Dark Souls Retrospective

Bloodborne, the latest action-RPG developed by From Software, is the talk of the town these days. And why not? It’s brilliant. It’s dark, bloody, challenging, mysterious, and has the sort of chilling gothic atmosphere the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow games could only hope to aspire to. But Bloodborne is just the latest in a series of bad-ass dark fantasy games that began in 2009 with the awkwardly-titled Demon’s Souls, a game that blew away critics and gamers alike with its moody atmosphere, unforgiving difficulty, and satisfying combat mechanics. Demon’s Souls’ incredible success is interesting because the game sort of popped up out of the blue; I only heard about it months after it had already been released and its semi-sequel, Dark Souls, was on the way. I never did get the chance to play through Demon’s Souls, but after all the overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth, I knew I had to give Dark Souls a shot when it came out.

That ended up taking a lot longer to get to than I had planned. The latter years of the PS3 saw a lot of really fantastic action-RPGs: Skyrim, Dragon’s Dogma, and the tragically underappreciated Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Somehow or another I ended up playing through all of those gems long before I got around to playing Dark Souls. I was a little late to the party.

But what a party it was. Having just finished my first playthrough of the game less than two days ago, I can say with all honesty that Dark Souls is one of the most fulfilling video game experiences I’ve ever had. It compares favorably with the likes of Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Shadow of the Colossus in terms of having the most emotional impact on me in all my years as a gamer.

The Capra Demon and the Joy of a Trial by Fire

Dark Souls’ epic and brutal bosses are the thing of legend, but out of them all, it was this early-game, barely-larger-than-human opponent that became my archenemy. The Capra Demon doesn’t look that scary in theory- just a humanoid demon with a thin tail, a horned goat skull-looking head, and a pair of big-ass sabers (okay, that’s actually pretty scary). It’s the fight itself that makes him so ridiculous; you’re stuck in a rectangular room that is far more narrow than it looks, with a stairwell to nowhere taking up a good bit of room and these little alcoves on your right that are just perfect for accidentally getting yourself stuck on… and then there are the dogs. A pair of vile-looking plague dogs are hanging out with the Capra Demon, and they serve as perfect little distractions, nipping at you to interrupt your attacks or drawing your attention just long enough for ol’ Capra to squash you. The battle seemed at first like an exercise in frustration, because so much seems stacked against the player, especially compared to the relatively straightforward bosses I had faced thus far. But this would prove to be one of my first examples with how this game teaches you to handle seemingly overwhelming situations. Eventually, I fell into a rhythm of running into the boss room, killing the dogs, and using that seemingly-useless stairwell to lead the Capra Demon around the room. I found openings, learned when I should block and when I should dodge, and most importantly, calmed the hell down and stopped getting so intimidated by the situation. When Capra finally fell, the sense of accomplishment was incredible.

Solaire of Astora and the Power of Caring

“Praise the Sun!” Even people only vaguely aware of Dark Souls probably recognize this reference to the glorious Solaire of Astora, one of the very few friendly blokes you stumble across in your trek across Lordran. I first saw Solaire standing on a balcony, quietly staring into the sun. With his silly bucket-shaped helmet and colorful sun-patterned tabard, Solaire doesn’t look like the coolest guy, and his neverending tirade about how amazing the sun is can come off as the rantings of a madman, but there’s a lot more to Solaire than meets the eye. He’s one of the first NPC characters that can actively aid you, being summoned as a “Phantom” to help you take on certain bosses, provided you’re currently in Human mode. Dark Souls’ feeling of isolation and loneliness can be overwhelming at times, and that works marvelously with the stark atmosphere of the setting, but it’s nice to get a little break from that every once in a while- and a dash of “jolly co-operation” from Solaire or one of the other friendly Phantoms can prove a very welcome change of pace. Besides, he’s just a kind of weird, lovable guy- an odd duck, for sure, but in a good way. I got attached to Solaire, and every time I bumped into him or saw his summon sign glowing outside of a boss door, I couldn’t help but smile. Aside from being a useful ally, Solaire is, like almost every person you meet in Lordran, destined to lose his mind and turn hostile unless you take steps to help him. I won’t lie- when I heard that Solaire would eventually get his brain invaded by an evil parasite and try to murder me, I dropped everything I was doing in the game and immediately set about the incredibly obtuse task of preventing this sour fate. It took hours of work, but when I finally found Solaire sitting in a dimly-lit tunnel, grimly questioning his own choices in life but very much not possessed or trying to kill me, it warmed my heart. And then, in the final moments of the game, I summoned him to help me battle the game’s final boss- and, with his help, with both of us hovering near death, we prevailed. On my first try. After a game chock full of fighting bosses dozens of times before finally squeaking by with the win, I had defeated the very final boss on my first ever crack at it… all thanks to Solaire.

