I’ve finished (the original) Dark Souls. It’s an action RPG that sounded exactly like the opposite of the games I normally enjoy, yet I absolutely loved it.
I started hearing about it a few years back once in a while. Then for some reason (the release of Dark Souls 2 maybe?) people talked about it much more lately. There was one thing that sounded interesting – that they somehow integrated the gameplay and the lore really well together. But everything else sounded horrible.
While I love RPGs in general, the Action subgenre lacks any draw for me. It took me about fifteen minutes before I dropped Diablo (1 and 2). Same with all the other combat-focused RPGs I tried. I don’t actually enjoy combat or action sequences in most games I play, which is I think why I prefer RPGs. There’s usually a way to avoid fights.
To add insult to injury, Dark Souls was supposed to be really hard and had a ton of boss fights. I hate bosses. Most of the boss fights I’ve encountered were like normal combat (i.e. not enjoyable) sprinkled with some bullshit limits and usually forcing a completely different playstyle from the rest of the game (see Deus Ex: Human Revolution for a good example).
Not to mention the fact that you keep dying and repeating the same thing over and over. That sounded like a nightmare.
But people were so enthusiastic about it, so I gave it a go in the end.
The controls were really tough to get used to. Took me a while to figure out how to sprint and jump, not to mention finer things like the jump attack or walking slowly. On the other hand, there’s a lot of moves the player can do (and it’s an essential part of the combat) so I’m not sure it can be made much simpler.
The very beginning was easy enough, but after I got to the first boss, I was ready to quit. In the first five encounters, I pretty much died without dealing any damage. So yeah, potentially interesting game but just too hard for me.
And then I did one last go, tried to calm myself and observe the Asylum Demon’s moves and react to them. Get out of its way when it makes a move, score a few hits and get away again.
And it worked perfectly. I killed the beast on that sixth attempt and I can’t describe how elated I felt. So I kept playing.
Lore and systems
The first thing I noticed is when I looked in my inventory was the Darksign:
The Darksign signifies an accursed Undead. Those branded with it are reborn after death, but will one day lose their mind and go Hollow.
Death triggers the Darksign, which returns its bearer to the last bonfire rested at, but at the cost of all humanity and souls.
Souls are the game’s combination of currency and experience. When you die, you lose them all, plus any humanity and you appear at the last bonfire you rested at. So I’m reading the description of this tattoo and wondering "`What’s it for? You already return to a bonfire and lose the souls. The game is already giving you that.`"
And then I realised that the Darksign is the in-game reason for this mechanics. It doesn’t just happen on its own. Last time I’ve noticed something similar was in Planescape Torment. And there’s a ton of stuff like that in the game.
The bonfires aren’t there just as a saving mechanism. They have a very specific lore that is tied to what you’re trying to do. It’s made very clear that you’re far from the only one going through the world. There were many before you and chances are, after you as well.
Even if you ignore all the PvP multiplayer bits, you still get glimpses of other players and their actions. You’ll see a brief flashes of a ghost fighting an invisible monster, you see a blood stain that shows you the moment of their death when you touch it. You get a bonus Estus (healing potion, you have limited supply that replenishes when you rest at a bonfire) when someone kindles a bonfire in the same area and you hear the when someone else rang the Bell of Awakening if you’re nearby.
You see short messages written by other players (“Praise the sun!”).
This is a wonderful way of making one feel a part of something bigger without necessarily having to deal with other humans directly.
I was quite worried about the repetitiveness of the death and replaying the same bits over and over. What saves this from being a boring chore is that death serves as a learning experience. Most of the time, you die because you got cocky, made a mistake, walked into a trap or something similar.
In each of these, there’s a lesson to be had. Plus, if you found a key or any other item, turned a lever or just discovered a new area, all that is progress you’re going to keep.
And throughout all this, you learn about the enemies you’re facing and how to deal with them.
It’s really, really good.
As far as I could say, the enemies are driven by the same rules as you are. They can roll and block with their shield, parry and backstab you. When they use a weapon that’s too heavy for them, they drag it around and need a lot of time to recover after an attack. They have limited stamina so they can’t just spam attacks indefinitely.
