The lights are on
There were so many times playing through Dark Souls that I wanted to chuck the game out the window. There were so many times that I had thought I had experienced the worst that it had to offer, only to be greeted by another room of pain and suffering beyond that I'd yet seen. But then there were times when I really appreciated the difficulty; it was punishing and frustrating, but also a learning process which made me feel so accomplished when I finally did figure out how to beat a boss or traverse an area. It makes me think back to a simpler time. A time when games like Contra, Zelda, and Castlevania were considered milestones to be beaten. All were difficult, but all were still considered fun and are yet enjoyed to this day.
Dark souls has minimal story which is mainly told through the sparse NPCs found across the landscape. I still don't know the whole picture, but from what I gathered: You play as a "Chosen One" undead who is supposed to defeat a king who was victorious in a war with some dragons long ago and light a fire to give the rest of humanity a hope against the overwhelming forces of evil which have slowly grown into the land. This lack of a story may be a turn-off to some who love to get engrossed in the lore of a game, but I'd say that this plays to Dark Souls' advantage. Like Metroid, or even Castlevania to some extent, a minimal story means that the player is just as clueless and alone as their virtual counter-part. It supports the overall theme of the game, loneliness and despair.
The graphics are a mixed bag. Dark Souls looks decent enough for a late-gen Xbox 360 game, the environments and textures are detailed enough to showcase the kind of world you are in. You will always be seeing parts of the world off in the distance which you have already been to are will be getting to eventually. But there are some areas that are polar opposites in what you would hope to see. Places like Anor Londo and the Darkroot Garden which represent a truly epic sight and a looming atmosphere of dread at your next encounter. But then there are places like the swamp in Blighttown and the lake of lava in Lost Izalith which sport a murky and muddled view, which may be imposing to some but feels more of an annoyance on top of an already frustrating game. Overall, the graphics provide both spooky and awe-inspiring areas which you'll be always be afraid to traverse.
Music, like story, is minimal and relegated to a few select moments. Often only heard during boss fights, these songs ca be hit or miss depending on which boss fight it is. I personally felt a disconnect from the music during the final battle, like I had missed something which warranted its tone. But the lack of music, like the small story, plays very much into the strength of the game. You don't want to hear music when you're listening for enemies sneaking up behind you, you don't want a rousing score playing over you're struggle for survival. No, this game respects the player's concentration as they plunge the bowels of despair.
Dark Souls is a simple game to play, but a hard game to master. This is the mark of a good game because the outcome of each encounter is controlled directly by the player's decisions and actions. Players control exactly when they block with a shield or strike with a sword. They can use parrying to land critical blows or dodge around for massive back-stabs. But each action they take comes with a price. They are limited to what they can do in a certain amount of time by a stamina bar which depletes for each action they take. Swing the sword too many times and you won't have enough stamina left to absorb a blow with your shield. Enemies can be engaged in groups, but it is often better to lure them out to engage one-on-one. Bows and different kinds of magic can be applied for ranged situations so the player will have no shortage of ways to deal out death. But be warned: enemies quite often have your same abilities or equipment, so it is best to adapt to each situation as it arises if you don't want to see the "You Died" screen too many times.
Death plays a huge part into Dark Souls, one could say that it is the pillar around which the game is based. You will die playing this game, maybe not at first, but it will happen. Hidden traps, swarming enemies, or one of the multitude of ledges lacking safety rails will eventually claim your life. However, the game is not without mercy (that being said in the most dripping of sarcastic tones). Scattered across the land are bonfires which act as safe-points and places to level-up. Whenever the player dies, they are transported to the last bonfire they visited having lost whatever souls they had gathered thus far. Souls act as in-game currency which is reaped from fallen foes and spent on new equipment or levels. The souls of one's previous life are left where they died, but should one die before recovering them, these souls are lost forever.
Boss battles are the highlight of this exercise in frustration. Each is bigger, faster, and stronger than the player. But each is limited to a certain move-set and patterns. It is up to the player to learn these and approach the situation as they see fit. Each boss is a learning process that may take many deaths to figure out how to finally conquer it. Unlike other RPGs where one could grind out some levels and fight the boss a stronger person, Dark Souls is not that easy. Most bosses, even for higher leveled characters, can kill them in one or two hits. In this case, knowledge is more powerful than brute force. Much like Castlevania, learning a boss's moves and when to strike is vital. Each boss is uniquely made and as new fun experience to find out.
Dark Souls is a game that is hardest the first time around. Once you know how to approach each area and enemy, it is not nearly as nerve-racking or frustrating. Players can play over again through the not-nearly-seen-enough-now-a-days feature of New Game+ or they can start over again with a different character class to find different ways of playing. Some might be turned off by the excessive difficulty, but the feeling of beating another boss or clearing another gloomy area will continue to bring others back time and time again.
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