It can be incredibly easy to both overestimate and underestimate the famed difficulty of Dark Souls and its spiritual successor Demon’s Souls. Rather than fitting nicely on the usual scale Dark Souls aims for a different sort of challenge altogether. The truth is that action RPG fans have become accustomed to loose and silly combat that tends to boil down to flailing away at enemies with a lightning sword until someone dies. In such encounters character stats tend to decide the victor while difficulty merely refers to the damage output and toughness of the world’s hostile creatures. A boss is considered to be “hard” when it kills you quickly or is difficult to take down even if it behaves in exactly the same way as your previous dozen adversaries.
Dark Souls throws convention out of the window and instead forges an experience where every single action has both immediate and long term ramifications for the encounter. Much of this can be attributed to the slower than usual combat speed and the emphasis on the stamina bar. Stamina is your lifeblood. You need it to attack, move quickly, evade, and defend yourself, and players must constantly be aware of which of these actions their character is capable of at that particular moment. The only effective way (excluding consumable items) to regenerate stamina is to stop attacking or blocking, which means that trading blows too furiously with your opponent can leave you completely unable to act. The player must instead remain in constant motion and always be looking for openings and weaknesses in order to survive, and thanks to the slower pace you are given the opportunity to think about what you’re going to do.
Fighting to the death feels visceral and solid. You can feel the weight of your weapon as your character forces himself into each attack, and it is easy to tell the difference between a swing that lands properly and one that is deflected harmlessly away. Rolling clearly has more of a mass to it when wearing thicker armor and the more realistic animations help keep the player engaged in the consequences of the conflict.
All it takes is a moment of carelessness while running down a hallway to die in Dark Souls, but the boss encounters are where the game’s take on combat truly shines. Each of these big baddies feels unique and enters the battlefield with a fresh arsenal of methods for ending your life. Smart players will immediately engage in an evasive defense to patiently learn how the creature will behave while perceptive ones will spot glaring weaknesses to exploit.
An excellent example is a foe known as the Titanite Demon. As you approach he fires off unblockable lightning attacks that must be avoided. He carries a massive polearm weapon that gives him an absurd amount of melee range and loves to chain his swings into crushing combos. As he drags himself across the floor though you are likely to notice that he is missing a leg and awkwardly lies on his stump in a manner that pushes his tail toward the remaining appendage. Bingo! Just like that you’ve got a nice spot to stab away at that puts you out of the range of his tail and is only threatened by the widest of swings.
I’ve seen numerous hardcore gamers quit Dark Souls in a fit of rage, but the challenge offered here is far from unfair. Instead the greatest obstacle that most players will face is their own patience. The key to victory is training yourself to look for targets like the one described above and having the willingness to rethink strategies that don’t seem to work. I had a particularly rocky start with bosses, but after the first few hours I noticed that I was dying significantly less and was even defeating several of them on my first attempt.
I tend to get excessively annoyed with people who defend games like Final Fantasy XIII against naysayers with phrases such as “it gets better x hours in” because I find myself asking why the developers couldn’t just make the beginning as good as the rest of the game. For this reason I hate to say the same about Dark Souls, but to some extent it’s true. This isn’t another title that mysteriously lacks quality at the beginning of the experience and magically improves at later points in the story, though. Dark Souls just needs a bit of time to train you into thinking the way it needs you to.
One of the ways Dark Souls conditions you is by punishing consecutive deaths rather than all failures. When your character bites the dust all of your souls (the game’s currency) are dropped to the floor and a second death will cause them to disappear forever. By raising the stakes in such a way the game encourages the player to think out their actions carefully in order to reclaim their souls and progress further in the area. Dying often is actually rewarded if the player is able to reclaim their lost souls each time as the total grows larger with each attempt. This serves as a very effective encouragement for you to get progressively better at the game.
One of the most satisfying moments comes from its cheeky tendency to throw early bosses at you later in the game as regular enemies. You can’t help but smile at the realization of how far you have come when you fight your way through a room that contains not one but four Titanite Demons.
You may have heard of Demon’s Souls’ unique take on multiplayer, a trend continued in Dark Souls. Both competitive and cooperative play exists, but there is no explicit matchmaking feature or voice chat. Players who are stuck in undead form can opt to be summoned by others to help take down tough bosses, or if they’re feeling more mischievous they can invade another’s world and attempt to assassinate them for the ability to become human again. Roaming the world as a human enhances your ability to survive and find useful items while allowing you to bring others into your game to help out, but it also leaves you wide open to being attacked by invading players at the worst possible times. It’s ultimately up to you to weigh the risks and decide what approach to take. Unfortunately this can be occasionally marred by connectivity issues.
Being attacked by another player is one of the most terrifying moments Dark Souls has to offer. You are given so much freedom to customize your character to suit your playstyle that you end up having no idea what to expect from others. No two fights play out in quite the same way and you never really get over the tense feeling caused by the knowledge that you are actively being hunted by another being of consciousness. Things get especially interesting when one particular NPC defends its lair by secretly summoning enemy players to get rid of you!
Castlevania fans will be excited to find familiar level design. Every area feels massive and imposing the first time you explore it, but an elaborate network of unlockable shortcuts and hidden passages serve to make the world feel smaller and smaller when it needs to be at later points in your progression.
As much as I love to praise it, Dark Souls is a far from perfect game. Many headaches arise from the game failing to properly explain elements to you. Much of the dynamic combat system detailed earlier in this review must be discovered through either practice or research because you aren’t told much of it. The first main area in particular allows you to take three potential paths, two of which will be far two advanced for new players (I fell for both). A lack of information can make exploration particularly gripping and scary, but frustrated players should visit a helpful wiki or an active chat room if they want to keep moving forward. Several items are poorly explained in a way that might have something to do with poor translation and must be looked up online to prevent any major mistakes. As fun as it can be to trade secrets and tips with others online, it can hardly be seen as a point in Dark Souls‘ favor.
The visual style does well at setting the uneasy and threatening mood, but textures often lack detail and the rag-doll physics are comically unrealistic. I did not experience this myself but many have complained about frame rate issues in certain areas of the world. The music is similarly functional but entirely forgettable.
Many will be turned away by an experience that feels so alien while others will dive head first into what I rank as one of the best RPGs of 2011. Dark Souls is a tough and punishing game that clearly appeals to a niche audience, but it’s a tough and punishing game that you can certainly beat. Never before have I felt so much like I was doing just that: not defeating the storyline, but the game itself.