Set to launch throughout North America and Europe this week, FromSoftware’s Dark Souls is about to become that game on everyone’s lips. It’s difficult, but never unfair. It’s punishing, but never does it make excuses for being that way. Above all else, it’s a videogame that tries to rewrite the rulebook on what it means to be a ‘core’ gamer, and for the most part it succeeds.
Dark Souls’ predecessor, the PlayStation 3 exclusive Demons Souls, prided itself on the design of its gameplay being tuned perfectly for the core videogaming demographic, but Dark Souls takes this ethos much further. Every aspect of the software is targeted directly at the knowing audience: before even beginning the game the player is presented with a list of options the length of their arm, and the player is expected to not only know the effects of each and every one, but also what their own personal preference is. If you don’t know your preferred camera speed on a scale of 1-10 or the connotations of accessing the Xbox LIVE Leaderboards, you clearly aren’t prepared for the challenge that awaits.
Continuing this vein of expectation after the character creation component, Dark Souls does present a tutorial, but not in a fashion that you might be expecting. Eschewing the traditional window pop-up and input/command structure, Dark Souls instead chooses to pass over the instruction through messages littered around the area. At first these messages are leading the player down a linear path, but in a stunningly subtle manner, Dark Souls slowly presents the lessons only to players keen to explore, lecturing the player on the channel through which messages will be communicated at a later date, both by the game itself and other players.
As the player progresses past the opening scenes they will have learnt the basics of control and item usage, and the rest is up to them. There’s no going back at this point, Dark Souls has you locked in, unable to break free of its tight claws as it stabs away at your pride. It doesn’t matter how many videogames you’ve completed in the pas, whether you were the first of your friends to master Gears of War 3 on Hardcore difficulty or if you’ve made it to the top of the online leaderboards in Halo: Reach, Dark Souls is a different beats altogether. It’s almost as if ‘accessibility’ was deemed a swear word throughout FromSoftware’s time developing the game.
Dark Souls offers no depth in terms of plot, character development or rewards to keep the player on the right path: progression is based purely on instinct, and your desire to beat the great challenge you face. There is a plot of some sort, of course, but it’s delivery is so unaware of the advances videogames have made in storytelling with this past generation of consoles that it’s almost unintelligible. Normally, any game that ignored the progress made in delivery and plot development over the last five years would be heavily criticised, deemed as malnourished or simply unfinished. However, for some reason, FromSoftware are being applauded for doing just that.
For gamers who have made any progress through Dark Souls, it’s obviously a case of substance over dressing. Dark Souls is a game in which the core fundamentals are so solid, everything else seems of relatively little importance. The strongest aspect of the videogame is the balanced nature of the combat: for every new blade the player equips, there are a number of skeleton warriors, archers and demons just waiting to show you that it’s not the home of the divine skillset you thought it would be. While Tecmo Koei recently enthused about how visceral Ninja Gaiden 3’s swordplay is, one does wonder just how successful they will be in getting this point across without the demanding combat of Dark Souls. Every blow is life threatening, every life lost is potentially hours of struggle and invested tension stripped away without apology.
The revised rules after the success of Demons Souls sees Dark Souls taking place in a much more open environment, with bonfires acting as manual checkpoints. Upon death (which if you haven’t gathered by now, will be frequent) you will restart at the last bonfire you lit, as opposed to travelling to the beginning of the level. However, resting at a bonfire will bring all enemies formerly defeated back to life, and so players must err on the side of caution when choosing their checkpoint: you may have just defeated a hard enemy and don’t wish to bring it back to life, but do you think you’ll be able to last until the next bonfire without dying?
A new aspect added in Dark Souls is Humanity, a feature that can be a little confusing until you begin to understand its usefulness. Humanity can be collected in a number of ways – killing bosses or purchasing from merchants being those you’ll find early-on – but its limited availability is a clue as to how useful it is. One of the most important functions is being able to use Humanity to kindle bonfires, increasing the quantity of your Est Flask, which restores a small portion of your health. Of course, with Humanity being so vital an ingredient to success, Dark Souls isn’t just going to let you run around with it in your pocket; upon death all Humnaity collected will be lost. Players can regain their Humanity by returning to the point at which they died and touching the bloodstain that appears in place of their corpse, but dying again before doing so means it’s lost forever.
In terms of technical prowess, Dark Souls is arguably on the back foot. The weakest aspect of the game is surely its visuals, as while the landscape is elegantly designed and the view often stretches for miles, there’s no arguing that the textures are often muddy and the animation is somewhat clunky throughout the game. It’s not a weakness that many players will pick-up on, as it’s not really what Dark Souls is about, but it’s never going to win any awards for the visual or audio design. The stronger technical development is its online play, which echoes Demons Souls in that players can interact with one another without leaving their own game. Of course, there is also the co-operative gameplay, in which one player can be summoned to another’s game in order to help defeat a powerful enemy, however it’s the less traditional aspects of online gaming that make Dark Souls memorable.
There are many reasons that Dark Souls will be recognised as a success, and first-and-foremost will surely be that throughout the extensive campaign, every corner turned feels like a new challenge. Every enemy felled is a success. It’s a videogame experience that grips the player and doesn’t let go, despite the additional investment that may be required as players break their controls in a fury of anger. Should Dark Souls prove to be the commercial success it deserves to it will surely be responsible for the ushering of a new era for videogame development: one in which publishers are no longer scared to take risks on videogames targeted at the core gamer not just in their themes, but in their delivery also.