It’s more than past time that I typed up some thoughts about From Software’s latest RPG, Dark Souls.*
I’m well over thirty hours in, and have merely scratched the surface, and so have a lot to say about what is easily my favorite RPG in quite a few years. But before doing that, I’d like to acknowledge a couple of issues with the game, to pull the teeth, as it were, rather than rave about it for a few paragraphs and then say “oh by the way” and sour the ending. So, with that in mind:
- Dark Souls is published by Namco. It’s predecessor, Demons’ Souls, was published by Atlus. Since multiplayer is one of the core, innovative features of the games, Atlus chose to maintain dedicated servers to coordinate multiplayer activity. Namco, unfortunately, chose not to do this, leaving the game wholly reliant on P2P. The game has a feature where you can leave messages for other players to see; with a dedicated server, you’d see all messages regardless of how far you might live from the player who wrote it. With the P2P implementation, messages will drift into your world over time, in part based on your proximity to the user who left it. Not ideal in any way, and it’s not clear that messages persist after that player logs off. It’s not a terrible omission by any means, and likely only Demons’ Souls veterans will notice a difference. But it isn’t ideal, either, and I would be remiss not to mention it.
- There’s a leveling exploit. A fairly major one. Someone figured out a cheat to get essentially infinite souls, the in-game currency used to level up and buy upgrades. So, as the exploit has propagated, there are more players running around at maximum level – a level most players would never see in years of playing. The impact from this is slight; because the game’s multiplayer features employ a level cap, most players will never be matched with the exploiters. My sense is that this will even out over time; the people will max level players will tire of playing them and the remaining population will be playing normal characters at the normal ranges. But it is disappointing. I should note, too, that there is one optional area in the game where level restrictions are ignored for PvP play, and it is not unheard of for players to get matched up with an exploited high level character. This is not a good result – not because it’s impossible to win; but rather because even if you win, the victory will grant far more experience than any normal encounter, thus spreading the exploit like a virus (unless you choose to rid yourself of the souls without leveling up, which is easily done). These PvP encounters can be entirely avoided through an in-game story option. Like I said – it’s not huge, not a long term concern, and hasn’t affected me at all. But it exists, and you should know about it up front.
Still with me? Good. Because Dark Souls is a revelation. A magnificent, engrossing RPG that’s absolutely dripping with exquisite detail. Oh, and it’s hard.
The gaming press has mostly focused on that last bit. Kind of in a hysterical frenzy, actually, with every article shrieking about how hard this encounter was, or how many times they died in that encounter. Now yes, it is true that Dark Souls is more difficult that almost anything released in the last few years, but it’s also not anywhere close to as difficult as games used to be, nor is it as difficult as Demons’ Souls, its predecessor. Demons is a merciless game. Dark Souls is almost gentle by comparison. Yet I can see what the press is getting at; Dark Souls eschews most of the modern conventions – long tutorials, parades of endless chump enemies posing little challenge, linear design, detailed in-game step-by-step guides. Instead, it drops you right in, gives you some basic information about movement, and sets you free in a world where every single encounter can be fatal to your character.
The designers aren’t sadistic; they want you to learn about the game and its world through failure. They are hoping to convey a feeling of dark desperation, of a world that has fallen to pieces, teetering on the brink of destruction, and you’re just one would-be hero caught up in the midst of it. They want you master the system, master the areas, and when you do that – when you put it all together and beat a level boss that’s killed you 9 times already – they want you to stand up and cheer, exulting in your accomplishment.
And that’s what happens. You hit a challenge that seems almost insurmountable, then, through failure, you learn how the encounter works. You see the chinks in its armor, how to dismantle it. And then you put it all together, beat it, and feel an overwhelming sense of satisfaction. Modern games teach gamers bad lessons about failure. You don’t learn, you lose time. MMOs are the worst offenders, where the theory of the “penalty for death” runs prevalent and means that any death is accompanied by a not insignificant loss (either of experience or of player time). That philosophy is in and of itself offensive, failing to respect the player and the overall purpose of the product as entertainment, but worse, it’s percolated out to the industry, so that the fail state in most games equals a loss of time: repeating old content that you’ve already seen and that has little to no value on a repeat visit. In its worst implementations, you lose story progress, you have to watch dreadful cutscenes again, and you lose character progression back to the last checkpoint you hit.