Sif, the Great Grey Wolf and Tugging of the Heartstrings

Ornstein and Smough

I like animals. I like wolves. They’ve got a sort of nobility about them- in fiction, anyway- that makes it hard to reconcile when I have to fight and kill them in a video game. I’ve always been a little squeamish about fighting animals anyway, even in Pathfinder; in my group, it usually ends with the party going well out of their way to either befriend or run off the animals, even when killing them would have been so much easier. Dark Souls knows this. It also knows how to hit you where it hurts- by making you care, and then forcing you to do the exact thing you don’t want to do. Deep in the heavily wooded Darkroot Garden, I walked through a fog door to find an enormous grave, and upon approaching it, found myself being attacked by the grave’s guardian- the giant wolf Sif, who picks up its long-dead master’s sword in its mouth and sets about kicking your ass all over the graveyard. It’s a very winnable fight, and on my first few tries, I found myself worrying less about the fact that this was just a loyal animal companion trying to protect its master the only way it knew how and more just trying not to die. But then I got Sif’s health low, and the great wolf started to whimper and limp around, and I actually backed off. I didn’t want to hurt it. But Sif doesn’t give you a choice in the matter; to honor its master, it won’t stop until one of you is dead. I remember actually thinking, “Stop! I don’t want to hurt you anymore!” Thing is, Sif has to die; the wolf is protecting a ring that you have to have in order to enter the Abyss and slay the Four Kings, and if you don’t kill those big ghostly bastards, you’ll never open the door to the final area and finish the game. It was perhaps the most bittersweet moment in my gaming history- when I finally slew Sif, the usual feeling of satisfaction you get from beating a boss in this game was replaced with regret, and I had to turn the game off afterwards to reflect on what had just happened. There aren’t a lot of games that can play on your emotions like that.

Painted World of Ariamis

The Painted World of Ariamis and the Surprising Satisfaction of Mercy

When battling Sif, the player has no option. You can’t beat Dark Souls without killing that wolf. Action-RPGs like this are inherently violent, and as a player, you get used to the idea that you’ll have to fight and kill almost everything you meet in these games. Boy, was I surprised when I was sucked into a magical painting and fought my way to the end of the gloomy, snow-covered ruins within. Awaiting me through the boss door was an eerily beautiful giant girl with a furry tail and a huge scythe. Boss music starts to play, though the girl did not make any move against me. I moved forward cautiously, and a “Talk” option appeared. The boss, Crossbreed Priscilla, calmly pleaded with me to leave peacefully and leave her alone. She even informed me that there was an exit just beyond that I could use to leave the painted world, should I choose. A more unkind game- boy, does it feel weird saying that about Dark Souls- would tempt you to head toward that exit, only for the boss to attack you from behind and force you into another battle. But Priscilla just stayed where she was and let me go. We didn’t have to fight at all, and we didn’t. As I reappeared on the outside of the painting, I couldn’t help but feel as if the game was paying me back for making me kill Sif. Of course, the player can choose to fight and kill Priscilla- from what I hear, you get a nice weapon out of it- but I didn’t care about that. I was just happy that, for once, I was given the opportunity to show mercy, and I took it. That felt nice.

The Lord of Cinder and the how everything came full circle

The final battle of Dark Souls is, true to form, a somber, quiet affair. Rather than the sort of bombastic orchestral swells most games tack onto their final boss fights, Gwyn, the Lord of Cinder, is accompanied by a quiet, sorrowful tune. Instead of some enormous abomination or over-designed angelic or demonic being, Gwyn is just a man- a big, buff, epically-bearded man with a big-ass sword, sure, but just a man. It’s a refreshingly straightforward duel against an opponent whose powers are very similar to your own, and when I finally took Gwyn down (on my first try, as I mentioned in the Solaire bit), I found myself nodding respectfully. My final hours in Dark Souls found me a far different player than the panicking newbie who struggled against the Capra Demon months before. I had become calm, calculating, and finally had a grasp on some of the game’s more arcane concepts; defeating Gwyn was like the game’s way of handing me a diploma. I had graduated. The ending- the one I chose, anyway- was incredibly brief, and even more cryptic than the rest of the game, as my character “linked the fire,” ensuring that the Age of Fire would continue on in Gwyn’s absence; and, it appeared, by doing so, my character was consumed in flames. The whole sequence was maybe thirty seconds long- and after the credits rolled, the game simply rolled me over right back into the beginning of the game again, for a New Game Plus- allowing me to replay through the game with all (or most) of my gear and experience in exchange for drastically strengthened enemies. And you know what? I kind of can’t wait to do just that.

So yeah, Dark Souls. It’s not just a magnificent game from a mechanical standpoint, it has a rare ability to wrangle emotional responses from me in a way most triple-A titles just can’t. Other games are too often loud, overblown, and painfully amateurish in their attempts to get me to care (though those exact things can also prove endearing- see Bayonetta for a master class in just that). Dark Souls is smart. It’s subtle. It’s frustrating, sometimes, but when it’s firing on all cylinders- and that’s most of the time- it’s one of the finest gaming experiences of its generation, and then some.

Images courtesy of Dark Souls Wiki