Dark Souls III is already available to gamers in Japan (as well as sneaky Xbox One players worldwide) and will become available in the UK incredibly soon. The building excitement for the latest Fromsoftware release seemed the perfect excuse for me to explore what was so brilliant about one of my favourite RPGs: Dark Souls Prepare to Die Edition.
Dark Souls is best known for its difficulty, making it a go to hyperbolic joke for gamers who have and haven’t played it alike. It can be unforgiving, it autosaves and doesn’t have a pause feature for a moments respite. But the core threat of Dark Souls is that any enemy might kill you if you make a mistake. Not just bosses, even ‘fodder’ enemies will also dispatch you without a moment’s notice if you leave yourself open.
Exacerbating the challenging circumstance of cutting through swathes of actually competent bad guys, when you die you drop all your souls. Souls can be considered both your in-game currency and experience points, vital to progress and sometimes painstakingly gathered. There’s a silver lining: if you can make it back to the same spot without dying, you can recover all of them. Death is only punishing if you can’t replicate what you just did, but your dropped souls may be the light at the end of a tunnel you don’t reach. Losing your souls makes death meaningful, in contrast to so many other RPGs where death effectively means save-scumming from the last reload point. The desperate urge to reclaim your souls before you die again creates tense moments even after you’ve mastered an area.
“Not just bosses, even ‘fodder’ enemies will also dispatch you without a moment’s notice if you leave yourself open”
Dark Souls really challenges the player, which makes your triumphs all the more rewarding. This game has given me some of my greatest gaming highs, but for me its difficulty is only a small part of its brilliance. The gameworld of Dark Souls, Lordran, is an intricate and beautiful open world you can traverse without a single interruption or loading screen. The game is excellent at gently nudging you in the ‘right’ direction but truly you can have a lot of freedom from the second you enter Lordran, which comprises of a huge variety of contrasting areas all interconnected. The immersive Lordran genuinely feels like one big place, areas several game hours ahead of you might be visible from your current spot. Each area is densely packed with atmosphere, enemies and secrets, making Dark Souls’ world truly a joy to explore. Your exploration is rewarded with ingenious shortcuts, amazing completely optional areas and bonfires (your only checkpoints in the game). Despite the graphics not holding a candle to other modern games, Lordran is filled with beautiful vistas that are worth stopping and taking in. As the areas differ dramatically so too do the enemies you’ll find there. From Anor Londo filled with the imposing shiny knights of Lord Gwyn to the chaotic Lost Izalith where the game plops out semi-limbed, too-many-eyed monstrosities at you one after another like the unfinished doodles of Satan’s easily distracted toddler. Moving forward is often a mixture of amazement and nervously pleading there’ll be a bonfire and safety around the next corner.
“Most of the NPCs have side-quest lines as their grand adventures run parallel to yours, helping your favourite NPC might even lead to their death (worse still if they die by your own tear-streaked hands)”
Another aspect of Dark Souls I really enjoyed was its collection of NPCs. Sane, interactable NPCs are few and far between; they also stand or sit constantly static in their location with mouths that don’t move when they talk. And yet these NPCs in many respects feel more alive than a bustling town of fleshy automatons from other RPGs. Whilst cryogenically frozen when on screen, these characters will go on their own journeys when you’re not around. Each have their own motives leading them to travel to different parts of the world off-screen – realistically completely uncaring as to the convenience of the player. You wanted to buy that guys equipment now you that you have enough souls? Too bad, they’ve just left on their own quest.
Most of the NPCs have side-quest lines as their grand adventures run parallel to yours, helping your favourite NPC might even lead to their death (worse still if they die by your own tear-streaked hands). And with the autosave feature you’ll live with your decisions; if you hit someone for sounding evil, sassing you or because you’re bored, they’ll try to hit you back even after they’ve already killed you once.This also feeds into the lore and plot. With just the bare bones of an objective given to you at the start of the game, Dark Souls does not hold your hand story wise. But by talking to NPCs, reading item descriptions and inferring answers from the available information a deep, rich lore can be discovered. Many characters aren’t what they seem, the main plot and some NPC questlines have multiple endings. Even knowing all the lore many things remain vague or unanswered, but it’s a huge bonus to the game.
“Your mobility decreases gradually as you equip heavier loot, instead of sprinting like Usain Bolt then losing to race with a turtle after picking up one pair of gloves”
Dark Souls is filled to the brim with different armour sets and weapons, each one with different strengths and movesets. Utilising four armour slots and two weapon slots for each hand means there’s an almost endless possibility of types of character and playstyle to create. Dark Souls also boasts a much praised encumbrance system, where your mobility decreases gradually as you equip heavier loot, instead of sprinting like Usain Bolt then losing to race with a turtle after picking up one pair of gloves.
Online is where Dark Souls both fails and shines. Whilst not executed perfectly, Dark Souls had some innovative multiplayer ideas. Whilst your character in in ‘human’ state, you can summon other players into your game to help you. This is a double edged sword however as players can also invade your game and try to kill you, adding true fear as you drag yourself through an area’s enemies knowing another player may come to spoil your fun at any moment. The community is ingrained into the world, players can also leave helpful (or unhelpful) messages. Also if two players are in the same area of their own separate games, interesting events like sharing healing potions and hearing bells rang by others can occur. Though the looming Dark Souls III will probably affect this, currently Dark Souls 1 online is quiet but certainly not dead.
The game is not without its flaws. The game needs to be modded if you want to remove the framelock. Ideally you need a controller to play. Multiplayer can be buggy, the camera is awful at times and there are sometimes clipping issues and dodgy hitboxes. These flaws can become part of the Dark Souls experience and challenge, but it’d be wrong to not point out there are some big things wrong in the game. But for me and so many others, the rest of the game is so good it makes up for the problems tenfold, Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition is a flawed masterpiece. The key to enjoying Dark Souls is to accept that the game is difficult but fair, when you die it is because you could have done something different, when you succeed your skill has allowed you to overcome the challenge. When you do succeed, the feeling ca be glorious. I highly recommend you pick up a Souls game, don’t you dare go hollow.