Dark Souls fanboy Dave Cook reckons you have absolutely no excuse not to check out From Software's RPG when it goes free on Xbox Live in June. Seriously, it'd be foolish not to.
Regular readers will know I'm a little bit obsessed with Dark Souls. Instead of reviewing the second game I kept a massive journal of the whole play-through because I'm clearly nuts. I even have a piece of fan art tattooed on my arm. I love games, but for a title to get me this passionate while I'm splitting my attention across so many releases is rare. Kudos From Software.
Dark Souls fans are a bit like Breaking Bad fans. If you tell them you've never experienced the series before, chances are they'll gasp in surprise and tell you why you absolutely need to DROP EVERYTHING RIGHT NOW and play it. That's the same sort of pestering that put me off watching The Wire when the hype exploded several years back. I still haven't watched that fucking show...
But hear me out folks, because Dark Souls is going free on Xbox 360 as part of Microsoft's Games with Gold program and yes, even if you come away loathing the experience, you should still try it out. It's one of those games that might seem ropey or dull at face value, but once you feel it in your hands and beat the first boss you'll either emerge a total convert or another casualty of its harsh challenge. It could even change the way you view all games afterwards.
Jury at the ready? Good, then allow me to present my case:
Because games are getting easier
There are still games out there with crushing difficulty, but modern game development in the majority favours instant gratification without the player really earning it. Intrusive sign-posting has you chasing big glowing arrows and crumb trails with dull obedience like a dog and scripted set-pieces create a mass disconnect of control. The days of working hard and using skill to earn rewards are diminishing, and that's really sad.
Dark Souls is a game that kicks you to the ground every chance it gets, but always extends a hand to help you get back up again. Even low-level grunts are capable of killing you in seconds if you're foolish, and that's the point, because I guarantee that once you get killed for doing something reckless in this game, you'll never do it again. You learn hard lessons from your mistakes, and with a degree of self-discipline you will get a little further each time.
That's how games used to be. It's a process those who have legitimately completed something like Mega Man 2 without ROM saves will understand full well. There's no easy shortcut in Dark Souls, and there's absolutely no sign-posting to speak of. You'll explore the open world of Lordran lost and confused until something makes it all click. This could be victory of a particular boss, opening up a hidden route, or some other personal milestone. The feeling that comes with it all falling into place is indescribable, and beyond compare in my opinion.
Because it makes you feel... something
Continuing this discussion about how Dark Souls 'feels' it's worth pointing out that because this is a hard game, it's understandably going to get you massively pissed off, upset or elated when you do something right for a change. All too often the scripted gratification coming out of modern games falls flat. I can only look at so many big explosions before the impact is diminished after all, but I have genuinely felt fear, happiness, upset and seething anger while playing Dark Souls.
That's because it's a personal journey that doesn't really tell you what to do. If you want to run around in a pair of furry pants hitting rats with a shite club then that's entirely your choice. From Software's levelling mechanic is ingenious because you'll earn souls for every enemy killed, and these are then spent at bonfires to raise your character's stats. Die and your souls drop with your corpse. If you get killed before you reclaim your body and souls you lose the lot.
The pressure that comes with deciding whether or not to bank souls or keep pressing on is superb, and kept me engaged like no other game. You're constantly on edge, but there's a strange calmness to it all. Then there's the fog gates, big shrouds that block certain paths. Do you pass through with 50,000 souls in your possession and risk being slaughtered by a boss on the other side, or is there something less dangerous through the mist? That's the gamble of course, and you only have yourself to blame for that potential mistake.
Because it has atmosphere
Few games have such a unique atmosphere as Demon's Souls and both Dark Souls games. They're just so identifiable with their familiar tropes, sound effects, design elements and other factors that are hard to convey until you actually sit down and play them. One thing is certain in a 'souls' game however; they're depressing as all hell, and that actually makes them enjoyable.
From the dark, disease-riddled swamps of Blighttown to the murky darkness of Sen's Fortress, there's something both tragic and endearing about Lordran. You'll start to feel low at the raw despair seeping through your screen, yet you'll wonder how, exactly, the world got into such a sorry state. You'll trudge through dark, barely-lit corridors facing almost certain death, making up little stories in your head as you go.
From Software never babies you with reams of plot exposition or dialogue. You're told so little in fact that your imagination starts to wander and pretty quickly you're filling in the blanks. It's all backed up by the unmistakable tonal elements, like the swirling sound of bonfire save points and the brilliant effect that plays when you die. You know a Dark Souls game when you see or hear one, and that's definitely a positive.
Because of those water-cooler moments
Many of my friends play Dark Souls, and you'd be amazed at how many stories we've shared. I still get asked about the tactics I used to defeat certain bosses, where rare items can be found, and oh so many questions regarding stats. The game's up there with the likes of Fallout and Skyrim in terms of those personal water-cooler stories that see you spinning yarns about your own personal victories and methodology. It's a game that breeds anecdotes.
I could discuss these games with another fan long into the night, and you only need to visit a Dark Souls forum or community to see just how passionate it makes players. Did I summon Sunbro to help me defeat Gwyn? How did I defeat Ornstein and Smough? What are the benefits of having a fire weapon over a lightning sword? Where are the unique armour sets found? Is there a place to quickly farm souls?
These are all conversations I've had with actual living people face-to-face. I can't recall many games that have triggered this level of participation, discussion and collaboration. Thanks to Dark Souls' online mechanic - that enables players to leave tips for others in the world - there's a certain ownership that makes it feel like we're all trying to complete the game together. We're a helpful, chatty bunch of gamers. You'd like to get to know us.
Because it still does new things
I'll keep this one short, because if you made it this far you've probably figured out that I have high praise for Dark Souls.
This much praise:
This game came out in 2011, and although it has ropey visuals, awkward controls and various glitches, it still feels fresh to this day. I've said before that it has a unique tone, a refreshing challenge and a high capacity for creating memorable moments worthy of discussion, but you know what? I absolutely mean that. It's been an absolutely joy to slog through Dark Souls, to feel my own ability and understanding of its harsh laws grow and improve.
Once you come out the other end and see the credits roll, you'll be offered a chance to do it all again in New Game+ mode. I did that straight away after taking 60 hours to finish it first time through. That was because I knew what the game demanded of me, and I was armed with the knowledge to dispense some sweet payback on all the enemies that caused me such grief at first pass.
Ultimately, you'll feel like you've truly earned the right to feel good about what you've done, instead of being patronised with gratification for doing nothing.
That's why you should play Dark Souls next month.