Being thrown in at the deep can be a bit overwhelming. Imagine turning up for your first swimming lesson, receiving some vague advice about kicking your legs and then being hurled into the middle of the pool. That’s how you will be introduced to Dark Souls; some perfunctory notes in the introductory section of the game will let you know what buttons to press to control your avatar effectively but that’s your lot. A curt ‘good job’ message upon defeating the tutorial boss is the final pat on the back before you are dropped, literally, into the middle of the fantasy world Lordran and left to your own devices. Mystery surrounds a lot of the Dark Souls experience: the story is vague as are your goals within the game and whole features and mechanics go deliberately unexplained. It all helps to create an atmosphere of confusion and foreboding but although it can disorientating overcoming the initial obfuscation will reward you with a wonderfully unique game.
Dark Souls has all the trappings of a traditional RPG: there are swords and sorcery, fire breathing dragons and knights clad in ominous black armour, however, it forgoes a lot of the pomp and grandeur found in many modern titles in favour of a dark and foreboding tone. The world itself is intimidating by design, both visually and in its size and scope. From the off you are free to explore the huge world with no indication of your intended destination. Each zone blends seamlessly into the next, from the relative safety of your starting point you could just as easily wander to the labyrinthine catacombs as the haunted ruins of New Londo or the undead infested castle. There’s no way to quickly skip around the map either, in fact there isn’t even a map to consult, so careful consideration is advised when journeying into the unknown. Lordran is a dangerous place and friendly faces are few and far between. Gruesome enemies stalk the battlements, lurk in the shadows and parade through the hellish underworld below, each one posing a genuine threat to your progress.
Fighting off these foes is one of Dark Souls’ greatest pleasures as the act of combat itself is incredibly satisfying, requiring a measured, methodical approach. Flailing a sword around wildly is not likely to win any fight and so it is in Dark Souls where patient defense and well timed assaults are the key to success. Of course there is more flair than that in the combat system, which allows for kicks, parries and back stabs, but mistiming even one attack can put you on the road to defeat. Outside of boss battles enemies generally have the same range of abilities available to them as you do so fights are basically fair, the difference between victory and defeat isn’t going to be some unblockable special attack but in your own ability to manage your stamina, defend attacks and retaliate at the right time. Your vulnerability, and the ramifications of dying, ensures that each encounter is a tense and nervous affair as any enemy could be your downfall. The defensive approach goes out of the window when it comes to tackling boss battles. Bosses are numerous and varied in style and in approach, but all extraordinarily deadly. There’s the almost serene Moonlight Butterfly or the horrifying sight of the Gaping Dragon as well as golems, dragons, minotaurs, gargoyles and demons. Strategy and perseverance are required to best these, the most supreme of Dark Souls’ challenges.
Sanctuary comes in the form of bonfires hidden throughout the world. Resting at a bonfire replenishes health, refills your indispensable flask of health restoring Estus and provides access to the menu based systems for storing items, repairing and upgrading equipment and spending the collectible souls and humanity harvested from defeated foes. However resting at bonfires has its drawbacks, primarily that upon resting at a bonfire, or reappearing at one after having met your demise, the entire area will be repopulated with enemies. If you arrive at a bonfire via the unfortunate method of having died you will also be without any souls or humanity you have collected, only recoverable by collecting them from the point at which you died. However, if you die on your way back to collect them they will be gone forever. Therefore souls and the astute management of them quickly become a focus of the game. Souls are the in game currency required for purchasing everything from weapons, armour and items to being utilised as experience points to boost stats.
With so much of the game hidden away its almost essential to become part of the massive online community that has sprung up around Dark Souls. Gaming forums and wikis teem with information helping to fill in the gaps with the games functions alongside boss strategies and equipment upgrade advice. The extent to which the game fosters discussion means this is one of the most communal games you can play without actually having to play with somebody else and the online features built in to it help to facilitate that. The most basic level of online functionality allows for in game messages to be placed throughout the world to warn of a particularly fearsome enemy ahead or guide you down the right path when you might be unsure. Ghostly apparitions of other players will periodically appear passing through your world battling invisible enemies, resting at a nearby bonfire or succumbing to an attack and collapsing in front of you. All of this helps to reinforce the fact that even when playing as a single-player adventure, you are not doing it alone. And that’s just the most basic use of the games online functions, delving deepers unveils interaction on a more intimate level: summoning allies for assistance or invading other players as a hostile phantom, even joining in game factions, called covenants, complete with ranks, rewards and rules of engagement. The multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls can be as involving as you want it to be.
Where many games overflow with information Dark Souls is refreshingly reticent. It is a game that seeks to operate on its own terms and for the most part succeeds, understandably many will be put off by this indifferent approach to first time players but if you are willing and able to completely grasp Dark Souls there is a great deal of enjoyment to be had. Whether exploring the world hunting for items or hidden treasures, battling giant demons or invading other worlds to defend your covenants sacred lands there is always something to do, some new goal to achieve or enemy to defeat. It might take a little bit of effort but the more you put in to Dark Souls the more you will get out.
Rating: [starreview tpl=16]