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SummaryModern games are redeemed
The GoodVideo games have never been more mainstream than they are now, in 2013. They evolved from experiments conducted by lone nerds to multi-million projects rivaling movies in scope and ambition. But popularity does not always coincide with quality. Many gamers of the more old-school mold, myself included, bemoan the ease of playing most modern games, where only minimum effort and dedication are required from players and where they are more and more compelled to do what the game tells them to do right away instead of figuring it out on their own. In short - perhaps contrary to our past expectations - games have become simpler. Playing a good modern game can be an exciting, entertaining experience in its own right, but it rarely gets as immersive as it was the case with many of our beloved classics.
Enter Dark Souls, a unique modern game that single-handedly went out to combat the tendencies of its time, like an exemplary medieval knight driven by ideals rather than any practical considerations - an old-school, spartan game at heart, the antithesis of the new Tomb Raider: no flash, no drama, but a whole load of substance. I'd like to dedicate a paragraph to the company that developed this game, FromSoftware, particularly to its role-playing games. FromSoftware is a Japanese company that develops RPGs containing no traces of their national origins, following deeper and more advanced design philosophy aimed at hardcore fans of the genre. In the early nineties they seriously studied what might have been the most groundbreaking RPGs back then, the Ultima Underworld games, eventually giving birth to their own once-flagship series, King's Field. These strange games gathered a small, yet passionate cult following, while alienating most mainstream players with their slow pace and high difficulty.
I respect FromSoftware because they develop games they feel like developing, unlike almost everyone else who develop games because they think most people would like them. FromSoftware doesn't care for mainstream: they know what they do well, and they keep doing it, even if it's anything but popular. Dark Souls is in many ways a typical FromSoftware RPG. I haven't played its immediate predecessor Demon's Souls, but a comparison with King's Field games reveals that Dark Souls kept all their attractive qualities while being more polished and making the gameplay much more complex and varied. Spiritually, however, Dark Souls isn't that far away from those older titles: it is a role-playing game that puts challenge, immersion, and meaningful exploration about all. It is those three aspects I'd like to talk about first.
What is meaningful exploration? To me, it means gameplay mechanics that encourage exploration, not just offer it. Open-world games like Elder Scrolls have much larger worlds and many more things to see than Dark Souls. But in those games, exploration is done for its own sake and is not connected to their core gameplay mechanics. Dark Souls offers a different kind of exploration, not unlike that of Super Metroid, but with most inaccessible areas blocked by challenging enemies rather than items you have to procure. In fact, it pretty much follows the recipe of King's Field in this aspect.
The great thing about this kind of exploration is the way it keeps up a constant desire to advance. You are never guided through the game, but you aren't lost, either. There is always something you can do, at any moment, in any place. In practice, you can't go anywhere immediately, but you know you can in theory, and turning that theory into practice is one of the reasons for this game's high level of addictiveness. You don't level up because you can't pass the next area; you level up because you want to pass an area you've spotted a long time ago, but were unable to access because some insolent knight killed you in one hit just before you realized he was guarding a treasure chest and a whole new passage full of mysterious light right behind him. Burning with curiosity, you train, explore, go back, defeat the seemingly impossible enemy, and you see an entire new location open to you - with new enemies, new challenges, new things to find and collect. The beauty of Dark Souls is in its perfect balance between exploration and steady advancement, in the intricate nature of its complex world that keeps attracting you like a magnet.
I don't think I need to demonstrate the superiority of such design to the linearity of most Japanese and even many modern Western RPGs. However, I think it also surpasses open-world design in some ways. One of the weaknesses of open-world games is over-abundance. When there are so many places, people, and objects, they begin to lose their value. Dark Souls gracefully avoids both pitfalls and presents us with a vast, sprawling, and yet incredibly tightly designed world where everything is in place. Every room, every landmark, every enemy, every item serves a purpose. There is no filler material whatsoever, no neglect, no laziness and sloppy work. The game's world is an awe-inspiring masterpiece. Depending on the way you chose to explore and advance in the game you'll have a different experience every time, and yet the game's world is constant, with as little randomness in it as possible. It is a beautiful edifice with architecture that begs to be studied. As a matter of fact, the whole game has something scientific in it, making you become interested in the minutest details, numbers, and calculations. Everything matters, and everything has meaning here.
I'm sure you've heard of the challenge offered by Dark Souls. Indeed, it is a very difficult game, but its difficulty is such an inseparable, integral part of it that you begin to accept it without noticing. Dark Souls is all about challenge, it fits perfectly its unique atmosphere and its entire gameplay revolves around it. I'm anything but a fan of challenge just for the sake of it, and I don't like being frustrated. Yet Dark Souls, aggravating as it can get sometimes, never made me feel truly bad. The feeling of reward that sweeps you after having defeated a tough enemy, obtained a great weapon, or found the much-awaited bonfire is incomparable. The game makes you feel good about yourself, it pats you on the back when you succeed, and all the challenge it throws at you eventually serves that purpose. In the end, the game never puts you in unwinnable, unsolvable situations. Even the death system is actually more forgiving than in those games where you lose everything when you die. Experience can be spent to level up (after which nothing will ever take it away from you), the game always gives you a second chance to retrieve it, and all items remain in your possession. You can get killed right after defeating a tough boss and the game won't force you to kill it yet another time, as so many others do.
