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Launching Dark Souls: Do you think you’re hard enough?

Friday, 7th October 2011 08:10 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Dark Souls hits shelves today, and it’s no cake walk. But is it hard, or have we grown soft? Brenna Hillier plumps for the latter.

From Software Want You To Die

Originally announced as “Project Dark”.

Dark Souls is the spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls; Sony’s retention of the Demon’s Souls rights is why we don’t have a direct sequel.

Demon’s Souls is itself a spiritual successor to the equally devilishly hard King’s Field series.

From Software’s other products include the unforgiving Armored Core, Echo Night and Evergrace series.

If you haven’t heard, Dark Souls is hard. Oh boy, is it hard. Controller-smashing hard. Fist-through-monitor hard. Disc-in-the-microwave hard. And, most tellingly, break-out-a-play-guide hard.

A games critic once told me that if you need to consult a guide while playing a game, then the designer did something wrong. That’s a common attitude among marketers and focus groups which gets passed back to developers and designers, because the assumption is that if a player needs help, a game is inaccessible or broken. If a game frustrates a player, they’ll stop, and refuse to hand over their precious cash money. Since gamers are so capricious, unskilled, and stupid, making a game difficult is like setting your money on fire.

Despite that notion, Dark Souls is so hard that its publisher Namco Bandai doesn’t even pretend you won’t need help. Like the European release of its precursor Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls comes bundled with a small play guide, right there in the packaging. This won’t be the case once launch stocks run out, but by then it won’t matter. The Internet will have all the information you need.

Having played the game for a week now without that guide, I have to say I wish the Internet already had all the information I need. When I first had the game in my hands, I swore not to post any spoilers. Two hours later I was on Twitter begging for advice from other early access elite, spoilers bedamned.

But that doesn’t mean the game is too hard. That just means I’m playing it right.

“One day will this be over?”

Expectation Management
One of my friends whose taste I would otherwise trust implicitly didn’t like Demon’s Souls. “I played it for an hour and every time I died I had to start from the beginning again,” he complained. “And everything could kill me in like, one hit!”

Tellingly, he joked about it, saying that he went back to game that liked him the way he is. That’s exactly what Demon’s and Dark Souls don’t do. They refuse to let you bring in the habits you’ve built over the course of dozens of other games. They refuse to ease you in. They just plonk you down and expect you to figure things out, and if you’re expecting an action game rather than a survival horror with an emphasis on precise controls, you’re in for an unpleasant experience while you adjust.

The tutorials are laughable – messages on the ground which explain the controls one by one, completely overlooking any advice on what to do with these button prompts and failing to explain more complicated manoeuvres, or even basic rules like “never let go of the block button”. If you want to know how to play the game, you need to look in the manual, or ask someone more experienced.

That’s the Dark Souls experience in a nutshell. The developer doesn’t teach you how to play; players have to learn how to play, and share the knowledge between them. It’s a culture rooted in the earliest days of Western RPGs like Wizardry, when poor translations had Japanese players turning to magazines and primitive bulletin boards in desperation, searching for the answers to puzzles and explanations for the mystifying walls of text and numbers in the menus.

Now Japan’s handballed that experience back to us; by design, From Software have created an old-school collaborative experience. No voice chat. No AI assistance. If you want to know the answer, you have to turn to good old fashioned text – although in a delightful sop to modern sensibilities, you can leave your frantic calls for assistance or suggestions for other players right there in the game.

Take your time, respect gating, approach each encounter as if it could be your last – it can! – and see the difficult encounters as puzzles to be solved, and you’ll find that with a little practice, a little patience, a lot of luck and an eye to good advice, Dark Souls isn’t that hard. But you are. You’re a badass. Badasses don’t need checkpoints.

“You best believe boy; there’s hell to pay.”

Payday?
The world has changed since Sony passed over a Western release for Demon’s Souls – by its own admission, shortsightedly.

Here’s a nice illustration of what that world was like. Around the same time From Software would have been in lock down for the Japanese launch of its PlayStation 3 exclusive, Fable II was rocking the charts – an action RPG designed so it can be played by a blind child’s feet – and we were a few months on from the announcement of Kinect.

“Accessibility,” the industry seemed to be screaming. “Get rid of those nasty, complicated controls! They scare people off.”

Most mainstream, bestselling games – most games in general – are, to be frank, not that difficult. If they were, none of us would have time to learn to play them. A sequence of images plays across the screen and you press buttons at the correct time. Very few require creative or strategic thought, or genuine problem solving. They point you down a straight corridor at a problem and ask you to press X to win. Master the movement of a reticule, and you’re already a winner.

Is it any wonder Sony took one look at Demon’s Souls – a game which merrily dishes out a one-hit kill to the player in the “tutorial”, providing they even get that far – and decided it had limited appeal?

But in the interim, the success of Demon’s Souls has planted a seed of doubt. We can thank the import crowd, early adopters who try out most new Japanese releases, for spreading the word that the English-language Asian release was worth a look. Atlus USA hesitantly issued a small localised print run, thereby igniting the slow-burn cult hit which saw its investment well repaid.

The opening cinematic sets the tone: despair.

The community that grew up around Demon’s Souls has been baying for Dark Souls since From first dropped a hint or two that such a thing might conceivably exist, maybe. Their delighted embrace is assured, and the devoted reception of critics and games writers is little surprise; when you spend all day every day working with games, you eventually reach a saturation point on the common genres. You start to crave something which ignores the tropes.

What does come as something of a shock is the buzz Dark Souls is pulling from Joe Internet. We’ve all seen quality games with massively expensive marketing go under the radar regardless; Dark Souls has clearly avoided that fate. Everyone wants a crack at a game guaranteed to challenge, frustrate, and ultimately, reward.

