Why I Hate Dark Souls
Why I Love Dark Souls
My first fevered steps into Dark Souls, like so many others, involved blinking into the hazy blur of its opening cinematics and looking for something to latch onto. Some refence point, some characteristic element; Where are we? When are we? WHAT are we?
If you’ve played these games (as the core Souls series are fundamentally the same in many, many ways) you know that what little story we get tells of an age of fire coming after an age of darkness, followed immediately by another age of darkness. Why? No idea really.
There’s a really important flame somewhere and some git let the draft get in because those embers are starting to die out and it’s up to someone- most likely you- to fix that problem. Just who are we exactly and what place do we fill in the world? Well apparently the one thing we most definitely are is ‘undead’, and there’s something about a Dark Sign that sometimes appears on dead bodies. Why? No idea really.
This marks the begnning of one of my biggest problems with Dark Souls, and the Souls series as a whole, alluding to the story without presenting you with any story. Like referencing a book nobody among your friends has ever read. Telling a joke nobody at the table has the context to find funny. Dark Souls commits an engagement sin as soon as it loads its first cut scene- it cannot leave us wanting more, because it begins with nothing.
So the first time I ever took a wide-eyed look into the sprawling world of the Dark was, like many others, the opening cinematic. I was washed with sweeping images of citadels and mountains, soaring scaleless dragons and deep crags of the world where fire sleeps. Within seconds of the games opening I was introduced to a bizzare array of lore and characters- tales of heroes standing up against the imminent dread of the world, the ‘first of the dead’ giving the ancient lore a sense of scale, the rise of the very Gods of its world. As the scene slips the premise towards our fingers like a flirtatious dinner date it gives us only what we need to know: the days of lords is coming to an end, everything is cicling the metaphorical drain and somewhere out there- somewhere in a world I yet pale to understand in its immense possibility- it falls to the Dead to take action. Not a lone hero who’s home town was burned down by a monster. Just a dead and buried loved one who awaits eternity within the asylum…
This marks the beginning of one of my biggest desires in Dark Souls, walking blind into a world where so much has been crafted with intent to tell a story without needing to speak. You may not know who put you in the asylum but forcing your way through it, against mindless zombies (your brethren) and enormous Demons acting as security guards… you start to find pieces. Dark Souls raises one of the biggest questions in gaming right out the gate- can you solve its great mysteries?
So okay you hate the storytelling I hear you say, but what about the gameplay? Surely that’s where the real meat of the game lies. And it’s true- Dark Souls is so lacking in narrative that pretty much anything is, and has to be, presented through its omnipresent gameplay elements. What will strike you early on like a ten-foot stone club is that Dark Souls doesn’t care about introrucing you to its elements and tactics, it intends to throw you into the meat grinder very eary and watch you flounder. In fact the first major encounter in the game which happens right outside the intro room is what’s known in the culture as a ‘supposed to lose’ fight where you’re pinned in a small space with an enemy far too powerful for you to (reasonably) beat… especially after you’ve only just learned that circle is dodge!
The combat in these games is methodical and deadly. One wrong press will very likely mean your immediate death at the hands of something bigger, stronger, faster and probably better equipped than you. Or you know, a Dragon, because there’s one of those just outside the tutorial area. It kills you a lot.
There is a recognised trend in gaming that difficulty sliders and genre familiarity will be the only soft-safeguards against excessive difficulty. The Souls franchise will happily parade high level boss encounters in easy to reach places and lull new players into epic honeytraps. Not to mention the skeletons in the first Dark Souls, challenging enemies that are completely immune to being killed by your basic newbie weapons, are mere feet from your starting area and often the first non-Asylum enemies players will come across.
Ultimately the game lives up to its promise- you will die, and you will die a lot. There’s a reason the complete ediiton is called the ‘Prepare to Die’ edition (even the board game spinoff has ‘You Have Died’ as the first thing you see inside the box).
Any lover of the Souls series will tell you that its core experience is COMBAT. Fighting titanic bosses is a terrifying possibility made reality by the mastery of proper blocking, dodging and very, very big hammers. The game makes this apparent as it drops you into a surprise encounter with a monster most games would save for a epic miniboss, and no doubt will leave your freshly undead innards pasted across the prison cells. But the game provides a nearby checkpoint and no real penalty for failure. This back-and-forth forms the meat of the Dark Souls stew, throwing yourself headlong into seemingly impossible challenges until the constant bashing your head into the wall causes the wall to fall over.
This opens the doors to beating challenges rarely seen in other games, such as exploiting different strategies on repeat and innately learning the movement and attack patterns of those monsters. With enough practice even the twelve foot dog carrying a sword will be second nature to you- by the way did I mention there was a twelve foot dog carrying a sword?
Dark Souls has built a fanbase from its level of challenge as much as its inpenetrable lore, with communities of thousands sharing tips and tricks using the gamers hivemind as our greatets weapon against daunting challenge.
It’s also no secret that while sloshing through Blight Town or Hypogean Goal can be teeth grindingly tense as every step and encounter could (and often is) your last there’s also a peerless level of achievement to revel in when you manage to face off against Ornstein and Smoug with nothing but a wooden club and actually win!
