Dark Souls, the perfected echo of the gut-wrenchingly difficult Demon’s Souls. If you thought you died too much in Demon’s Souls, you haven’t seen anything yet. Dark Souls is a game not meant for casual-core gamers who want cheap thrills and easy wins; it’s called one of the hardest games on the market for a reason. Muster all of your cunning, be ready to react, pay attention to the subtleties, because if you make one mistake, you won’t survive. But where in some games death is the end, in Dark Souls, it is only a step forward. In death, the player is moved back to the most recent bonfire they have rested at, and must push ever forward to retrieve what they have lost.
In Demon’s Souls, souls were the currency of the realm, used to level up attributes, empower weapons, purchase items and materials; a universal necessity. Upon death, they were left in a bloodstain right where the player died, calling for a return trip to retrieve what was lost. If the player dies again before reaching the bloodstain, the first vanishes, and a new one forms. In Dark Souls, there is even more to lose. Humanity is utilized to revert from the fire-vulnerable coop-unavailable Hollowed form to the full powered human form, to offer to covenant leaders in exchange for powerful items, spells, and gifts. Useful, but not likely to be kept, as it too drops into the player’s bloodstain upon death.
But enough about dying, hm? Even though it plays a large role for the player (and everything else, for that matter), staying too focused on that single detail in particular would detract from the utter vastness of the rest of the game. Between the realistic damage system, perfected combat mechanics, visual splendor, and unspoken yet profound plot, Dark Souls has a lot going for it.
The character begins as an undead, locked in an asylum indefinitely, only to be rescued by an unnamed knight and offered the first, vague shred of direction along with some essential items. From then on, all other fragments of plot are obtained through extensive exploration, the defeating of powerful bosses and conversation with NPCs. By no means will the game make this progression simple, though. All areas are connected in a web-like fashion, all with unevenly distributed difficulty, so some places must be snuck through, while others can be fought through. There are hidden shortcuts between each area that can be activated to make travel much less harrowing, as not to bore the player with meaningless travel when they could be facing daunting foes and finding valuable loot. However, no matter where the player goes, the way forward will always be barred by myriad foes, be the remnant soldiers of an army from ages long past, demons straight out of the fiery pit, or even your very allies, whose minds have turned to madness after becoming Hollowed themselves. Some zones are completely blocked by the presence of a powerful boss, making exploration much more valuable than linear travel.
Though bosses may come to fall before you as you rack up experience and souls, each victory illicits a feeling of utter triumph, no matter how small it is, as the requisite of success is not overwhelming force or some endgame weapon. It is in fact trial and error tactics that will define the player’s progression. When the Iron Golem grabs you from between his towering legs and throws you from the tower of Sen’s Fortress to your doom, you learn how to dodge his grasp. When the Bed of Chaos opens the ground beneath you and you plummet into a burning death in lava, you learn which parts of the ground will crumble and which are safe to walk on. When the hammer of Smough the Executioner and the spear of Dragonslayer Ornstein simultaneously break your guard and deplete your health you for the hundredth time, you start to realize that you should get some help.
Another excellent point about the game. The cooperative play allows human-form players to summon Hollowed players as phantoms to assist in certain parts of the game, such as boss fights or particularly daunting areas. Covenants are available to suit the player’s preferred form of online play, be it jolly cooperation, invasion and assassination, or the bringing of justice to betrayers, murderers, and thieves. For those who do not have online capability, there isn’t any need to fret about the lack of assistance from other players. Assisted NPCs will gladly be summoned to aid in the defeat of bosses, and their availability coupled with their overall power makes them invaluable assets when facing off against a boss that is too tough to take on alone.
Despite the magnitude of appeal Dark Souls has for it already, the most intriguing aspect of the game by far is the plot itself. The way it is subtly applied through lore and legend, snippets of conversation, and unusually alluring artifacts found, it almost feels as if the player is compelled to create their own answers. What caused Gwyn, the Lord of Cinders and forger of the First Flame, to lose his mind and shun the victory he had attained in the war against the dragons? How did Crossbreed Priscilla, the child of beloved man and hated dragonkin come to be locked behind the frame of the cold, unforgiving Painted World of Aramais? Why are the Darkwraiths so convinced that gods are evil and humankind should rule the land of Lordran in their place? The player may piece together some answers from descriptions of particular items and vague explanations offered by allies and enemies alike, but the entire answer is never there, making immersion into the desecrated world of Dark Souls inevitable.
Overall, this game offers much more than its predecessor, but due to the lack of a relationship between itself and Demon’s Souls apart from gameplay mechanics, anyone can pick it up on a whim and enjoy to the fullest extent. Once you play Dark Souls even halfway through, you’ll know that there’s no other game quite like it.