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Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: From Software
From Software had been trucking along for years before Demon’s Souls. A workhorse studio, it pumped out mediocre to average games across all genres, from the mecha Armored Core series to the first-person, rock-hard RPG King’s Field games. It was this series that inspired Demon’s Souls, a PlayStation 3 exclusive that was released to little fanfare in 2009 – indeed, Sony decided against publishing the game outside of Japan, leaving it up to third parties. It was a misguided decision in hindsight, as Demon’s Souls was a success with critics and gamers, a blend of the hardcore trappings of King’s Field with a new style of action-RPG gameplay spearheaded by director Hidetaka Miyazaki.
Work soon began on a sequel, although not one directly connected to the story and world of the first game. Miyazaki returned as director and producer, refining the basic gameplay and ideas of Demon’s Souls and introducing them to a new audience on Xbox 360. Many UK PlayStation 3 owners had also missed out on Demon’s Souls due to the European release taking many months longer than the American, so for many Dark Souls was their first step into this strange new challenge.
That’s the thing that everybody remembers about the Souls games, the first thing that gets brought up in conversation: the difficulty. Most readers of this magazine will agree that games today are too easy, holding your hand every step of the way and rarely testing the skills that you’ve built up over decades of sitting in front of a screen and pressing buttons. Dark Souls says to hell with that, and aside from an incredibly sparse few lines of tutorial text telling you what the buttons do, you are on your own. Dark Souls laughs at the concept of objective markers, and outside of some extremely vague and veiled hints from NPCs, you will have to explore and make your own way in this world. Add in the fact that there is no map, and you have to scour, learn and memorise every corner of Lordran like the good old days when we drew pen-and-paper maps of the original Metroid.
Lordran is a bleak, empty land, populated only by mindless undead and horrific demons all looking to kill you. Dark Souls is defined by its simple but wonderfully responsive combat, where each button press corresponds to a swing of your weapon and carefully observing your enemy and attacking when able is the only sure-fire route to success. Swinging wildly will quickly get you killed, even against the most basic of enemies. Every fight is a threat in Dark Souls, and you need to be attentive and focused at all times.
Of course, death is inevitable, and the game’s approach to it is another one of its elements of genius. Die and you’ll be sent back to the last bonfire you rested at, a checkpoint system of sorts. Resting at a fire refills your health and Estus Flasks (health potions, essentially) but also respawns every single enemy in the world, aside from defeated bosses. You can’t clear out an area and be done with it – every time you rest, the bad guys come back. Die and respawn, and your collected souls will be left at the spot you perished. Souls act as currency and experience, spent on items and to level up, and losing a huge batch is never fun. You have one chance to get back to your corpse and get your souls back, but die again before you do and they are gone forever. It’s a brilliant mixture of risk and reward that always leads to extremely tense moments.
But lots of games are hard, and a lot of games play well. Dark Souls is exceptional because of its artistic elements: the atmosphere, the lore and story hidden in the world, the stark beauty of a landscape housing a dead society. Few games have ever created a feeling of isolation and loneliness like Dark Souls (again, inviting comparisons to Metroid). The story of the world you venture through is left largely unexplained, but hinted at through various means, be it item descriptions or the mutterings of a deranged merchant. This minimalistic approach to storytelling adds to the mysterious nature of the game, and dedicated fans have managed to discern a huge amount of lore and backstory from the subtle hints given – just like the rest of the gameplay, if you want to know what’s going on, you have to work for it.
Why It’s A Future Classic
This is the real reason why Dark Souls will live on, sure to be remembered in decades to come. Most games feel like entertainment, Dark Souls feels like a piece of art, fully conceptualised by Miyazaki and his team as a whole, designed to function both as a great game and a means of conveying emotion, bringing a player down through isolation and failure before building them back up as they learn, grow and get better. Some won’t have the patience for a game like Dark Souls, and that’s fine – it’s not for everyone. But for those with the patience and fortitude to persevere, those that see games as challenges to be explored, mastered and conquered, Dark Souls is a true modern classic in every sense of the word.