People play video games for different reasons. Some want a mindless time-filler. Others long for a little easygoing fantasy adventure. And many seek out a bit of light strategic brain-teasing. Namco Bandai’s action-adventure role-playing game, Dark Souls won’t satisfy any of them; it’s neither mindless, easygoing nor light.
This is a game designed specifically for those seasoned gamers who want an uphill slog through grimy graveyards. It’s for folks who love a digital challenge so difficult that just making it through is a relief-filled victory. Think of it like lifting a grand piano off your toe: You rejoice when you manage it because the pain finally stops.
Play. Die. Repeat.
Dark Souls is a bloody third-person sword-slasher and magic-blaster that’s pretty hard to pin down from a plot perspective. It takes place in a gloomy netherworld consumed by death, demons, dragons and dementia. Gamers create a soulless, cadaverous avatar for themselves—plucked from a list of 10 different spell- or weapons-focused classes, such as Warrior, Bandit or Sorcerer—and initially scratch their way free from a rank, malodorous prison of the undead. From there the goal is to kill foes, suck out their souls and somehow lift a curse from the land, stoking a flickering otherworldly fire that’s just barely keeping mankind alive.
Gameplay comes down to putting one gnarled foot in front of the other and moving forward through the distinct, deadly environments of a massive realm, figuring out how to kill every charging knight, screaming gargoyle, fiery Minotaur and knife-wielding wolf you may encounter.
While doing this, two basic things happen over and over and over again: 1) You collect souls that can be stored and used as currency to level up and improve your weapons, armor and spells. 2) You die.
Being hacked and slaughtered and then rising again is a central part of the game’s punishing mechanic. You can’t escape it. And you’re not supposed to. Each gruesome-looking boss is suited to his or her environment and endowed with a unique attack advantage. The key to being able to move through is essentially to die and die and die and die again until you finally figure out some small chink in your enemy’s otherwise impenetrable defenses.
That seemingly unending run at death comes courtesy of thrusts and slashes of sword and spear, tooth and nail, pike and ax, arrow and throwing knife, and, of course, flesh-searing magic. It comes courtesy, in one ghastly environ and as one example, of a gigantic lava-spewing monster that has a spider’s body and a woman’s head and upper torso—her naked chest obscured only by long black hair. It results in a glamorized brutality awash in blood and littered with piles of corpses from humans and mythical otherworldly creatures alike.
The Specter of … Other Gamers
A unique online feature “allows” you to see ghost-like images of other gamers—giving the sense that there are many parallel worlds at war just slightly overlapping yours. You can then create messages that will cross the spectral barrier and help give guidance in a certain battle, and you can summon someone to your corporal world for help. You can also tap into a fallen parallel player’s bloodstain to see just what he did wrong before his inevitable squashing.
Even with that Internet-connected aid, however, Dark Souls remains a long, grinding and dark gaming experience. It’s a difficult, spiritually tortured trip that’s both disturbing and exasperating. A reviewer at gamespot.com called it “an unforgettable adventure that seeps into your being and invades your thoughts.” And I would agree. Just not in the “good” way that site settles on. In fact, after suffering through this macabre and painful gaming experience … I think I might rather opt for that piano on my toe.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.