Dark Souls (Xbox 360)

The original Dark Souls  is the spiritual successor to Demon Souls,  a decent game in its own right but plagued with some flakey design choices that hindered it from gaining larger appeal. The Dark Souls permutation however improves on Demon Souls greatly, creating a more polished experience in terms of gameplay and execution as well as introducing a non-linear open world that liberally allows the player to approach the game in anyway they see fit.

When examining Dark Souls on the surface most casual fans will view the difficulty as it’s baseline appeal, deriving entertainment in the seemingly insurmountable ways the players can die. Through this assertion however one can completely miss the  philosophy of some very unique design choices which serve as a tool to facilitate the portrayal of Dark Soul’s mythos.

The player is given a concise yet opaque introductory cutscene to set the scene. The narrator, with feeble yet somehow venerable solemnity, recounts events that have come to pass which have left the world of Dark Souls in ruin. A simple legend, without advent or elaborate detail yet spoken in a verse-like recital, giving the context an air of grim antiquity.

The legend speaks of a war waged between dragons and lords which in turn has lead to the world becoming a post-apocalyptic wasteland, rife with dangerous creatures and unspeakable horrors in its depths.   While the exact details of events are unclear what is clear is that the aftermath has left most of the living with the dreaded Darksign, a curse which slowly turns its victims into mindless hollows. The only way to remove the curse is to undergo a pilgrimage, to completely restore your humanity from being undead by ringing two bells in the land of Lordran; a task vied by many but rarely accomplished.

The environment of Lordran succinctly evinces the overall state of world in Dark Souls, with the desaturated hue of the colour palette displaying an environment drained of colour which by extension displays a world drained of life. Many landmarks are decrepit and misused, barely outlasting a war that has its residual memory etched forever in the crumpling masonry and levelled structures. The panoramic view of the colossal buildings and monuments makes up the labyrinth-like ruins of Lordran, giving a vista of things to come. A manifold of medieval architectures such as bastions, dungeons, cathedrals, castles and ramparts whose grand proportions effortlessly blot out your own. The very existence of such majestic landmarks infers a deeper narrative which has long since been forgotten.

Once past the tutorial in Undead Asylum you are given free rein to explore the non-linear expanse of Lordran. Most areas are interconnected to each other with shortcuts becoming unlocked as you progress through each respective zone.  Laying eyes on the breadth of Lordran’s province can give the player a misguided sense of chivalry, vigour to intrepidly delve into its depths while conquering all odds. However it doesn’t take long for the player to realise that traversing off the beaten path can lead to certain death as arcane traps and monstrosities swiftly thwart reckless players with punitive precision.  It is through this revelation that the design philosophy of the game begins to resonate with the player, in that any given situation is achievable provided that the player is willing to work for it.

From the outset of the game players can effectively explore and overcome most of Lordran (with a few exceptions) in any order, of their own volition, including the secluded areas that serve as a foreboding backdrop for the higher level challenges. Nothing is closed off to the player with every seemingly insurmountable encounter containing a subtle solution that requires some problem solving and patience in part by the player.   Really the only impasse in the game is self-imposed by the players themselves, seen in players wanting to rush the game  and sally forth headlong into encounters in hopes to expedite completion; though this approach usually has disastrous results.  While other titles are eager to hold the players hands through tutorials as well as toning down its content for accessibilities sake, Dark Souls requires the player to learn through trial and error and working out the mechanics and item effects on their own.

The game’s harsh but fair punishment for recklessness underscores the importance of learning the mechanics of the game thoroughly as well as observing an opponent’s behavioural tendencies, including attack patterns and ailment inducing effects.  Certain areas are tougher than others and require more effort to complete, however are still relatively achievable even at lower levels. While levelling and procuring stronger weapons does aid somewhat, it is not a complete panacea for success where benefits from levelling attributes are incrementally small as opposed to drastically tipping the odds in your favour.  There are some secret weapons that are available to assist beginner players,which are strong at first yet gradually lose their effectiveness as the game progresses.

