California Literary Review

Video Game Review: Dark Souls

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October 23rd, 2011 at 9:00 am

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Dark Souls box art
Dark Souls

Release Date: October 4th, 2011
Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Genre: Masocore Fantasy Action/RPG
ESRB: M for Mature

CLR Rating: ★★★★½


Gaming’s “Heart of Darkness” Might Swallow Your Soul

At the end of Apocalypse Now, when Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard finally confronts Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz, Brando gave a richly bleak speech about the darkness that dwells within all men, during which he uttered a line that seems apt right about now.

“Horror . . . Horror has a face . . . and you must make a friend of horror.”

There is no greater advice or truth than this for anyone who wants to attempt Dark Souls. For I have seen the face of digital horror in this game, and it’s that of the game’s Director, Hidetaka Miyazaki, grinning in the night over the agony and anguish he’s unleashed unto the world this October. If you want to succeed, you must be committed, for the world you deal with is remorseless, but yes, you must also make horror your friend if you want to surpass it.

For Dark Souls is a game that does not want to be beaten; it wants to beat you. It’s not for the squeamish, for it is filled with enough tension to give Hitchcock a heart attack. It’s not for the easily frustrated, for you’ll hit more walls than a crash test dummy. It’s not for the impatient, for you will undoubtedly end up spending hours either grinding enemies to get around your present hurdle or waiting for friendly spirits to assist you as if your name was Vladimir or Estragon. Every single aspect of the game is meant to undermine your sense of self, your will to succeed.

This emphasis on player rejection forces a choice: quit in disgust, or embrace the game fully. There are no other options in Dark Souls. If you find it too hard and despise it, you’d be well within your rights. It’s easy to hate a game that actively encourages your failure. But if you make the other choice, to make a friend of the horror, you’ll find that Dark Souls may just be the most engaging pure game to come out this month, if not this year – though you may just end up losing part of your sanity (and definitely your time) along the journey.

Dark Souls video game

A journey that starts with ol’ big an ugly here. That’s right, THIS is the TUTORIAL boss.

Along with the difficulty of its predecessor (a game so notoriously hard that some reviewers didn’t finish it) Dark Souls contains much of the same basic furnishings. It’s set in “Standard Western Fantasy Setting #872”, known here as the lost kingdom of Lordran. Except, and I’m sure this comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone; everything’s a heck of a lot “darker.”

You see, in Lordran, humanity came into being after a super-team of gods and demigods decided to work together to slay the dragons that held cold dominion over the world. This deity dream team included The Fire-Witch Izalith and her sisterhood, The Gravelord Nito, and the Lighting Lord Gwyyn with his host of knights, along with the Serpent Seath who betrayed his kin. With the great beasts defeated in the game’s spectacular intro, they then kindled the flame of life (which here is an actual thing) and humanity was born, cities flourished, and playing puppies were presumably plentiful.

Except that was a long time ago now, and the fire that Gwynn and his companions lit has gone out, the gods have either gone mad or missing, and the dead have risen. The living’s solution to the undead problem is quite practical: they lock up the corpses that don’t want to stay underground, known as “Hollows”, in a prison for eternity. It’s in one of these jails that your character, the “Chosen Undead” will emerge to journey to Lordran, now the land of the walking dead, and seek to undo the curse of undeath that plagues the world, even if it’s this very curse that will allow them to succeed.

Since, as you explore Lordran, you will die. Often and repeatedly. Enough to make you feel like a celestial voyeur in some poor fool’s Karmic cycle.

Dark Souls video game

With a rotting corpse as our protagonist, I can assure you, The Lord of the Rings this ain’t.

Why? Well because the game’s design is fundamentally devious. Enough that I’d wager it goes beyond merely hard and into Masocore territory. There are many reasons, but if there’s an obvious one, it’s the placement of the already very deadly (due to high damage output) enemies.

There’s scarcely a hall that you’ll explore where a monster isn’t waiting to ambush you from behind a blind corner, or has support from archers you can’t seem to reach. When you’re not getting flanked from all sides, then the duels will undoubtedly occur on precarious narrow beams over a deadly drops. This type of enemy placement, while cruel at times, accomplishes the same level of personal connection that all Masocore games establish. You’re battling the designs of From Software’s enemy planners and director as much as the AI here.

Dark Souls video game

Since when do Gargoyles breath FIRE?! Also, why is it a tail, and an AXE? Miyazaki!!

It’s not just enemies that make the game hard, it’s also the sheer lack of knowledge that the player starts out with. Fundamentally, Dark Souls is structured like a classic open-world Metroidvania , though a rarely well done 3D version. You’ll start in a central shrine, and you’re free to explore in any direction of the expansive world without any hand holding, which adds to an underlying sense of mystery while nicely maintaining naturalism.

However, the lack of player guidance goes beyond freeing the player from objectives: you’re informed of almost nothing about any of the game’s many intricate systems beyond the most elementary rules of combat and movement. There’s not even a map! Descriptions for many items and concepts are often vague (and have a lot of text errors) while the hints from NPCs are obscure. You’re just going to have to experiment for yourself to discover what the difference between an enchanted weapon and a magic weapon is, or how “parameter bonuses” function, and memorization is key to navigating the byzantine layouts of the game’s architecture.

