Finished the game
About 63 hours, then another 10+ in NG+ before calling it quits at O&S (for now)
Who should play this game:
Fantasy/RPG fans, fans of “old school” arcade/NES games, fans of a challenge
Who should avoid this game:
Anyone looking for a game you can sprint through without dying once
The first thing everyone talks about when Dark Souls is mentioned is how difficult it is. Read enough online, and you’ll inevitably hear someone saying, “Come on, this game isn’t that hard.” I feel like I could talk at length on this point, probably write a whole book on the subject. But I’ll try to summarize my thoughts.
To discuss what is meant by hard or difficult or challenge, we really need to clarify what we mean. There really aren’t enough words, or at least not the right words, in English to describe “difficult” well.
Difficulty has many facets and dimensions. First of all, there’s mechanics: ability to move and control your character, how the overall game world works, how enemies and NPCs work, and so on. There’s also how powerful your character is, or can be, vs. how powerful the enemies are, which encompasses how much health you have, how much health you lose when you’re hit, how much damage you can deal, how much health enemies have, and the like. Also, overall time: how long does it take to get from one point to another, to battle an enemy, to level up, etc. Further, how much assistance is given: do you need to do everything on your own, or can you get help from others in game? Finally, at least for this discussion, there’s adaptability: can you adapt yourself to the game, and does the game adapt to you?
I’ll attempt to address these facets and compare with other games. Starting with mechanics. Dark Souls control scheme resembles first person shooters and Elder Scrolls. You move with the left stick, aim with the right stick, and combat is performed using the shoulder buttons. Being a third person game, this feels somewhat unnatural, since FPSs and Elder Scrolls are first person (at least, usually, in the case of Elder Scrolls). It feels more like the face buttons should control combat, rather than shoulder buttons. In the beginning, I hit X when I meant to hit R1 many times, causing me to drink a potion instead of swinging my sword. That would be fine, except that once you’ve initiated an action, you’re committed to that action. It feels as if you should be able to interrupt and say, “Put down the damn potion, let me swing my sword!” But you can’t, you’ll just take a drink while getting smacked in the face with a club by some megademon. Don’t hit the wrong button.
The good thing about that is, this mechanic affects not just you, but enemies too. There are many times that enemies early on will attempt to drink their own potions, giving you a perfect opportunity to attack. It’s as if the game is telling you, “Look how stupid it is to drink a potion during combat. Don’t do it, or you’ll die.”
Combat mechanics include parries and backstabs, which can be executed against humanoid enemies. Parries interrupt your opponent’s attack, giving you the chance to riposte with a huge damage multiplier over your standard attack. Similarly, backstabs are executed when you’re behind your opponent, again giving you a critical attack. These are difficult to master, but it’s absolutely essential to master at least the parry and riposte. Mastering the backstab will be imminently helpful for many enemies as well (but not bosses).
I’d say the mechanics of the game add a tremendous amount to the difficulty of Dark Souls. If you can master them, you’ll find the game much simpler. In the beginning, though, the learning curve is steep, especially if you’re used to other third person games. There’s a lot of unlearning to be done. I’d say that the mechanics difficulty is akin to Castlevania or Mega Man, more in spirit than in actual execution. In those games, a simple mistake can be exceptionally costly, as in Dark Souls.
Moving on to power differential: you start out really weak. After nearing the end of the game, going back to early areas reveals just how much stronger you’ve become. But even the earliest enemies can ruin your day even after you’ve reached exceptionally high levels, if you’re not paying attention. So you never really get to be “strong,” you just get to be “less weak.” Sure, you can level up your character and strengthen your weapons and armor, but at the end of the day, the enemies are capable of killing you, almost no matter what you do. This is probably most akin to Mario. If we’re talking about the NES Mario games, basically no matter what, you’re at most two hits from death (unless you have a star, of course).
When you’re brand new to Dark Souls, it takes a LONG time. It takes time to figure out where to go, to learn the enemies and their movement patterns, to fight the enemies, and even just to walk from one point to another. Bonfires (save points) are basically never close to bosses, so it’ll be a good minute or five if you die at a boss just to get back to the boss before you have another shot at killing them. This is probably the biggest punishment Dark Souls gives you: stealing your time when you die. Dark Souls has no respect for your time whatsoever. For the first half of the game, there’s no warp ability, so you’ll be walking everywhere. Fortunately, the level design makes these walks a pleasure, between the beautiful visuals and the amazing interconnections between areas of the world.
Many people will say that Dark Souls doesn’t hold your hand, and for the most part, that’s true. However, by offering the ability to summon other human characters and NPCs to help you battle bosses, along with text hints placed by other human characters, I’d say the game actually offers a lot of assistance, if you choose to take it. It’s not absolutely necessary, but it can be a huge benefit. Especially for the Bell Gargoyles, just summon Solaire and get that fight over with.
I’d say the lack of assistance otherwise, in terms of figuring out where to go and what to do, is Dark Souls’s greatest strength. There’s no mini map, no compass, no tracking icon leading you to the next destination. Instead, you’re expected (forced) to memorize the map and figure out where to go and what to do. By the end of your first playthrough, you’ll pretty much know exactly how to get from any point A to any point B, as well as what enemies you’ll encounter, and where, along the way. It wouldn’t be surprising if you also know how many souls each enemy will give, approximately if not exactly.
Finally, adaptability. This is probably the one area where Dark Souls is tremendously easy. And in fact, what gives people the ability to say, “This game isn’t that hard.” Everything, everything, in Dark Souls is purely deterministic. If you do the same thing exactly the same way, the game will respond in exactly the same way as well. There’s no AI to speak of in any of the enemies whatsoever. They are all just automata who will respond exactly the same way to a given reaction, every single time. Once you’ve mastered a particular enemy, and you know how it attacks and reacts to you, you can exploit that knowledge to kill it every time, so long as you time your actions appropriately.
Given all this, is Dark Souls difficult? Yes and no. If you’re not focused, it’ll be brutally hard. If you don’t yet have the knowledge of what to do to defeat a certain enemy, it’ll be tough until you’ve gained that knowledge (and may remain tough even after, depending on how much precision is required to defeat it).
But it’s actually simple to name a game harder than Dark Souls: chess. Chess is mechanically quite simple. There are only a few pieces, each with unique movement styles, but none of them are particularly tough to remember or execute. But depending on the skill of your opponent, chess can be brutally difficult. If you’re playing against a human opponent, who has a skill level at least similar to yours, you’ll have to think much harder to win a game of chess than just about any boss in Dark Souls.
I think the better description of Dark Souls is that it’s punishing for making mistakes. It doesn’t take terribly long to learn the mechanics of any given enemy before you can beat them, though.
The thing I enjoyed most about Dark Souls was the level design. Opening up shortcuts, watching how you can be walking along without any idea where you are, only to end up back at Firelink Shrine. The first time I kicked a ladder and realized I’d opened a shortcut, I was hooked on that design. Every time I found a shortcut, it felt magical.
I’ve been struggling to find another game to play after having finished Dark Souls. Currently, I’m working on Dark Souls 2, because nothing else quite “stuck.” I think it may have ruined gaming for me. Dark Souls will take over your life the first time you play it, and despite cursing it and hating what feels cheap at times, it’s almost certain to draw you back until you can suck the souls right out of Gwin.