Since we are in the midst of a new video game drought, I thought I’d try my best to convince our readers to play one of my favorite games of all time: Dark Souls. I resisted playing it for a long time, until a friend of mine gifted it to me on Steam. At that point it felt rude not to play. What started as me begrudgingly playing the game turned into a full-blown obsession with dominating every aspect of it. I drink Blighttown water and eat Lord Souls. If you cut me I bleed Estus. So let me tell you why you should nut up and take the plunge into the absolutely terrifying world of Lordran.
It’s so stupidly hard
Can you beat Contra without using the Konami code? Have you breezed through Ikaruga on hard- alone? Dark Souls will still probably break your spirit, and grind your bones into the ground. The expansion is aptly named: Prepare to Die. And trust me: you will die. A lot. We’re talking about a game that puts you in a room with a gigantic mace-wielding demon a mere 30 seconds after the opening cinematic plays, with nothing in your inventory but some rags and a broken sword.This is a game that, once you’ve succumbed to one of the many deadly beasts that prowl its darkened corridors, spits in your face, takes all of your souls (in-game currency used to upgrade your stats), AND takes away your humanity (needed to summon a friend). Dark Souls not only doesn’t care, it delights in your screams of anguish. Your tears fuel the never-ending murder machine even as its gears clunk and turn, grinding your corpse into a fine paste which, I assume, is used as food for the armies of baby baddies being raised in some dank, festering corner somewhere off-screen.
The lore is amazing
Aside from the opening cinematic which gives you a brief history of the realm, there are no cutscenes, no Elder Scrolls-esque history tomes, and scarcely a narrative to be found. If you only want to slam your greatsword into the faces of a slew of nasty demons and monsters and collect the best loot without being troubled by what this character wants or fulfilling this optional side quest to improve your relationship with whichever unimportant character, you totally can. The real magic happens once you start playing detective.
From Software has filled the world with a rich, full backstory just waiting to be uncovered piece by piece. Every item carries a description, every NPC a dialogue tree waiting to be explored. I found myself scouring every inch of Lordran for clues as to the true identity of the Knight Solaire; I murdered every enemy and uncovered every secret corner to learn more about the unfortunate Witch of Izalith and her cursed progeny. The game doesn’t shove the narrative down your throat- in fact, it really doesn’t care whether you’re interested or not. Dark Souls is far too busy feasting on your happiness to hold your hand.
To be hunted..
You’ve done it- you’ve carved a path through the dreaded Silver Knights who guard the halls of Anor Londo, and you’ve bested the two massive centurions standing guard in the main hall. You wipe the sweat from your brow as you drink deeply from your flask, emptying it of Estus. As you feel the power course through your body and your wounds begin to close, an ominous message appears:
“xXbon3rt4rd420Xx has invaded your realm!”
You begin to panic, eyeing the massive door in front of you and considering your options. Behind that door lie Dragonslayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough, two of the most powerful beings in all of Lordran. If you could only manage to summon a friend or two for some jolly co-operation, you could definitely take them down. But.. alone? With no more Estus? The feat seems impossible. You know what must be done.
As if on cue, you hear footsteps behind you. You turn to find the crimson phantom of a man- naked but for a child’s mask, leering unceasingly at you. Your gaze drops to what is in his hand- a jagged blade, rusted and stained by the blood of countless adventurers. You raise your shield as he runs towards you, backflipping and cartwheeling around you, trying to find the hole in your armor. Desperately you swing your trusty +2 mace, but each time your opponent deftly dodges to the side. The dance continues until, inevitably, jagged blade finds its way into your spine. You cry out, but it is too late. You have been slain by xXbon3rt4rdXx. As your body falls to the floor, lifeless, the last thing you see is that damned mask staring silently back at you as the wearer spreads his arms wide- Praise the Sun.
…aaaaaand now you’ve got to start at the last checkpoint, less any souls you managed to accumulate as well as the very humanity that would have allowed you to reach across realms to find help for your righteous cause in the form of a fellow adventurer. Cue controller crashing through the television.
..to become the hunter
Fast forward a month or two. You are no longer a soft rookie, but rather a hardened veteran. You continued to get ganked by invaders, but eventually you started winning. Soon you were no longer afraid of the“invaded your realm” message- in fact, you began to delight in it. So much so that you decided to take the next step. It was slow, at first. A cracked red eye orb here or there, nothing too drastic. But the next thing you know you’re questing for the Darkwraith covenant- the group of players whose sole purpose is to invade the realms of others, hunt them down and steal their souls.
