We've all heard that Dark Souls is a ball-breaking experience. But how hard and how fast can it break our balls? We decided to find out. Armed with a copy of the game and a wooden shield, Kotaku AU's Mark Serrels and Tracey Lien each played one hour of the game to see how steely their balls are.
TRACEY’S FIRST HOUR
00:00 — After passing the load screen I’m taken to a character creator. I find it hard to take any kind of character creator system seriously. I have no connection to the game nor do I understand what any of the classes mean – how am I meant to make an informed decision so early on? So, keeping in mind that I will have to slay demons and The Undead, I name my character Trace Face and make her a “Far East Traveller” with a “Very Large Build” (read: Fat Asian). I’ll be playing as a Wanderer. I’m not sure what this means just yet, but my character looks like a Taiwanese cave-woman with a mop for hair.
03:00 — The game begins with my character sitting in a prison cell in the Undead Asylum. An unclothed zombie-like creature is dropped into my cell. Pillaging its body, I obtain a key to let myself out and begin running down a corridor. Each time I see another unclothed zombie minding its own business in the corridor, I instinctively whip out my blade and press R1 to kill it. These guys are completely unarmed and seem to have no intention of doing any harm; their bodies flop around hopelessly as I jab my sword into them. My soul-count is going up, but I also feel like a bit of a jerk.
04:00 — Assuming that my aim is to escape this asylum, I head towards light and open a huge door that I am certain will lead me outside. I’ve been reading messages left on the floor instructing me on the button controls, but I finally encounter one that simply instructs me to “RUN AWAY!” What? Oh, right, there’s an ASYLUM DEMON behind the door I have just opened and it wants to kill me dead. Run!
04:30 — I didn’t run fast enough and got crushed by the demon. Hello death #1!
05:00 — I re-spawn outside the door. This time I know that if I open it the demon will crush me unless I run through a second door, which is a short distance from the first. I push the first set of doors open, the Asylum Demon drops to the ground with a rumbling thud and I begin to run. There are things in the way! I don’t know how to jump! I panic-hit R1, but with every sword slash I do I lose stamina. I eventually hit what I now believe is the “Judo-Roll” button and dive through the second door, which closes behind me. Phew!
09:00 — I start moving around much slower lest I encounter another huge demon behind a door. I encounter another message on the floor instructing me on how I can dash backwards to get out of the way of things. “That’s neat,” I think. And then I am crushed by a giant boulder rolling down a flight of stairs. Well, I guess I should have dashed back. Well, I guess I died. Hello death #2!
13:00 — I re-spawn outside the door that leads me to the Asylum Demon again. This time I make a quick run for it, dashing from the first to second door in nearly no time at all.
15:00 — At the staircase, I now know to leap backwards when the boulder comes down the stairs, smashing a hole into the wall behind me. What I don’t know how to do is time things properly, so I get crushed by the boulder, again. Man. Fortunately this blow doesn't take out all my health.
17:00 — I encounter my first zombie enemy! At the top of a flight of stairs, a naked, awkwardly-moving zombie waves a sword around. To be honest, it looks really pathetic, kind of like a drunk baby with a weapon. Unlike a drunk baby, this is a zombie. Every swipe it delivers to my character knocks off a whole lot of health. These drunk babies are dangerous!
18:00 — Umm, I died. Apparently this game is nothing like God of War. Mashing R1 will only deplete stamina and make my attacks useless. Yeah. Death #3!
19:00 — I re-spawn at the bottom of the staircase and make my way back up with a new lesson under my belt: Dark Souls Is Not God Of War. I’m more strategic in my approach to the zombies. When they approach, I lock on and raise my shield. After they attack, I block before taking a swipe or two to take them out. Yay!
22:00 — Having now taken out three drunk babies, I enter a room where there’s a Big Drunk Baby with a shield. I run towards him and hit R2 to execute a heavy attack. He blocks it with his own shield, knocks me with it and plunges his blade right into my gut. Hello death #4!
25:00 — OK, so shielded drunk baby is a tricky one. I do everything to get back to the room where he is waiting for me. What took me more than ten minutes to do the first few times is now taking me less than two minutes. I enter the room, raise my shield, and take it slowly. He attacks, I block, I attack, he blocks, he attacks, I dash backwards, I finally get in and execute an attack, and he pulls out a healing potion. Wait, what? WHAT!?
27:00 — I die again. I don’t want to talk about it. Death #5.
32:00 — Death #6 and Death #7.
