Dark Souls is a confident game that asks a lot of questions about the gaming landscape. It asks: how immersive should a role-playing game be? How much work is a player willing to do to be told a story? It boldly asks us how gripping and satisfying can video game experiences become? How hard is too hard? And looking out amongst the crowded shelves at game stores: how easy is too easy?
Dark Souls is a very important game in that it offered a new format for delivering an RPG experience. Rather than a skeletal, straightforward narrative around which the game is built, Dark Souls chooses a more subtle, suggested story. The player is given very little direction, very few goals, and minimal voiced cutscenes. The player is however given many options; options to go anywhere they would like in an effort to gain insight on the world around them. And in that world around the player are scattered NPCs, compelling areas, and unique items, all of which offer little tidbits about what the items are, who and what the enemies and bosses are, and the histories of all the different people and places in the game. Literally every single item in the game has a little bit of flavour text associated with it. The rarer the item, typically the more interesting, unique, or important this text becomes. It is in a small way reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid, when sometimes the only way to figure out what happens next is to read an item description. The puzzle of putting together the real meaning of the history and narrative of Dark Souls is so compelling in fact, that there is a community of people online who have deciphered and debated this content since the game’s launch.
Putting aside the endearing, minimalist storytelling, Dark Souls also demonstrates a subtle yet expert knowledge of combat gameplay. The combat in Dark Souls is not by any means difficult to understand. It uses simple one-button dodge, light and heavy attacks, and block and parry commands. While it is simple to learn, it is quite an experience to master, and every single enemy requires patience and vigilance to defeat. Even the weakest, slowest, simplest enemies in Dark Souls will routinely fool you with their timing. I’ve beaten the game several times but I still struggle to go completely unscathed through even the tutorial, simply because the enemies and traps are designed to fool the player. Running the same patch of enemies over and over will often result in mental fatigue that can cause your death to a simple monster you’ve slain a dozen times before. Not to mention that for every different play style and weapon/armour choice, each enemy presents a unique challenge and requires a different approach.
Dark Souls is showing its age at this point having launched two years ago in October of 2011. But despite its age, the game is still full of gorgeous landscapes, and devilishly twisted, fearsome enemies. Every enemy and environment in Dark Souls helps sets the the fictional land of Lordran apart as its own universe that draws very few cliché or overdone ideas. To be brief on this point, Dark Souls and the inhabitants therein are absolutely individual.
Another reason the Souls games are so important to action RPGs is the uniqueness of every play-through. Something I’ve always loathed about playing through a typical action game has to do with the way each encounter is approached. In many other games the solution to an encounter is the simple knowledge of what action to take, in what location, at what time, or: action A, in location A, at time/event A. And while just about every gameplay mechanic in history can be vaguely broken down to those components, what creates an interesting encounter is having many, many options for each variable. For example: one might parry, directly in front of an enemy, at the time of a frontal sword attack, which is a pretty common occurrence. But this formula doesn’t work for a ranged character, a backstabbing character, a magic user, or when surrounded, or when sneaking, and the list goes on. And similarly, depending on the situation, enemy, and current character build, your go-to method of combat could be incredibly ineffective. That being said, watching someone else play the game turns each foe into a different animal. You will see attacks you had never seen, strategies that you never considered, and easy success or hard fought failure that you yourself didn’t experience. An incredibly easy enemy or boss for you could be a nightmare for someone else, and something almost unbeatable for you could be a walk in the park for a friend.
Add to this constantly changing experience a very interesting co-op system. In order to play with another player, you must be in an alive state which costs Humanity (item) after each death. You must then locate a place in the world where summoning signs can be laid down by summonable players, and activate the sign. Humanity which is integral to the process is a finite resource and will quickly deplete and leave you unable to summon with several co-op deaths. Once you summon, you will be paired with a totally mute stranger which is a bizarre experience. But while alive and online, you’re also vulnerable for players to invade and kill you. This makes co-op play both an advantageous way to progress(and maybe even learn some secrets if your guest is feeling both knowledgeable and charitable), and a dangerous gamble to be invaded and destroyed. Or of course my favourite option: both. That’s right, you can simultaneously be joined by a friendly “phantom” and invaded by a murderous one, and watch the two wage a beautiful war for you. These encounters are reason enough to play the game, and one of the most unique features of Dark Souls.
Finally, the headlining descriptor of Dark Souls has historically been the difficulty. Why is the difficulty in the Souls series so important for RPGs? Well first of all, the difficulty is not a simple matter of high damage enemy attacks, long grinding phases, overly numerous enemies, or frantic encounters. The difficulty is natural and it comes from deceptive bosses, minimal hinting, enemies and bosses that don’t telegraph every move, attacks that aren’t on a rigid rotation, areas that are carefully confined, and enemies that don’t give you time or space to recover. What a boss’ weakness is, what item to use, and where or what to attack is never explained to the player, but rather subtly suggested (if suggested at all). Healing items are carefully restricted by the means of the bonfires located throughout the world that act as checkpoints and refill your limited use flask of heals. You usually walk around with between five and ten heals which is often not quite enough to make it to the next bonfire. Similarly, when you respawn at a bonfire, every enemy you’ve killed between the fire and where you died comes back. This gauntlet of enemies between the closest fire and the boss area whittles down your healing and spell supply for each boss attempt, which encourages you to really perfect your dispatching or avoidance of said enemies. Dark Souls is absolutely difficult, but for every difficult situation there is a learning curve. The more knowledge and comfort in your build, the better you will perform. Not only that, but difficulty is the only real barrier between most areas in the game. Sure, there is an intended way to progress at first, but really there’s nothing stopping you from going the most difficult route possible, and technically being able to succeed. Similarly, if you’re under-levelled for a specific item or weapon you can still equip it, and the only consequence is its reduced effectiveness.
Thinking about it, the natural state of difficulty is the most important item on the long list of things Dark Souls does differently than other action RPGs. To give more hints, unregulate healing item and summoning abilities, and simplify the whole experience is a sure-fire way to damage the allure of a near-perfect series. The truer the coming sequel, Dark Souls II is to this tested minimalism, the more likely it is we can look forward to one of the best action RPGs of all time on March 11, 2014.
Is Dark Souls still a big challenge for you, or have you fully mastered Lordran? Let us know in the comments.