Dark Souls review
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.