From Software's sequel to their 2009 dark horse masterpiece has arrived, does it live up to the hype?
Demon’s Souls was an anomaly, a thoroughly modern 3D game whose mechanics and philosophy were plucked wholesale from the 8-bit era: unforgivingly brutal difficulty, a focus on repetitive attack patterns, and absolutely no hand-holding whatsoever. While all of these things are true of Dark Souls as well, it’s billed as a “spiritual successor” and not a sequel for good reason – in many ways, this is a wildly different experience.
Above: The bonfires are your only respite from demons and the hollow
Exploring the darkness
For example, while Demon’s Souls was based around the Nexus – a safe, central hub that players could return to between visits to the five surrounding worlds – Dark Souls scraps this for a nonlinear network of interconnected areas that you must discover and explore on your own, unguided. Scattered bonfires act as safe zones, restoring your health and activating checkpoints, but they also cause any enemies you’ve killed in your journey to respawn. In this series, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Each bonfire awards you 5 Estus Flasks, healing potions that essentially replace Demon’s Souls moon grass. “What!” you scream, enraged “Free healing items? DARK SOULS IS CASUAL NOOB BABY GAME!” Not so fast, sparky. Healing items are a bit more common, but the amount of blind exploring you’ll have to do in Dark Souls is infinitely more dangerous than the linear progression through its predecessor. It’s very easy to blunder into areas way above your ability level, and the developers have masochistically placed these cripplingly difficult dungeons directly next to your first proper bonfire so that you can happily stumble into them like an idiot. The only way to really know you’re somewhere beyond your current skill is by dying. Repeatedly.
Finding the path of least resistance, then, is your initial mission and learning how the different areas intersect is very important – while the game is not as open world as something like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, it offers infinitely more freedom and choice than Demon’s Souls. You’ll unlock shortcuts between sections that drastically reduce travel time, but because there’s no in-game map, memorizing how to get from point A to point B is a huge part of the game’s thrill. Here it’s important to note the size of Dark Souls: an average first playthrough takes roughly 65 hours, and that’s not including the secret hidden areas, of which there are many. Dark Souls is filled to the brim with hidden weapons, armor, spells, and places that you will not only miss, but never even know exist.
Above: It isn't all just castles, Dark Souls has some gorgeous natural areas as well
Fear of the unknown
From Software and Namco have upheld the Demon’s Souls tradition of not telling the player anything despite the game’s vast size and complexity. Dark Souls opts for the information blackout, and the level of discomfort that this choice creates is key to the game’s strange charm. The development team knows what gamers like and need, then denies them those crutches in exchange for alienation and impotence. You will work to beat this game. You will grind. But when you do beat it, you will experience elation that not many other games can elicit.
This intensity and excitement is amplified by the fact that death, in the form of monstrous bosses and daunting enemies, lurks around every corner. One of the earliest wields a 14-foot long dragon’s tooth as a mace, while a later foe is literally a human infected with enormous spider eggs whose only attack is begging for you to kill him. This is not a happy world, but it’s beautiful and bizarre – a medieval fantasy infected with Lovecraftian nightmares.
Your character is fragile, too, and learning the precise mechanics of the combat is essential: how long each weapon takes to attack, how much endurance it consumes, and when you should block vs. when you should roll are all important considerations. As odd as the comparison may seem, Dark Souls plays a lot like a fighting game in this regard. You read your opponent’s moves, pay close attention to your spacing and meter, and punish whiffed attacks. You must constantly remain engaged and considering the risk vs. reward factor.