We have a strange relationship with Japan – we’ll usually forget that it exists for most of our lives, but immediately glorify strange aspects of their culture when needed. It used to be nerds, with their anime and manga, but now we’re stuck with Babymetal and sushi as well. The world of gaming has benefited from Japanese culture as well, giving us classics like Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill and…
In short, Dark Souls takes the adage of ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’ and drags it to very limit. Nestled in with this core concept of repeated and humiliating defeats is a huge swath of lore, hidden piece by piece in item descriptions and dialogue of the world and a stunning environment. There are 4 games in the series, because we are gluttons for punishment: Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2, with Dark Souls 3 releasing tomorrow.
Truthfully, I ragequit Dark Souls the first time I played it and I’m sure a lot of people still do. It is a really tough game, everything from the first Hollow you stumble across to the huge bosses you’ll find yourself pitted against can, and will, kill you. If an attack is mistimed or your shield isn’t up, you’ll pay for it. You have to be in the right frame of mind before you play, because Dark Souls requires your full attention; study the enemy’s moves, identify windows of opportunity, examine every nook and cranny you come across and Prepare To Die.
Months later and with a friend by my side, I went back to Dark Souls. It was still brutal, but it can be weathered. You can defeat the Lord of Cinder if you put that time and effort into it. It’s also became one of my favourite games.
It will take a while to get used to, most other games will take your hand and pull you through to the best bits immediately, throwing over newer and shinier trinkets to equip. In Lordran, you have to be meticulous and thoughtful. There are secrets hidden throughout the zones, a small help in a huge world. Raise your shield and soldier on, find a bonfire to rest at before you carry on.
The bosses are huge and intimidating; faster, stronger, harder and all. The music will ramp, your heart will race and your palms will be sweating, as you try to keep an eye on what they’re doing, who they’ve managed to drag out to distract and whether there’s anything here that can give you an edge (intended or otherwise). It’s the heat of the moment strikes that matter, chipping away at gargantuan demon’s health over time.
This isn’t to say that everything is peachy in Lordran, the difficulty of the game coupled with a huge spike around the mid-game is a major factor in turning people away. It does feel like your greatest accomplishment when you do manage to overthrow a huge boss, but it can come after hours of bashing your head against a brick wall – at some point, you will question whether hours of grinding is worth the 10 minutes of reward.
Partly the difficulty comes from an awkward and different control scheme. It’s not really what we’d expect from an RPG, with weapon attacks mapped to the shoulder buttons, and it does take a while to get used to. There is a short tutorial to introduce you to the controls, but it is no more than some developer notes on the ground. This strange configuration in a game that requires skill and perfect timing doesn’t always hit the mark, sometimes missing out on a riposte because of input lag or accidentally parrying your shield and taking a large hit for your mistake.
There will be times you’re lost for direction. In fact, right at the beginning you have one guy telling you to ring two bells and that’s about it. With 4 different paths from Firelink Shrine and a veiled reference to some bells, where do you go? The best option, if I’m honest, is to find one of the fan Wikis and study like it’s the night before your GCSEs – read through half a textbook worth of notes and apply theory to practicality over and over until you realise the previous page recommends a caster build.
Regardless of the path you take to get there, the rush of excitement in the aftermath of defeating a boss is the best feeling. It could be the first or the fiftieth attempt, but you’ve managed it – the beast is dead! You’ve got a bitchin’ new weapon and the souls of an old god pumping through you, there’s a bonfire to bolster your stength – what horrors are around the next corner? Can it get worse than this? Almost definitely, yes.
Dark Souls 2 smoothed some of the bumps out of the equation. From Software kept their tough and punishing gameplay, in some places it felt like a little too much, but the glorious feeling of accomplishment remained. They made some adjustments to the controls, which make them feel lighter and easier to master – a double-edged sword in any circumstance. There is still a light sprinkling of lore to keep you poking your nose into NPC affairs across Drangleic, as well as making the game path a little easier to follow.
In comparison, it did feel like a slightly washed out version of Dark Souls – in Dark Souls, the weight of the curse and the melancholy was pressing down on your shoulders, wandering through a broken and destroyed world. Dark Souls 2 took that formula and stretched it a little thin, I think. There are bleak and depressing areas to find, but it doesn’t feel as hopeless in the end.
I’ll be looking forward to picking up my pre-order (if it has actually gone through) and exploring a new world, full of new stories and new, impossible bosses to put down. When the world is overwhelming, I’ll research the lore on my own terms and find out a little more through the online community that flocks to discuss every little detail.