Each has their own attack patterns, intelligence and a way of dealing with. You need to observe them, pay attention and learn when to strike and when to get out of the way.
The combat itself is great in that it very strongly discourages frantic button mashing (which was a hard thing to unlearn) and instead teaches you to keep calm and do the right moves at the right time, nothing more or less.
It’s one of the things that’s tough at the beginning, but it gets easier as you play more and fosters mastery. At some point you’re comfortable with all the tricks at your disposal and the enemies you’re facing. And suddenly the combat is a choreographed dance of perfect moves and strikes.
But it never stops being trivial. Even the weakest enemies are really dangerous when they flank you.
I was quite surprised at the strong exploration aspect of Dark Souls. I expected pretty much a constant combat, but the game wants you to pay attention, look around and explore every nook and cranny.
One of the most fascinating things is how interconnected the world is. It’s all one continuous place where you can walk from any place to any other place (with a handful of exceptions). As you progress, you open shortcuts (doors, elevators, etc.) that will make your journeying easier, but it’s still all one big world.
When you see a bell tower on top of a tower in the distance, then that’s really the place you need to go. And if you actually have any sense of direction (unlike me), you’d be able to tell where you are with regards to the other places you’ve visited.
The small stuff
So those are the big things. But the game has a lot of tiny bits that make it feel great, too:
Rats (often the lowest class of enemy in RPGs) are one of the most terrifying monsters you encounter in the first 20 hours or so.
Loved that after defeating the Taurus Demon and discovering the bonfire after that, it was the same bonfire that I used before. And I didn’t notice because a) that never happens in games and b) my spatial orientation is shit.
Each weapon you wield has a different set of animations. Plus, you can equip a sword that is too heavy for you – in which case you can still use it, but you’re dragging it on the ground and when you do make a swing, its momentum flings you around and you need a lot of time to recover.
There’s a really cute animation when you try to drink Estus when you’re out.
Trying to cast a Sorcery spell when you can’t (because you have Pyromancy selected or you ran out) will show the character doing the standard casting animation, then noticing nothing happened, looking at their catalyst (the magic wand) and scratching their head in confusion. Super cute.
RP in the G
Oh and while it may not initially seem like it, there’s a lot of role playing possibilities. Ignoring the main story (which presents you with some choices but not that many), you can choose to kill certain characters or let them live – mainly without consequences beyond your own consciousness, but that’s actually quite enough.
I would never attack Priscilla, but fuck Patches, seriously. And I let Gwyndolin be. His story seems quite sad as it is so let him indulge in his harmless fantasies. More importantly, Lady of the Darkling is too awesome. I would never do anything to piss her off.
And finally, you have a lot of different ways to approach the whole world. Are you going to focus melee or ranged combat. Sorcery, Pyromancy, Bows? They have all very different play style.
If melee, do you want to focus on speed or put on the heaviest armor and shield and just soak up attacks like they’re nothing? That significantly slows you down, but you won’t get oneshot killed nearly as often as the lighter builds.
Oh and the selection of weapons and armor is awesome. Unlike most RPGs I’ve played, there isn’t really a strong progression of getting better and better gear as you keep going.
While you discover cool stuff throughout the game, later doesn’t necessarily mean better. It depends on your style and esthetics. Yeah, esthetics.
You can win the game with any armor. So you pick the one you like. When I found the shadow robes, I thought that was it. Light and super cool-looking:
But then I found the Gold-Hemmed Black set worn by the daughters of Izalith:
and I didn’t put it down until the end of the game. It’s just too perfect.
You can see a lot of other armor sets here:
Rag doll bodies
They look horrible when you look at the videos of the game. In practice, you really quickly learn to ignore them and most of the time they aren’t really in the way.
Still, yeah, it’s kind of silly.
So yeah, Dark Souls is brilliant. The game’s a bit dated now, but it plays great, and while not particularly high-res, there’s a lot of beauty in there. When you first get to Firelink Shrine or look around Anor Londo, I can guarantee you’ll enjoy the view.