It?s rare to find a video game in this day and age that offers nary a reward for completion, much rarer to find one that will completely destroy your sense of mental well-being. From Software?s Dark Souls unashamedly ticks both of those boxes, yet manages to be one of the most playable games of the year. You like the pain, basically. It pleases you, you kinky sod.
This dark and foreboding medieval adventure game only has one equal in the frustration stakes, in fact: its predecessor, Demon?s Souls
. The premise and the gameplay are largely the same - explore depressingly atmospheric dungeons, collecting souls from undead baddies until you inevitably die and repeat the same five minutes of gameplay over and over again.
But a few new tweaks and features have been introduced that crucially change how you approach the hellish land of Lordran. There is no Nexus hub world to scurry back to inbetween dungeons, with blacksmiths and merchants scattered around the land waiting to be discovered. Each of the stages are now seamlessly linked together on this huge island, and you can tackle them in any order you like.
Choice and exploration is a massive element of Dark Souls
. Although it sounds obvious given the difficulty of the game, there is no point where From guides you or holds your hand. If you want to run straight ahead and see what?s at the top of those ruins, you can - provided you can beat the string of skeletons to get there. Maybe you?d like to head down into that chasm via those precarious stone steps, but whatever?s lurking down there could be too powerful for you to overcome.
The intensely strategic and incredibly fine-tuned combat is what defines this game. On the surface, this would be best described as an action RPG, but its core mechanics seem more in line with that of a more traditional, turn-based affair. You engage with enemies in real-time, using a combination of standard and heavy attacks, blocks, parries and dodges.
However, everything you do in Dark Souls
requires stamina. This is represented by a green bar underneath your constantly-abused health gauge. Swing your sword, and some stamina is used up. Follow through with a combo attack, and some more is expended. Parrying an enemy attack will take out a chunk of stamina, and more is needed if you want to respond with a riposte.
With the stamina bar replenishing quickly through inaction, the pace you set in combat can vary greatly. You can choose to spam the attack button to launch a string of hits before getting out of range for the foe?s counter-attack, or dodge an assault to line yourself up for an opening round the back. It all echoes the same kind of strategy seen in the world?s best turn-based RPGs.
This knowledge will not be much use to you though, as rather than admiring the game?s mechanics you?ll more likely be cursing the day it was even created. Mastery of the core combat controls are a necessity, no matter which character class you decide to choose. Warriors are adept with traditional close combat weapons, while thieves are agile and sorcerers can cast devastating spells, but you?ll need to level yourself up a great deal before you can even consider conjuring your way through dungeons with ease. And so, you die. And thus, you curse. Loudly.
You ?feel? your way through Dark Souls
in much the same way as a child learns how to work a cooker by sticking his hand on the hob. Death is not a rare occurrence, it is a sheer inevitability. And yet fatal encounters with ten-foot trolls or heavily-armoured knights never cease to be scary. Every new corridor you find involves the same precautionary glance around to see if any massive behemoth is waiting to hack you to pieces.