Dark Souls is the mildly sadistic sequel to the completely sadistic Japanese action RPG Demon’s Souls. I gave up on the latter game a couple of years ago after encountering the second one hit kill boss in the game. The first one hit kill boss in the game was placed at the end of the tutorial, which gives you an idea of what these games are like.
You know from the start that Dark Souls will be easier on you because after getting killed by the tutorial boss you will immediately notice that there is a door that you can use the escape the fight. You then come back to the same fight later after you have an actual chance of winning.
The rest of Dark Souls follows this general pattern. While it is obviously similar to its predecessor in tone and mechanics, the game has a softer edge to it. The combat is still remarkably unforgiving if you lose focus, but it is manageable as long as you keep enemies in front of you and manage your space so that you never get surrounded. Best to fight the undead freaks one at a time, lest they gang up on you. I find the combat system to be rewarding and, for lack of a better way to describe it, it is easy for me to parse. There are three things you need to control:
Your position. This is facilitated through the third-person camera lock.
Your health. Even at high levels you can’t take too many hits.
Your stamina. In melee combat, this is what allows you to manage how many times you get hit. Blocking requires stamina, and blocking limits melee damage.
Every action RPG combat system boils down to these three areas of control, but I think Dark Souls presents a particularly rewarding system. I found it easier to deal with than Skyrim, for example, where controlling your defensive position was always hard because of the first person perspective. Combat always seemed to boil down to running away backwards and casting spells, which gets tedious.
Of course, you will often lose focus and die. And when you die you still have to trudge all the way back to every fight through hordes of re-spawned enemies. This makes the boss fights more tedious than they should be, but it is balanced to some extent by the fact that the bosses themselves don’t seem as punishing. At least in the early game you have room to maneuver and thus a chance to run away and catch your breath if you need to.
The re-spawning also has something of a hidden bonus. If you die a lot because you suck, every time you make your way back to the boss you can collect experience off the bodies of the easier enemies. This helps you in two ways (OK, it’s really fake help, but bear with me):
You can eventually level until the final fight is easier.
You get practice at combat, and get better at it, making the final fight easier.
You can also come down with Stockholm syndrome and believe that the game is really helping you by punishing you dearly for losing the boss fight. All of these things happen at once. Which brings me to my second favorite part of the game. I discovered this thanks to the modern wonder of the video walkthrough. These things are great for when you get stuck. If you watch this video the host shows you how to easily collect around 7,000 souls in 2 minutes of gameplay. You can then return to the save point and make the area respawn and do the whole thing again. This allows you to collect an astounding number of souls fairly quickly. Souls are the currency of the game, standing in for both experience points and money. You use them to level and upgrade all aspects of your character. This little exploit lets you make your character marginally more powerful more easily. A purist might think that this is a cheap way for players that suck to game the system, as it were, and break the balance. I like to think of it as an explicit design decision that helps to balance out the difficulty of the game. I can run through here a few times and use the resulting “R” to make my life a bit easier. It’s an easy way to compensate for the fact that I will always suck at combat. I find it very considerate of the developers to put this into the game for me, especially since they made so much of the rest of their little world so punishing.
Plus, it’s fun to watch the moronic NPCs leap off that cliff. It makes me giggle.
In any case, after farming for a while I started to leave one or two of the guys alive to practice fighting more powerful enemies. After five or six runs, most of them are actually beatable one-on-one. But there is still one guy in there that’s too hard (because I suck). So then I’d just run away and watch him fall off the cliff again. And giggle.
The result of all of this is that I’ve had a much better time getting killed over and over again in the undead prison of Dark Souls than I had running around in Skyrim’s pinnacle of high fantasy world design getting mauled by bears. At least the enemies that destroy me here were actually powerful, and not just some freaked out wild life.
Well, except maybe for those giant crows.