Friday, February 10, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #1: Dark Souls

I’m not a fan of difficult games. This may come as a shocking revelation to some of you, given my absolute love of games like Super Meat Boy and the indie PC romp, I Wanna Be The Guy, but the thought of marinating hours of my life in something that will eventually best me is not necessarily what I would describe as an enjoyable experience; I much prefer being entertained within those hours rather than belittled. I was hesitant to pick up Dark Souls at the retail price, but decided to roll the dice on a game that looked to be nothing I find profoundly moving about the action/adventure genre. The looks certainly are not deceiving in this instance, but opposites surely attract.

As the game begins, you are thrust into a treacherous world where everything feels like that of an illusion, as if you’re being perpetually picked on by a higher power – something that fits well into the lore where mankind has been seemingly doomed by a vague plague. Stepping on certain blocks in close corridors can send a ball of fire tumbling down the staircase you’re approaching, or shove arrows into your chest if you left your shield aside (or if your reaction time is too slow).

Dark Souls is, in a word, seductive. The idea of danger waiting around the corner practically picks you up and throws you in that general direction, like a cartoonish aroma delivering an animated dog to a pie’s windowsill. The thrill of the hunt is in full effect with Dark Souls, which often flashes a little thigh in the form of towering giants looming in the background, a glimpse into the impending area’s climax.

That seduction does not cease with the intrigue of difficulty and visuals, either. Perhaps the most intriguing part of Dark Souls is the fact that it is, at its heart, a minimalist effort. The designers focused strongly on the engine, which is solid and rarely feels inconsistent with hit detection (which is key in a game this difficult – if you die, it’s your fault) and the level design, which is among the best I have ever seen in the genre. By the wayside is a text-driven adventure the likes of an Elder Scrolls title, leaving the story solely in the hands of a prologue that speaks in riddles and the brief descriptions of equipment strewn about the map. I find most adventure games off-putting due to their wordy nature and lofty lore; in Dark Souls, the story is but an afterthought, and one that leaves you just as engaged as 1,200 pages of text. Curiosity casts a new light on what little there is to know about your surroundings, the once-humans you slaughter, and the boss confrontations that the entire game slowly builds up to - from introduction to the depressingly-short conclusions, which is the game’s biggest weakness. For more on how the story unfolds within the imagination, I wholly recommend the year's best piece of gaming journalism, Chris Dahlen’s essay on Dark Souls.

Very rarely has an adventure game penetrated the survival horror genre, but lo and behold, Dark Souls is the scariest game of the year. This is not necessarily due to the wraith knights that charge you from the darkness in the New Londo Ruins, or the boulder-chucking strongmen who startle you in the swamps, but a legitimate fear rumbling in your belly, one of making a single wrong turn and losing all you’ve worked for.

With no pause button in sight and bonfire checkpoints few and far between, there is a sinking feeling once you realize the path you’ve been going along is so far removed from the outside world. The world is brilliantly designed with many shortcuts accessible upon completion of a specific area, all of which conveniently lead back to the main hub of the world, the Firelink Shrine - but later in the game these shortcuts become a thing of the past. Approaching the entrance to Lost Izalith, one of the final areas in one of the boss arcs, I realized just how far below the surface I truly was; in order to reach Lost Izalith, I had to pass through the sunny outdoors of the Undead Burg; the creepy labyrinth of the Depths into the poison swamps of Blighttown; traverse the Domain of the spider-woman hybrid, Quelaag; and finally succumb to the flames of hell in Demon Ruins, all just to arrive at the doorstep of a devilishly difficult (and insanely climactic, from a minimalist’s storyline perspective) lair of sorrow to hopefully put a good witch out of her misery. To think of the hours put into the game just to reach this point – not even to count the other branches on the map’s tree that sprout off into other directions, but to solely think of this arc alone – and to realize just how far you have come geographically make you realize that you are on an actual adventure. From my own experience, this is simply unprecedented in video games; it is the type of lore typically reserved for literature alone.

Ultimately, that is a huge reason to love Dark Souls: the exploration. The majority of the world is open right from the start, with paths branching to the underground, the graveyard, and up above. The game never sways you in one direction; I first tried the graveyard only to stumble into the Catacombs, the eeriest area of the entire world map, where enemies resurrect after defeat unless you slay them with a particular weapon. I soon realized that I was perhaps 55 levels too low to be sniffing around in such a terrifying den of burden and smite.

Perhaps Dark Souls is at its best whenever we come to the “It’s too late to turn back now” moments, which the game has dozens of. The game certainly has the reputation to turn a liberal gamer into a staunch conservative when it comes to adventure. You may desire the thrill of finding a rare piece of equipment or exploring a new area, but how much does it mean to you? Is losing hours of progress really worth the risk? How close was the last bonfire? These are the options you must weigh continually, possibly several times per hour, while playing Dark Souls. Those who are brave (and good) enough to explore are more often than not rewarded handsomely.

Of course, the literal “It’s too late to turn back now” moments come in the form of white fog doors, which more often than not represent an impending boss or mini-boss fight. Once you cross through the fog, it does not dissolve until the boss has been eradicated. I found myself scrolling through the menu to find how far I was from accumulating enough souls from enemies in order to bank them by leveling up, or visiting a nearby blacksmith to upgrade a weapon, since souls are used as either experience or currency in Dark Souls. “Oh, I’m only 30 minutes away from leveling up? Let’s hold off, then.”

Playing online is essential to the experience, which provides something entirely new and unique to the art of video games in the form of notes left by other players. At one point in the game you must cross a series of invisible bridges, where only a crystal abyss of inevitable death awaits upon fall. In order to figure out where the bridges begin, turn, ascend, or abruptly end, it can take a lot of patience and photographic memory, or by hopping online, markers left by helpful (or deceitful) players just like yourself. Do you trust the marker that states the path is up ahead? Putting this much faith in a total stranger can be a godsend or a costly, naïve mistake; in order to even reach this point, you must traverse a courtyard filled with golems that can annihilate you in two swings.

At the end of the day, 2011 was littered with a Game of the Year for everyone. I figured to have discovered my own way back in January with Dead Space 2, but found myself coming back to my memories of Dark Souls more often than Isaac Clarke’s second adventure in losing his mind. The trial and error learning curve, “pick your poison” exploration, and overall feeling of satisfaction upon completing what once felt like an insurmountable boss battle is enough to stick with a gamer for a lifetime. Try Dark Souls, because you’ve never had a complete experience this rewarding in gaming.

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