After I’ve made it to the bottom of the hollowed out giant tree I find myself on a thin stretch of sand reaching out across a great lake. It’s been quite a fight to get here, ever since I accidentally found that false wall and couldn’t resist pressing on to find out what rewards lay in this secret area. I’ve been cursed along the way by those god damn disease ridden frog things. Twice.
These are the days before the patch came along and made the game ever so slightly less cruel, so my maximum health has been quartered. The chances of fighting my way back up to safety are slim to none, so I have no choice but to press on and find another way out. I walk gingerly along the beach, wary of what horrors await me. All is eerily quiet. There’s another giant hollow tree stump at the end of the beach. An exit, perhaps? Possibly back to the game’s early area, the undead burg, and to the cleric who can alleviate my curses? I break into a run. That’s when I spot them: the several bobbing heads of the hydra in the waters heading towards me. They spit jets of water in my direction. There are too many: I’m not fast enough to escape. One hit and I’m dead.
I make my way back down. Knowing the hydra is in the sea on the left hand side I charge down the banking on the right, hoping the water jets won’t be able to angle down upon me. I’m in luck: they break against the beach above. It looks like I’m safe. And then something incredible happens: the hydra takes to the air, a grotesque parody of that iconic moment in Free Willy, and rains water down upon me. One hit and I’m dead.
I don’t have many options. With full health the hydra would be a tough but winnable fight at this low level – with only 25% to play with I don’t stand a chance. I have to run. But I’m not fast enough. The only way to give myself a shot at making it is to lighten my load by stripping away all my armour and weapons and to go in with nothing but a bit of ragged old cloth to hide my shame. I’m a nightmare vision, an emaciated, decayed husk of flesh. I waste no time: I make a break for it. The hydra takes it’s best shot: by the time the water hits I’m a good 50 yards ahead of them. I make it to the tree stump. To salvation? Another bonfire? A shortcut out? I feel a glimmer of hope spark within me as I head for the light emanating through the opening I’m headed towards. But something is headed out to greet me. A walking mushroom, seven or eight foot tall, strides out. It’s an amusing sight. But I’m not laughing. Even the silliest of enemies in Dark Souls can be deadly. Instead I’m filled with nothing but horror as the mushroom winds up and lays me out with a devastating haymaker. One hit and I’m dead.
It’s hard to justify my love of Dark Souls. It’s certainly not requited. This is a game that hates it’s players. It tortures them, strips them of hope and leaves them cursing each and every sadist involved in it’s creation. The game world they’ve created is so unrelentingly bleak there are probably eastern European horror directors playing it with admiration. It’s so grim and so treacherous that <SPOILER> the game’s ‘good’ ending is a miserable tale of self-sacrifice to maintain a harrowing status quo. And the ‘bad’ ending is, confusingly, marginally more cheery. Depending on how you interpret it. </ENDSPOILER>
Not that the plot really matters, unless you’re interested in delving into the surprisingly deep lore. The story is entirely an optional extra, only gleaned from snippets of conversations with the games few NPCs, most of whom have been driven mad by the horrors of the world around them. Half of the plot is tucked away in item descriptions, and some of these items are all too easy to completely miss if you aren’t paying attention. If the hints at the plot intrigue you at all you’ll find an oddly rich world, full of odd factions and characters fighting for their own causes. There are reams of speculation on the internet as to the origins of Lordran, what lies beyond in the wider world, and how the characters you meet and hear about fit into it all. Once you start digging into the meaning behind it all you quickly realise every single enemy and every single item is placed where it is for a reason. Each area has it’s own story, told by the deranged creatures that try to stab your face off and the broken remains of the architecture. You don’t just pick up bits of weaponry or armor at random. This is no mindless loot-fest – everything has a context, and often a prior owner. The games plot is woven into the very fabric of the levels in a way precious few games have ever managed.
But as I say, it’s not really necessary to pay attention to any of that. The tale of gods run amok isn’t the focal point; all you need to know is that in this world evil has won. Humanity is devoid of hope. At it’s core is a game where you’re being told to go to X to kill Y, and you’re only told why if you’re interested enough to ask (and even then you may not be told the truth). And if you’re not you can play through the whole game only knowing that you’re an undead warrior tasked with wandering off to a variety of evil infested locations to hit said evil with an array of weapons and spells until either evil gives up or you do. The latter being the most likely outcome.
