Genre fantasy is stuck in a rut. From Lord Of The Rings to Game Of Thrones, things haven’t changed in any measurable way for well over sixty years. Giant, langurious lizards still mark the upper echelon of higher beast, pug-faced, green-skinned horrors still mass in hordes of all that is wicked and ungodly, and fair-haired, sharp-eared immortals still croon piously about the ills of the blighted forest. It’s not, of course, due to any lack of original thought, but more that the publishing industry – books, films and games – knows that this formula sells. So why change it?
By all rights, a Japanese take on the Western RPG should be in every way as bad as Bungie taking on the next Final Fantasy – about as appealing as gravy and phlegm. In 2009, From Software set out to prove that, rather than mash together the norms and conventions of two very different videogame cultures, it could instead, with intelligence and a delicate touch, capitalise on the accord of classic Western fantasy, while sprinkling the final product with a liberal quantity of Eastern quirk.
The upshot was Demon’s Souls which, for those who require a brief tow to come to speed, was an epic Western-style RPG, flowing with a deep and ferocious undercurrent of Japanese absurdity. From its central hub, you would enter a number of steadily unlocked worlds, each with its own theme and atmosphere. The aim was to return to said hub with a large number of souls harvested from the bodies of fallen enemies and use them to level your character, thereby unlocking the ability to take on greater challenges; new stages punctuated by ever more fearsome denizens. Upon death, any souls carried were lost, unless you could work your way back to the spot you died and retrieve them. Failing that, accumulated souls were lost permanently, often killing whole hours of progress in a single, hollow moment.
To Demon’s Souls, and equally to Dark Souls, punishment was and is central to its gameplay philosophy. A single minor enemy is capable of taking out even highly levelled players, should they become complacent and mistime the raising of their shield, or opt for a heavy attack during a window too narrow to accommodate their lumbering back-swing. Demon’s Souls was hard – a fact for which it was both critically applauded and enjoyed substantial limelight as poster-boy of the true gaming hardcore; a champion to those who lament modern gaming’s proclivity for limp, guided experiences. It was pure videogame mojo – a little blue pill for the appetites of the jaded generation.
Dark Souls’ strap-line proudly states ‘You will die’. We were worried that From Software had come to the errant conclusion that it was Demon’s Souls’ crushing difficulty that led to the bonanza of perfect scores and widespread kudos among gamers that it rightfully received. Because if difficulty were the sole facet on which critical success were balanced, there are any number of broken games out there that should have reviewed better. Just take a look at Ninja Gaiden; a crushingly difficult game whose plaudits were justified because it was also never less than fair. Its sequel saw Team Ninja focus so much on that one aspect that it lost every bit of its poise.
To follow in those footsteps would mean failure on the part of From Software to understand that which it had created – that Demon’s Souls was an aberration whose masterful execution was little more than a happy accident. Marketing, it turns out, is one thing, whereas a unique mastery of videogame design is another. Dark Souls, like its predecessor, is not a game that relies solely on its difficulty.
Where stereotypical Western fantasy RPGs such as Dragon Age: Origins employ rousing orchestral scores and battlefields alive with the scuttling of rusted armour to inject changes of pace, Dark Souls is an experience of such delicate subtlety that the changing of a single piece of armour, and the new sound and gait that results, has a tangible effect on the way you perceive your character’s place in the world. It is just you and the wind, and we can honestly say that, besides Demon’s Souls, there is no other videogame on the planet that achieves a greater sense of place, nor swells so effectively feelings of fear and loneliness.
There is no central hub – no safe area from which to base your expeditions into the unknown. Instead there are campfires littered throughout, the first of which serves as a kind of launching point, with characters you meet or rescue along the way making their way back there to serve as vendors and trainers. Throughout the rest of the world, campfires are few and far between, and reaching them is the only means of true progress. At each, players can rest, thereby regaining the contents of their Estus Flask – a five-charge health replenishment vessel. Resting will also mean you respawn from that campfire as opposed to, say, the one you’ve just spent half an hour travelling from. But there is a devious penalty; each time you rest, every enemy in the game except its bosses returns to life and will need to be killed again. And again. And again.
