Dark Souls Xbox 360
If the modern game industry is a trendy bar, full of people like Jonathan Blow sipping cocktails and talking about lattes, then Dark Souls is the grizzled old one-legged war veteran who bursts in, tells with intense, unnerving glee the tale of his buddy that got blown to bits in the Falklands, and asks for the thickest, yeastiest ale in the vicinity. Old school doesn’t quite say it all.
Your first few hours with the game will be among the most stressful and challenging of your thumb-twiddling half-life. You see, Dark Souls has taken a look at games these days, with their regenerating health, quick-time events and cover systems, and proclaimed ‘BOLLOCKS’ at the top of its voice.
A sequel in all but name to seminal action-RPG Demon’s Souls, the game casts you as an undead warrior, tasked to take on hordes of demonic beasties so foul and intimidating that they’d make Kratos poop in fear. The plot’s negligible, and you won’t care anyway once you get into the game, as you’re so rampantly intent on surviving each encounter you won’t be concentrating on anything else at all. Not even your own real life.
Most other games always put you at some natural advantage. You’ve always got more health or abilities at your disposal. Stuff like Ninja Gaiden may seem hard but you’re always given the means to be that little bit better than your opposition. It’s the same with Devil May Cry 3. It seems daunting at first, but pretty soon you’ll be jump cancelling and flinging your flamboyant avatar about like a devilish dervish. Dark Souls isn’t like that. If you don’t view every enemy in Dark Souls as an equal, you’re fudged, sunshine. Virtually all of the grizzled, slavering bastards have the means to take you out in a few hits or less, so if you’re not taking any of them seriously you’re going to get shafted.
And my god, make no mistake, you will. Repeatedly.
Realistically, you’ve got all the tools needed to complete the game from the off. It’s one of those games, like God Hand, where if you nail the mechanics and the enemy patterns, you can get by without taking any damage. But let’s be realistic here, only a terrifying freak will blitz this game first time. This is a game so challenging, so intent upon destroying you, that if you were to take a time machine back to the early 90s and ask Gamesmaster Patrick Moore how to get through it, he’d probably just reply ‘buggered if I know.’
Dark Souls is a rude awakening for most people that play games these days. It doesn’t care if you’ve prestiged 20 times. It doesn’t care if you’ve done Insanity mode with your awful buddy. No matter how good you think you are with a control pad, it’s going to obliterate you. It’s a loving homage to the times before 13 year-old American boys started taking the piss out of your voice while they were playing soldier. Games used to love murdering you, even on easy mode, and Dark Souls is here to remind you of those ill-tempered, Um Bongo- and Dairylea-fuelled days. It’s a game so merciless, you’ll come out with swear words you never realised existed.
It recalls (to me at least) Castlevania on the NES. It seems like an RPG-tinged sequel to those early 8-bit exercises in masochism. Grandiose, gothic backdrop? Check. Bombastic classical (and excellent) soundtrack? Check. Enemies that’ll mince you in a matter of seconds if you’re not concentrating? Also check. It’s also got the ‘where the hell am I supposed to go now’ feeling of Castlevania II, although the NPCs, despite being creepy as all hell, don’t talk gibberish at you in Engrish. That’s sort of unfortunate, in a way.
In an age of slow-motion crash zoom cameras, handholding tutorials, directional arrows and set pieces, Dark Souls is an old-fashioned anomaly. And an absolutely exceptional one.
It’s a masterclass in tight design that sticks two fingers up at the conventions of most modern RPGs. There’s no overdone backstory, no tedious lore. It gives you some background about the world, but there’s never enough to gain any real understanding about it. In most games this would be a weakness, but with Dark Souls it increases the ‘oh shit’ unfamiliarity, heightening the tension. Never has a game revelled so much in forcing you out of your comfort zone. Every new area in Dark Souls brings a new sense of trepidation and, let’s be honest, dread.
All you’ve got backing you up is your arsenal, or magic if you’re that way inclined. The fighting in Dark Souls is focused and meaty, and your tools connect with a satisfying thump when you’re lucky enough to get a hit in. As you go on you’ll get access to more powerful, hard hitting implements of destruction, not that they’ll save you from the hordes.
What will save you though is your increasing proficiency with the game. Like the best difficult games, Dark Souls trains you up without you ever realising it. Areas that seemed distressingly difficult at first become a relative cakewalk, and enemies that took you out like a fat cow in an abattoir will go down quicker than a [insert vulgar celebrity fellatio reference here]. You’ll get into a groove, you’ll maybe start getting a bit cocky… then some giant bastard will puke on you and you’ll die in an instant. But you’ll keep trying to kill him anyway, because Dark Souls is the most compelling, satisfying and addictive game to be released in what seems like an eternity.
Once you battle past the initial impenetrability, you will think of little else but Dark Souls. It’ll grab you by your cursed curlies, and won’t let go until you’ve had just one more go at that dragon that keeps trouncing you. In an age of bloated fetch quests and escort missions, it’s a lean mean exercise in restraint. It’s about survival. There’s no convoluted plot, no crappy twist to make you groan. It’s you versus the world.
Although as it turns out, it’s not just you. As in Demon’s Souls, you’ll see the ghosts of other players, as well as their deaths. They’ll leave you tips too. The best one I encountered, just before a terrifying boss fight, was ‘I can’t take this.’ Though I’ve not personally encountered it yet, other players can invade your game too, causing you extra grief. They can also come in and help you if they’re nice. It’s a pretty inspired use of online connectivity, and it’d be a surprise if these ideas aren’t pilfered by others in the future.
Anything else? Not really, though I could blather on for ages about why I wish there were more games of this ilk. I’d better cap this off before it turns into an essay. I’m genuinely glad that in an age of hype and marketing, games like Dark Souls are still getting made and adored. It’s so gloriously out of sync with what’s expected these days. There’s no hand-holding, no real graphical trickery to speak of (though it’s got a lovely sombre hue) and it boasts a terrifying learning curve. It’s a down and dirty, take no prisoners exercise in sado-masochism.
Game of the year? Probably.