Have you ever played through a game, and felt unsatisfied? As if you spent all of this time playing a game, only to be left feeling like you accomplished nothing too substantial in the end? Videogames these days have become easier and more approachable. I remember playing Perfect Dark on the N64 back in the day, and you actually had to think and use your resources deliberately to make it to the end of the level. Then, over time, I’ve noticed that I’ve gotten through games almost effortlessly. Sure, story-telling mechanics have generally improved across the board, as well as graphics and sound, but what about gameplay? Gameplay has been essentially the same for decades, deriving to a few buttons on a controller or keyboard to transmit certain actions onto your screen, but these actions and games have gotten so easy lately, with entire ammo depots being thrown at you, massive guns, and regenerating health that never fails you if you use it correctly.
Enter Dark Souls, a game that never gives in to giving you handicaps, that never relents from its heightening difficulty, and never let’s you slide by on the hair of your chinny-chin-chin. You must either constantly think, analyze, and plan, or you will die, over and over again. This may very likely turn off many casual players, especially the normal player that just wants to get on the ol’ 360/PS3 and have a good time. If you’re one of those, then you may find this game incredibly frustrating, but if you’re one of those that have been playing games for years, that has beaten them on their harder difficulties, and that has conquered other players online, then you will almost indubitably love Dark Souls. Sure, it’s very challenging, and sure, it wants to punish you like some sadistic psychopath, but damn, this is a psychopath you cannot let go of, nor will you want to.
To start, the gameplay is the gloriously brilliant part of the game. Every weapon feels and indeed is very different, with custom and very well-done animations for each, independent stats, and thousands of combinations of how to go into battle. There are short swords, curved swords, long swords, greatswords, katanas, etc., as well as every type of scythe, axe, and hammer imaginable. And these are only the melee weapons. There are four different types of magic, full with entire arsenals of “scrolls” as the game calls them. On top of this, the variation of armors and apparel is astounding. It’s almost like the Mass Effect of skirmishes, where you can fight in countless ways, and if you execute your plan well enough, then it will succeed no matter what method you choose, and every choice is rewarding and exhilarating.
The story is intentionally minimalistic, as well as music. Many have used these two as negative contentions against the game, but I’d argue against that. The story isn’t in-your-face, but if you delve into the lore through indirect ways, you’ll find a world full of complex lore, intricately-woven stories, and a struggle where good vs. evil is elementary: The motivations and the actions of main characters are very complex, and nothing happens simply because one is evil or one is good; the morality is very subjective. The music is essentially nonexistent unless you’re at Firelink Shrine (the only true safe haven of the game), or fighting a boss, where the tempo gets going, and either soft, calm, beautiful music plays (yes, while fighting a boss), or dark, intense melodies that you would imagine hearing if being chased by wolves. The lack of music throughout the entire game makes the moments where it is used feel much more important and affecting. You put these elements together, and you have one of the most immersive experiences in modern gaming. Almost every time I sit down to play this game, the walls and chairs and assorted accessories around me disappear, and all that exists while playing is that screen, my mind, and that game, beckoning me to come and conquer it. It’s wondrous, really.
Finally, and perhaps the most interesting feature of the game, is the way that online functionality is implemented. Players can write messages on the ground, where they could select from pre-selected words, and leave their little mark on the world to help, troll, or deceive other passers-by. There are also summon signs where you can summon up to three other players into your world, or be summoned yourself, and make a party to go fight the area boss. These moments, where one player is casting spells, two are engaging the boss in melee, and another is far off shooting arrows and bolts, are some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a videogame, and I would buy an entirely new game where you could just fight massive bosses like this cooperatively (sort of like Monster Hunter Tri). Additionally, you can be randomly invaded at any time (as long as you’re a human, and not a hollow), invade other player’s worlds, or lure invaders from other worlds into yours. So, you may have noticed, the online functionality is very different from the usual, and also, take note, that there is no way to be voice-chat with all the players. Granted, you can private chat with one other on the Xbox 360, but trying to party chat disables all online functions: the designers want you to keep distance from other players. Even with the implemented limitations of the online play, it’s extremely satisfying, and about any single-player game I can think of could benefit from a system akin to Dark Souls.
With exemplary gameplay, extreme challenge, a surreptitious story, and minimalistic online interaction with others, this game feels very enigmatic and mystic. It exudes an air that you’ll never be fully certain of what’s going to happen, and that’s a very novel concept in the gaming industry. Though casual players will likely tire of the challenge, those that sit down with the game and delve into its incredibly immersive world will find one of the most satisfying entertainment experiences in history, and a game that makes you feel like a god, and as if the time that you could spend doing physical activity, talking to other people, or other socially-accepted things, is actually equivalent in importance with playing this game. It’s so very rare that a game that is this unified in what it sets out to do succeeds so magnificently well, and indeed, Dark Souls has become one of my favorite games of all time.