For it is a hard, unforgiving game. Even when you’ve bested an area and come back, levelled up and packing better gear, you can still have your arse handed to you if you get complacent for just a moment. Whilst you can grind away and become much stronger than the foes you face, each and every one has the power to take you down if you’re not careful. The game is a harsh master, never failing to provide an unforgiving challenge whenever you feel as if you’ve got the hang of it. As the games tagline warned you: you will die. You will die a lot. But seldom is the death where you’re not cursing your own hubris or lack of caution more than the game itself.
None of which makes it sound particularly likeable. So why do I love it so? For the slow, methodical and deceptively deep combat system. For the oddly charming moments of black humour amidst all the bleakness. For the moments of grand triumph when you take a boss down with the last desperate swing of a sword. For the ‘Jolly Co-operation’, which is to say the ability to call for help from players on your server and have them come to your rescue, or alternatively lay down your summon sign for anyone who needs a hand. For the ghosts of other players that sometimes appear faintly around you, or can be conjured from bloodstains to have their deaths replayed before you, reminding that whilst you are entirely alone in the game there are others just as alone suffering the same fate as you. And similarly the more vivid glimpses of other players at bonfires sitting across from you, taking a moment of respite from the horror. Despite having no real multiplayer mode this is amongst my favourite ‘multiplayer’ touches in a game. The strange echoes of people on your server, combined with the general cruelty of the game, create a feeling of solidarity with these strangers. You’re united in a common struggle. When you are in the undead burg, one of the early areas, and you hear the bell being rung by someone who has triumphed over their first challenge, I feel genuinely happy for them. Whoever they are, wherever they are: I’ll never know. It doesn’t matter. For all it’s outward hostility and cruelty it can actually quite a warm and even touching game. Though it must be said it can also bring coldness and treachery from it’s players. For every happy phantom you summon who bows and fights by your side to see you past a boss, there’s a troll who’s learned all the tricks waiting to jump into your game and ruin your day. Thanks to the games covenant system there are plenty of invaders seeking different things, and even one dedicated to smiting those invaders in turn as an act of vengeance.
Yes, there’s a great deal more to this game than at first meets the eye. Initially it feels like a weird hodgepodge of various Japanese games from the last 15 years or so, but after a while you realise it has distilled all the best parts of those games (from Ninja Gaiden to God Hand, from Resident Evil to Devil May Cry and many more) and blended them with some unique ideas and touches of their own to make something truly special. It’s a hard and unforgiving game which would have benefited from a little more of a guiding hand at the start for it’s players but once the game gets it’s hooks in it doesn’t let go. It’s up there with the very finest games of this generation, and perhaps any other.
The next turn I lure the mushroom out, dodging the wrath of the hydra as I run rings around it. I get into the tree stump, only to discover that it’s a half-way house. There’s another, thinner stretch of beach headed towards an island surrounded by trees. I make another dash for freedom. When I get to the island I walk towards a looming, still dragon standing over a bonfire. I expect it to kill me at any moment, but it doesn’t move. I sit at the bonfire, grateful for the respite. But then it hits me: there’s no way out. This dragon offers me entry to it’s covenant, a group of warriors gathering dragon scales in return for the ability to turn themselves part dragon. It is of no use to me. The only path available to me is back to where I came. Past the hydra, the mushroom and back up the hollow tree and the frogs who cursed me. The hydra is in front of me as I run now, the beach thinner with less room to manoeuvre. I’m backed into an almost impossible corner. It takes several hours and a lot of frustration to get out. I’m not sure which shows more resilience – me or the xbox pad, which is thrown all around the room after many a cruelly thwarted attempt. But even at it’s most unforgiving I refuse to back down. Dark Souls has instilled a stubbornness into me, a refusal to quit. And when I eventually stand triumphant before the cleric to purchase the cure for my curse I feel an elation and satisfaction that precious few games have ever offered. I return to my quest, bowed but not broken.
Ok, so all the above images were pilfered from google images. I don’t have the technology/brain power to get my own from my 360 copy. If any of them are yours and you would like credit/their removal email me at firstname.lastname@example.org