Dark Souls is an RPG, so those afraid of its challenge may find solace in the fact that with enough patience and persistence power-leveling can always render the fiercest foes tame. I like grinding in RPGs when I know that I'm doing that to make my life easier, not because the game forces me to do it. You'll need to train and level up, but you'll do it anyway because exploration is such a big part of the experience. You'll find all sorts of tricks and shortcuts, you'll venture into dangerous areas and kill enemies way above your level for huge chunks of XP, you'll find safe spots with short trips to good grinding places, you'll be inventive and creative about that. Dark Souls makes grinding feel elegant and natural, and as your stats grow so does your pride.
King's Field games were also great at satisfying this basic RPG instinct. Dark Souls takes it even further by offering a vaster variety of weapons, armor, spells, and special items, and particularly by allowing you to customize the protagonist's attributes by yourself when leveling up. But the real difference between it and the earlier games is in its combat system. Actually, this system is so good that most other action RPGs would look primitive after you have discovered it. In its complexity and effectiveness it reminded me of Vagrant Story, another great Japanese RPG that went against its heritage. Dark Souls translates damage types, parrying, blocking, and all those other stats we've seen before into action-based gameplay that feels exceptionally realistic. There is nothing arcadish about the complexity of the moves, and whether you master them or not you'll be drawn into spectacular fights where your skill means as much as your levels. That's why going back and dealing with tougher enemies can be more than just crushing numbers, beating similar examples such as Gothic thanks to the thoughtfully designed action elements. Offensive and defensive strategies are so varied that Dark Souls would have been a great game even if it weren't an RPG. It is really amazing how well it succeeds at being great in both genres it represents, without in the least compromising any of them.
There are also myriads of little touches in the gameplay that make the game even more flexible and refined. Unlike the vast majority of comparable games, you can choose to kill anyone populating the game world, which may have a dramatic impact on the gameplay. I accidentally attacked a very nice blacksmith and was forced to kill him after he went berserk on me, depriving myself of very useful weapon upgrades but gaining a key to a secret area I was absolutely unable to afford at the time. In the beginning of the game you choose one bonus item, and even that choice may affect all subsequent gameplay - for example, the master key would open to you otherwise inaccessible areas. There are secrets galore, all sorts of super-powerful stuff to get early in the game, all kinds of tricks to exploit. The game is full of choices, switching directions as you go, accommodating itself to every decision you make, and basically begging to be replayed.
On top of its magnificent structure and gameplay, Dark Souls also delivers incredible atmosphere. This is truly one of those rare no-nonsense medieval fantasy games that take their scenario seriously. The world of Dark Souls is grim, distinguished by that specific, weary heaviness associated with "gothic" elements of medieval Europe in our minds. It is a game of ominous castles contrasting with serene skies, twisted corridors in lavish mansions, spiral staircases leading to mysterious basements, and bleak fields devoid of joy. Some of the views here are so enticing that I found myself stopping and just looking around, breathing in relief at the sight of blinding light, following it to reach a magnificent open area after having spend hours in damp rooms populated by the undead. The horror element is strong in the game, and the atmosphere is exceptionally dense, complemented by fantastic sound effects and very scarce, yet immaculately composed music.
The minimalist, enigmatic story won't immediately appeal to those who have a preference for multi-layered characters and complex plots with intrigues and betrayals. But the game is not really about that. It is about surviving in an overwhelmingly hostile and dark world, where lack of goals and connections to characters is part of what makes it special. That said, if you have patience to dig deep into Dark Souls you'll discover some original lore, a few interesting characters, and even moral dilemmas that affect the world on a grand scale.
The BadDo you like breezing through games with just a few clicks? Do you enjoy games telling you exactly what to do and how to do it? Do you abhor careful planning and persistent character-building? In this case, stay away from Dark Souls. This game offers no comfort to you. It is hostile, it can be cruel, and those who can't see the beauty in its lack of lenience would probably call it unfair. Dark Souls is only for those who are willing to invest time, patience, and effort into playing their games. It is meaningless and even damaging if you approach it with the same expectations as you would other modern games. Dark Souls is unforgiving and requires hard labor that can and will tire you, since it's all part of the plan that also includes big rewards and a lot of satisfaction. Once you accept the game for what it is, once you truly connect to it, nothing stands in your way to tremendous enjoyment. But you'll never be pleased with it if you try to make it suit any other preferences but its own.
The above paragraph can be interpreted as both commending or critical, depending on your ideology. But the PC port of Dark Souls is unequivocally not to be commended. I know we should be grateful for getting it in the first place, but it was a hasty job that left console traces all over, specifically in the annoying camera that faithfully recreated the jerky movements of analog sticks for your mouse, and the laughable tutorials that tell you to press buttons on console controllers. To be fair, though, the patches did correct the camera somewhat, and after a while I got used to playing the game with mouse and keyboard, just the way I like it.