- PlayStation 3
- Xbox 360
This is a game that won’t explain you anything properly and then will severely punish you for not learning your lesson. It merely lets you explore itself. You see an opening cut-scene. It’s cryptic and at first sight not really related to what will happen next. Character creation screen asks you questions you don’t yet have answers to. What will be your starting gift? Do you want a Master Key or Twin Humanities? What do they even do? Well, whatever you choose you’re in a dungeon. Some friendly guy in armor drops you a key to your cell through the crack on the ceiling. You’re out. You character looks like an undead. Is that normal? You see some messages written on the floor. Oh, that’s basic movement tips. How helpful! Then you get to the yard of the prison and light a bonfire. Surprisingly there’s a big yellow glowing message on the screen about it. Like it’s something meaningful and important and not just a matter of burning some wood. Is that even wood? Looks very dusty and grey for some reason. Anyway, you open the door, and who’s there? Big Fat Mothefucking Boss is there, and you’re equipped with just a hilt of a sword. You try to roll away and hit him with this deadly weapon. Maybe that’ll work, and isn’t this game about ridiculously hard combat anyway? That broken sword does virtually no damage to that green demon; you rolling skills are not as good as they seemed. Screen darkens and fades to grey. Red message “You Died” appears across the screen.
Okay. You’re up and running, and you start from the bonfire. What you really had to do is to simulate a hybrid of Sonic the Hedgehog and Link and just roll through the pots smashing them for standing on your way to escape: a small slightly disguised archway. Not that you couldn’t just run around them. Consider this as my personal tip: good things come to those who smash clay pots not only in Zelda. You travel a bit more, read more tips, discover “entering the mist”, get smashed by a giant rock, find a real weapon and some shield, meet a friendly knight from the intro who sends you on some quest to ring some bell and gives you a healing flask. Finally you make it to some high point, go through the fog. And guess who you see — our dangerous “friend” from earlier. But you’re on top now and can perform satisfactional jumping plunge attack for massive damage. Even if you miss though, the fatty is not quite a challenge. Now there’s nothing but a short mountain steps between you and a cliff. A giant crow arrives to take you in its talons and carry to the real starting point, which is a Firelink Shrine.
This is where real Dark Souls begins. There’s another bonfire, and there’s a woman in a cage underneath it and a friendly knight sitting next to it resting his bones. He tells you there’s actually two bells that you have to strike. One above in the Undead Church and one below at the base of Blighttown. Well, that isn’t really helping answering the question “Where the fuck should I go?” Maybe it’s that path through some graveyard, where unkillable skeletons emerge under the ground? Okay, that was the wrong way. Then it’s going down on that elevator, perhaps? To the underground flooded city New Londo populated by ghost creatures which you can’t even damage? How does that sound? Seemingly incredibly hard obstacles in your way aren’t really that firm. The means to easily overcome them though are in the other direction: up the hill and through some sewer/tunnel to Undead Burg. This is where the vertical level design kicks in. There’s multiple layers in this buzzing beehive. Ladders going up and down, locked doors, breaks in the wall, hidden corners. And of course there are enemies: undead that are poking you with swords and lances, and undead throwing bombs at you, and a scary big guy in black armor, and a boss at the end; of course there’s boss. He’s even bigger than the previous one while the area around him is smaller, making it harder to dodge seemingly. On top of that there’s two archers targeting your back as you enter the boss fight area. There’s a bunch of tricks for this fight. First is going up, killing those archers and then smacking demon from above with plunging attack. Second is using Gold Pine Resin which you could find earlier. It buffs your weapon with lightning for a short time; and this boss is very weak against that. And when you kill him, there will be no turning back. Despite this being only a tiny fraction of the game, perhaps this is the most enduring part.
Figuring out the way that ponderous physical combat works; learning that positioning is more important than anything, that rushing and attacking continuously will only result in defeat. Learning the basics of how you should approach the world: with caution and scepticism. Learning the timings of parries, and backstabs, and combat rolls. Seeing the glimpse of magic; discovering the importance of equipment load; finding a weapon with attack animation that just feels right. It takes time, but at the same time it hooks you. And it feels right if only you are willing to spend a couple of hours familiarizing yourself with the rules. After that combat will feel honest and robust, because it actually is, just not in the way that you may be used to.
What’s important though is that you actually could go completely another way, leaving that boss for later on. Game areas are tied with myriads of shortcuts and hidden passages, some less hidden than another. Giving you not only a hard challenge, but also ways to easily beat it or skip altogether is what makes a good metroidvania. And Dark Souls is a stellar example of that. It stands on shoulders of its predecessor Demon’s Souls of course with quiet similar combat, stats system and non-traditional asynchronous co-op. But it goes farther than tweaking a few mechanics and calling it a day. A unified interconnected world (with a few separate areas still) surely feels more grounded than one made of four separate branches. Placing a hidden area inside the labyrinth is easy, but the mere size of these secrets and the way that they actually turn the story upside-down is mesmerizing. Ringing two bells, collecting few bosses souls after that and watching the credits roll — doing only mandatory things — is less than a third of actual content. And that’s without considering pretty hefty DLC. Weapon upgrades, covenants, NPCs, invasions, pieces of lore scattered across items’ descriptions — there’s no shortage of what you can do to entertain yourself.
Dark Souls can be merciless and unforgiving. Some of its secrets are hidden so deep, that finding them on your own without the online guide seems very unlikely. Still, the joy of uncovering those mysteries is as good as it can be in a video game. So prepare to die. A lot.