Dark Souls is frustrating, difficult, unintuitive, clunky, stressful and often baffling. Despite all of those things (or more likely, because of them), it’s great. Like Demon’s Souls before it, Dark Souls feeds on your desire to overcome and succeed against all odds. And odds you will have to overcome. Dark Souls attempts to kill you in more devious and just plain evil ways than Demon’s Souls could have ever imagined.
But rather than talking about what the two games have in common, let’s talk about what’s been changed. Dark Souls is now open world, in a sense. The world is persistent and you can get from any one location to any other at any time rather than teleporting around via the Nexus hub in Demon’s Souls. At first, this change feels really impactful and the large world can seem rather daunting but after a few hours you’ll start to notice that there’s still a hub, this time called the Firelink Shrine. All the various areas in the game jut out from Firelink Shrine like the straight lines you might see on a kid’s drawing of the sun. When you start to figure this out, Firelink Shrine is really just the Nexus without load times. The perk of having everything connected this way is that the scenery can change much more organically and it’s interesting to see the environment change as you move from one area to the next.
I think that the bigger change with regard to world design is that not every area seems to be required. In Demon’s Souls, every area and boss in the game had to be conquered in order to beat the game. This time around, however, there seems to be a multitude of areas that are totally optional. For example, there’s a great forest area that’s wide and open, contrasting with the common narrow corridors that fill the rest of the world. Many areas, like the forest, may not be required but are totally worth seeing. Some may contain useful treasure; others may contain challenges like new enemies or bosses. All provide extra exploration.
While we’re on the subject of areas, I should bring up my biggest complaint about Dark Souls: an area called Blighttown. Demon’s Souls fans may remember (and shudder in doing so) world 5. World 5 started out as a shanty town built over a dangerous bottomless pit, followed by a poison swamp where mere contact with the water would cause you to start losing health. Blighttown is essentially the same area again and the shanty town part even includes similar enemies to the previous game.
Anyway, the real problem with Blighttown is that as soon as you enter it, the framerate drops well below thirty. You can actually find the line in the world that, when crossed, automatically drops the framerate down. It’s incredibly disorientating and dangerous, especially when so much of combat in Dark Souls is timing-based. At times in the poison swamp section of Blighttown, my game would hang for several seconds at a time. This was on the PS3 version, though reading online has told me that the performance issues in Blighttown exist on the Xbox as well. Worse still is that Blighttown is not one of those optional areas I previously mentioned. Hopefully these technical problems get addressed in an upcoming patch.
The timing-based combat I just mentioned has remained largely unchanged from Demon’s Souls. You can still back step, do light and heavy strikes, backstab, block, roll to dodge, parry, riposte, and all of that. Thankfully, a few new moves like interrupting kicks, a leap attack, and a plain old jump (useful in exploration) make you feel like you’re a little more versatile in combat. However, I found that most enemies in the game can be killed pretty easily by circling them and then backstabbing them. The bosses, however, are another story.
You may remember the bosses in Demon’s Souls being very cheese-able. Making a stealthy character with a bow enabled you to pretty much kill them without them ever knowing you were even there. This doesn’t really seem to be the case in Dark Souls. In fact, I haven’t found anything remotely resembling the Thief’s Ring (that allowed players to not be noticed by enemies). The bosses just seem more difficult in general this time around. I found that the arenas you fight them in are frequently just small enough that you will never be able to lose the bosses’ attention and the geography seems to funnel you into confronting them.
The bosses are no slouches, either. Many of them possess abilities that will straight-up kill you in one hit. The animations for abilities like these can be very subtle and you’ll need to pay very close attention in order to avoid them. Unlike Demon’s Souls, I found that summoning other players to help you out is nearly a requirement this time around. It’s extremely useful to have one person hold the bosses’ attention while the other attacks from behind. The developers seem to think the bosses weren’t designed to be killed solo as well, as oftentimes you can summon NPCs to help you out in the same way a player might.
However, if you want to enjoy the benefit of having other players with you, you’ll need to be alive. Demon’s Souls used this same system and had two character states: alive and spirit. This time around it’s alive and hollow (pretty much zombie-form), but it’s the same idea. If you want to summon people to help you, you need to be alive. This is the biggest benefit to being alive as unlike Demon’s Souls, being in your undead form no longer cuts your max health in half. Veterans will find much relief in this, though I somehow doubt newcomers will realize how nice it is.
Yet if you want to be alive, you’re going to need humanity. Humanity is a new currency-like resource (alongside the classic souls resource) that allows you to revive yourself to body form at campfires. Campfires are essentially checkpoints and will be your favorite thing in the world when you’re deep underground, out of arrows, out of your healing potion, lost and near your breaking point.
There are a lot of things I haven’t touched on, but I kind of feel like over-explanation could ruin the spirit of Dark Souls. People who haven’t played the two games often ask what the draw of such a stressful game could be and one such draw is discovery. Dark Souls doesn’t take any time out of its busy schedule (filled entirely with tricky ways to kill you) to explain to the player how its numerous systems and mechanics work. You have to figure everything out: humanity, souls, campfires, combat techniques, traps in the world, everything. This may seem absolutely crazy, but it’s actually really nice. In an era where everything is handed to us through tutorials, scripted events, cutscenes, linear progression, and obvious, telegraphed weak spots, it’s nice to have a game that throws all that away for a more classic form of gaming.
Remember when you used to spend evenings playing Genesis or SNES and then you’d go to school the next day and talk to all your friends about the new secret area you found in Donkey Kong Country or whatever else? That’s what Dark Souls is all about. The game lets you discover things for yourself and then share with others who are also discovering things. And because of the way that Dark Souls presents itself, discovering things or conquering bosses actually feels like you accomplished something on your own. You found that sweet spot to stand that protects you from the archers. You found that hidden area behind the waterfall that contains a really nice sword. You survived that 50-foot tall half-dragon/half-toothed maw without dying and giving up. Everything that happens (both good and bad) happens because you did it.
Dark Souls isn’t for everyone. If you just want to kick back and relax and play something that won’t get you worked up or anxious, then you probably shouldn’t look into Dark Souls. Sometimes we just want to play games and not get caught up in a big ordeal or end up frustrated for the rest of the night. But if you really miss that experience of figuring out games yourself, sharing that with others, and exploring what others might have shared with you, Dark Souls will provide you with an experience that no other modern game can.