Describing the intoxicating appeal of Dark Souls is not easy, and that’s because on paper it sounds like an absolute nightmare. With a thoroughly unforgiving difficulty tier (which cannot be modified) some laughably sparse save points and one of the most relentlessly downbeat worlds in contemporary gaming… even the plot synopsis is enough to direct the most hardcore of gamers into the warm, jubilant grasp of something like Super Mario Galaxy. It’s a game that you don’t so much play as get assaulted by, and it’s so incessantly bleak and oppressive that it feels vastly more authentic in its “adult” nature than a million blood-splattered first-person shooters put together.
Even the one single aspect of Dark Souls that’s supposed to provide you with an intermittent stretch of much-needed solace – solace which incidentally wasn’t present in its predecessor – comes with a hostile catch. When you discover one the game’s far-too-occasional bonfire stations, they not only act as checkpoints and save points, but also trigger the re-animation of any enemies in the vicinity, whether you’d previously dispatched them or not. Because the bonfires also replenish your health and refill your Estus flask (which holds a revitalising health potion) you’re constantly faced with a knife-edge choice; press on, and risk it? Or hone your skills in combat so that you can return to the same juncture with a full health bar?
You’ll quickly learn that a full health bar isn’t something that inspires a great deal of comfort anyway, as death is a result of experimentation and bad luck far more often that it’s about a lack of foresight or skill. Aside from the obvious, the only downside to perishing is that you’ll lose all of your accumulated souls; but they’ll rest at your point of death to be retrieved immediately afterwards. This means that you’ll have to traverse each new area with an abnormal degree of trepidation, as wandering into a hazy brook or a dank underground cavern for the first time involves ensuring that you’ve got an escape route available whenever possible; even when the whole idea of escape is a futile pipe dream. This overbearing aversion to the unknown makes you feel a unique sense of kinship with your self-created avatar.
Championing something for its ability to “transport you to another world” is the kind of endorsement that’s endlessly levelled at movies, music and literature, but gaming is rarely allowed to provoke the same reaction. This is primarily because one aspect of all modern videogames has to be made explicit for commercial purposes – extreme violence, usually – but this near-bloodless, pessimistic hellhole grabs you by the throat from the jump-off and simply doesn’t let go. This is partially down to a lack of plot and traditional RPG questing, but also devilishly clever design; you’ll feel as if the world itself is out to destroy you, and you won’t have felt this despairingly isolated since the first Metroid Prime.
The game’s creators announced many months ago that Dark Souls was an even more difficult game than Demon’s Souls, and bonfires aside, they really weren’t kidding. Despite its (almost) comparable level of difficulty, Demon’s Souls inadvertently granted you reprieve without noticing on two notable counts. Executing a ‘quick roll’ away from a skirmish was a tactic that didn’t considerably deplete your stamina, so if you memorised enemy attack patterns, the game’s entire philosophy suddenly became somewhat 8-bit. Similarly, administering healing potions was something that could be performed almost immediately, and the combination of these two dynamics formed a crushing blow to the game’s much-vaunted difficulty line. Abolishing these two would make a sequel almost impossible. They couldn’t have been that harsh. Could they?
Dark Souls was always destined to be a divisive videogame but like last week’s similarly disruptive FIFA 12, once you’ve taken the time to adapt to it, your sense of reward will skyrocket and the game’s hard-won pleasures will proliferate. It’s easy to dismiss it as something that’s simply “not for everyone” but the only thing that’s truly essential here is patience; and if you’ve got that, you’ll be laughing. Not literally, of course – such an occurrence couldn’t possibly be any less likely – but if you’re willing to take on the hellish enterprise of its hero’s quest, and are prepared to use your own steely resolve as a tool to overcome it, you’re in for one of the most exhilarating experiences of 2011.