Dark Souls isn’t like that. Failing is not a loss of time or progression. It’s true, of course, that there’s risk: when you die, you leave a bloodstain on the ground that holds all of the souls & humanity – key items in Dark Souls – that you had on your person. Souls (as noted above) are gained after every fight and can be spent to level up your character, upgrade equipment, or buy items. Humanity – well, we’ll talk about that in a minute. It’s not lost, but if you die again before you recover it, it’s gone for good. This can feel painful. If you’re running around with 50,ooo souls for some reason, and die in a very dangerous place, you might very well lose them for good. It’s an element of gambling that increases the overall tension in the game, and is directly tied to the concept of bonfires.
Bonfires are the equivalent of checkpoints, though they are more than that. Scattered throughout this dying world are several magical fires that the player can kindle, and when you rest at a bonfire, you refill your health, your magic charges (spell casting uses a delightful Vancian casting system in lieu of mana bars), and your healing items. Yet you also reset the world around you, causing all the normal enemies that you’ve slain to respawn. So, as progress through an area, you’ll acquire more and more souls, which increases the risk that you’ll lose them all through death. You could alleviate that risk by going back to a bonfire and spending them, but then you’ll have to fight enemies again. Which do you choose?
As it turns out, that’s what Dark Souls is really about: choice. That’s how you’ll define your story as you play through the world. There’s no grand story told through extensive conversations and cutscenes; this isn’t Mass Effect. Instead, there’s a dying world with intriguing NPCs, multiple possible routes, and nine separate organizations to join. Every NPC can be killed, if you so desire; this will not stop you from finishing the game, but may make it more difficult. It is a world built out of hooks and detail, a rich tapestry that is nonetheless full of white space for the player to fill in. Filling in white space is one of my favorite activities, so I am in heaven here.
Among the other choices you’ll have is how you interact with other players. You may choose limited interaction; in which case you’ll only see messages on the ground, the occasional phantom running past you (no effect on the game), and, even more rare, see other players sitting at your bonfire. This last feature was added to create a sense that the player is not alone, that other players are going through the same struggle. It’s effective. On the other hand, you may choose to partake of the game’s cooperative and competitive features. Co-op, in particular, is important; many of the game’s boss encounters become significantly easier when you summon other players to help you, and the rewards for entering another player’s game to help are significant. The assisting player receives both souls and humanity – the latter of which allows you to temporarily stave off an undead state called “hollowing” that lies at the center of the story, and, mechanically, allows you to summon assistance or partake in PvP combat. The competitive aspect, PvP, is completely optional, and based around several of the in-game organizations, called covenants. A player who joins the Way of White will never be forced into non-consensual Player versus Player combat; everything will be optional. Players not in that covenant may, if they are in human form, invade the worlds of other players and be invaded in turn. Invading turns you into a “black phantom” version of your character, one with the sole goal of locating the other player and eliminating them in single combat. Doing so rewards the victor with souls, and often with items necessary to advance in the player’s covenant.
These covenants have deep story hooks. One, the Dark Moon Blades (the covenant I’m in right now) is dedicated to invading the worlds of those who have sinned against their covenants or other players, and punishing the guilty. That’s right; if someone invades and kills you, you can report them with an item called an “indictment,” causing the player to be listed in a Book of the Guilty, and thus able to be killed with impunity by Dark Moon members like me. Another covenant, the Dark Wraiths, is connected to the “bad” ending of the game, and exists solely to invade the worlds of any player at all, and thus is directly opposed to the Dark Moon. Other covenants are more closely tied to cooperative play.
There are hundreds of hours of play in this game. After finishing a game, you can start a New Game + mode, with harder enemies and larger rewards, and after that there’s New Game ++, and New Game +++, and so on. The sheer amount of character possibilities and secrets to be plumbed in the world alone justify spending a lot of time with it, but combining that with the single best implementation of sword combat I’ve ever seen in a game, and you have something that deserves to be recognized as one of the top tier RPGs in all of gaming.
If you’re at all interested in the genre, I hope you’ll take a look. With that in mind, I’m happy to answer any questions you may have.
*The link goes to Giant Bomb, one of my favorite gaming sites, and specifically to a misnamed hour-and-a-half long Quick Look at the game, if you’d like to see what it looks like.