With Dark Souls III on it’s way in the west in a few weeks, what better than a look into the infinite depth of the challenging series. A suspicious glance at just how From Software managed to become one of the most lauded developers in recent years due to the risk they took releasing a game that was far removed from our comfort zones in modern age gaming consisting of two minute checkpoints, infinite saves and on-rails action, that it could have failed severely. What is it that has drawn over eight and a half million gamers to launch themselves into the punishing worlds of Dark Souls and slog their way to the end, just to go back and do it all again in new game plus? The answer is simple: Risk equals reward…
Lets go back to 2009, the year that From and Sony Computer Entertainment released Demon’s Souls in Asia. Initially, there were never plans to release the game in the west as it was thought the game may be too specialised and difficult that it wouldn’t garner any attention on our shores. Thankfully, Atlus saw the potential in something a bit more challenging and saw how successful Demon’s Souls had become, pushed for a North American release and eventually led to Bandai Namco delivering it to the EU almost a year and a half later. If not for the foresight that the average western gamer would lap a challenge like this up in amongst a spread of shoot first, think later titles, we would never have seen Dark Souls. The first instance of risks taken have rewarded many with a game series that is loyally loved by it’s many fans and in return, From Software have become one of the most respected developers in this era of gaming.
Considering that Demon’s Souls was a Playstation 3 exclusive on release, it was a surprise when it was announced that Dark Souls would be available as a multi-platform title. A great one at that, as it has allowed a greater player base to sample the delights of honest-to-goodness, demanding and thoughtful gameplay and in turn, that base has grown from hundreds of thousands into millions. With the business end of things out of the way, I’d like to try and show newcomers to the series of how risk and reward factors into just about everything Dark Souls. Not just from a sales point of view, but in just about every aspect of the games themselves.
First of all, the story. Many will claim that the story of Dark Souls is as shallow as a steamrolled footballer’s wife. It’s entirely not true. As we’re so used to being narrated to through cut-scenes and lengthy NPC conversations in games, we just tend to look at things on more show and tell level rather than digging deeper. DS decided to take the route of telling it’s tale through environment, objects and sparsely scattered characters that offer hints to your surroundings and it’s inhabitants. While you can blaze through any of the games without even thinking about it, there’s many historical facts and legends to be uncovered and interpreted, just by checking out your inventory and reading an item’s details or taking in the sights around you that can reveal it’s past. Its in paying attention to these details that you begin to realise that there’s much more to your journey than you originally thought. Again, it’s up to you to actively try and build the plot, even though it may seem a challenge in itself to begin with.
The environments of the Dark Souls series are also risky ground for gaming. So used to having radar, maps and great big, glowing arrows floating above our heads like a halo for the directionally challenged, that when Dark Souls introduced the land of Lordran, a lot of players instantly melted into puddles of quivering jelly. While Demon’s Souls was a little more of a linear affair with switching between realms easily by using headstones, Dark Souls went in a different direction and presented the whole land to players. No map to consult when you get lost, no road signs to set you on the right path and only the barest hint of where to go next given by NPCs. Twisting paths that would eventually lead you to previous areas, hidden tunnels and optimal routes between bonfires are only uncovered through exploration and using what little information you have to find your way… Unless you cheat and use a guide that is. While subtle hints can tell you that you’re in the wrong place, such as the enemies being well beyond your ability to deplete their health and in return, using you as claret paint for their dank lairs, there’s virtually no hand-holding whatsoever. While beautiful in their own dreadful, brooding way, Lordran and Drangleic (which was slightly less open) can become sprawling monsters in their own right and add a welcome layer of navigational challenge that ultimately rewards you for being curious.
There are not many games which offer a startlingly difficult time when returning to earlier areas either. As a long time RPG and MMO gamer, I always relished in coming back to zones where the enemies gave me trouble previously, just for a bit of one-hit, mass murder to blow off some steam. Dark Souls doesn’t allow for this much. It likes to keep players on their toes, no matter how overpowered they feel. You might be able to take a swipe at a seemingly weak, zombified mass of mouldy clothing and rotting flesh, leaving them dead, but give them an inch and they’ll take the whole mile, dropping you in relatively few hits as they did when you first encountered them. While you may have been spending souls to build your feeble hollow into a demon of a warrior, it doesn’t really balance out to the point where you’re unbreakable. One stupid slip or arrogant run into a group of enemies and you’ll end up as a bloody splat-mark, having to travel all the way back from your nearest bonfire to recover the souls you lost in the process of being an idiot. While you should always be cautious while playing Dark Souls games, you’ll also have to take some risks to test the water on whether you can defeat certain enemies. Sometimes it comes down to spending souls on stats, other times, it’s learning where the ambushes and traps are, preserving your precious estus flasks and health for later encounters. Your journey in any of the DS titles is all about trial, error and the stomach to repeat if necessary.