The game has some very tightly programed elements as well as inputs that require strict timing in order to use effectively.  Even when having a good grasp of how to parry, stagger shielded opponents with your kick or swiftly dispose of them with a well timed back stab, there are a lot of other variables in the game that will affect the outcome of any given situation. Even with a methodical approach to each circumstance is not going  to yield the same results as enemies can also behave erratically, with their own skill sets and abilities at their disposal. In one instance they may await dryly in defence for you to blunder a strike or in another apply offensive pressure, wailing on your shield in hopes to apply attrition on the scant reserve of your stamina bar.

There are checkpoints in the game in the form of bonfires which you can light up once you have reached a certain point within an area. Should you die you restart at the last bonfire you have used. As no set of variables will ever be the same the player has to essentially roll with the punches from bonfire to bonfire, incurring as little damage as possible in order to reach the next bonfire with no way to be completely surefooted about the outcome in-between.  Only experience and skill can mitigate how badly a situation can go as well as approaching each situation with caution and at times a level of self-restraint.

Every action uses stamina, including actions such as your attacks, running, withstanding the force from blocked attacks, as well as the stamina recovery being reduced when your shield is up. This requires players to plan their moves accordingly while managing stamina usage in order to avoiding being staggered themselves which is the result of overexerting your character with no stamina available.  In essence the key to success in Dark Souls is how well a player can adapt, master the controls and mechanics, as well as adapting to constantly changing situations with due caution.

Particularly in the initial stages of Dark Souls every action appears to have more consequences than benefits, with more emphasis on consequence. Even the more frequent foot-solider level of enemies can score hard hitting points and critical hits in relation to your own.  That is not to say that the game purposely veers people off using each action, but simply demonstrates that each action has to be used judiciously in part by the player in order to make progress, presenting the carrot and the stick overtly by the punishments that befall the player for relying too much on risks.

As there are rarely any forms of recourse in terms of equipment, or abilities to overcome this, simply adapting to bad circumstances is the only way a player can maintain a foothold in Dark Souls’ hostile environment. In most fantasy games the hero is significantly overpowered and serve in a sense as form vicarious entertainment where  the player can act out their fantasies of being a revered  hero that can  cull through waves of monsters effortlessly and with little thought.  In Dark Souls however the environment is hostile towards the player character and requires the player to work hard for success, where learning through death becomes a habit. Never at any juncture do you feel like a master of this world but rather a hapless interloper who must utilize their wits in order to merely survive it. Your Character is fragile and at any time can be swept off the planes of Lordran like lint off a piece of clothing.

All of these aspects offset each other neatly and form the motifs that are integral to the Dark Soul experience; that of despair and futility which beset the world of Dark Souls and in turn evokes a sense of being Lilliputian in the large scheme of the game’s narrative.

For most of the game your part in the overall lore of Dark Souls is never really made a focal point where only happenstance events in the later parts of the narrative give your character some semblance of importance. The brevity and impenetrable vagueness of the game’s lore is made to deliberately alienate the players from its world.  The main paradigm-changing war that affects the world of Dark Souls has long since reached its conclusions with the main movers and shakers involved in the conflict having either perished indefinitely or confined themselves in the secluded parts of Lordran to slowly wither away. Your character’s predicament is simply the result of their actions, where you’re demise or in the grander scheme your success thereof, has little to no consequence to the overall condition of the world, essentially because it’s already dead.

Your only course of action is to simply survive the aftermath, as there is nothing left to salvage in a way that leads to recourse for civilisation as a whole.  Your character is not a gallant hero endowed with any powers or any defining characteristics that set it apart from the other cursed undead who are trying to also regain their humanity (made clear by the ghostly apparitions representing fellow players online  and npc’s making it abundantly clear that undergoing your quest is commonplace for survivors). So what is the incentive for the player to continue to the end of Dark Souls?, For the sheer experience of exploring it’s forsaken world, while forming your own narrative and versions of events as the story  slowly unfurls itself organically from environments, monsters, and chance encounters by NPCs.

Overall Dark Souls is a game that manages to deliver a unique experience by  adopting  traditional aspects of the action RPG genre, as well as managing to instil fresh ideas that are challenging to take in, yet slowly  resonate with the player in a manner that makes the whole experience memorable. This is done by the involved gameplay mechanics, and by delivering an engaging premise naturally by the presentation of its world as opposed to exhaustively drab exposition . A solid title that carries more clout than many of derivative titles in the market thus far.


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