I’ve said this before and after playing the PC version of Dark Souls my position hasn’t changed one iota: Dark Souls is the best game of its generation.
Sure, you can say, “Yeah, well, you know that’s just like, your opinion, man.” It is. Dark Souls is the epitome of masterful game design by almost every conceivable measuring stick. It’s not just what is in the game, and Dark Souls is stuffed with so much goodness it could fill an Estus Flask, it’s what’s not in the game that makes it such a seminal role-playing experience.
There are no dialogue trees. No awful voice-acting. No faux-sexual tension between party members. No ‘famous’ cameos. No beating you over the head with prose, trying to make you care for things you don’t need to care about. No hog-tying you into a “class” and making you play a certain way based on the choice you make during character creation. There’s no hand holding, no invisible walls preventing you from falling off a cliff, and there are no cool down timers.
The story of Dark Souls is told subtly and it’s there only if you choose to discover it. You can play the game merely as an Undead trying to “win” by killing the bosses and progressing through each zone, not caring one bit about the whys and the hows. But for those you want to piece together the story it is there – in the quick ‘conversations’ with the few NPCs you encounter, through item descriptions and through simple deduction. It is brilliant story-telling through discovery, not 20 page volumes on the history of dragons.
Praise the Sun.
While background and story are both obfuscated by a lack of direct interaction and dialogue, the combat in Dark Souls stands front and center as the very best in the history of this genre. Period.
End of discussion. Tip your waitress before you leave. Play Dark Souls for 10 minutes, fighting skeletons in Undead Burg, blocking attacks, dodging arrows, maneuvering, counter-attacking and fighting for your soul. It’s adrenaline rushing stuff. Then play an Elder Scrolls game. Or Dragon Age. Or practically any other RPG and they feel old, plodding, or even button mashy by comparison.
Fighting in Dark Souls is dangerous – regardless of your “level”. You can be a level 60 slayer of demons and if you aren’t paying attention, and you get careless and sloppy, a regular old skeleton can run you through. Dark Souls demands you pay attention to it. It’s not a game where you can lollygag your way through areas. One wrong move and you can fall off a ridge to your death. Or you can get surrounded by enemies and no amount of amour can totally protect you from a sword assault.
The game has a reputation of being almost sadistically difficult and it’s this “feature” that has caused many gamers to steer clear of both it and its predecessor, the PS3 hit Demons’ Souls. The reason for this isn’t so much the difficulty of the fights, although as stated you do need to pay attention every time you battle something, but rather the lack of save checkpoints and its penchant for repetition. Dark Souls is about learning WHY you died as much as it is about the fights themselves. Every death should be a learning tool for the user. It could be as simple as, “Ok, let’s not try a roll attack when on a narrow ledge…lest I roll right off the damn cliff” or learning the patterns of a boss fight.
This is the key to success in Dark Souls – learning the patterns. The most difficult fights in Dark Souls come from exploring an area for the first time (this certainly will result in at least one death) or when fighting an unpredictable boss – and there aren’t that many in the game. Every major fight has a pattern to it and once you learn the patterns fights that seemed impossible become simple matters of persistence, patience, and not choking under pressure.
And there is most certainly pressure.
Due to how Dark Souls is designed, untimely deaths can be devastating – as in hope the power goes out before the game saves your death progress devastating. But it’s also one of its most redeeming qualities. A wide assortment of games today take the position that the player is eventually going to win by merely playing the game. Fights might be hard from time to time but everything strolls along as a fairly casual pace. Loot, XP, new toys and skills being the main reward instead of the progress itself. Dark Souls ignores that and gives players a magnificent sense of accomplishment when a goal is achieved. The first time you ring the tower bell is one of the most rewarding feelings of any game of the past several years, whether you brought a buddy along or used Knight Solaire to defeat the twin gargoyles. Sure, you are just playing a game, but you feel like you truly earned it and not just came along for the ride.
The PC edition of Dark Souls is both a blessing and a curse in some ways, however. The game resolution at launch was a huge issue with some gamers until a user made a small patch file to allow you to crank up the res on higher end machines. For me that was a minor issue, even if I did appreciate the better visuals. A much larger issue is Games for Windows Live. I simply cannot stay connected to it for long stretches at a time. In fact it’s usually a matter of minutes before he “You have been disconnected from Games for Windows Live” message appears and the game is forced to autosave and reloads to the title screen. This happened nearly every single time I played and is easily the most aggravating aspect of the PC edition. Am I alone in this? I have no idea but all I know is that much of the online experience was hampered by it.
The new content, thankfully, is excellent. It’s tough. And for Dark Souls vets the fact that it’s NEW is worth the price of admission. As much as I love the convenience of the PC version, and the improved visuals, the wonky online support makes the 360 version the safer bet. It’s great that the game made its way to PC audiences, as Dark Souls needs to be played by anyone who enjoys videogames, but it’s a shame that the online portion was nearly unplayable for me due to GFWL issues.
Because I have worlds to invade.
Regardless of my online hoops, Dark Souls remains the pinnacle – the top of the mountain – and all I can hope for at this point is that From Software makes another one.