With Dark Souls, Namco Bandai made a bet. It’s gambled that there is a significant enough number of gamers who aren’t stupid, who have played a game before in their lives, who can handle having to turn to the manual, or an FAQ, or even just to the in-game tool tips, without needing an AI yelling advice in their ears. It’s touching to discover that a publisher has that faith in us, and even more pleasant to see that they may have been right.

Dark Souls launches today for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Hit me up on Twitter if you need a hand. I assure you, you’re Doing It Right.

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18 Comments

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  1. locus2k1

    I played for a couple of hours last night… got to the second boss but I have died about 6-7 times before reaching him :D I’m really enjoying it, I just hope there will be a patch for the controls on 360 as although it felt comfortable using/holding down L1 all the time (Shield) on the PS3′s Demons’ Souls it just doesn’t feel right on the Left Bumper.

    Still it isn’t a big enough hindrance to stop me playing this masterpiece :)

    #1 3 years ago
  2. Deacon

    I struggle to think of a better shield button.

    I played Demon’s again last night in anticipation of Dark arriving today… within 30 minutes I was completely hooked all over again, and managed to take down a few bosses on my first encounter with them : ) this pleased me.

    THE WORLD NEEDS MORE CHALLENGING GAMES LIKE THESE!!

    Nice article btw Brenna!

    #2 3 years ago
  3. dtyk

    I think I have died around 15 times against the Bell Gargoyles already…. oh god….

    #3 3 years ago
  4. Chino86

    Sadly I popped this in last night with a mate and we couldn’t play together by summoning in the same location. They’ve changed the online play and people can’t play together any more due to many different lobbies and servers. There’s loads of people complaining about it on the official forums and it’s starting to hit news sites.

    Was gutting to see as me and my mate had an amazing time with Demon’s Souls. They’ve taken away one of the best parts of the experience. :(

    http://www.co-optimus.com/article/6965/co-op-rant-dark-souls-server-co-op-debacle.html

    #4 3 years ago
  5. Deacon

    @4 – Having never coordinated a specific co-op session in Demon’s, I’m impartial to this development.

    I can see how many will be annoyed with this, but then I also respect From’s ‘vision’.

    Demon’s / Dark, while having a multiplayer aspect, are primarily not multiplayer games (IMO). From would have pushed it as a coop RPG if that were the case.

    I see the online components (barring PVP) as more of a helping hand, than a viable way of playing through the entire game.

    And while I’d love a true coop DS-esque game, I think you’d lose a lot of the challenge and atmosphere in the process.

    #5 3 years ago
  6. Freek

    No we haven’t grown soft, Dark Souls is deliberatly designed to be super difficult, to anoy and to frustrate.
    Old school games were rarely like that. Zelda or Super Mario back the SNES and NES days diden’t do that.
    It diden’t allow players to place message deliberatly trying to kill you “for fun”, it wasn’t deliberatrly designed to murder you at every corner to just to be “hard”.
    Old arcade games, sure, they did that in order to eat your quarters, but in other places? No, it wasn’t the norm.

    Dark Souls is a particular kind of game with a verry deliberate vision and design that apeals to a particular kind of person. I woulden’t have played it 10 years ago and I’m not about to play it now, not because I think it’s bad, just that I know it’s not my style of game.

    #6 3 years ago
  7. 2plus2equals5

    I don’t have it but is dark souls really this difficult?
    Am i the only one who thinks that demon’s soul is easy?
    In ds i cleared entire levels at the first attempt without dying, for example i made the 1-4, 1-4 boss, 1-5 dying at the 1-5 boss.
    The only reason why ds is “hard” is because we need to redo the entire level when we die. Result? With quicksaves we can retry n times a boss fight while in ds in same time we have to redo an entire level(with the risk of dying) to reach the boss and retry.
    Think about it, try to play without saving a random game with a good difficulty and no health regeneration.

    Quicksaves make games “easy” while repeating an entire level makes games “hard”. I think that the best thing to do is to insert one checkpoint in the middle of the level.

    #7 3 years ago
  8. Telepathic.Geometry

    Just got home from work, just popped the game in, wish me luck guys. :^D

    #8 3 years ago
  9. quadfather

    Very nice article

    #9 3 years ago
  10. viralshag

    @8 Good luck, dude. :D

    #10 3 years ago
  11. Deacon

    Good luck to us all…

    I’m primed and ready to go!

    #11 3 years ago
  12. Digital Gigolo

    Excellent article Brenna. I’ll certainly take up your offer of help should I get stuck.

    #12 3 years ago
  13. Telepathic.Geometry

    Aaargh, I’ve been sucker punched by four motherfuckers!

    #13 3 years ago
  14. Len

    It’s brilliant, lvl 20 about 16hrs in after defeating those bloody gargoyles and now have far too many places to go all of which terrify me.

    Love it… :)

    #14 3 years ago
  15. viralshag

    “Aaargh, I’ve been sucker punched by four motherfuckers!” – Lol

    I can’t wait to get home and try this bad boy out. Sorry Rage, you’re going to have to wait until I need to check some emails or something and pull myself away from the PS3.

    #15 3 years ago
  16. jldoom

    @15 I definitely picked this up instead of Rage lol. And do not regret it! Died so many times already…it’s horrific, but awesome at the same time.

    #16 3 years ago
  17. Telepathic.Geometry

    Mental note: Never attack the badass motherfucker on the cover. X^o

    #17 3 years ago
  18. Telepathic.Geometry

    Shit, I fucking KNEW it was alive. :-/

    #18 3 years ago