Having mentioned PvP that’s another thorn in your side DS insists on making prominent throguhout your experience. The game harbours an unusual online mode where people are always connected online, but don’t actually get to play or assist with each other at all. Interactions are done through messages on the ground- fair enough you might think, communication and solidarity, except the only way to leave messages is picking from a pre-selected trail of words. So expect to see ‘Jump!’ next to every lethal edge you walk by.
Unless you force the game into an online state you’re always going to be volleyed with shadow images of other players and their messages but, worse still, they aren’t restricted to soiling the experience with words alone. Other plays can materialize in your game as phantoms who aim to kill you and nothing else, in later games even being able to disguise themselves as trees and vases to catch players unaware and send them back to respawn.
But Adie, I hear you cry, other players can also aid your quest! If you’re lucky enough that someone locally online has decided to purchase a specific item, throw down a summoning tag and actually knows what they’re doing as opposed to rolling off a cliff.
As opposed to a more traditional multiplayer setup the game attempts to merge its unusual online functions into co-op gameplay resulting in a very disjointed (and often unbalanced) opton for fighting enemies with total strangers… if you’re lucky enough to find one/not be messed over by online difficulties.
Since we dropped a hint about the multiplayer in this game its worth noting that Dark Souls boasts a totally unique integration of miltiplayer without watering down the single player experience. It comes in two distinct parts: notations for other players to help with the games numerous puzzles and designs, and phantoms that appear as either jolly companions or merciless player hunters! The game gives you access to numerous unique items and factions that put a different twist on the experience- with each game also having a different selection of supporting character types you aid you.
Having trouble with a particuarly hard boss? More experienced players and members of special covenants will leave their marks to be summoned! Maybe the player you summon will be carrying that +10 fire axe you desperately need? Or maybe they’re doing a no-clothes run will pay their dues distracting everything on the field. Either way it’s time to enjoy some jolly co-operation! That is unless you’re playing in human state and people take the rug out from under you with Invasions! This is the games PvP and by throwing it in amongst the regular trials of gameplay adds even more peril and ensures that nobody can be truly prepared for their sudden thrust into competative play.
Taking advantage of the games enamoration with secrets is the communities abilty to drop notes about the hidden doorways, stealthed enemies and even tips on taking out the trickier bosses like ‘try fire’ or ‘attack from above’. But the sequestered areas of the game are where this truly shines…
And believe me this game is in no rush to introduce you to its contnet. Entire segments of the game, huge areas of play with multipes of items and unique enemies … even critical plot choices that will determine your path to the end will be easily missed if you don’t attend a certain location at a certain time! When was the last time you played a game that excluded you from an ending because you didn’t think to go back and talk to a person you never met in a location you barely visit half-way through your quest?
But that’s Dark Souls narrative flow in a nutshell, isn’t it? Secrets among secrets. Only yesterday did I learn there was a whole other boss fight in the original game that I’d never seen or heard of, hidden behind a fireplace that can only be accessed by wearing a certain ring. Why? Because Dark Souls.
This element really highlights the lack of guidance given to players, no matter how experienced you are in the elements of gameplay or the deeper narrative you will never know of these tidbits unless you are fortunate enough to stumble into them or know other people who have…. in fact it realy does play back to memories of games from the 80s Nintendo age, doesn’t it?
Secrets after all are the games bread and butter. There are so many hidden wonders among the carefully crafted levels that require something we haven’t seen in mainstream games in quite some time- actual exploration! Hidden in the twists you may find a secret item you’ve not found on a previous playthrough, or maybe a character whom you’ve never spoken to. If you’ve done enough nosing about maybe you’ll discovered Maneater Mildred’s secret shame of eating pyromancers with her Butcher sisters. Yes, the Butchers are women. No I cannot explain that.
There’s a fundamental excitement in sharing stories with friends and hearing about locales you’ve never even visited- the Great Hollow? I went there yesterday, but maybe you’ve never been there. Since it’s tucked behind not one but two hidden doors that only the most thorough of adventurers will brag about, and of course it’s in the belly of Blight Town (and let’s be honest, nobody likes Blight Town). It’s kind of a wonder that now, six years after the original games release- if you discount Demons Souls- that I’m still discovering new surprises with each new playthrough.
It’s something we don’t see in mainstream games, a sense of freedom that we aren’t being railroaded to any particular place. We’re free to explore the secrets of the Catacombs, the Forest of Fallen Giants or Old Yarnham at your leisure, to discover and despair as we please.
Only today for example did I learn that you can return to the Undead Asylum at any point before reaching the lategame, who knew!
So among all the questions being asked and unexplained you’re very likely to pick a class you don’t enjoy, or can’t access all your best weapons. Meaning you’ll have to draw right back to the beginning and rebuild your character (since you can’t change classes later)
But of course you’ll want to replay the game once you’ve finished so you can try again with one of the various other classes and their unique spells, abilities, equipment and weapon access. These games are a mystery with many solutions.
So the final question is- do I enjoy this series? Do I feel they represent the hype and die hard loyalty that’s built up around them? Are they truly great games. If you’ve read the title then you’ll already know the answer: Absolutely not, I freaking love Dark Souls.