t get stale on any playthrough if you challenge your own boundaries of creativity.
While other games have tried their hands at the rewarding and brutal mixture of gameplay that Dark Souls offers, few have made it passed the point of being called a “decent Dark Souls clone”. This tells a lot about how special Dark Souls truly is in a such a large and ever-evolving industry. To maintain its fidelity as The Game that can never be truly redone by someone else is beyond what could be called a brilliant achievement.
Personal Score: 10/10
Of course I would give it a perfect score personally. I have played through this game more times than any other. I have bought it twice (second time was PC) and never regretted a second of it. This game taught me something the gaming world is not known for: Patience. If a game can teach me something like that, it’s a perfect game.
Aggregated Score: 8.8