Dark Souls First Impressions

So, in a previous update, I said I wanted to get the chance to play ‘Dark Souls’, and I’ve played it quite a bit over the weekend. I mean, without even really thinking about it, I pumped about 8 hours into the game thus far, and I’m thoroughly impressed. Intimidated, but impressed.

Dark Souls is a third person RPG. The story is really more of an afterthought, but the presentation is so immersive, you don’t really care. You’re in what’s touted to be an ‘open world environment’, and this is true, to a point. You can run around from area to area whenever you want, so you can always backtrack or go visit specific merchants or look for hidden areas maybe you weren’t able to visit before. This means the path for you is never really linear, but you’ll know you’ve wandered into the wrong area if you try umpteen times to hack and slash through some new enemies and get your butt stomped faster than you can say ‘You Have Died’. That’s exactly what the screen tells you in big red letters every time you do, and it’s a screen that’s going to become very familiar, because it’s true what they say – this is an incredibly difficult game. And by that, I mean absolutely brutal.

This RPG plays out like a third person action game, in a way. You still level up and decide where you want your earned level points to go (stamina, health, dexterity, strength, etc), but in battle, you’re using a shield and sword to the best of your ability. Enemies charge at you, and you have to figure out how to exploit the AI – This sometimes means deciding to use your shield to parry their weapon and strike them when they’re vulnerable after the fact, perhaps circling them when they swing so you can backstab them, or whatever. However you do it, you need to figure out their patterns and execute accordingly, because if you don’t, even the weaker enemies will make you wish you hadn’t made a mistake. You can’t just charge into a room full of enemies, either. You need to lure them to safer areas one by one, or if they come at you all at once, you need a ranged weapon (magical or otherwise), or lure them all back to a choke point so they can’t surround you. You need to be smart, you need to pick the time you’re able to attack, and even then, that might not be good enough at times. Play hard, play smart, and you can still die anyway.

Sounds like a pretty frustrating experience, right? Wrong. Since the battle mechanics are so finely tuned, you always feel like you ‘lost’ because of a poor decision on your end… not because the game cheated. That makes progression through the game long and arduous at times, especially since you’re encouraged to grind your character so you’re better prepared for the next area, but the sense of reward you get once you finally move on is second to none. The last games that gave me such a hard time with difficulty, were the Ninja Gaiden games that were released on Xbox and Xbox 360… comparable to Dark Souls because they, too, were known widely for their insane level of difficulty.

Another thing that makes the game so tough, is that you’re barely directed to where you’re supposed to go. You’re given vague objectives if you pay attention, but you’re still on your own for the most part. Again, this sounds like a bad idea, but this actually brings me back to the days of playing games like Legend of Zelda, where you’d explore openly and sort of figure things out on your own. Modern day gaming has really sort of tuned the difficulty down quite a bit, just so the experience can be enjoyed by a large market. What makes it even harder is that you can often paint yourself in a corner. You can only save your progress at certain points called ‘bonfires’, and it’s at these locations where you can rest, level up, or use your collected souls to repair armor and weaponry. This means you’re always having to decide how to do… well, everything. Should you use your weapon and damage it further if it’s not necessary? Should you spend those souls to level up now, or should you use them to play it safe and repair your stuff so you’re not left high and dry in the near future? Should you sacrifice certain items that are hard to come by for the mere possibility of getting something more valuable in return?

If constantly choosing what to do with your souls, your only in-game currency, isn’t hard enough, you lose them when you die. Still, the game promises to return them to you if you can reach the same spot you lost them to recollect them again… but if you die again before making it to that point, those souls are lost forever. All part of the promised insanity? Yes. Does it feel like it enhances the gaming experience though? Absolutely. The most difficult decision to make at times, is if you even want to rest at a certain bonfire. When you rest at one of these save points, all the enemies will respawn… and this will sometimes leave you trapped with a horde of enemies closing in on you. You’ll be forced to fight for your life and run, just to find another safe haven where you can play more safely from. Wicked. You even have to decide if fighting a boss is worth it at times… the game actually encourages you from the very beginning to run away and come back when you’re stronger or have better weapons to attack with.

One of the most impressive aspects of the game is how it integrates online functionality though. When other players are roaming the same area you are, you can, at times, see their ‘ghosts’ running around. Sometimes you’ll see a blood stain on the floor where they have just previously perished, and if you ‘look’ at the stain, you’ll see their ghost and what it did that lead to their death. This can often warn you of imminent dangers or traps ahead. Also, players can leave note markers on the ground to leave advice, warnings or hints. This is incredibly helpful, as again, it can warn you about an upcoming boss fight, or even help give you pointers on the best way to defeat them. Certain players will lie to you however, sometimes advising you to destroy a merchant you might need to resupply at later on, jump to your death, lead you to believe there’s no danger ahead when their might be a big boss, etc. This sounds horrible, but again, the game has a workaround for this – Players can rate the message when they come across it as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ advice. Those that are ranked poorly will disappear, or at the very least let you know that others have found the advice to be misleading. Those that are left with a great amount of feedback, will stick around to continually help others. Also, at points, you can summon players from their in game worlds to help you with certain battles, but again, players can decide to turn against you if they so desire, but there’s a consequence system in place for this, as well.

That’s the game in a nutshell, and it’s all about making some very real choices. You will die, repeatedly, and you need to learn from your mistakes.  This is the kind of experience more games should offer.

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