Dark Souls is a strange game. A very strange game in fact. Most players when they first begin simply find it difficult, and occasionally frustrating. You die, a lot. However, Dark Souls is a game which requires a slight shift in attitudes, in that death does not really represent a failure state as it does in so many games, but rather it represents an opportunity to tackle the same obstacle again, but this time armed with the knowledge gained from your last attempt.
Once you begin to be at peace with death, Dark Souls becomes an amazing experience. You are the chosen undead (or are you?), freed from a prison where you were fated to spend all eternity, and told only to ring the bells of awakening, and discover the fate of the undead. Dark Souls may seem a little light on story, but this in fact not really the case. What it is light on is exposition. There are NPCs scattered around, but they are few and far between, and not all that they say is to be trusted. The world of Lordran is a mysterious place, and deducing very much about it is left to the inquisitive minds of players, as is puzzling out the lore of this strange land.
First and foremost however Dark Souls is a third person action game, which specialises in brutally hard combat, requiring great skill to overcome the more difficult enemies in the game. Even the run of the mill grunts you encounter early in your adventure can easily kill you very late into the game if you become cocky or overconfident. It is also an RPG, and you level up your character with souls collected from vanquished foes, or occasionally as loot, and these souls are also the games currency, to be spent at merchants and blacksmiths. But, if you die, you drop your souls. Make it back to them again without dying, and they can be reclaimed. Die en route however, and those souls are lost forever.
Another important mechanic to grasp is humanity. Humanity is a semi-limited resource and a consumable item. When humanity is used and players ‘reverse hollow’ at a bonfire (the checkpoints you return to upon death, and also where you level up) they cease to appear undead, and become human instead. Die, and the humanity is lost, and the players returns to their undead state.
Humanity leads us on to another of Dark Souls’ most interesting features, its online capability. You see, in Dark Souls, other players are always on the periphery of your experience. You sometimes see ghostly figures running through your game, which are in fact other people playing their own game. Touch a bloodspot and watch how another person died, sometimes providing you with vital clues of upcoming surprises or what not to try. Players can also leave messages for others to read. Sometimes these are messages of hope, “praise the sun”, “I did it!”, “hope”. Other times they are clues about what’s coming up ahead or secrets you may have missed “illusory wall ahead” or “boss”, and many others. Other times the messages are more dastardly, pretending there is a secret wall ahead, or to try jumping off a ledge.
Players can also interact with one another in a much more concrete sense. You may leave a summon sign on the ground outside a boss, then other players will see that sign and can summon you to engage in some jolly co-operation, and maybe finally get past that boss that killed them 50 times, and you may summon other players into your world too. It is also possible to invade the worlds of other players, or to be invaded, for PvP battles. But all of this can only happen when you are in human form, so there is a trade off to be made. Being human allows you to summon help, but you also run the risk of being invaded.
I could wax lyrical about the map alone for hours. Dark Souls has the most incredible level design I’ve ever seen. It is a huge world, and one that initially seems disparate, with little connection. However, as you progress through the game, you realise that all of it is interconnected. Everything links back up through shortcuts, lifts, ladders etc. It has to be played to be experienced, but route planning is one of my favourite parts of the game.
There has been a tendency to represent Dark Souls as an almost Flappy Birds like experience, as if it is difficult just for its own sake. As if it is just designed to be hardcore, and deliberately obtuse. This does the game a great disservice. It is a game about problem solving. Is your heavily armoured knight too slow against certain enemies? Try coming back in full leather rather than plate. Keep getting your halberd stuck in the walls in a certain section? Try it again with a shortsword. Lack of ranged attacks getting you down? Try learning some pyromancy magic. The character creation is free form, and souls can be farmed if need be. You can solve any problem put before you with a little thought and persistence. Sure, the game doesn’t pull any punches, and you will have to puzzle out most of its systems and mechanics, but, that is part of the journey of discovery.
Maybe its just a Stockholm Syndrome like phenomen, but Dark Souls is a game that really becomes more enjoyable the longer you play. That’s partly because you simply become better at the combat system. It can be a cruel task master, but crucially it always remains fair. However, I like to believe that you simply begin to understand the game better; what the joy in the experience is I suppose. That solving that problem, killing that boss, finally getting through Blightown feels like overcoming the odds, about achievement for its own sake being rewarding enough. It also becomes a lot less linear later, as the ability to warp between bonfires makes tackling things like additional bosses, and non-essential areas more appealing (and trust me there are many).
There is a good 70 hours or more content in this game in your first play through if you try and see everything, and it can usually be picked up fairly cheaply. It is an extremely deep and complex game, with many mysteries to be uncovered, and it improves the longer you stick with it. It is one of my favourite games, and I implore you to give it a try sometime, if the price is right. You never know, you might just fall in love too.