Where the world turned awry, how it persists, and why it does so in its decrepit state are the questions Dark Souls poses. An introductory CG sequence gives a biblical overview; An age of dragons, a world introduced to fire and thus light and dark. Now the flame is fading and shadow is sweeping a land once great. In Lordran there are Dragons, witches, devolved kings and grotesque gravelords, minotaurs and tortured demons. Bosses with massive health bars wait in some chamber, cave, or crevice for the day a chosen player persists long enough to find and destroy them.
It will take some searching to find these legends, but from the vantage point of the first bonfire lit, only stone fortifications along a cliffside can be seen winding upward. You find them manned by hollow beings and lock onto the walking corpses as you approach. Dark Souls is an action RPG played in clanky medieval armor, a shield in the left hand, and a dodge roll button mapped to ‘O.’ It is less reflexive than it is psychological, a form of turn taking where one side waits to see the other’s animation and react. Consider the powerful lunge from an undead spear warrior: This may impale you the first time and do lethal damage. It would also reveal that, after reappearing at the previous bonfire, previously cleared enemies have respawned. All of your hardwork has been for nothing. This empty epiphany then begets mental gymnastics.
Frustration first, excuses next, and a finally a plan: “I just needed to backpedal there, that’s all.” Fight your way back, climb the steps, defeat the bomb tossers and pesky archers, swing back around the corridor and now, yes! Here he comes! Just stay out of range of the spear lunge and go in for a strike. Again, you stare at a red lettered ‘You Died’ screen. Looks like that spear lunge wasn’t quite finished. The animation had an unexpected follow up of two fiercer attacks in quick succession, and took you once more to the bonfire. The gears start spinning again: “This game does not deserve my attention,” but then it’s back up those fortifications and waiting for the spear strikes to finish, demolishing the soldier with a club, sword, dirk or hammer, collecting his souls and moving on a bit further.
Call it tedious because it is. And, if stripped of its other elements, Dark Souls would be nothing more than that. The itch to do it over again, however, comes from a studious case of level design and the bemused attitude it has of players who demonstrate the motivation to conquer it. A bored NPC near the starting bonfire gives you an objective to accomplish. Not a mission, per se, just a passing mention: “Ring the bell atop the chapel, and maybe something happens.” The man doesn’t expect you to succeed nor does he seem to care. It an entirely dull affair, like he’s seen a million of you before. “Ring the bell why don’t you?” Well alright, maybe I will!
It quickly becomes more than that. Not for anything the man says, or any NPC for that matter, but the world establishes a lure of its own with the constantly growing scope of level design and the secrets and boss characters contained within it. From stone ramparts manned by lowly soldiers, to neighboring forests of animated trees and bronze giants, to catacombs of necromancers and an underground world of abandoned mines, the real wanderlust comes from expansiveness, and also from how areas route back to where you started. Raised gates, kicked ladders, levers to operate elevators, Dark Souls is full of shortcuts that create a sense of childlike discovery, an eye widening experience of secret passageways and exclamations of “what the hell is down here?”
The source behind that excitement is knowing what’s down there can kill you. Inevitably, difficulty will be a commonly debated topic around Dark Souls, but how hard is it? It isn’t so challenging mechanically or in measure of logic or motor skills. It’s quite slow, the dodge roll is mighty generous, and you have 10 or so health potions that restock at every bonfire. For as unforgiving the game may appear, it has its obligation to be playable at the end of the day and is only frustrating in its half-hearted attempts to be so. It wouldn’t hurt, for example, to get a clean explanation of the stat sheet or forewarning of inviable character builds that will ruin new players’ games. Do yourself a favor and stay basic (shield and melee weapon), or get fed up and put the game down forever.
Such is the challenge in giving a clean opinion on a dirty design. Make it easier and it doesn’t work, or keep it the way it is where it’s often painful to play. At the end of the day it isn’t a perfect balance, and I’d be hardpressed to forgive its more laborious experiences, like a pitch black shanty town of ladders and poisonous muck where you might hop to a rooftop that looked like a ledge, when actually it’s the end of the game map. Or take for instance the infamous mid-game boss encounter that is so cruel compared to the rest: Two large men wielding huge weapons, overlapping their character models and attack patterns atop each other, glitching weapons through stone columns, and zooming around the room with janky dash pathing. It’s cheap as dirt, and if you quit then I couldn’t blame you.
But you may persist, a pride stemming from dumb amazement, where the answer to a fight always seems obvious and yet down one goes, again and again. More often than not the real difficulty is patience and to tolerate tedium: Pitch black areas full of pitfalls, archers on opposite ends of narrow walkways, unavoidable swamps that poison and deplete your health, treasure chests that might just — well, you’ll see. One enemy early on can curse you, an irreversible halving of your entire HP pool. Is there actually no cure for it? A new player may never find out, and, HP being the testing ground for all encounters in Dark Souls, he may not want to put up with the new handicap and quit the game entirely. Dark Souls isn’t for him, but it’s regretful because he was but a dodge roll away from not being cursed and otherwise enjoying the game.
Some criticism is easier to put into words, however. The inspirational world layout is only as good as its environments, and these taper off in quality to shameful ends. One zone is littered with repeated enemy models standing shoulder to shoulder and strewn about with no particular thought, as if the designer spammed CTRL+V and left it. Past the same area, some creatures appear literally unfinished, half their anatomy missing. You can’t make this stuff up. Some environments abandon efforts on detail, where one forest area is well rendered, dark and mysterious, while another appears as a green field with paper cutouts for trees. Are the merciless boss encounters and harrowing dungeons still always worth it? In reflection and in despite of its most frustrating areas, I think, yes — almost always,
Because the lethality of obstacles in Dark Souls and how they bog a player down, leaving him in rage and respite, is the glue of the game. It defines the secrets hidden behind harrowing odds as knowledge that is forbidden, evil, and haunted because the world is so indifferent to sharing it. There is one area, a forgotten realm, that leaves the strongest imprint from Dark Souls, the indifference it shows, and its accursed atmosphere. Here a knight is seen, head to toe in regal armor, his gauntlets clasped atop the hilt of a greatsword. He’s just standing there, and as you cautiously approach, it seems he’s always been standing there. No sign of humanity left in the world and this man — or just a thing now, really — is at some designated post and staring through the slits of a helmet out toward a dead world. Forever he has been there, guarding something forgotten. Then you get closer, and like clockwork he picks up his blade and very smoothly strides his way over to kill you.