By STEPHEN CARILLI
Alright, let’s get this out of the way first: “Dark Souls” is hard. It’s really hard. Like, really incredibly hard. While holding the disc, waves of hatred carved into the plastic emanate out tinged with contempt and malice for anyone who tries to conquer it. But that’s the entire point. “Dark Souls” was designed to be cruel, malicious, and to make small children weep in terror. Complaining about the difficulty and knocking the game because it’s too hard are missing the point.
This isn’t a game for everyone, but that doesn’t make it a bad one. This is a game where difficulty is the heart and *ahem* soul of the whole experience. If the thought of being torn apart limb from limb by hungry demons only to have to get back into the fray again and again makes is nauseating, don’t buy “Dark Souls”. If the thought of slowly carving a path through the pitch black abyss ahead to defeat one of the hardest challenges in a long time sounds like a fun time, this is easily one of the best games of the year.
“Dark Souls” begins in an appropriately depressing way: the main character is one of the accursed undead, a human marked with a strange blemish known as the Dark sign. The undead are forced to live even after death as zombie-like beings called Hollows, and society at large fears them. They are corralled and sent to the asylum at the northern tip of the world, where they are locked up to “await the end of the world.” A mysterious stranger frees the protagonist and tells him that other undead have been seeking the lost land of Lordran, where it is said the accursed can achieve salvation. As this stranger slowly dies, he requests that his mission be continued in hopes of saving the world.
And that’s about it. Outside a little more development halfway through, that’s pretty much the extent of the plot. This game takes the term “role-playing” to heart. The player defines their character’s motivations and personal story, and it’s up to them to interpret the strange lands and creatures met throughout the journey. “Dark Souls” actually has a rich lore, delivered not through cut-scenes but through short dialogue, item locations, enemies, and the environment. The meaning of it all is highly subjective, and there are already plenty of interesting theories out there about what truly happened in the sad tale of the chosen undead.
This journey takes place across a seamless world where every area is connected, and every square inch carefully and meticulously designed. It lacks the expansive over-worlds typical of western RPGs, but it’s better off for it. Each area in “Dark Souls” is so well designed it’s amazing the developers were able to link them all together, and it’s easy to see some serious time was spent in packing the world to the brim with devious traps and brutal enemy positions. Bonfires serve as places of rest and they’re also re-spawn points after the (inevitable) death, so scouring the land for these safe havens while low on health and heading into unknown territory adds a level of tension to travels.
The areas boast some impressive visual design, and are populated by monstrosities so gruesome even the thought of fighting them is terrifying. From the shimmering bridges of the Crystal Caverns, where iridescent butterflies float along on the frigid air, to the depths of the New Londo Ruins, piled so high with corpses and grime smell almost comes out of the television, the world of “Dark Souls” is a silently dreadful place that effectively fills one with a sense of solitude and danger. The struggle for survival is difficult, but it need not be made alone.
“Dark Souls” has one of the most interesting online components in any game: the player is constantly online, and other players can leave messages on the ground to help or trick those playing their own game. There are also summon signs that lets online players be called into other players’ games for some temporary aid, or if they’re feeling devious to invade other players’ worlds in hopes of killing them and stealing their souls. “Dark Souls” also introduces covenants, or guilds, made with non-player characters, granting special bonuses for either helping or hunting other players.
Unfortunately, the online connection can be a little unreliable and it’s difficult to find specific players, but for the most part it all works wonderfully. Playing offline means avoiding any dangerous soul hunters out there, but it also means the journey more difficult being alone. It’s just another area of the game that offers a choice of how to play, with distinct pros and cons either way.
The actual combat in “Dark Souls” is heavy and satisfying, with a real sense of weight behind every bloody slash as steel clashes with steel and flesh is torn apart. Equipment defines doesn’t affect stats as much as it changes play style, and while it’s important to focus on one of the three main attack categories (dexterity, strength, and intelligence) there is a diverse array of weapons and armor that lend themselves to different play styles and can be switched around easily. There are even weapons that work outside these limits, such as a sword that deals damage based on magic prowess and spells that require no intelligence yet can still be used effectively.
There are countless ways to tackle the unique challenges “Dark Souls” offers, and each one is viable in its own way. The game may be difficult, but it’s not cheap. “Dark Souls” is based on skill, and like anything skill based, practice and thought are the only things required to improve and emerge victorious. Some obstacles may seem insurmountable, but a good rule of thumb is “if it can be hit, it can be killed.” Even if only a small amount of damage is dealt with a hit, a low level character can take on huge, vicious demons with finesse and come out on top. The game may feel a little less than fair at times (unblockable moves that kill in one hit are really pushing it) but there’s always a way to win.
“Dark Souls” is pretty much the antithesis of the modern game: it’s slow, methodical, deeply personal, and thoroughly morose. That being said, it’s also one of the most satisfying and unique games to come out in a long time. “Dark Souls” is a real challenge: a game that’s not afraid to be a true test of skill, endurance, and patience, pushing the player to the limit and asking them if they really are up to the challenge or not.