My roommate once asked me why people play Dark Souls. Quoting him directly, “Why would you play a game that’s not fun?” And if you ask any veteran Dark Souls player, the answer will probably be “Because it’s so damn satisfying.”
Dark Souls is a very satisfying third person Action-RPG, set in a dreary, high fantasy medieval landscape. The game is based around defeating enemies to earn souls and progress to new areas, finding new bosses to defeat and discovering new items. Souls are the in-game currency, earned every time you kill an enemy, with the amount earned based on the difficulty of the enemy. Souls can be used to purchase armor, weapons, bombs, arrows, etc. from merchants scattered infrequently throughout the game, or can be used to level up your character at bonfires and improve different stats (e.g. strength, dexterity, stamina). The gathering of souls can be negated, though, as when you die all your souls are dropped when you die, and if you don’t live long enough to make it back to that spot, all previous souls are lost.
Dark Souls: Prepare To Die Edition
I’ll start with the combat. The term I’ve heard that most accurately describes it is that the combat has “weight” behind it. Every swing, every roll, every block and parry all feel meaningful. Hits from large enemies often send your character sprawling, leaving you completely helpless for 3-4 seconds, and sometimes damning you to death before you have a chance to even recover. This demands precision and timing out of the player, a skill that will come with play time. The game also supports hundreds of different play styles, from duel-wielding to quick, dagger in the back style to two handed great swords, and many playstyles in-between. The combat become quite methodical the further you go into the game, employing different strategies in order to defeat different bosses. The great thing about the combat is that, although at times you may very well accuse the game of being unfair, the blame is ultimately on the player. There was always something that you could have done better, always a hit you could have dodged or roll you could have timed a fraction of a second earlier. This adds to the “one more try” mentality that keeps the player coming back to boss fights again and again instead of just giving up after being squashed ten times in a row.
The sound in Dark Souls is used very rarely to punctuate important moments. During the majority of the game, there is no music. This creates an eerie, almost awkward feeling as you tromp around the world in quiet. Music starts up at 2 noticeable points: during boss fights, and when you reach Firelink Shrine, the first area outside of the tutorial. The music during boss fights is a very quick, racing beat that adds to the frantic nature of the combat, while the Firelink Shrine theme is almost the opposite; it’s a slow, depressing symphonic that really conveys the despair of the world you have just entered. This really adds to the fantastic atmosphere the game creates.
The graphics of the game are nothing to write home about. The textures are sometimes blurry, and the player character models are unsightly, to say the least, though they are at least covered by armor throughout the game. The games aesthetic almost makes its lack of graphical finesse a positive, though. Everything in the game is portrayed very dim, with lots of browns and greys to make the world seem as dull and dreary as it’s meant to be. The boss design contrasts this well, though, as many bosses are very bright and unnerving (see: the naked half woman half spider queen). The main criticism I have of the game is its performance. The game does not run well on the consoles it was made for (Xbox and PS3), especially in high impact areas like Blightown, and the performance on PC is absolutely unacceptable for this day and age. However, thanks to the very popular DSFIX mod for the pc versions, the game becomes much more playable as this unlocks the framerate and fixes many other performance issues.
If you’re not already aware, Dark Souls is a game famous for its difficulty. The game is brutally hard and often completely unfair, even in the tutorial area. For example, after the first real boss fight of the game (the Taurus demon), you find yourself at the mouth of a bridge, with a large castle looming on the other side and enemies in view. Feeling triumphant and cocky after defeating the boss, most players (myself included) march proudly out onto the bridge, ready to fight some skeletons. In that instant, announced by a roaring, swooping noise, you are burnt to a crisp and killed instantly by a dragon who comes out of nowhere and envelops the bridge in fire, not only forcing you to restart from all the way at the bottom of the previous area, but also putting all the souls you gained from the previous boss fight in peril. And it is within the cruel challenge of the game where dark souls distinguishes itself from anything else in the videogame landscape.
Dark souls is a game that, purposefully or not, was made for the internet generation. The games high difficulty and massive ambiguity in terms of its story and where the player should go next (hint: not towards the skeletons) requires an internet tab to be open while playing the game. There are certain items in the game, the most infamous being The Rusted Iron Ring, that are almost essential in later levels, yet no logical, sane reasoning could guide one to finding this ring. Not only must you perform a running/jump roll combination off a cliff onto a stone pillar that the game was not designed to allow you to do, but then you must curl up into a ball in a Raven’s nest and wait for the raven to carry you back to the tutorial area of the game, where you can struggle to defeat a difficult boss in order to get the item. This kind of logic is prevalent in the game, but for some reason, provides as much as sense of wonder and exploration as it does frustration. The small, meager samplings of lore that the game gives are rare and vague, but spark interest in the world so much so that you’ll find yourself learning more about the games story from the wikis you’ll inevitably read than the game itself. And that is why this game is something special. Many games provide deep, complex stories or fun, energetic combat that you can enjoy on surface level without having to worry about after you turn it off. Dark Souls is a game that requires frequent use of google; the game has become a cultural phenomenon of sorts, prompting large groups of people to work together over the internet to figure the game out. Forcing the player to spend hours of research on items, bosses, secret areas, and lore just to understand and have an enjoyable time with the game doesn’t sound like a positive on surface level, but Dark Souls is not a game that will be enjoyed by those who only want to tread on surface level. Dark Souls is a game with immense depth, and for those that enjoy delving deep into wikis and forums in order to piece together the game like a puzzle, it is a unique experience to which nothing yet compares to.
All of this ambiguity really adds to what the game does best; Atmosphere. The truth is, you are dropped into a world you don’t know much about, and your knowledge doesn’t increase too much by the end of the game. The feeling of wandering through areas you know nothing about, fighting enemies with no explanation of who or what they are, and only a vauge sense of what you should do next give the game it’s very dark, cryptic atmosphere. This is a world that the player and his protagonist discover together, and it is in that shared struggle that the player becomes attached to this world and begins to care about it.
Dark Souls: Prepare To Die Edition is what seems like an accidental masterpiece. The sum of it’s parts is a very unclear story based around a game with very solid fighting and RPG elements and way too much confusion in directing the character as to where they should go next. However, the game is more than that; it is through the opaque story telling that it compels the character to find out more. It’s through the controller throwing difficulty that the game obliges the player to find information beyond the game on what and how to play it. This is a game that provokes thought and research long after the player puts down the controller for the night, and that is the mark of a game that will impact game design for generations to come.