Dark Souls Review: Memento Mori

Talk to nearly anyone about a video game, and the ever-present question will come up: is it fun? For some, the answer may be a simple yes or no. Others may delve into details and the nerdery associated with such in-depth analysis (myself included). But how many times has someone told you that a game was painful? That for every moment of joy exists orders of magnitude more suffering?

Dark Souls is that game. Dropped into an unforgiving world with only steel and shield, the player soon realizes just how bleak a virtual world can be. Developer From Software has constructed some of the most harrowing, but austerely beautiful castles, caverns, and creatures ever to grace a video game. Conquering these obstacles results in some of the purest satisfaction that interactive entertainment offers, but doing so will take a toll on your patience.

As a chosen undead warrior, you are tasked with rekindling the flame of the Lordran realm by eliminating arch-demons and ringing the Bells of Awakening. Outside of an opening cutscene telling you all this, there is hardly any plot in Dark Souls, but there is plenty of atmosphere. Dialogue is delivered with a distinct creepiness by nearly every NPC, making the world feel unwelcoming. Music is eschewed for sounds of enemies breathing heavily around corners. You start to feel a sort of dread in every area of the game.

This mood mixes well with a running theme permeating Dark Souls: restriction. Using a precious health potion? Well don’t plan on moving out of the way of an incoming attack while you do so. Resting at one of the game’s sparse checkpoints? Have fun fighting through the enemies that just respawned. Summoning in another player online to help you through a tough boss fight? First you’ll have to deal with mercenary players known as “phantoms” who can invade your world to take your souls (experience points).

This Newtonian “equal and opposite” design can be immensely frustrating, but establishes a pace that just isn’t seen in many video games. You must slow down, observe what is around you, and take into consideration how your actions are going to both negatively and positively affect your character. It is very refreshing compared to the usual kill-everything-that-moves-right-now design that too many games follow.

The driving currency that you’ll chase is souls. Souls double as both money for buying much needed weapons, shields, and consumables and experience points to level up with. Leveling up is of paramount importance and always feels like it is pushing the scales back in your favor. After slogging through dozens of undead soldiers and massive bosses, plugging some points into your health, stamina, or any of the other stats gives a very slight advantage. Unfortunately, dying sends you back to the last bonfire checkpoint and you drop your souls where you perished. Die again without picking them up, and they’re gone forever.

Designs like this show how From Software is more than willing to slap the player around and make them uncertain. Another example: much of the game’s loot is stashed in wooden chests. Sounds simple enough, until some chests snap you into their jaws as you open them.

The developers also had a heyday with enemy and boss designs. The farther you get into this seemingly dulled world, the bigger and nastier enemies seem to get. A huge taurus monster swings a hammer with a tornado-wake of debris, smashing even the stoutest shield aside. Colossal dragons and demons are even worse, with one shot kill attacks that can only be dodged with skill and a bit of luck. This is one of Dark Souls’ greatest problems. I understand that hideous monsters are powerful, but getting killed over and over only to respawn twenty minutes back at the bonfire (read: checkpoint) is egregious.

Some of the frustration of dying is alleviated by the wonder imbued into the ruins and caverns of the land. At first, the grayish green hue of the world and simple castle walls don’t inspire much exploration, but Dark Souls really does has a surprisingly large color palette and architectural aesthetic: an otherworldly, blue crystal cave and a massive, winding library being examples of both. The sense of scale in the realm of Lordan is also amazing, with wide vistas showing the interconnected areas that lie ahead. Looking over an entire area that I’d already fought through from a high parapet was very satisfying.

Unfortunately, the journey to get to these high places is often not so satisfying. Again, death comes swiftly, and Dark Souls’ combat is going to polarize players. You’ll either get into the hard swinging, shield banging melee, or you’ll just hate having to block all the time. Me? I stand on the side that enjoys the methodical brutality of this game. Weapons swing out slower than in other action games, but they also hit harder. Get the right weapon in your hands and you’ll find that you are incredibly capable of taking out lesser and even some greater foes. An awkward looking dodge roll seems silly at first, but proves crucial in keeping your health bar intact.

All this is great until you encounter some of the more boneheaded designs that the developers came up with. Too often you’ll run into unblockable attacks, enemy grapple moves that drain far too much health, and some demons that can semi-permanently curse your health bar down to half. They all drag down Dark Souls with needless frustration, but he first two feel particularly cheap. I had several boss fights end within ten seconds because I got locked into a grapple that ripped all my health away instantly.

So can I recommend this insanity to people? I don’t know. I was hooked on the game for over 30 hours, but I often ended play sessions with cursing and yelling. Stress and satisfaction are intertwined into the very design of Dark Souls, and your triumph at conquering an area will probably be preceded and followed by plenty of cheap deaths. A rental may help you decide if you are ready for the task.

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15 Comments

  1. Great blog! I also write about video games on mine, feel free to check it out if you’re interested. I also recently made a video game twitter that you can follow @AllYouCanGame , I love meeting fellow gamers. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Hardly any plot? Sorry, but you’re immensely mistaken; Dark Souls has one of the best stories of any game. See EpicNameBro’s Youtube channel for more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Balq4yCcAJg&feature=plcp

    Reply
    • I watched the video, and it doesn’t prove that there is any meaningful plot in Dark Souls. It merely proves that there is a lot of interesting backstory with a weak main story arc.

      Reply
    • sto·ry/ˈstôrē/
      Noun:

      An account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment: “an adventure story”.

      Reply
      • That’s a fine definition of story, but I never said, “The story of Dark Souls as a whole is awful.” I said that the main plot line is weak. I like the lore surrounding Dark Souls, but the main arc isn’t very good.

      • But aren’t plot and story inseparable? A huge part of, for example, Final Fantasy X’s plot (example chosen because it is a very story-driven game) is the player-character’s discovery of the backstory behind the world s/he’s in.

      • Yes, but in this case I don’t think the plot is very well represented or telegraphed to the player.

      • The gameplay is hard; the multiplayer is difficult to coordinate; the mechanics are difficult to understand. Why would the story be any different.

        The obscure storyline is consistent with the difficulty of the game and was a beautiful design decision.

      • That’s a fair point, but I wish it wasn’t so obscure. I want the main plot line to come to the forefront, not hide in the background. Certain characters, like Solaire, have potential to be interesting side stories, but don’t conclude in any satisfying way.

      • Doesn’t conclude?! He goes crazy and you have to kill him! It’s heart-wrenching! What else would you expect from a genuinely dark game? Rainbows and lollypops?

      • I didn’t kill him. He showed up later as a summon sign for the final boss. But there was no dialogue with him, no real conclusion.

      • Fair enough. But, knowing that there are mutliple branching paths adds to the replay value of an already very replayable game.

      • Definitely. It was really hard for me not to just play through the game on New Game + right after I finished my first playthrough. The Artorias DLC is surely going to suck me back in.

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