37:00 — I don’t understand how it took me so long to defeat this one enemy with a shield, but hey, I did it! I re-emerge from the room to read a message on the floor. “Hold R1 while plunging”. I walk through a passage way to find myself in the room with the Asylum Demon and I leap off a platform to his level onto to be stomped on. Oh riiiight, so that’s what they meant by holding R1 when plunging! Death #8.
41:00 — I have to do everything again to get back to the room with the Asylum Demon. I take a step off the platform, hold R1, and plunge my sword straight into his face, taking off half his health. What follows is can only be described as a lol-tastic scramble where I keep locking onto the demon, then accidentally unlocking, then having my vision blocked by the demon itself, then not knowing where I am, then dying. Death #9.
49:00 — I get back to the Asylum Demon. I take the plunge. My finger slips off R1. Death #10.
55:00 — I’m back again. I plunge the sword into the demon’s face and begin to judo-roll all over the place in a frantic attempt to avoid getting crushed. To my dismay, judo-rolling reduces my stamina and makes my attacks useless. In my state of panic, I have lost most any of the composure, tact and skill I gained during the hour and go back to playing the game like it’s God of War. Yeah. Death #11.
60:00 — My time is up and I have not even beaten the Asylum Demon, which means I haven’t actually finished the “tutorial level” yet. Wow. Trace Face the Taiwanese cave woman is totally pathetic.
Wrap up I’d heard a lot about Dark Souls before and after its release, none of which made me want to play it. As an impatient and easily frustrated person who doesn’t like being repeatedly punished, Dark Souls didn’t look like it would fit with my idea of fun. And it wasn’t fun. But it was satisfying. It forced me to play in a way I’d never played before; forgetting the times when I mashed R1 early on and during the boss battle, I was methodical, decisive, and took each and every fight seriously.
After an hour of getting my arse kicked and eventually figuring things out for myself, I began to understand why the game has earned such a loyal following – it doesn’t hand-hold in the slightest way and rewards players for trying and failing – this I can at least appreciate. In fact, I appreciate it so much I might continue playing, after I get myself some muscle relaxants. I am so tense right now I think I might have a stroke.
MARK’S FIRST HOUR
00:00 — Update... oh sweet lordy, I should have known. It's been a while since I updated my PS3's Firmware. Dark Souls asks me if I want to use the online functionality. It's 11.30pm here and I have to get this completed at a reasonable hour — so if I have to go through the entire update rigmaroll to get online functionality, the answer to that question will have to be a resounding no.
03:00 — Alright, character creation screen — time to get to creating my character. Being perfectly honest, character creation bores the crap out of me at best. At this stage, having not played the game, it's impossible to have any idea what any these statistics mean in the context of the game. Truly these things are for repeat players on their third or fourth playthrough. Not for me. I rattle through the options, create the most generic character ever devised and move along. I'm going to be staring at the arse-end of a suit of armour for the next hour regardless. Customisation seems meaningless at this stage.
06:00 — Ah, opening cut-scene! This is most definitely delivering the lols (did I really just write that sentence? I'm 30 years old for God's sake). To be perfectly honest I'm finding it quite difficult to take this seriously. It appears to be voiced by a rubbish Dame Judi Dench impersonator doing her level best to sound English and Medieval. I'm pretty sure I just heard a reference to a 'furtive pygmy'. Come on little Pygmy, come out of your shell! I won't hurt you!
Oh, I'm sorry — it's too easy to take the piss. I just wish this faux fantasy nonsense was over so I can get to the game itself.
10:00 — Okay — complete disaster. Just as the game was about to begin, it crashed. What wizardry is this? Have I been cursed by some furtive pygmy. I'm sorry Furtive Pygmy! I take it all back, I was only kidding.
I restart my PS3. How annoying.
00:12 — Alright, now I'm genuinely angry. I've reloaded my game, and bam — it crashed again. Time to take the disc out and give it a quick wipe. Maybe it's got my dirty thumbprint on it or something.
15:00 — Another crash. Bugger this — it's almost 11.45, and I have to get up early for work tomorrow. Alright, maybe it's something to do with the save game itself, maybe I should start from scratch...
20:00 — Finally. After starting from scratch, creating a new character, and skipping through Dame Judi Dench and her furtive pygmy, I'm finally about to start thing properly. Here we go!
23:00 — So, I just lit a bonfire. This fact is heralded by the words 'YOU LIT A BONFIRE' appearing on the screen in an enormous orange font. I bloody well know I lit a bonfire — I'm the one that lit it! My guess is that this is some sort of save/checkpoint system, which will probably increase in significance when I get to the bits where I die a lot.