At its worst, this can get you stuck, such as when I left the game for the night only to return to it the next day forgetting that I had a key allowing further progress, and spent the next several hours attempting areas of the game far too difficult for my current status. Yet, by forcing the player to experiment and use their memory, every piece of knowledge gained, either through numerous deaths against hardened foes or messing about with the various game systems, feels important and hard won. The immense sense of accomplishment and satisfaction gained from this mastery is the best part of the experience.

Obviously, death is the primary theme in Dark Souls. You start the game dead, and literally everyone you meet is some kind of corpse or another, whether sentient or not. To say the game is a haunting experience would be an understatement, as the oft silent land of Dark Souls is also a funeral dirge that never ends; a constant tribute to loss and anguish. Guaranteed in the knowledge that terrible fates lurk in the shadows of every new location, the emotional pitch is constantly in flux between heart-racing dread and “so depressing you may need to fill your Zoloft prescription to stand it.”

Dark Souls video game

It also doesn’t hurt the sense of exploration that the game is REAALLY pretty.

Death is such a constant even when you’re not actively being murdered. Due to an interesting online mechanic you’ll see “ghosts” of other players walking around the world, or watch their final moments when you happen upon a bloodstain on the ground, both for morbid amusement and to further inform yourself of upcoming danger. You’ll also find sigils that allow others to join you in your world as translucent spirits to defeat a boss; both for souls, the game’s primary form of currency and used to level up your character’s abilities, and for humanity, a collectible that allows you to access said spirits and to keep your avatar looking like the person you spent twenty minutes making in the character creation screen rather than ground up zombie hamburger meat wearing armor.

But it’s those bloodstains that are the driving force behind the fear of Dark Souls. For when you die, you leave a crimson splotch on the spot where you perished, and you also leave behind any souls and humanity you’ve accumulated in the stain. If you can reach your bloodstain after respawning you can regain this precious commodity. But should you meet your end before you reach it, you lose everything. Cue Donald Duck level incomprehensible rage.

Dark Souls video game

If he was trying to get to his stain before that boulder nails him, this would count as a Fundledarg Snatch Walla Oohog Nit Gab moment.

This type of progressive failure is the beating, black heart of sadism in Dark Souls, but it’s not the only one. Worse is getting cursed, a form of death that permanently cuts your health in half. The only ways to lift the curse involve paying a rather hefty amount of souls, or heading to an area of the game haunted by malicious stabbing ghosts, both options are of course quite difficult because your health is now so low.

But wait, there’s more! As you progress, you’ll start getting attacked by invading phantoms, which are in truth, other players. Because of this unique “always online” system, which among other things allows for players to leave behind notes for each other, and even though you’re alone in your journey, you can never pause. Ever. So if the phone rings in the middle of a battle, you’re either dying yet again or you’re not answering it. Oh, and if you think that there’s at least one safe location in the game – the bonfires that count as your temporary respite zones 90% of the time – think again. Invading players can and will attack you there, which means that truly, there is no safety anywhere in Lordran.

Dark Souls video game

Heck, even a bunch of the NPCS you meet in Firelink Shrine here might try to kill you if you piss them off!

So why would anyone submit themselves to such a nightmarish test of their sanity, and drain time into such a bleak and foreboding world? Especially since the “story” is pretty much a series of footnotes to make the world come to life, the plot is a joke and the ending recalls Ghouls and Ghosts levels of “totally not worth it”?

Because while it may be one of the most nightmarishly crafted experiences in gaming that you will encounter, it’s also one of the most amazingly executed. The world is truly breathtaking, and the combat is beyond superb with surprising depth while maintaining functional simplicity.

In fact, I’m still amazed at the immense variation in fighting styles the game presents: there are three forms of magic, and at least twenty types of weaponry, each offering fully formed styles of play and all of them can be mixed and matched to suit your vision. Want to be sorcerous fencer with a rapier wit along with the one in your hand? You can do that. Want to be an axe swinging barbarian who breaths fire? Sure. Maybe a noble knight with a touch of divine favor? No problem.

Dark Souls video game

And if you wanted to simulate that knight getting his skull caved in by a gigantic mace, you’re also covered!

But far more importantly, everything about Dark Souls that works to drive you away, also works to suck you in. Its difficulty invokes as much satisfaction as frustration, and often the malign design inspires as much admiration as hatred. The connected world is vast and seemingly never-ending, and for each secret you discover, seems to promise two more down the road. The online features somehow create a communal experience amongst strangers in an otherwise single-player game. The soul drop system, while foreboding, also creates palpable tension and mood like nothing else, especially these days where death in gaming is usually cheaper than a sale at a 99¢ Store.

I certainly found myself alone and lost in the heart of Lordran, too far in to back out, and eventually, too far gone to give up. Perhaps this gravity the game attains with such morbid difficulty is a sort of black hole, constantly drawing any and all interest to it, and impossible to escape once you’ve felt a digital victory over your first real challenge. Perhaps it’s because the game actually has a weighty depth at its core, that such victories ring so true. Or perhaps this is the first mainstream game that’s mastered the effects of inducing Stockholm Syndrome in its players.

In either case, I recommend staying away from this Everest to all but the most dedicated: it’s snowing knives this time of year, and I’m pretty sure the Sherpas are Terminators in disguise.

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Dark Souls Trailer

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