This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Dark Souls.
So the major Quarter 1 releases are only properly kicking in around the end of the month. I am currently awaiting that period the way a surly abusive drunk awaits his sandwich, but one of the titles that stands on the horizon mockingly slapping its bum at me is Dark Souls II. Now, I never reviewed Dark Souls because other titles were out and my playtime was limited, and every time I sat down to it, it was like walking into a dark shed full of rakes, immediately treading on one and getting blatted in the face. Other people with more time on their hands started telling me it was the greatest thing since tummy-rubs, so I'd go back in the shed thinking, "Well, maybe there was just the one rake," before BLAT in the face again!
So I left it for a while, but this week with plenty of free time in my schedule, I thought to myself, "Last chance! I'll just keep tanking the rakes and maybe I'll somehow become really psychotically into being rake-faced just in time to be prepared for the sequel." And I'll be blatted in the face with a rake if that isn't kind of what happened. I've been raking myself all week right up to bedtime, I'm at risk of going blind!
You see, I resisted Dark Souls partly because people kept telling me, "It's good once you're used to it" and I've always held that the same thing can be said about being boiled alive, so I'd ask them to explain why it's good and they'd reply, "Ooh, we can't tell you. You'll just have to find out for yourself." And then I'd say, "Shut up or fuck off, ideally both, in either order!" But then after watching a decent Let's Play of the game, gone over the wiki a few times and a six week preparation with a team of advisors and physical trainers, I was able to break through the wall. And I suppose that's the first failing of Dark Souls; that you need the fucking Cliff's Notes to get into it.
It's a game that depends on shared knowledge, hence presumably the mechanic wherein players can leave little Post-It notes for each other, but the ones that say anything as helpful as "Hey, you can only summon helpers in boss fights when you're Unhollowed," or "Look, here's a narrow and easy to miss path down which lies the rest of the fucking game" are in a vast minority to the ones that say "Try Jumping" right next to bottomless pits. How witty of you, random player, and only getting wittier after fifty fucking times!
I'd say the turning point was some ways in when I thought "Maybe I'll try this boss again, or maybe I'll explore the three other areas that opened up after I've wrangled the Sacred Vest of St. Bumnose." And then it hit me; that's Symphony of the Night thinking, and I loved Symphony of the Night! But no non-2D games have captured the essence of metroidvania, I'd argue, since Metroid Prime. And then I knew where we all were and was free hereafter to happily halberd hellspawn. The game sparkles then, when it starts sprawling like pavement puke after a night on the Goldschläger, but first impressions let it down 'cos for the first couple of hours, there's really only one way to go and it ends with a boss fight on a roof that's about as forgiving as a stand-up gig at the Nuremberg trials.
And while it's fine that the game seems to court the hardcore audience, a gentler barrier to entry might have turned less new players off, and more to the point, made the ones that did get through a bit less insufferably smug. "Oh yes, that boss fight is easy-peasy as long as you've got the Orange Listerine Ring, which you must have found because it's right there, in the open, in a chest in a basement in a different postcode behind two secret walls and a fire!"
Dark Souls has one of my favourite methods of storytelling, which is to say not telling it. There are few cutscenes, very little exposition, no spunky love interest with prominent visible cleavage (unless you count the one with the giant spider for an arse.) There's no big villain either; the closest thing to a villain is the inevitable entropic decay of the universe. You are an undead, a lone cursed being in a dying world where all the great gods and noble heroes have either abandoned you or gone insane, and you must put them all out of their misery in the slim hope of extending everyone's shitty lives for a few more years. In other words, it's kind of like being the Grateful Dead on tour.
Much like the original Half-Life, your level of involvement in the plot is pretty much up to you. Maybe you'll wonder why this giant wolf is trying to shiv you for getting too close to a mysterious grave, or maybe you won't, or assume he mistook it for a fire hydrant, who cares? Another unfeasably big thing to kill, yeah! Now let's kill all the merchants for a laugh! There's a certain liberty in hopeless, isn't there? 'Cos things can't get one hundred and one percent fucked.
The environment is what truly tells the story of Dark Souls. I wish it was a rule that you can only put stuff in your skybox if the player gets to visit it at some point 'cos then, say, the Syndicate FPS would've looked like it was taking place inside a ping-pong ball while Dark Souls would be laughing, 'cos if you ever see a distant tower or ruin in the distance, then chances are you'll go there at some point and chances are there's something big inside it whose favourite food is your face. The environment design reminds me very strongly of Painkiller's, all massive catacombs and lordly halls, most of which seemed to have been designed for someone twenty feet taller than you for some reason.
It also has that Painkiller quality where it looks like they designed the environment first and figured out how you get around it second. There's a bit in the big palace area where the only way forward is to run up and over a decorative buttress while being shot at by arrow snipers who've apparently resigned themselves to the fact that they're not gonna make any new friends in this job. It all goes together to create this crushing sense of being a tiny helpless thing buzzing around the remnants of a once-mighty world, like someone who follows the Grateful Dead on tour.
So it turns out it's actually quite easy to explain why Dark Souls is good. It's because it's deep, and dripping with atmosphere like Barry White's sweatiest armpit, the Silent Hill 2 brand of atmosphere. The constant oppression weighing down on you like a whale scrotum rucksack, so that the moments of victory upon killing the giant whale scrotum monster are all the more cathartic before another dump-truck full of whale scrotums upends upon your head.
It is harsh, but it's also fair. "Ha ha!" you might say, "You hammered me into the size and shape of a deflated paddling pool the last three times we've met, boss monster! But now I know all of your attack patterns and I'm basically Fantasy Batman!" Indeed I was almost disappointed by how easy the boss fights got in the late game, once I was properly equipped and in the zone. Their sheer size stops being intimidating when you realize that a significant percentage of them are weak to the strategy of burying your face in their arse, slashing at their back leg and rolling away whenever they start winding up their stomp attack for the requisite eleven and a half minutes.
And now I am in the zone, I'm gonna be fucking ruined for the usual standard of game difficulty. Gonna have to play the new Thief with a lobster on each bollock.
- Envious of people with souls: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- For the sequel I'd like to request a bit less of that running along bridges the width of a womble's willy
- Can I propose an all-underwater sequel called 'Shark Souls'