Hand holding. From fellow soldiers yelling what buildings to blow up to breadcrumb trails of collectables in platformers, the majority of games proverbially hold gamers’ hands even if we don’t realise it. This is where From Software’s Dark Souls is different from most â€“ after a brief run down of the controls you’re dropped into a large, open world and left to figure things out for yourself. Not just where to head to first but also to discover the uses for the bizarrely named items in your inventory, no thanks to the game world’s initially bafflingly terminology. The deep end; Dark Souls chucks you right in it.
You aren’t totally alone though â€“ a couple of hours into the game you come across a merchant selling an item that can be used to leave messages, formed from pre-selected words, that other players can read and rate. The fact that we didn’t realise these were written by other players until seeing the message â€œNeed headâ€ just goes to show how little is explained to those starting out. This isn’t a bad thing though. Quite the opposite in fact.
On the outside Dark Souls bares more than a passing resemblance to a generic western RPG, complete with an arsenal made up of typical medieval weaponry. Underneath though is a game rife with the craftsmanship we have come to expect from Japanese RPGs. The layouts of the environments often impress, with shortcuts waiting to be discovered by those keen to explore, while the placement of enemies has clearly had much thought.
The atmosphere is both tense and eerie, giving off the feeling of solitude not seen since the likes of Ico and Shadow of The Colossus on PlayStation 2. Like the environments in those games, the places you visit here genuinely feel like they haven’t been traversed for decades.
It’s Dark Soul’s challenging nature that makes it so endearing. Every enemy is as hostile as the last, able to drain your health bar in a flash if you don’t block, counter or evade in good time. Bosses are frightful beasts, not just aesthetically, but in the way that they can take a whole evening’s worth of attempts to conquer. Their toughness makes your eventual success so much sweeter.
When you finally make it to a new area and discover a new bonfire â€“ a safe zone where you can level up and later repair weapons – the feeling is one of both relief and rapture. Exploring new areas can also be incredibly tense as well â€“ enemies sometimes burst out of doors and whatnot. We’re not afraid to admit that Dark Souls made us jump more times than any other game before it.
Enemies respawn every time you rest at a bonfire. At first this seems like a twist of pure evil, but it soon becomes clear that this is one of Dark Soul’s core elements. The opposition always reappears in the same places, effectively making the game an IQ test. A glorious and grizzly IQ test. Remembering their locations is the key to getting further.
There are also dozens, perhaps even countless, techniques to learn. If you get enemies to chase you down a small alleyway and equip a spear, the chances of hitting more than one at once are greatly increased. Back stabbing earns more souls â€“ which are used both as a currency and to level up â€“ while often it’s a good idea to lure enemies out of their habitats and attack them one at a time.
Freedom is another thing Dark Souls excels at. Finding a boss too hard? You can either call in support from another player or summon an AI controlled comrade. Alternatively, you could return to previously pillaged area and grind to get enough souls to level-up half a dozen times. This last option is time-consuming and a little repetitive, as you may expect.
If you do get stuck, which is more than likely, online guides and YouTube videos are there to assist. There’s no dishonour in using these â€“ the way that the game has been designed suggests that the developers wanted gamers to flock to forums to show off their winning ways and top tips.
Requiring much time and commitment, this isn’t a game for everybody. Those that are man enough for the challenge and see it through to the end will earn the greatest achievement of all â€“ a personal achievement.