Descending a granite staircase early in Dark Souls, you find a Black Knight obstructing the corridor below. He stands with his back turned, oblivious to your approach. A white loot orb glows cheekily at the far end of the passage. Lesser games might telegraph this enemy’s difficulty by showing it rear its head back and screech, flecking the camera lens with spittle. Such condescension would be superfluous in From Software’s action-RPG template. The mere outline of the knight’s horned helmet – instantly recognisable from the game’s box art – sets your pulse galloping.
You know he’ll be an ornery bastard, relentless and overpowering. He will carve you into slices finer than a deli ham. But the option here of whether or not to engage is a calculated farce. You know that, after wiping your palms off on your trouser legs and taking a deep breath, you’ll provoke the Black Knight. Because glowing loot is to the RPG enthusiast as fire is to the moth. Put simply, ‘compulsion’ is too weak a word.
In order to keep a reassuring distance, you hurl a throwing knife before switching hastily back to your primary weapon. The Black Knight hardly flinches as he pivots around to face you, still terrifyingly mute. Then he charges. Just like the moth, your flailing, flapping demise is both grim and comically Chaplin-esque.
You died, says the game, just in case you’d mistaken your hero’s slumping to the ground for a sudden fit of narcolepsy. You died. This curt declaration appears on your screen with such dispiriting frequency over the course of your time with Dark Souls, the words practically burn into your TV screen. You died.
Just like its 2009 predecessor Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls mirrors the Black Knight’s posture. The game stands with its back to gamers who feel entitled to the coddling of selectable difficulty tiers, enemies with neon-signposted weakspots, and checkpoints as tightly spaced as a trail of Pac-Man dots. Anyone who expects to button-mash their way to victory should avoid playing Dark Souls entirely and simply watch walkthrough videos with a bucket of popcorn in their lap.
Dark Souls has all the trappings of a rote fantasy RPG. You’ll select from the usual bundle of character classes – warrior, hunter, pyromancer, cleric, et al. You’ll chop down undead and skeletons and plague-infested sewer rats – and if you persevere long enough, proud dragons. But don’t be fooled. Embracing a slew of the RPG genre’s hallmarks enables the game’s designers to subvert player expectations with sadistic glee.
Nobody toasts your arrival, for a start. As a giant raven spirits you away from the moss-covered ruins of the Undead Asylum (Dark Souls’ tutorial stage) to the game’s proper beginning, the crone narrator recounts an ancient prophecy. Nothing about a Chainmail Messiah destined to save the world; just vague allusion to an undead who will be chosen to leave the asylum in pilgrimage. The scant few NPCs you bump into along the way tend to greet you with sneers and derisive laughter. One mentions the location of a couple of bells that could use ringing, but stops short of volunteering directions or the outcome you can expect. There is no map, mini or otherwise. There is no quest log. Blow off steam by smashing all the boxes and clay pots you want, but don’t expect any goodies to spill out.
Dark Souls starves you of information, thereby stoking your hunger to explore and untangle its opaque narrative and mechanics. Random notes about items and weapons flash up on the post-death loading screen, which you will parse with the fervency of a Talmud scholar. The game’s unique online features, however – players can leave pre-programmed hints and warnings on the ground, which populate other players’ worlds – undermine the dopamine rush of hard-fought epiphany. Many will relish the company of these ghosts. If Dark Souls has difficulty tiers, there are just two: Insane (online with hint graffiti) and Teeth Gnashingly Impenetrable (offline).
As you butt up against what you naively assume to be the outer rim of its world, a defeated boss drops a key that opens a door leading into subterranean sewers. Beat another boss at the bottom of the sewers and the world peels back further, sending you down into a massive cylindrical hole leading to a foetid shantytown. You delve farther down, expecting to hit bedrock. There can’t be another layer. Can there? You shrug off your claustrophobia and spelunk deeper still. Yet another sprawling domain opens up. You get dizzy with the scale, unsettled and insecure about the progress you’ve made, like the explorers in Danielewski’s House Of Leaves descending the book’s infernal, ever-expanding spiral staircase. After all, this is just one of many paths you can explore in the world of Dark Souls. You could’ve explored the Catacombs instead. Or the Darkroot Basin lake, shimmering in moonlight, with its projectile-spewing Hydra. Welcome to the most memorable game world since… wait a second, did we just consider deleting the word ‘since’?
If each new bonfire checkpoint – where you’ll replenish health, manage inventory and spend harvested souls on level upgrades – amounts to a paragraph break, boss encounters punctuate the Dark Souls experience like calligraphic exclamation marks. The scale of these behemoths provides the game’s creature artists an outsized canvas on which to lavish their most inspired and varied design work. You’ve got the traditional cast of hideous, snarling winged lizards and fire demons, of course. But more exceptional and memorable are the beautiful (a giant siren-lilting butterfly) and the unexpectedly sympathetic (a once-proud wolf struggles to limp along on three paws moments before you deliver the finishing blow).
From Software leaves untouched the combat template it established in Demon’s Souls. It was perfectly conceived then, and remains so. The pace of combat has a slow, decisive rhythm, and if you’re playing a melee character, you’ll learn the finer points of shield play or appear suicidal to onlookers. Even the ‘easiest’ foe in Dark Souls can prove lethal if you get impatient and insist on taking one extra swipe instead of blocking at the moment you know you damn well ought to. A press of the right stick locks you on to the nearest enemy, although at times it tends to inexplicably target one clearly outside the scrum. Dark Souls carries over the economy of its predecessor’s audio design, too. Though boss confrontations play out to hackneyed operatic chanting, most of the game jettisons traditional musical accompaniment entirely. The metallic clang of a sword against a shield provides Dark Souls’ cymbal crash; the breeze through tree branches in Darkroot Garden, its woodwinds; the gamepad rumble of a giant’s footsteps, its bass drum. There’s nothing artificial to lend a sense of heroism to your exploits in combat or ease the throttling loneliness of your exploration. There is only your porcelain-fragile mortality and whatever terrible threat lies crouching beyond the next blind corner.
Just because the world is treacherous doesn’t mean it can’t also be beautiful. Just as your eyes have adjusted to the darkness of the Catacombs, you step through a doorway into a bright, subterranean cavern. Sunlight floods through a fissure in the earth high above, illuminating the silvery ribbon of a gushing waterfall.
Most contemporary games are unctuous, clingy suitors, welcoming players with fawning deference and open arms. Conversely, Dark Souls beckons the masochistic with its chilly indifference. If you steel your nerves and persevere, the loot you’ll uncover is an adventure so exquisitely morose and far-ranging that it will tug at your mind insistently during the hours you spend apart. After more than 60 hours into our journey, an NPC clucks: “How do these martyrs keep chugging along? I’d peter out in an instant.” We do so, quite simply, because other games feel comparatively bland, facile and unsatisfying. Few will complete Dark Souls, but that fact won’t nullify the adventures they’ve had straining toward its elusive summit.
PlayStation 3 version tested.