I know I’m late to the party on this game, but I’d always wanted to play it so I grabbed it from a recent Steam sale. There are a lot of things about this game I like; in fact one of my main points here is that I’d probably have rushed to play it much more quickly if I’d known much about it beyond “it’s really hard.” If anything, the fact that Dark Souls‘s reputation centers so singly on its difficulty undersells everything else that’s so good about this game.
In case you know nothing about the game, it’s an action RPG. So real-time combat, with constant Zelda-like attacking, blocking, and dodging between you and the various enemies, but also a fairly extensive stats/items system that’s more reminiscent of something like Diablo. The setting is medieval horror, so lots of zombies and skeletons and the like, against a variety of fantasy backdrops. It has an understated story that you experience mostly through item descriptions and NPC dialogue to the extent that you take the time to do so.
Lest I fall into a dry exposition of Dark Souls‘s unique combat systems, I’ll pick out a few aspects that should illustrate what’s special about them.
As expected, there are is a wide variety of weapons, each with a list of stats that’s a bit intimidating to a newcomer. What I’ve come to realize about halfway through my first playthrough is that the weapons don’t exist in a hierarchy like in most games, where you periodically give up your sword for the next better sword. Instead, all are (by and large) viable at all parts of the game due to an upgrade system that you use to grow your favorite weapons alongside your actual character. The neat thing is that what primarily sets all the different (for example) swords apart from each other is their animations. And I don’t mean cosmetically–while I don’t know the technical details, the game has some pretty precise hit detection, because each different swing animation damages enemies in the appropriate spatial area around your character.
So the choice of weapons is very personal even in a game that looks initially like it’s all about numbers. I use a Claymore because its light attack is a broad sweep around the character and its heavy attack is a long, forceful thrust. Someone else might prefer a weapon with lighter, quicker slashes, or a heavy overhead attack that does more damage but is limited in range and timing. Both of us can use our pet weapons as a primary weapon all through the game by upgrading them, and get increasingly adept with our personal fighting styles along the way. Some do have nice, efficient stats, and expert players probably know them all, but even among the top ranks it appears there are many viable options. It’s a game where the choice is determined by your playstyle and the best weapon for you is determined by experimentation, and that in itself is quite impressive.
There is a similar dynamic on the defensive side. Of course armor provides defense and resistances that reduce damage, but as you start trying to learn what pieces to use, you find that some of the most important criteria are stats that don’t affect incoming or outgoing damage numbers at all. Much like the weapons, the defining quality of your armor setup is the way it affects the animations and movements that take place in the 3D game world. Lighter gear (as a ratio of your maximum carry weight) not only lets you run faster as in Elder Scrolls, but makes your movements more nimble in combat. In many if not most combats, making your always-crucial rolling dodge maneuver a touch faster is by far the surest way of keeping yourself alive. And armor has this mysterious stat called “Poise” which was confusing, until I learned that it reduced my tendency to go into a short “stunned” animation after taking a hit. As with the rolling example, I came to realize this can be worth far more than any mitigation bonus. Even shields have a stat that makes attacker’s weapons more forcefully rebound off, giving them a few extra frames of vulnerability after swinging at you.
The theme of all this is that the combat systems display a very intimate marriage between between the “character sheet” side of the RPG and the real-time gameplay. It’s not completely foreign to have your stats affect your attack rate and similar factors (Diablo). But I’ve never played a game like this where your choice of build, even within archetypes like “melee” (or even within “sword/shield melee”) was more about your fighting style in the moment-to-moment gameplay than it was about numbers.
Levels and World
The clear analogy after spending some time in the Dark Souls world is to Metroid. Metroid games give you a world that’s nonlinear and feels as though it expands outward in all directions, as each new item opens doors (literally or figuratively) in various places across the world you previously had access to. Dark Souls takes you through its world similarly, with all the various regions connected in a complex web that you can explore organically as your capabilities grow.