Bosses are another story. Not every boss will fight the same way or require the same tactics to beat, although there are a few exceptions of repeatedly strafe dodging behind a big bad to slash at their rump, some need more in-depth tactics to conquer. While you may have an easy time with the Asylum Demon or the Moonlight Butterfly, there’s always a few absolute bastards thrown into the mix to get you thinking about finding somewhere else to hunt until you think of a solution. The first I always think of, is the Capra Demon: A horned horror that instantly rushes you with his giant machete, two dogs in tow that can seriously make the fight impossible until you can lead them away and put them down quickly enough without Capra splitting you from spectacles to testicles in one jump attack. It took me at least seven tries until I found out there was a knack to thinning out the numbers. The Bed of Chaos is also notorious on the list of everyone’s Dark Souls’ prick list, after learning how to approach the differing levels of attack and objectives to beating it, you still have to time a run into it’s heart, avoiding sweeps of it’s treelike limbs and flaming appendages, dropping blind into a hole in the floor and hopefully landing on a root, rather than plummeting like a lemming into the abyss below… But finally getting there and sinking your blade into the frail mite that lives at it’s heart is extremely worthy of a pause in gameplay for a celebratory coffee and post-coital style cigarette with your heart still pounding in your ears. It’s moments like this that make the games just that much more rewarding than the usual, slash, shoot, kill, rinse, repeat that you find almost everywhere else.
It’s also entirely possible to mess up the whole game by being too naive while upgrading your statistics. For instance, it’s almost impossible to balance a character in all styles with any result. The Dark Souls system of character building requires you to pay attention to what you’re doing and play to your strengths. Due to weapon and armour requirements in strength and dexterity, you need to carefully plan what your end result will be. It’s entirely fine to have a balance in both, but when it comes to injecting your hollow with magical powers, you’ll need to find a trade-off somewhere for both attunement, intelligence and faith, depending on what spells you want to use. Add that you might want a bit more stamina for dodging, vitality to lengthen your health bar and resistance so you can deal with specific damages (although I found it to be useless), then you need to be clear what class you want to play as from the get go and what stats you need to make it to the end game and beyond. Switching style halfway through an NG+ can be done, but it’ll take a serious amount of work to achieve. Being smart and prepared can give you a huge advantage over the trials ahead though and it’s worth trying to stick to your goals.
Finally, when Dark Souls was being created, director, Hidetaka Miyazaki, was concerned about how the industry was moving towards an entirely more vocal style of communication in multiplayer gaming. He wanted elements of player vs player and co-operative play, but not to the extent where squads of gamers were teaming up to easily beat the game. Instead, the mechanic of summoning and gestures was decided upon. In most other games, this wouldn’t work. There’s no way to signal what you’re doing in a fight or strategising and everything depends on trusting your summoned assistant to know what they’re doing and recognise a quick gesture when needed to take down a boss that’s been really giving you trouble. It fits well with the mysticism that surrounds the Souls games and makes players more wary of their actions while grouping, using real teamwork rather than shouting commands and having total control. Dark Souls has never been about having total control and more about trying to keep you off balance. This also works amazingly for PvP, where you or another player can breach the dimensions and enter each other’s worlds as a malevolent spirit, stalking through an area in search of your opponent and laying down a challenge in order to claim their souls or running around desperately to find a safe area to fight in, as your enemy can use the zone’s denizens to distract and destroy you, rather than get involved face to face. This was a hugely dicey move by From, but the players love it and can’t wait to see how it’s evolved from Dark Souls II’s massively popular covenant system and if it’s been improved on for DSIII.
To sum everything up, Dark Souls, from it’s roots up was a risk. The gameplay, the gloomy, depressing world, the difficulty and the mechanics it uses. The way it takes concentration, exploration and imagination to master it’s every secret and to work out it’s shattered story. The fact that in a world full of popcorn action games, RPGs which have been trying to evolve into something more mainstream and contenders that haven’t quite managed to get the formula as perfect as From Software, there’s nothing that has challenged DS in the past seven years for it’s title of most rewarding gaming experience in modern times. So much in fact, that even if you log in to a game of Demon’s Souls or DS I and II, there are still thousands of people playing and very rarely a time when you can’t get a bit of a helping hand from a friendly player. Whether being played on last generation consoles or using backwards compatibility or just the huge PC following, it’s strange to think that it’s one of very few series that is timeless and playable enough to still be going strong. So, taking heed of my initial point, take the risks and you’ll reap the rewards.
Dark Souls III is on it’s way on the 12th of April worldwide… That is unless you’re spawny enough to live in Japan and are playing it right now.