Review: Dark Souls (Xbox 360)

It was tempting to go into this review with a chip on my shoulder, already having decided that I was going to hate Dark Souls and eating up every little perceived flaw I came across and amping myself up to write my hilariously scathing review of it. But I decided that wasn’t really fair to the spirit of fair journalism (such as it exists in the blogosphere) or to the game itself. So, I tried to put all of my preconceived notions and assumptions about the game aside, and go into it with cautious optimism, fully prepared to legitimately like the game if it truly won me over.

Well, it didn’t.

I don’t think there is anything “negative” I can say about Dark Souls that either hasn’t already been said by a fellow Dark Souls hater, or a hardcore Dark Souls fan who sees my cons as the very reasons to love the game. It’s also difficult for me to really let loose on why I truly disliked this game without imagining the millions of gluttons for punishment who love the game cackling with satisfied delight throughout my diatribe. At any rate, here was my experience with Dark Souls.

Everything started out promisingly enough. The game looks pretty good – I was playing the X360 version since I already happened to own it (thank you Games with Gold), and also, console guy over here. And while the opening cutscene was a bit cheesy and overwrought, I’m hardly going to count that against this game in particular because most RPG stories are cheesy and overwrought. The setting was also nothing special, your typical medieval castle-type fare, but again, not every game needs to blow me away with a completely fresh and unique setting so I still wasn’t counting the game out yet. I hacked away at a few undead type creatures, and the action felt entertaining enough. So far, nothing about the game was overwhelmingly special, but nothing was offending me, either. So I journeyed on.

I kept on waiting for the game’s notorious difficulty to kick in, and having sliced up the first few bad guys with ease I knew the game was going to knock me down a peg any minute now, and of course it did. A seemingly unremarkable skeletal soldier took me down with just a few swipes of his sword. Luckily, it hadn’t been that long since I saved, so I reloaded and I was right back there and primed to take my vengeance in short order. And avenge myself I did, with a successful parry and counter attack that I must admit is very satisfying if you manage to land it, as it results in an instant – and gruesome – kill. Feeling a bit more full of myself, I charged ahead, taking down some more grunts like I ran the place. I was getting a bit annoyed with just how many different attacks and moves there were to learn, which I know isn’t something that most people would consider a complaint but I like my action relatively streamlined and I don’t like feeling like I can’t stop playing a game for more than a few days lest I forget how the hell to play it. Of course, this is a personal issue and not necessarily a knock against the game itself, so we won’t dwell on that. What matters is, I was now kicking ass and taking…a giant club to the face, and another trip back to the bonfire (the game’s respawn point after you die).

Surely I wasn’t actually meant to fight that hulking beast already? Maybe I missed another area I needed to explore first. So as I head back to the scene of my grisly murder, I looked around for somewhere else to go, an item I needed to find, a group of enemies I needed to kill in order to pad my stats a bit. No dice. I decided to just take another shot at the creature. I couldn’t seem to avoid very many of his attacks, but mine were doing a decent amount of damage, so I would just attack him, “let him” attack me, and then retreat to take a swig of my health potion. With no potions left and one hit away from my demise, I managed to finish the beast off. And yes, I’ll admit, it was pretty satisfying. Maybe I was getting a taste of what this game was all about. It’s difficult, but not impossible, and most big victories are achieved by the skin of your teeth. Alright, off to the next area.

Shortly after this is where things started to sour for me very quickly. I was exploring the new area the game brought me to, and after pillaging a corpse I took a few steps too far and went plummeting to my death off the side of a cliff. Now, someone who recently spent a weekend kicking the ass of both of the Wii U Super Mario games with his girlfriend – including finally getting all of the star coins in one of them – obviously knows how to navigate jumps in a video game. It’s just that most games that aren’t about jumping don’t let you just walk off of things and die. Fine, I get it. Dark Souls is “old school” and it doesn’t hold your hand or do the kinds of things that these preschool-level new games do like simply not let you walk off of the side of a mountain to your immediate death in an otherwise safe area. Lesson learned. So I revive myself and find a nearby staircase. About halfway down, I read a message that says something like “Why don’t you try jumping off?” Okay, surely a tutorial message knows what its talking about and wouldn’t tell me to…nope, that’s exactly what it did. It told me to jump, and when I jumped, I died. Such fun! Revive again, walk past the note that trolled me the last time, and make my way to an area full of bad guys to kill. Which, surprisingly, I do with relative ease. That is, until I reach the next area where some wraith-like water creatures proceed to kill me with one hit. Which would’ve been frustrating enough, but the last bonfire is quite a ways back and it’s going to take my several minutes to return here. Sigh.

Still, I stuck with it. I wasn’t going to let a few frustrating moments have me giving up that easily. I worked my way all the way back to where those bastards were, this time deciding to take it a little bit slowly, watch their attack pattern for a minute, see if maybe there is something I missed the first time. Nope, dead again. But hey, I lasted for three whole hits this time! I guess I just need to grind it out a bit. Except, the only place currently available for me to grind is a small area filled with idiotic undead beings, most of whom are literally just standing there doing God knows what until I take my first swing at them, and then I finish them off with one or two more. The idea of doing that, over and over again, until I’m magically powerful enough to face those wraiths – and if I don’t happen to be at that level yet, that means death and that same long tedious walk back to the current area – is simply not my idea of fun. Which is exactly what I thought Dark Souls was, and exactly what it turned out to be, and exactly why it’s not the game for me. After I accidentally stepped off of a narrow plank into a body of water that was only a few feet below me and died instantly before I even got back to the wraiths, sending me all the way back to that way far back bonfire, I was done.

I tried, Dark Souls. I really did. But you just aren’t the game for me. What so many see is a refreshing return to the golden years of challenging, old school game progression, I just see as a step backward, to a time when games weren’t designed for adults or people who plan to play more than one game and one game only for six months, and can’t or just don’t really want to spend dozens upon dozens of hours inching their way through a game. The fact that games aren’t like that anymore, and are streamlined a bit and are more designed to keep you moving forward, I see as a welcome evolution of a medium that is more commonly enjoyed by adults with limited time and a lot more great games to choose from (with more disposable income to spend on them) and are designed as such, rather than seeing it as newer games being watered down or oversimplified. To each his own I guess, and obviously the Demon/Dark Souls games have found an audience as the series is three games in with a spiritual fourth on the way. However, that audience is clearly not me. If I only have an hour to play a game – which is quite often the reality for me – I want to spend most of that hour succeeding in it, not 45 minutes failing and 15 succeeding. But, again, that’s just me.