Both games also have an expected route for first time players where difficulty progresses somewhat smoothly. In Metroid, however, breaking free of this path requires “sequence breaking” tricks that frequently involve passing an obstacle in unintended ways without the supposedly required item. In Dark Souls, specific items are not required for exploration. Accessing the levels in nearly any order you want is almost always a matter of being able to fight the enemies with a character that’s still too weak for a beginner to do so effectively. Fitting with my comments above about the combat is based, if you will, on a “skill over gear” conceit, this means that to expert players, the world naturally opens up for exploration in any direction right from the start.
And from the beginner’s perspective, this contributes to the feel of organic exploration as you learn your way around the world for the first time. Rather than being confronted with two doors you lack the tools to open and one that you can open, Dark Souls will confront you with three ways you can progress. But two will lead to areas that are far harder than the third (the third being the expected first-timer’s path). The third will still be difficult, however, and it’s on you to recognize where you’re most likely to make headway. This can be frustrating but also rewarding. Most importantly, it’s immersive and compelling because the game is totally honest with you: you can go all these directions, and you’re completely free to decide. The only guidance you have is your own experience in trying each of them.
The beginner is rewarded for having both the perseverance to push into a new challenging area and the wherewithal to realize when a particular path should be abandoned until a later time. The expert is given a world with tremendous replay value as a wide variety of possible paths through the game are ultimately viable. And in all cases, the world is genuine. It’s there for you to explore with no artificial forces dictating the right way or the wrong way. You can miss things you’re meant to find, you can find things earlier than you’re supposed to, and it will all be up to you and how you play.
Dark Souls is hard. But that’s often used to imply things that don’t necessarily follow: that it’s unfair, that it’s mean to the player, or that it presents sorts of challenges that are unfun to learn.
It’s hard to ever call it unfair in the penalty for death is small to nonexistent. You only lose souls (universal currency) that you had unspent, but not any items, levels, or upgrades that were already purchased. Moreover, you can recover all of those souls from your corpse if you reach it before dying a second time. The message seems to be that you are only punished for overextending yourself. You are strongly encouraged to approach each encounter or obstacle with the goal of finding a safe and reliable solution. Eventually you will find something that kills you, yes, but as long as you make it make to that same point the next time, you pick up your corpse and try again. You lose your souls sometimes since you’ll never be 100% reliable at repeating challenges you’ve passed previously, and there are always mistakes, but a patient approach alleviates the penalty in a large portion of cases.
All that any encounter in Dark Souls asks of you is the willingness to learn it, and to not expect you’ll get past it until you learn what you have to do. It it somewhat odd to me that this gives the game such a reputation for being hostile and unfriendly. That the game is unwavering about this–you will not get past if you don’t learn–is perhaps unusual in this day and age, but it is also quite empowering to the player. You could do it on the first attempt, or it could take many more, but the game simply waits for you and allows you to apply yourself to the problem however you like. It’s still a game (a well-designed one to be specific) and that means the solution is always there, and on some level that should be all you need to know.
The biggest downside is that working your way through a difficult stretch between checkpoints can develop a bit of a rote aspect. Respawn, cross that bridge, kill two skeletons, don’t forget about the archer in the next room, be careful about that trap. A game that uses difficulty like Dark Souls naturally engenders a measure of memorization as an element of safely traversing any area for the first time. The biggest saving grace to repeating encounters in this way this is that there is always room to improve your approach (and you have a clear incentive to get back to where you were more quickly and reliably and with more health remaining). Some patience is required: if you get too comfortable and hasty and slash twice where you usually slash, dodge, and slash, you might find yourself back at the checkpoint once again. But you’ll be surprised at how often, after the first time you make it to a certain point and finally get overwhelmed, within a few attempts you make it there without taking damage.
In large part, you accept the game’s difficulty because it allows this to happen. It allows everything I described in the earlier sections to happen. It may not be for everyone, but you’ll never know unless you try. And in the end, that you’re willing to try is all that Dark Souls asks.