This is what the game is all about for me. Yes, the bosses are epic and it’s so satisfying to take them down a peg. But the meat and potatoes is the hunt. I started to get good at tracking. You learn to read the subtleties- which enemies are missing? Which lift has been ridden down to a lower level, which one hasn’t? There is no greater rush than cornering your prey, to see them desperately try to fight you off, and to land the killing blow that undoubtedly causes a cry of anguish from the other player. As the screen fades to black, you drop an item on the ground. It breaks, and the word “Sorry” is heard in a low voice. But you’re not sorry, are you?
Of course, the pvp isn’t the only way you can interact with others. Clumped together in certain spots, you’ll find other adventurers just waiting to be summoned. If you can actually manage to make the co-op system work, you can set about your task with an extra set of hands. This is often incredibly useful (especially against some of the harder bosses- here’s lookin’ at you, Four Kings), but can also be insanely frustrating. You could spend 20 minutes trying to summon sk8ergui1993, then have your new friend immediately skewered on the end of Ornstein’s lance. One thing is for sure- winning a hard-fought battle with a couple of experienced players at your side only makes the experience that much more enjoyable as you all jump for joy while a massive beast groans its death rattle.
The bosses are really cool
But goddamn these bosses are badass. The first time you play through, you’ll let out a gasp of fright as the Taurus Demon falls from the sky, ready to crush you. You’ll let out an excited “Whoooaa!” as you realize the Gaping Dragon will be a bit more formidable than you first thought. Even as he pushes his scythe through your torso, you’ll be thinking, “Man, Gravelord Nito looks like a straight baller.” No two bosses are the same (with the exception of the Hydra mini-bosses), and each requires an altogether different strategy to defeat them.
The best part of the bosses, however, is definitely the satisfaction you get from defeating them. The first time I managed to take down the Four Kings I ran around my room cheering like a fool. I spent easily 2 hours cursing my choice of greatsword as Gwyndolin peppered my corpse with powerful magics until I finally crushed that little turd underneath my bootheel, and spent about as much time celebrating my victory. These bosses are epic, sometimes on a level comparable to Shadow of the Colossus, and no less satisfying to destroy.
To teach it a damned lesson
Honestly, this game needs to be taught a lesson. It laughs at you, it mocks you. It drinks your tears for nourishment, devours your soul for sustenance, and picks its teeth with your bones. “Why don’t you try that again?”, it jeers. “Surely the 30th time is the charm for the Capra Demon?” I’ll be honest: when I first started playing this game, I figured I’d play it through once and be done with it.. but I got sucked in. Dark Souls took a hold of me in a way few games ever have, and it shook me senseless. I began to hate it- I hated it for how hard it was, hated it for how unforgiving it was. Hated the way it made you feel helpless and how it reminded you of all of your shortcomings. But slowly I began to love it for just those reasons. I began to realize just how much I have been coddled over the past 20 or so years by lesser titles, and I needed to prove my mettle both to myself and to this wretched game. Standing over Gwyn’s corpse, I didn’t think, “Ha! Take that, Gwyn!”. I thought, “Ha! Take that, Dark Souls! I bested you.”
And then I was promptly dropped into New Game+, and everything goes a bit hazy from there. I woke up three days later in a field covered in blood- it wasn’t mine.
To get ready for Dark Souls 2
As if From Software hadn’t already crushed the souls of enough adventurers unlucky enough to get sucked into the kingdom of Lordran, these bastards are getting ready to release another vile beast upon an unwitting population: Dark Souls 2 is set to drop in March 2014. Now, I’m not saying it’s necessary to play the first in order to enjoy the new one (much as it isn’t necessary to play Demon’s Souls to enjoy Dark Souls), but if you plan on taking on the whole new roster of unknown baddies in a world that is reportedly twice the size of Lordran, I’d defintely suggest logging a few hours at the end of Gwyn’s sword before you do.. unless, of course, you’d prefer being Taurus bait to being the savior of the realm. Whatever you decide, I’m sure Dark Souls 2 doesn’t care.
Praise the Sun.