Nowadays it seems as if a large majority of today’s games are being dumbed down to appeal to the more casual masses with difficulties being toned down and the more intense action sequences being limited to cutscenes. It is becoming more difficult for those who dub themselves “hardcore gamers” to find a real challenge when the highest difficulties these days only add more enemies to levels in an attempt to bring your spirit down and your blood pressure levels up. Thankfully, there exist games such as Dark Souls that do not rely on such lazy shenanagins to drive you towards the urge to toss your brand new fancy-pants controller against that shiny HDTV; instead of forging a sort of master-slave relationship between game and gamer, Dark Souls succeeds in forming an abusive relationship instead (but without the cute holding hands part).
Dark Souls is a (wo)man’s game that will either make or break you. Upon entering the Undead Asylum after creating your character, you are only given one task – to survive. Learn the controls, move forward, kill some enemies, use their souls to level up, get killed by some enemies, go on a bloody rampage to reclaim your lost souls, yadayada, and then you reach your first boss fight. There’s no obvious weak point shown to you, and there are no hints being shouted in your direction on how to kill this creature; all you know is that your tiny character is up against this humongous creature with an anime-sized hammer (which totally isn’t compensating), it’s swings have a wide-range and will eat away at your precious health, and you have to, well, kill it without dying. Dark Souls will not hold your hand to help you through the arduous challenges it throws at you, instead it decides to hold you by your face and says “You’re going to die. . . a lot. Good luck, have fun.”
Thankfully, the game is pretty darn fun once you get the hang of it (should you (wo)man up and not ragequit beforehand). Once you slay that fatty of a first boss, a tingly sensation overcomes your being. You start feeling pretty godlike because, hey, you just killed that enemy that was giving you a world of trouble, and you did it by yourself while relying on your own wits. Satisfaction and swag manifest inside of you. . . and then you die again to another tough enemy. But as you die, you learn, and then you curbstomp that enemy as well. As said earlier, Dark Souls forces you into an abusive relationship; you take the punishment like the masochist you are, then once you get past that moment of suffering you feel oddly satisfied for having overcome that moment. The rollercoaster of emotions keeps you excited all the way through, and you never know what types of dips, curves, and loop-de-loops are coming up next. How poetic is that? Not very, but you get the point.
Gameplay is not all that will have you nerdgasming, however. The graphics, sound, and overall presentation of Dark Souls are quite amazing. Enemies, regular mobs and bosses alike, are all very detailed, grotesque, all of that good stuff that will give you a reason to fear them. The environments aren’t the most exciting of places, sure, and some areas are infamous for the drops in frame rate they cause (seriously, screw Blighttown), but they are quite varied and give you something pleasant to look at when you’re running from mobs of enemies and searching desperately for a bonfire to heal up. The music definitely helps to set the mood of the game as well. The experience of getting your ass kicked constantly by That-One-Boss is made much more pleasant when you at least have nice music to accompany that moment. It all helps to make your gameplay experience that much more tense and bearable.
Of course, the game isn’t the greatest creation since toasters that toast toast. The online experience, while very unique in how it plays it, can be, well, dumb at times. Dark Souls utilizes various lobbies to connect players; you just hop into the game after selecting your character and bada-bing, bada-boom, you’ve been dropped off in a random lobby holding between ten to twenty people. There is no menu to choose which lobby you are in, you are never notified as to whenever you switch lobbies while in-game, and you cannot pair up with a buddy to attempt to take on those dastardly skeleton kids and that snarling demon dog together. Online is also rather inconsistent, sometimes you will end up having your game flooded by numerous amounts of players, and at other times you will be hit by a dry spell. Yeah, that part of it all kind of sucks, but when you finally get some action going in your PvP and PvE experiences online then the game is even more of a blast (and there will be a lot of blasting going on. Damn pyromancers. . . .).
One other aspect of Dark Souls that falls short is the story. As stated earlier, your character is basically dropped off in the game world with the “basic” goal of surviving. There are a few tidbits here and there of why you’re even in this world full of ghouls and amazing chests, but really. . . you’re better off reading posts related to the story of Dark Souls on various message boards to get some idea of what’s going on. No seriously, people go hard on those posts, they’re definitely worth reading.
Overall, Dark Souls is a phenomenal game for those looking for a challenge. It’s a JRPG disguised as a western RPG, so if you’re the type that typically cannot stand JRPGs (in which case you’re most likely just playing the wrong games) then you should not have to worry. The gameplay is satisfying and feels fair (if you got hit by something, it was your fault for not paying attention and not exercising caution, the replay value is quite high, and the overall presentation of the game is engaging and does its job quite well. The online experience could have definitely been better (though it has been improved with the 1.04 patch) and the story is lacking, but those issues can easily be worked around. The question to ask is not “If I liked Skyrim, will I like this game as well?” (which I may or may not save for another day), but “If I like being challenged, will I enjoy this game and soul my soul for the sake of the collecting souls?”