Platforms: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 (playing)
My video game time is something I treasure. As an adult with a wife and a small child, a full time job, and a career change on the horizon, those moments when I actually get to sit down with a controller (or portable system) in hand and enjoy losing myself in a world for a couple of undisturbed, quiet hours are something I look forward to as a rare treat. As my responsibilities have, I’ve become less inclined to play games on their hardest difficulty. Why would I let those precious few hours I get to spend on my favorite hobby frustrate me? I have a hard time justifying ever playing something beyond easy anymore. Mass Effect 1 and 2 are two exceptions to that rule; the only reason I do that is to have all the achievements and trophies in the games. I’ve stumbled across another game that has made it on to the exception list for difficulty: Dark Souls.
The spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls is a game that is out to do little more than murder you as often and as hard as it can. It punishes haste. It brutalizes small mistakes in combat. It flat out murders you for confidence. Yet I’m having a hard time putting it down. It should be something I tossed aside quickly, yet here I am putting more time into it than any other game in the last few months.
A lot of that time has been spent with my character’s body stabbed to death, smashed into a wall until I look like little more than a growth of mold on said wall, or forced off a cliff to a death hundreds of feet below as I desperately hold my shield up in vain hope for an opening after being cornered by multiple enemies. Doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, does it? I wouldn’t think so either. The thing about it is that is.
Don’t take that statement lightly. This game will not be for everyone. Actually, it won’t be for most. In an era where difficult means it takes two shots before you drop instead of ten, Dark Souls is a game that is as difficult as you make it on yourself, to an extent. You’re going to see the phrase “YOU DIED” an awful lot in this game, but being more careful, keeping your shield up, and looking for patterns (because they are there) will find you not seeing that as much. The exploration of this beautifully crafted dark world is what will keep you coming back. The world is huge with nary a load screen showing up once you get out of the tutorial area. This does wonders for making the game feel like a real, persistent world. You will see load screens pop up after a death, but never from simply exploring. While this is quite the feat considering how large the world is, it does lead to some framerate issues. Having a gigantic monster (of which there are a considerable amount) pop in will cause the game to come to a near chugging halt for a few moments. Also, screen tearing is fairly common when you’re faced with multiple enemies. The physics engine is Havok, so it does lead to some interesting texture clipping at times as well.
The story mostly seems like a throwaway. It’s more of an excuse for you to be exploring the world than it is an encompassing narrative. Don’t come in expecting Tolkien (what is there is far more dark, dirty, and depressing) and you shouldn’t leave disappointed.
The audio does the dark world justice. With swords hitting either flesh or steel with the correct weight of *mush* or *clang* behind them, it helps immerse you further. The soundtrack is never a starring actor. Rather it sits and supplements moments and environments perfectly content to make the project as a whole shine, rather than hog the spotlight and scream “listen how epic I am!” as you desperately try to plot an appropriate attack strategy.
The combat, while brutal, is very smooth and fair. There’s almost no feeling quite like parrying an enemy attack at the proper moment, having the game slow to give you the opportunity to counter for massive damage, often a one-hit kill against weaker foes. I say “almost” as this game has one more thing in its favor that few games have: a reward system that’s actually rewarding. No, I’m not talking about “mad loot,” although you do come across some nifty equipment, I’m talking about that feeling in finally besting an enemy that’s murdered you a dozen different ways, all of them horrid, previously. Few games have this odd feeling of making you feel so weak and inadequate, but make you feel almost godly when you finally take down that monster that you’ve been chipping away at, studying their pattern until you have them down cold. On the flip side of that, there’s nothing like riding high off of a momentous victory only to be burned to death by a three story tall dragon as you carelessly cross a bridge with foes way off in what seems like a safe distance minutes later. This game is a game of the highest highs and the lowest lows in terms of empowerment.
While not for most (a point I and every other game journalist can’t beat into your head enough), Dark Souls so far is one of those rare games that fills a niche for people that like a brutal challenge that still remains one that rarely feels like the game has beaten you. More often, you’ve given the game the chance to beat you. And beat you it will. To death. At every opportunity you allow it.