Some people like to play video games for fun. Some play to relieve stress. There are those, like myself, who just enjoy the masochistic nature of a brutally punishing game. Most games tend to hold the player’s hand throughout, giving them directions, hints and sometimes even toning down the difficulty in order to make the game playable. But one series of video games throw all that out the window, deciding instead to hark back to a time when video games were hard as hell. When assistance wasn’t a given but a rare inclusion. Brutally agonizing and yet enjoyable at the same time, I’m of course referring to the masterpiece that is the original Dark Souls.
From Software early steps in the 2000’s didn’t make them the most recognizable of developers in the gaming community. They were largely overlooked until 2009 when an interesting title by the name of Demon’s Souls was released to an unsuspecting gaming public. It quickly garnered positive reviews; with fans quick to ask for a sequel – a continuation of the series that took its brutal ideas further. The wishes of these die-hard fans came true in 2011 when Dark Souls was released on the PlayStation and Xbox 360 – with PC gamers being introduced to the game in 2012. What made this series so irresistible to its fans and so different from the crowd of action games already making their name in the industry? It helped that Hidetaka Miyazaki, developer, and producer at From Software, didn’t agree with the idea of the game relying on cheap jump scares. Instead, he proceeded to create a terrifying atmosphere in which the player would feel helpless, against the odds and most importantly; challenged. On all three counts, it’s hard to argue against the results.
The plot quickly establishes the dark-fantasy universe, specifically in the kingdom of Lordran. The opening sequence doesn’t reveal much of the story with a few exceptions; such as that there are three great lords who destroyed a then powerful race of dragons and ushered a new “Age of Fire“. The player also discovers that among the three lords, there was a fourth, the “forgotten pygmy” who acquired the so-called dark soul. Eventually the “Age of Darkness” befalls the kingdom and brings about a curse that infects all humanity in the land. From there we start our grim adventure in an old Undead Asylum, without any knowledge how most of the game works.
I found myself intrigued with the characters dark sense of humor, while also connecting to them due to the similarity these characters have with the protagonist. All within the universe of Dark Souls are driven by a certain purpose and they all strive to set purpose. They did not succeed however to complete the task that they laid for themselves, thus become hollow – a state that is described as being worse than undead. Most notable NPC’s are Siegmeyer of Catarina and Solaire of Astora, who will not only provide their tragic stories but also will help the protagonist in few occasions and join in a “jolly cooperation“.
The game is a third-person action role-playing game and draws a lot of similarities to older titles such as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. In-fact a lot of ideas that are incorporated in the game are inspired by multiple movies, games and even manga. In the last retrospective, we stated that the Dark Souls universe draws inspiration from one of the most popular manga series, Berserk. This can be seen especially with the in-game boss battle with Artorias the Abysswalker, who is heavily influenced by Guts, the main protagonist of the manga. Also, a lot of elements from its predecessor can be found incorporated in the game, most notably its unique gameplay. Pushing the player in a dangerous world with no map, no manual on how the game works and with no pause button, so if your plan on beating this thing you better be ready to hold it out until the end or face the cold embrace of death, and oh you will die a lot.
Dark Souls today is mostly known in the gaming world because of its particular difficulty. There are multiple threats that can spawn out of nowhere and aren’t to be taken lightly. While playing the game I was surprised to see that sometimes a normal NPC was much deadlier than a boss. But the bosses and the NPC’s aren’t the only menaces you will encounter, in some situations, the gaming community will pose the biggest threat. The ability for players to invade other peoples game and immediately attack was very frustrating. What’s worse is the fact that some of these invaders tend to be more skillful and poses stronger weapons. Planning and precisely preparing for the battle is of utmost importance.
One of the more interesting aspect’s of the game was its grinding system. From the beginning, the character is only given a weapon and a flask that replenishes health. From then on the protagonist gains other items and trinkets by beating enemies, finding secret areas or buying certain weapons and armor at a local merchant in exchange for souls, which you gather throughout your quests. The player also has the ability to enhance his weapons and armor at a local blacksmith, also in exchange for souls. It’s also worth mentioning the infamous New Game+ mode, which allows you to keep all your items from the previous playthrough, but here is the tricky part. All of the enemies and bosses are a lot harder meaning that those items will defiantly come in handy. This is one of my favorite features since it allows for more exploration and makes the game more challenging and rewarding.
It’s here then that we come to arguably my favorite part of this retrospective; the boss fights. I could easily make a list of my favorite Dark Souls boss battles and some of them would even find a place on the top 10 hardest boss battles in video game of all time. That said the boss battles are insane, ranging from knights to brute monstrosities. It would be unfair to call these bosses hard cause they are much more than that. Every boss has a specific pattern on how to beat and if the player truly wishes to proceed with the game he has to be patient most of all. The best boss battles in this title, for me, are Knight Artorias the Abysswalker, the Great Gray Wolf Sif, the Four Kings and the final boss, Gwyn, Lord of Cinder. The most famous duo that is also the hardest bosses in the Souls series is Ornstein and Smough. What sets these two apart from the rest is that they fight together and when one bites the dust the other absorbed the powers of the fallen one while also gaining full health. I had a really hard time defeating this power house and was sent back to the main menu screen multiple times, but in the end was able to kill them and was awarded the most than with any other boss.
Coming to the end of this retrospective I want to talk about the game’s visuals. The perfect word that would use to describe the ambiance and the entire world of Dark Souls, is magnificent. The landscapes are breathtaking; from the slums of the Undead Burg all the way to the city of gods, Anor Londo I was stunned. In every area, you can feel the dread, depression and it is all so perfectly designed. Every place posed a great threat and feeling of uncertainty was lurking around every corner until you sat down near the next bonfire to save your progress. I immediately felt safe and at the same time started to think what will I encounter in the next area. This is one of the many positive aspects of the Souls series in general. The soundtrack, provided by Motoi Sakuraba (who has composed for numerous anime’s and games), blends perfectly with every environment in which the players found themselves, and it’s easy to get lost in its dark world. The developers were extra careful when they designed the characters, making sure that the animations were spot-on. The dialog in the game is also one of its greatest points and it is easy to immerse yourself in the story of every character. It’s no wonder that the game garnered multiple sequels and is praised as one of the best games of the decade.
Dark Souls is a unique experience for hardcore gaming aficionados, who like a good challenge rather than some bland RPG. The game play is addictive and you can easily sink countless hours in the rich lore and game style that this title offers. The dark tone is both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time and truly does make the player feel helpless. The sheer amount of items and secrets to discover, and multiple classes and playthroughs make this one legendary adventure and definitely a must-have game for any true gamer.