Back when I reviewed Demon’s Souls in 2009, I argued that the excellent PS3 exclusive got too much hype for its difficulty when it had so many more other stand-out elements: atmospheric levels, rewarding combat, and wildly unique multiplayer. Dark Souls, the spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls, still has all of these features, but developer From Software has latched on to the idea of difficulty and honed it to an art form. Dark Souls is without a doubt the hardest game I have ever played; that is its blessing, and that is its curse.
Some frustration in Dark Souls arises from how this generation’s games have conditioned us. Gamers are used to handholding tutorials that walk you through every aspect of a game’s mechanics. Dark Souls doesn’t waste time explaining things. You encounter the first boss within 10 minutes of starting the game. He’s huge. He wields a giant club that can take away half of your health bar or more in a single swing – and this isn’t one of those battles you’re supposed to lose. After a quick detour, you’re fully expected to defeat this monster as one of your first acts in this deadly world.
Taking the death and destruction online
Demon’s Souls had a unique online system where you could invite other players, in the form of Blue Phantoms, to help you, but you also had to watch out for invasions from players in the form of Black Phantoms. These multiplayer options have carried over to Dark Souls, but the game also introduces some strange new systems.
Throughout the game, players will encounter NPCs that allow them to join different covenants. Choosing a covenant helps determine who you face off against in PvP. Covenants also open up the possibility of affecting someone else’s game without directly warping into it, such as dropping an item that summons monsters into other players’ games.Multiplayer access was limited during my time with the review build, so I wasn’t able to see the full implementation of covenants. Like the Blue and Black Phantoms, this system seems like it will set Dark Souls apart from the competition and give it a singular feeling that will make it entertaining for months to come.
Strange new concepts such as humanity (a resource that allows you to revert from undead form back to human) and kindling (an act that gets you more health flasks at your current checkpoint) could use more explanation, but this is the kind of stuff that the Dark Souls community will love toying with and figuring out over the next few months.
The overall lack of direction the game gives you is harder to forgive. The world laid out in Dark Souls is absolutely massive but, beyond cryptic hints from a handful of scattered NPCs, you’re not told where to go. Exploration is a key part of the game but, with a world this huge, you’re bound to hit multiple points where you feel like you’ve explored everything open to you and don’t know where to go next. Sometimes the correct path ahead is unnecessarily obscure, requiring you to drop down a cliff or walk across a narrow ledge that doesn’t look passable. Without the help of a guide or consulting Internet forums, it’s likely that you’ll spend hours searching through old areas before you discover that the way forward was hidden in plain sight.
Once you figure out where you’re going, though, Dark Souls can be stunning, rewarding experience. I spent a full day playing through the death-trap-filled Sen’s Fortress level over and over again, but it wasn’t frustrating at all. With each attempt, I discovered a new secret or devised a strategy that would afford me another scrap of progress. By the end of the day, I had the whole of this level – easily one of the most devious ever designed – memorized. Now I can practically run through it blindfolded. It’s a wonderful feeling showing off this sadistic setting to friends and coworkers and having them marvel at my abilities, which are based entirely in perseverance and smart play rather than twitch skills.
But for every few areas that distill what was amazing about Demon’s Souls down into its purest and most brilliant form, there is one that takes things a step too far. The Tomb of the Giants is a pitch-black catacomb full of giant skeletons that forces you to trade your shield for a lantern if you want to see your hazardous surroundings. The beautiful castles of Anor Londo require balancing across precariously thin walkways while avoiding arrow bolts from multiple angles. The majority of the game is spent in much less frustrating areas, but there are a handful that break the golden rule that made Demon’s Souls so good: Every death, however painful, was always fair.
Despite my complaints, I can’t help but feel a rush of adrenaline just thinking about Dark Souls. I spent around 60 hours playing it over the last month and died nearly 100 times while doing so. I screamed, I cursed, and I threw down my controller in defeat more times than I’m proud of. I can’t wait to get back in and do it all over again. Dark Souls probably won’t be the biggest or best game released this year, but I’m already sure it’s the one I’m going to spend the most time playing.