Dark Souls (Xbox 360, PS3)
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Release: October 4, 2011
Price: $59.99 (360, PS3)


DARK SOULS DOESN'T RESPECT YOU

It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t care what kind of player you are, or even whether or not you’re an RPG fan. It has little patience for the kind of coddling you’re probably used to with contemporary game design’s checkpoint and tutorial-heavy philosophy. During interviews leading up to the game’s release, director Hidetaka Miyazaki was known to laugh and tell journalists that the development team was bluntly unapologetic over the staggering amount of death players would be facing.

But you probably already knew the odds were stacked against you—with an ad campaign focusing on a laundry list of preposterously towering beasts and horrific monsters coupled with the tagline “Prepare to Die,” the finer details of just how much active disdain Dark Souls has for those who challenge it was probably the only key gameplay element glossed over by the production values (and oddly alternative track choices) of its Youtube and tv spots.

To wit: your first weapon is the hilt of a broken sword, with which the game just dares you to take on a 20-ft tall demon wielding a hammer that’s larger than your body.

CALL NO MAN HAPPY TILL HE IS DEAD

The unlikely success of Demon’s Souls in 2009 has surprisingly made Dark Souls something of a known quantity, even if most are probably more aware of its notoriety rather than its tense, taut gameplay. Nearly everything about the experience is made for you to question your psyche or otherwise prolong player misery; your literal life and death will boil down to the proper management of your initially limited stamina gauge, given that any careless encounter with even a low level foe can end poorly, and quickly. Mastery of evasive rolls, blocks and other moves is essential—fighting most enemies becomes a game of exploitation as you wait, shield raised, for your adversary to make a fatal mistake.

The game plays tricks on you, as well. Enemies often lie in wait to viciously ambush less vigilant players, and can very easily overwhelm you. That said, the only way to start on your hard-fought journey is to accept death, if only to reach a zen-like state of resignation that may eventually save you from rage-quitting.

BAPTISM BY FIRE

Like Demon’s, the terrible beauty of Dark Souls’ design revolves around souls themselves, which act both as experience and currency. Nearly every enemy in the game drops souls when defeated, which can then be traded in to level character stats at bonfires, resting areas that act as checkpoints scattered infrequently across the massive, continuous Metroidvania-style map.

This leveling system immediately presents two challenges: first, you have to make it back to a bonfire alive (which subsequently respawns all nearby enemies); secondly, and to a far greater detriment, hard won soul drops per enemy are usually pithy, and the steadily multiplying cost to level up a single stat quickly becomes prohibitive. The choice of whether you want to pump up your strength, vitality, stamina or intelligence for spellcasting (to name a few) is up to you, and you alone have to live hoping you made the right decisions. 

The complications to this system are even more nightmarish. Souls aren’t just currency for leveling up, they’re also the only accepted form of tender in Dark Souls’ bleak world. As you progress you’ll have to make tough decisions regarding whether to upgrade your weapons and equipment, repairing what you already have or working on level progression. Tougher enemies that are generally more soul-rich don’t respawn with other enemies, so you can’t count on them to grind, either.

And should you happen to die with a heavy soul cache, you lose all of your souls. You have a one-time chance to get them back, provided you can reach the site of your death and touch your bloodstain by painstakingly re-running whatever gauntlet of monstrous foes you braved up to that point. Rest assured, you will lose thousands of souls during your playthrough for a number of personal mistakes. The result is that you learn to play as cautiously and thoroughly as if your life actually depends on it; boss battles and harder dungeons can trigger actual fight-or-flight feelings of panic and terror.

DEATH BE NOT PROUD

Just because Dark Souls hates you doesn’t mean that it won’t occasionally take pity on your miserable existence through limited co-op and communication among players online. It becomes commonplace to read notes scrawled on the environment left by other adventurers with cryptic messages like “Beware the liar,” and although these often point the way to treasure or other secrets, you have to have decide if any given message is telling the truth, or leading you to your death.

Co-op can be morally dubious, as well—while you can choose to summon yourself into someone’s game to aid in combat (or alternately request someone’s help in your own game), you can also be invaded by players who are simply out to kill you, reaping great rewards if they succeed.

Whether through game invasion or not, bloodstains of other players can also be viewed by touching them, giving you some obscure clue as to where or how they were killed, and the ghosts of other players playing and exploring are constantly, fleetingly around you. What may be the most interesting aspect of Dark Souls’ sense of community, though, is how it has come to dominate independent social media in some circles, the anecdotal evidence and strategy swapping therein making it feel truly like a fantasy-horror Pokemon for adults—you will need help.

Dark Souls is not a game designed for fun. It often feels unmanageably stressful and cruel, and the world is tinged in hopelessness. Everything works toward this goal—
aesthetics capitalize on genre designs and environments that are as breathtaking as they are unsettling; the soundtrack is stark, dead silence only punctuated by orchestral pieces when encountering a giant boss; the world’s lore is found in the vague stories of its questionable NPCs and hidden in recondite areas and treasures to discover.

If you’ve got the guts to face down a massive dragon, fight tooth and nail through skeleton-infested catacombs or survive a trap-filled dungeon to slay a two-story iron golem, the victory of conquest is nevertheless immeasurably satisfying.

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Score: 9/10