Your character, custom made from any of several archetypes, will be undead most of the time as a result of his or her repeated death. As well as souls, enemies occasionally drop ‘Humanity’. This can be used to ‘Reverse Hollowing’ – a way to leave your undead form and become once again human until such time as you die. That’s usually not very long, and so this in itself isn’t particularly useful. However, should you be human and own additional humanity, you can kindle the flame of any campfire, which will provide you with ten Estus charges rather than five whenever you respawn there – a significant leg-up in your plight to reach the next.
Dark Souls is anything but linear, and its lack of a separate hub proves no obstacle to the genius way in which the world’s layout develops every alley, passageway, ladder and doorway to open up whole new unexplored realms.
Indeed, it is exploration that is most central to the Dark Souls experience. There are few games that encourage more relish for getting past the next boss, or finally obtaining the key to that innocuous-looking door the player has passed six hundred times while toing and froing elsewhere. And when those bosses are slain and doors are opened, it never disappoints. What may look a cupboard-sized room from the outside contains a ladder, which leads down to several sets of stairs and onward through underground passages to where it opens out into vast valleys filled with varieties of fiend far beyond our current abilities. Dark Souls is a compendium of places such of these, and through repetition, how each links up with the other is burned indelibly into the player’s mental map.
Dark Souls is a game of loneliness, of isolation. But there are occasionally folks you’ll meet along the way, some friendly, most indifferent, and through them you’ll gain access to additional spells, items, weapons and upgrades. The latter requires you find either a blacksmith, or acquire the necessary items to strengthen your weapons by your own hand. Titanite shards, a fairly uncommon component looted from the corpses of your vanquished enemies, are used to strengthen weapons. A Battle Axe, say, becomes ‘Battle Axe+1’, and so on all the way up to level five. At level five another, quite insanely rare component that may only be looted from a major boss, can be used to ‘Ascend’ the weapon to the next level.
The levelling of yourself, your weapons, your armour and your magic are all vital to progress. You are at war with the world of Dark Souls and everything in it, and, make no mistake, it’s a war of attrition – an arms race. It’s quite possible to have a dozen ways forward at any one time, but equally possible that one – or less – of those are within your current abilities. Grinding – kill group of enemies, return to campfire, rinse, repeat – is sometimes the only way to proceed. Whether or not this bothers you really is down to a matter of taste.
Dark Souls’ online features, in a far more substantial way than those of Demon’s Souls, are vital to player enjoyment. For those unfamiliar with the way the online component works, messages can be left on the ground for the benefit of other players. Messages such as ‘You can run past this dragon, but it may take many deaths to do so’. Without the help of such philanthropy from fellow adventurers, players could easily find themselves stuck at regular intervals with no obvious means to proceed. With the console attached to an internet connection, however – when the spirits of the gaming community mingle in the ether and their legacies overlap – this issue simply ceases to exist.
It highlights a universal truth about the world of Dark Souls; that one could never accuse it of wasting an opportunity to punish you. How lurking from every shadow, insta-death arrives with neither pomp nor preamble. How the game’s architectural structure is designed deliberately to lead you to believe you have happened upon an impasse. Or how Dark Souls distributes its barriers, both in the form of powerful enemies and locked doors, meaning that linearity isn’t an option even if plundering on to the next campfire is all you really want to do.
To make any final judgment as to whether Dark Souls is the equal, or even the better, of its forebear is a subjective one. The same ideas are spun out in near-identical fashion. Its eschewing of a somewhat cumbersome hub in favour of an organically flowing world should rightfully be commended as a step forward. That the majority of its gameplay hasn’t changed while the inflation of expectation in the wider world marches on means that if anything, some aspects have taken a small step backwards. Either way, Dark Souls is a fine example of how great forethought and a less than tepid attitude towards taking risks pay dividends in the hands of real gamers. It is nothing short of extraordinary, though perhaps a couple of years on from Demon’s Souls, it is also less surprising.