Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Brutal Appeal of Dark Souls

A copy of From Software's Dark Souls landed in my 360 over the holiday season. Yes, I know it came out about three and a half months ago, but I do things at my own pace.

A few years ago, I heard a lot about Demon Souls, and even played about fifteen confusing minutes of it on my cousin's PS3, but that was it. Nothing I had heard about the game or saw in my brief playthrough interested me all that much, and on top of that, I didn't (and still don't) have a PS3. Similarly, Dark Souls flew under my radar for a while, but its 360 release, and several positive comments I'd heard from some trusted reviewers, convinced me to at least try it.

Still, it was a risk. While I've always enjoyed video games, I've never considered myself particularly good at them (left in the wake of my gaming career is a handful of broken controllers from my childhood, and maybe one or two from my earlier twenties as well) so playing a game with a reputation literally built on punishing difficulty could have been a disaster.

So far, though, it hasn't been. While I'm only about fifteen hours in, Dark Souls has been one of the most tense, interesting gaming experiences I've had in a while. The game is very hard, and often frustrating. Watching as your character is chopped to ribbons a fifth time in a row by some higher level monster or boss and realizing, as your undead avatar rises back into unlife at the last save point, that you have to very carefully slash your way through hordes of enemies back to the site of your death to collect your precious cache of souls, only to be hacked to pieces again a sixth time, can cause some serious anxiety. The psychic agony is even worse if you die along the way and lose all the souls you were trying to recover. But I feel that, even if I'm not gaining any experience, I'm learning how to play the game along the way.

Many modern games are so frenetic that you blow past a lot of content before you can really appreciate or even notice it, and a lot of modern gameplay has been largely reduced to squeezing a trigger, with a few optional but not necessary actions available on the side. Dark Souls, on the other hand, slows down the pace of gameplay and forces you to pay attention--to your movements, to the actions your character can perform, to the layout of the level, to your enemies movements and patterns--in order to survive. As I've learned from experience, if you rush through an area you might as well be signing your own death warrant. It's an elaborate game of pattern recognition on every level, and I love it. My heart pounds every time I enter a new area that I lack a mental map for, because I know that death awaits me around literally every corner.

The very deliberate pace of the game also helps you appreciate its visual beauty. The bizarre, purgatorial world that you're trapped in contains some really wonderfully designed gothic chapels, crumbling towers, gloomy forests, and bone-strewn catacombs. Everything is touched by entropy; it's all extremely atmospheric, and really helps drive home the sense that you're struggling through some eternally decaying world stuck somewhere between life and death, like a nightmare version of Plato's world of forms. The character designs, particularly of the higher level monsters and massive bosses, are great; they're familiar enough to be recognizable in Western medieval/fantasy canon, but tinted with enough of a demonic edge to make them weird and alien at the same time.

It's great fun, and a great game. Yes, some of its systems and stats are not explained and appear baffling at first, but there are plenty of guides online that will help you wrap your head around them. Once you start to understand how the game operates, you can really appreciate a combination of gameplay and atmosphere unlike anything else on the market right now. Play it.

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