So Steam Christmas sales came around again and ate everyone’s money like a fat, fiscal tornado, and I can say I’ve never gotten so much antagonism for 4.99€ than I’ve gotten out of Dark Souls. Where to even start?
Dark Souls has already been around for years, and Dark Souls II coming out earlier in the year meant that the hype train was rolling hard, and the Internet had been filled with obnoxious fan-boys telling everyone about this awesome game that was totally different from these modern action games that are all designed for emotionally unstable cretins who can’t hold the controller the right way around, and need their hands held while they’re playing big-boy games, in case they get too distraught at the thought of failing at something imaginary and get a mental boo-boo.
Apparently, Dark Souls was some kind on mythic, messianic entity that was all about challenge, refusing to hold the players hand and was more difficult than splitting a really complicated restaurant bill for six people while on fire. This was a real game for real manly men with real manly scrotums, and you better be prepared for disappointment salad, cos you’re going to get stomped into the dirt so hard your spleen is going to squirt right out of your nasal passage.
On the other side was another big and obnoxious crowd of fans, who assumably had already beat the game several times over and spent their free time writing wiki-entries and making let’s play videos, telling you Dark Souls was piss-easy and all the bosses were child’s play to defeat, as long as you had memorized every single one of their attack patterns and had the ring of blowing noses equipped. Which was found in a chest in a different dimension behind a burning locked gate and guarded by a demon the size of a stegosaurus. Another thing that is a popular saying of theirs, is that while Dark Souls is harsh and challenging, it is never unfair, and you never die without it somehow being your fault. (This is I suppose is true enough: you are the one who had the audacity to pick up the controller and start playing, if nothing else)
Amazingly, both camps are lying so hard they could short-circuit a polygraph machine: the initial experience is indeed a lot like attempting the Normandy landing all by yourself, and most of your time is spent having your face rubbed in the dirt, in a continuous cycle of walking up to a monster in a meaningful way, giving them a tap with your sword, dying, respawning, trying again in a less shitty way, dying again, respawning, rage-quitting and repeating. Not helped by the difficulty curve that is like a vertical wall that hits you smack in the face as soon as you start a session. Dark Souls does have the respect to let the player figure shit out on their own, but on the other hand it expects the player to have absorbed a huge amount of shared knowledge, without actually telling you half of it and being really vague about the rest.
If Dark Souls really is your thing, then get ready to ALT-Tab a lot to consult the wiki, and figure out how to actually play the game, since that part is absolutely vital to enjoying the first second of game-play. On the other hand, once you’ve spent enough time playing, watched several play-throughs in YouTube and memorized the wiki on what every boss-monster’s weakness is, you are ready to break through the wall and start carving up ridiculously overpowered enemies, when the game stops being impenetrable and merely becomes strenuous. The game doesn’t actually become easy until several dozen hours in, when you are properly focused and have some decent armour and weapons, and maybe even figure out how the parrying works.
Once you are actually into Dark Souls, it becomes deep and atmospheric enough to keep you invested for hundreds of hours, if for nothing else than trying to figure out what the hell is going on. There is very little exposition or forced story in Dark Souls, and the game is purposefully vague about the real nature of what is going on or what possible meaning it might have. The Universe is built either really flimsy or really detailed and deep, and it’s hard to figure out which is closer to the truth. It is amazing how much is left for the player to discover, and new details pop up everywhere as you are playing and the experience begins to really unfold.
The story is more or less that the world is really and truly fucked. Light in the world is fading and people are becoming hollowed and losing their sense of self, until they become mindless husks that might as well be called zombies. The old gods and grand heroes who have built the world and civilization as it exists currently have all died, diminished or gone loopy, and you are the chosen undead, who is somehow destined to make it less shit. This mostly translates to killing boss-monsters the size of aircraft hangars and lighting a bunch of campfires. Some of the lore is presented in the intro cinematic and the rest is left to unfold within the game-play, or presented through item descriptions and passing bits of dialogue that go past if you blink at the wrong moment.
Dark Souls‘ thing is combat, and it works very well, presenting a complicated and refined system of methodical offense, defense and counter-offence, or using magic, if you really want to be a spoil-sport. Enemies are very different in their tactics and weaknesses, and most have attacks that can be dodged, blocked or both, and you have to adapt to their patterns to get anywhere. If you happen to die, which you will do by the bum-load, you return to the last bonfire where you spent a minute resting, and most enemies respawn, meaning you have to do the whole thing again, except not so shit this time.
If you spend humanities, which you discover around the place, you can change your undead state back to a living person without bits of gross, rotting skin all over the place. As unhollowed you can summon other players to help you with difficult fights and show those turd-monsters what friendship is all about, but unfortunately this also makes you vulnerable to dickheads invading your world and coming to teach you the sharp lesson that sometimes life just shits on you. The multiplayer elements certainly add interesting dimensions to the game, but honestly I’d throw them all in the bin for the possibility of pausing the goddamn game. Pause the game? What on Earth for? Real gamers don’t have social lives. You would have to stop what you’re doing to pay attention to other people in case they want to talk to you? That’s just fucking preposterous.
So, while Dark Souls is very challenging, harsh, cryptic and bordering on unfair, you also get a sense of achievement and satisfaction you don’t get with most other games. In time you too could become one of the insufferably smug fan-boys who think Dark Souls is the best game ever and feel embarrassingly proud for defeating the gigantic boss-monstrosity that takes out half your health in one hit and occasionally instakills you without warning, just to show you your place in life.
If you are after some hardcore RPG hacking and slashing, and decide that the thought of getting stomped into the ground a hundred times over for one glorious victory is a tantalizing one – and don’t mind some controller-snapping frustration – then Dark Souls is an experience that’s going to rock your little socks off.
If you decide it’s time to Dark some Souls, and go for the Prepare to Die-edition on the PC, here’s the list of things to do:
1) Download and install. Play the game vanilla style. Die a lot. This teaches you humility and prepares you for the experience.
2)Having a controller is going to make things much easier, so if you don’t have one, think about getting one.
3) Start modding. The PC port is completely rubbish and looks like the arse-end of a rhinoceros that’s been really unwell lately. Don’t even ask about the controls. First you need the DSfix, then start adding the mods you think you need most. Nexus Mod Manager is going to make life easier.
4) Watch some tutorials on how to Dark Souls. YouTube’s your friend here. Especially watch something that properly explains the core concepts like blocking, dodging, parrying, stamina management and how the stats work. You’ll want to keep a wiki handy as well, as you are going to become pretty intimate with it. The game expects you to know a bunch of shared knowledge, and it’s not going to do a damn thing to tell you what and when you’re going to need it.
5) Keep playing from where you left off. You’ll notice that you keep dying a lot. That’s not going to stop any time soon, and it’s best if you don’t worry about it. It’s how you find things out in the game. They kill you. Try to return the favour.
6) Keep at it, and soon enough you’ll break through the wall and the game begins to open up in all directions. Then it’s all good from there on.
7) Once you beat the game, don’t forget to tell every poor, disobliging bastard out there about how you did it and how awesome you are now. That’s what all the other smug dullards are doing. Add bravado and tell everyone how easy Dark Souls is once you get into it, and how you beat Ornstein and Smough with your first try.
8) Praise the Sun.
Now I just have to play through Dark Souls II, which was also on bloody Christmas sale for -75%. Why do you keep doing this Steam? Haven’t you cost me enough in productivity already?