Back in the early days of gaming, developers were expected to create brutally difficult games to force loose quarters to spill from players’ pockets. Today we generally buy games for a flat price, and developers are under no financial pressure to push us to the limits of our skill. Still, many gamers crave difficult, unforgiving yet fair, rarely cheap games which still manage to defeat those who dare to play them over and over again.
Enter “Dark Souls,” a sequel to “Demon’s Souls” developed by From Software and published by Namco Bandai. It’s no retro throwback, but it does tend to remind me of old 8-bit and 16-bit games which presented me with a “game over” screen so many times. Knowing what was coming in advance was often the key to success. One could anticipate what was coming based on previous levels to an extent, but memorization and practice were a must.
“Dark Souls” tends to take this to the extreme. As soon as the tutorial is finished, there are several paths the player can take, and only one of them presents a remotely viable route to continue. Finding this path is trial and error, as the only way to know if you’ve gone the wrong way is when a high-level enemy destroys your poor undead protagonist with a single combo attack.
Even when I was traversing an area in which foes had similar levels to my own character, I had to be always be on my toes lest I walk right into another trap. Getting flanked by multiple enemies nearly always led to my defeat, as the otherwise infinitely useful shield only blocks attacks from the front.
Even though it takes a while to get through the challenging environments and defeat the epic bosses presented here, the game is well polished and its world is quite enjoyable to explore. Fantastic textures and great artistic direction went a long way here. It almost makes braving the many challenges worth it on its own.
The trick to “Dark Souls” is to not get too frustrated with it. Though you will die constantly throughout the game, you must use your failure as a reference for what not to do again next time. Once you master the basics and get moving at a respectable pace, you will enjoy the game all the more for the times when it isn’t completely kicking your butt.
Of course, there are always a few things in the game that will irritate players and perhaps rightfully so. One location known as “Blighttown” lags particularly on the Xbox 360 version, making the already brutal slog through this vertical labyrinth even more of a drag. Status effects like “toxic” and “curse” which kill you quickly and which have obscure cures are also a huge pain to encounter.
In spite of the occasional cheap shot, you’ll generally know exactly how you’ve died and what you need to do differently to survive your next encounter. The game is surprisingly fair in spite of its sometimes scary difficulty curve. Many of the more obnoxious enemies in the game don’t respawn once you kill them. It’s as if the game sees your hard work and gives you a break while you’re catching your breath.
“Dark Souls” has some really sweet looking environments and the animations on enemies, particularly bosses, are so fluid and well executed. This game is very rewarding once you learn to embrace the challenge of it. There’s something about this game that always dares you to try conquering every obstacle at least once more. It’s well worth a buy especially if you can find it on sale.