I’ve put about 40 hours into Dark Souls and I enjoyed every one, despite it being bleak in both atmosphere and gameplay. It’s a fun game, and a very challenging one for me. I need to write more about it.
There are lots of little things in Dark Souls that I appreciate. For example, it’s actually a good thing the game rarely has music outside of boss fights. Because of that, you can typically hear something waiting for you. Armor clanking, a monster sighing, gears creaking. The audio cues–typically irrelevant in video games–are a good hint of what’s going to try to kill you in the next room. There’s even an item that makes your character move silently, which is a fantastic little touch, especially for people with stealth builds.
You can’t pause, which means that if you want to change items on the fly, they have to either already be equipped or you have to fumble through the menus. This isn’t as bad as it sounds, as you should be prepared for every battle due to your numerous deaths anyway. I do wish there was the ability to sort items so I can see newly acquired items more easily, as I often find myself clicking away through popup menus when I find something on the ground while still in combat.
I loved the steel ball falling down the stairs at the beginning of Dark Souls . It was a good way of saying “this game is full of sneak attacks and deadly surprises like this, be prepared for it.” Every level is creatively designed to require understanding them; you’re meant to really explore your environment and be attentive. They’re speaking through gameplay, moreso than most game design nowadays does. And as I said in my previous article , memorization of the area layouts is an important part of not getting killed.
Rushing around corners without your shield up, walking into relatively obvious traps, rolling off cliffs in the middle of fights (or even more shamefully, not in fights), running out of stamina by attacking recklessly, eating a bunch of hits and not backing off, trying to heal in front of an enemy—these are all fatal mistakes that you must quickly learn to avoid. And it becomes obvious that locking on is usually not the best way to attack. You have to stop for a second when you enter a room and make sure you’re not going to do something dumb. If you try to Rambo it like you’re playing Dynasty Warriors then you will end up as another red splatter. Dark Souls rewards patience and skill, and that’s what makes it so enjoyable.
Less intuitive is knowing how to allocate stats. Almost every character build will need health and stamina, but you might not know this if you approach it like some Dungeons & Dragons deal where you can dump all your points into intelligence and slaughter everything. If you didn’t play the game with a guide like I suggested, you could easily screw up and build the wrong stats and render your character essentially incapable of handling harder areas, forcing a restart. Or you might not have bought the repair box from Andrei the blacksmith and gotten stuck in an area with no way to repair your stuff. No, it’s not as unfair as, say, meeting some ninjas in Wizardry who instantly decapitate your entire party, half of whom will permanently turn to ashes when you try to resurrect them. Dark Souls expects you to die but there are no penalties for failure other than lost souls (used as experience/currency), humanity, and time invested. You at least get the chance to retrieve your corpse. Dark Souls is quite hard but it tends to keep the unfairness to a reasonable minimum. It’s downright user-friendly compared to old CRPGs if you want to compare the two.
I spoke of learning the layouts earlier, but I want to clarify. Some have told me that Dark Souls doesn’t need an in-game map. It doesn’t, actually, and many people have completed it without a map or a guide of any sort, but the game could still benefit from it. And don’t suppose that mini-maps are a modern addition for pampered baby gamers raised on Call of Cutscenes and can’t handle playing a game without handrails; games like Super Metroid and Solstice had in-game maps and no one thinks less of them for it. Getting lost in a gameworld isn’t a problem if you aren’t in fear of instant deaths and there’s some sense of progression. Yes, I know that Dark Souls’ areas are nowhere as near as complex as old CRPGs and text adventures, but I didn’t enjoy drawing my own maps for The Bard’s Tale and Adventure and I don’t want to repeat that process. The lack of a map just means more busywork. It’s not like it would suddenly turn into easy trash for casuals if it had one. You’ll still have to remember “there’s a ball trap here, there’s a mimic sneak attack there” if you want to progress.
My friend Sean said, “There is really only one part of the game that I’d say is just plain ridiculous (dragon on the bridge), but everything else isn’t that hard to learn how to beat if you bide your time and don’t rush in.” I was pretty obvious to me to take off all my armor except my anti-fire shield and run for it, but that section apparently caused a lot of problems to other players. Sean had difficulty with the things I found easy and vice versa. What this tells me is that Dark Souls is all over the place when it comes to difficulty and perception of its difficulty.
Some say the bosses are easy if you play cautiously. I play Dark Souls more cautiously than the FCC censors when Robert Smigel is on live TV and I still die to bosses a dozen times or more before achieving victory. I can accept the fact that I’m not good at the game. It’s not the end of the world. I’m fine with this.
But I enjoyed the bosses nonetheless. For most bosses it’s best to get behind them for obvious reasons, but against Chaos Witch Quelaag (after several fatal mistakes) I found it better to stay in front while attacking. That was a great subversion of expectations; it forced me to adapt to a new situation rather than playing on autopilot. My previous experience with combat gave me all the techniques I needed to win but I still had to work for it. This game is gratifying.
And when I first encountered the Hydra boss, it blew me away—literally, since it spits supersonic water bullets while crystal golems are smashing you. It was not only visually impressive as a swarming mass of serpent heads in the distant waterfall mists, but it didn’t wait until I got close before attacking. It used the same attack-from-afar technique I had abused throughout the game. How could I even approach such a magnificent creature? By running up to it, blocking and dodging, and then hacking every single one of its stupid heads off. I decided to not be intimidated by a fictional creature in a video game. And it felt great. Almost as if I had actually accomplished something.
Just recently, I got to the dual boss Ornstein and Smough. They destroyed me. Then I improved myself and beat them.