I’m now 24 hours into Dark Souls, the successor to 2009’s brilliant and challenging role-playing game Demon’s Souls. I have, of course, died many times in my struggle to become un-undead. I have killed a half-dozen of its major demons, explored deeply its open world, but have just barely begun to scratch its hard surface.
You’ve likely heard again and again that Dark Souls, like its predecessor, is an unforgiving, uniquely challenging game. It requires patience, trial and error, experimentation and — unless played observantly and very carefully — many deaths. Its rules are sometimes obtuse, often esoteric. Rather than try to drill into you just how punishing Dark Souls can often be, let’s explore why it’s a more difficult game than Demon’s Souls. And I’ll try to help explain some of Dark Souls arcane systems — Humanity, Bonfires and Hollowing — along the way.
Your first minutes in Dark Souls, after choosing a starting character class and selecting your character’s “gift” from a moderately helpful selection of items will be spent in an asylum that serves as the game’s tutorial. After learning the basics of combat, which are precisely Demon’s Souls save for a few new lunging attacks, you’ll face the the massive Asylum Demon. He’s the ultimate test of your novice combat abilities, easier to defeat than his Demon’s Souls counterpart Vanguard, but still an immense challenge. He recently laid waste to my Kotaku colleagues at Tokyo Game Show an impressive nine times in a row, but I managed to dispatch him on a second attempt.
From there, players are escorted by a very large, seemingly friendly raven into Dark Souls‘ huge open world. They’ll see their first Bonfire, a brief moment of respite and comfort, as beautifully morose music plays. At fires, players can rest, regaining their health, refilling their life-restoring Estus Flask and more. It’s at these fires that players can also level up their character’s abilities and regain their human forms. Later, they’ll be able to repair and upgrade their weapons and armour, access the Bottomless Box and stoke the flames of their Bonfires.
While they may look like checkpoints of a sort, a place to regain one’s strength and spend souls levelling up, it can be argued that Bonfires serve to make Dark Souls even more difficult. Visiting one of these camps resets the world, respawning its enemies. Players must consider whether the replenishment of one’s health and the investment of whatever souls they’re carrying is worth reviving everything they’ve just defeated.
A player’s first Bonfire serves as something of a hub. Nearby are pathways to Dark Souls various threats. Below you, a graveyard and the Catacombs, both stalked by skeletal warriors who attack in pairs and offer no souls as reward when defeated. Directly beneath the camp, a cobblestone stairway to the New Londo Ruins. In this sunken city, your fellow undead have gone mad, apparently one of the consequences of suffering as a living dead. The Ruins are haunted by specters, cruel enemies who walk through walls and can attack the player from walkways above and below. Up above the camp, the Undead Burg, a fortified city that’s perhaps the safest choice for new players.
The main camp is where Dark Souls‘ still human survivors gather. Clerics, sorcerers, smiths and tradesman wait nearby in this solace. Players will “collect” them as the game progresses, freeing them from captivity, much like the support characters of Demon’s Souls. Like that game, it’s difficult to know who trust, as the cracks in their sanity often show through verbal exchanges.
Players will be told by the first friendly face they meet that two bell towers must be visited, the first in the medieval town called Undead Burg. What lies in wait for them are brutally challenging enemies, from undead soldiers that attack in groups to the low-ranking (but still massive) demons that serve as mid-level bosses to the giant Belfry Gargoyles.
Like Demon’s Souls, getting from point A (campfire) to point B (bell tower) is viciously hard. Tread carefully, for the strength of your enemies do not align with your character’s. A massive wyvern will have no qualms about burning you to a crisp as you head toward the church. Heavily armoured knights wielding swords the size of your body will happily run you through for a one-hit kill. Expect to be poisoned, crushed, stabbed and set ablaze again and again.
Fortunately, Dark Souls‘ world is thick with shortcuts and secret passages, making successive runs through the Undead Burg slightly easier. With patience and perseverance comes progress.
Eventually, they’ll make it to the Belfry Gargoyles, who attack in a pair in a fashion similar to Demon’s Souls Maneaters. Yes, From Software is throwing the equivalent of one of the most difficult encounters in its last game at players very early on. Players in human form will have the option to summon the friendly phantom version of a non-player character, sun worshipper Solaire of Astora, to the fight if they choose to do so.
It’s a hard battle, but less so when fought carefully and with a friend. It’s one of the rare moments when Dark Souls feels like it’s doing players something resembling a favour.
Players likely won’t feel that way after coming to grips with many of Dark Souls other gameplay components. The concept of Humanity, for example, is one of From Software’s new challenges. Players start with zero Humanity, with an emaciated corpse-like body to reaffirm that status. Players can boost it by consuming black sprites known as, well, Humanity and Twin Humanities. Doing so will boost their attack, defence and resistances to afflictions like curses. If undead, players can then cash in that Humanity to “reverse hollowing” and regain their human forms. Should they die while in living form or with some Humanity intact, they’ll be able to reclaim it (along with whatever souls they dropped) by touching the bloodstain left at the scene of their previous death.
On Humanity, the Dark Souls manual, largely uninformative though it may be for a game of this scope, warns of Vagrants. These are born when players drop certain items or a large Humanity count upon death. Vagrants are sent to invade other players worlds.
Dark Souls is more challenging for another reason alluded to earlier. Some enemies simply do not drop souls, the currency used to level up or buy goods and services, upon death. The formidable skeletons and specters players can choose to face early on drop little to nothing of value. Players looking to farm souls and grind to a more powerful character will find themselves starving for souls.
There were moments in my first 24 hours that I thought From Software too cruel. I once found myself cursed by some beasts dwelling in The Depths beneath the Undead Burg, an affliction that not only killed my character instantly, but halved its maximum hit points. Then I was cursed again, stacking the damage. I fought for four hours at one-quarter of my health, desperately seeking a cure. Surely, I thought, there must be some mistake. How could they do this to me?
There is no relief. As enemies now relentlessly pursue the player, seeing them from far away and never giving up chase.
There are, however, moments of forgiveness. Shortcuts and friendly blacksmiths who upgrade armour and weapon with the material Titanite; the option to forge and mend weapons without needing to visiting one of those smiths; the ability to sacrifice some humanity to boost a Bonfire, giving the player a stronger Estus Flask.
Despite the cruelty and harshness thrown at the player, Dark Souls is still wonderful to play. Hand-to-hand combat is smart, broad and deep. There is a much larger array of weaponry, suits of armour and mysterious items. It is still fascinating to peel away its layers, to discover how its many components weave together, for gone are concepts from the previous game that governed World Tendency, Character Tendency and the variance between body and soul forms.
Dark Souls is also a much more beautiful game to take in than its predecessor. Its environments are at times brightly coloured and lush, at other dark, dank and revolting. Beautiful and fascinating though it may be, the first 24 hours have been horrific and adrenaline-fueled. I’ve suffered a lack of sleep from playing, in part due to the late night invigorations of fighting huge demons and dragons.
There’s still much to do. Far beyond the Belfry Gargoyles, I’m still only a fraction of my way through this world. Intensely difficult though it may be, I’m ecstatic to further plumb its bleak and unforgiving depths. In fact, I think I’ll get started on my 25th hour of hell right now. So far, it’s been heaven.
Stay tuned for further impressions over the coming weeks, including a look at the Xbox 360 release of Dark Souls.