My first impression of Dark Souls is this: I've been given absolutely no guidance at all, and what little guidance I have been given seems sporadic and weird. 'Press R1 to attack' the game tells me — I probably could have worked that out by myself with a little experimentation. The needlessly complicated way in which you equip new weaponry? I might have needed a little bit of a hand with that to begin with... but nothing.
24:00 — Get AWAY the game screams — via a written message on the screen. Get away from what? Oh, that enormous lumbering beast wielding that giant blunt instrument! Alrighty then! I escape without getting hit. Feeling pretty proud of myself so far — this game is a piece of piss.
32:00 — Alright, hold the bus a minute. I have a couple of questions: why the hell can't I pause the game? What if I need a pee? (I do need a pee). What if my wife calls me to open a jar of pickles? I understand that Dark Souls is supposed to be this uninterrupted experience, but this is ridiculous.
Also, I'm totally lost. I've been wandering in circles for the past couple of minutes and I have no idea where to go. THIS IS NOT GOOD LEVEL DESIGN! THIS IS BEING A DICK FOR THE SAKE OF IT. THIS IS ARTIFICIAL DIFFICULTY!
35:00 — Oh, okay, turns out I was just being an idiot. I didn't notice that hole in the wall over there. I now have a key and I can go through that locked door. Ah well, hurray for progression.
42:00 — So that giant lumbering beast I was supposed to run away from — now I have to fight it. I take back what I said about rubbish design — it's actually quite clever in a sense. I'm shown this enormous monster, taught to be terrified of it, given confidence via the addition of fresh equipment and skills, and then told to go back and fight the thing I was initially terrified of. I like this.
I'm about to go fight the monster for the third time. The first time I just had a shred of health left, so I died immediately.
The second time was awesome. The fight begins with you leaping from a platform. "What if I swing my sword as I leap?" I thought. Turns out if you do that, you drive your sword directly into the beast from the get go, taking half of its life away. Doing it felt awesome. I'm starting to get a feel for precisely why this game is so rewarding to certain people (read:sado-masochists).
48:00 — Okay, so that was my fourth try. I managed to kill the big lumbering beast with the giant blunt instrument. Feeling pretty good about myself right now. A giant message flashes across my television: YOU DEFEATED!
Pretty sure that isn't a complete sentence — we've got the subject, even a verb, but the object is nowhere in sight.
50:00 — 'GOOD JOB! GO STRAIGHT AHEAD' the game tells me. Thanks Dark Souls, now where is that furtive pygmy I was promised? Oh, you've provided me with a giant flying bird instead, to transport me to the next level. Alright, I guess that'll work. For now.
52:00 — Okay... that was interesting. I've just had a conversation with a camp individual who sounds like a medieval Kenneth Williams. "Oooh," he says, "you must be a new arrival." No shit Sherlock, I just arrived on a giant bird.
He tells me I now have two choices: I can climb up to the top of a decrepit castle and ring a bell, or I can go down into the pits of hell and ring... a bell.
Why ring one bell when you can ring two — that's my motto. [Tracey’s note: Wtf?]
57:00 — The story so far: I went down into a mad cave. I fought some zombie dudes — loads in fact. Then I fell into some water and I died. I got a bit frustrated by that. It's now 12.25 where I am. Starting to fade... I want to go and sleep now.
60:00 — I went up this time, to get the other bell. Two Skeletons slapped the complete crap out of me. I'm dead. Bugger this, I'm off to bed.
Wrap up To be perfectly honest, I'm not exactly sure if playing Dark Souls for a single hour is the best way to experience it; it's a game that needs to be learned and practiced as a skill, it's not really something that's passively experienced.
Towards the end I began to enjoy the raw combat of it, and the different ways to approach enemies. It felt good to be rewarded for experimentation as opposed to simply bashing buttons more furiously.
That said, in the rush to make a fetish of the sheer difficulty of Dark Souls, I think folks have had the tendency to ignore what amounts to nothing more that poor design decisions. Not being able to pause isn't fun, it makes the game difficult in a sense, but it also makes it incredibly inconvenient. That's not uncompromising, it's just a little bit silly.
It is, however, all about the reward. That's what makes it compelling. Most action games reward you randomly for smashing buttons like some schizophrenic Skinner Box. Dark Souls feels precise, you are rewarded for a reason — and that feels nice.