I was one of the thousands that signed the petition asking Namco Bandai to make a PC port for Dark Souls. I never even played Demon Souls, but numerous prompts from fellow gamers intrigued me towards the Souls franchise. And when finally Dark Souls: Prepare To Die Edition was released for PC, I got my hands on it to see what the fuss was all about. I’m currently about 60 hours in the game.
Most Demon/Dark Souls gamers first came to me as elitists, trying to separate themselves from the cattle class by saying that only the forbidden should touch it. Don’t mistake me for a “Games are too easy now-a-days” troll, but I like to put this to the grave, Dark Souls is a groundbreaking engineering marvel, and that’s not from a difficulty point of view, but from a more general Game Design perspective.
In a generation where we have the likes of open-world sandbox RPGs such as Skyrim, Dragon Age etc. Dark Souls places itself amongst critically acclaimed billion dollar titles, but not with a tried and tested philosophy. It takes the risk, and deeply changes the way we see RPGs. Dark Souls introduces a completely new level of open-world RPG gameplay. You’d think having a Map is a staple to such games. I cant think of any RPGs that don’t have a map. Well, Dark Souls begs to differ. There are no maps whatsoever at any point of a game. And still, its a genuine open-world game. And not having maps is one of the reasons that make Dark Souls as unforgiving as it is made out to be. Every step into unknown territory, genuinely invokes a level of fear and paranoia no game could ever think of achieving. You receive no heads-up on what you should expect, and the element of surprise plays perfectly. If you spoke to me before I played Dark Souls, I’ll probably outright dismiss the idea of an open-world game having no maps. Dark Souls changed that in me, and proved how such an assumption can so easily be proved incorrect.The devs at From Software have done a good job in not only embracing this concept, but executing it with clinical finesse.
Next point, something which I doubt I’ll ever be able to see in other games, is the complete removal of ‘Junk Play Time’ in Dark Souls. Let me explain to you what Junk Play Time (JPT) is. With the inclusion of checkpoint, autosaves and manual saves in every game, players have the opportunity to revert back to a previous save, if something doesn’t work their way. This means, from the time you spawned at your checkpoint/savepoint, to the time you play the game, and if again things don’t go your way, you revert back to the savepoint. The time taken for the unsuccessful excursion, to reloading back to your save point, is JPT. And this time spent has no impact on the game, or on you. Its got nothing to count for and nothing to show itself for. Thus, Junk Play Time. Dark Souls practices a system where there are no Checkpoints, Autosaves or Manual Saves. You start the game from where you left it during your last play-through. Hell, you can even pause the game! If you die in-game, you spawn at the bonfire (resting points in Dark Souls, not save points) you rested last, minus the Souls (what you get from killing enemies, and what you use to upgrade your stats + buy items) you farmed. The place where you last died is the spot where you drop your Souls. And you’re supposed to get it back. Thus, there is no JPT in Dark Souls. Every second you spend in the game is accounted for, is important, and affects your gameplay. Hints of this concept has been seen in some games, but never has this received the treatment it got from Dark Souls, who’ve perfected it.
Next, lets talk Combat, the core of the Dark Souls gameplay. I don’t know if I should say this, but the combat system in almost all AAA RPG’s left we with a gaping hole. Non-gratifying, shallow and sometimes just blatantly stupid. Take Skyrim for example. Melee combat is pretty much a joke. And for a game where combat is a fore-running feature, its disheartening. The entire Elder Scrolls series is barred with a terrible combat system. If you need more convincing, take The Witcher 2, another hit RPG. The Witcher’s Combat System, although designed to near perfectionism, it lacks the entropy that a generic “video game” should have. There is something, I don’t know what, lacking in the combat. It goes like this, press A to slash your sward/shoot, do X damage +/- Armour and Game Over. Maybe a mere manipulation with some other minor factors, but thats just it. Same goes for other titles such a Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored. Mind you, all of these games are thoroughly enjoyable. But rather than being enjoying as a “game”, with mechanics to learn and perfect, with depth to absorb and practice, They’re more enjoyable like a book, where you just ‘go through’, rather than a proper video game.
The combat in Dark Souls introduces a whole new level of deepness, a level personally I have never found in any other game. It’s all in the details, the minor ones. Every weapon you equip throws in a whole new set of moves, randomness, and a new playing style all together. Say, after you’re 20 hours in your Dark Souls play-through, you find a new weapon which you equip. Now, in order to proceed, you have to relearn your combat mechanics, to suit more to that specific weapon. You’ll have build your own style, from scratch, again. It’s a whole new world, once again. And what makes it special in Dark Souls is that you are treated with total indifference in the game. The generic “Quest” model is not followed in Dark Souls. There are no leads. Its you, and only you. Stories/dialogues are kept to a minimal. There is no help, there is no sense of direction. Dark Souls brings out the best of your effort, your creativity, your reflexes, your patience, your resourcefulness and your aggression. This is what games should do, and what they should yearn to achieve. In an ideal situation, they should bring out the best in you. Players should finish off a game leaving with a feeling that they took something from it, And what’s funny, all these big games ask you too, desperately, they beg you to, they ‘instruct’ you, to experiment, to be creative, but they seldom manage to achieve it. You might convince yourself for a while that yes, this is getting the best out of me, but you’re only lying to yourself and you know it. Dark Souls changed that in me.
Another unexplored territory that Dark Souls ventured into, is Online Play. Online/Multiplayer in Dark Souls has a whole new meaning, the game designers at From Software have done a great job at envisioning and realizing this. Multiplayer in Dark Souls doesn’t mean a Player vs Player deathmatch/quest hunting etc. game mode. While modes such as these are fun, they are disconnected from the main theme/world of a game. In Dark Souls, your world is the world that every other player sees, and has been through, and so much is the connection, that you feel you belong to it and call it your own. There is no ‘Multiplayer’ option in Dark Souls. There’s just ‘Start Game’. And this means you enter the Dark Souls world, not giving importance to the fact that this is the world everyone’s at. Once you enter it, you’re supposed to counter whatever it throws at you. Other players can invade your very own personal world, for your Souls and Humanity, which you spent countless hours earning. Once this happens, you’re actually left devastated and meek. You can list their name on a specific register, which ensures the invading player will have to pay sometime in the future. You can invade other player’s worlds as well, for their Humanity, and in the same set-and-setting as your world. While this might sound a little mind-boggling, its a beautiful system, which ensures the game stays true to its philosophy.
Where you can say that Hotline: Miami was more like a short-term LSD experience, Dark Souls, for me, was a long term psychological expedition, and a philosophical one at that. Something like a 3 month meditation excursion. It hurts. It pleases. But it teaches you. And you leave feeling gratified, yet empty, because well, you’re leaving.