3am, December the 26th 2010. The quiet of the night was shattered, almost at the same time as the controller as it ricocheted off the wall and landled in a mangled heap in the corner of the room. The cat investigated, found nothing of interest or tasty to eat, and returned to it’s warm spot at the edge of the couch.
“Fuck, fuck, FUCK IT ALL”
I exclaimed as I died for about the fourteenth time in The Tower Of Latria. Six or seven times fighting the Old Monk boss, and the rest making stupid mistakes on hasty attempts to get back to the boss’s door. I was on my third day of playing Demon’s Souls which had me hooked from the moment I started it. My partner was away visiting her family for Christmas and I had two weeks with just me, the cat and one of the greatest videogame experiences of my life.
But right now, I was pissed off. This boss was hard and I had spent a lot of time on it already. The difference about the Old Monk as opposed to the other bosses in the game was that it could be controlled by another player. This surprise fact alone had left me astounded as to the design of the game, which I had already fallen in love with. A boss that can be controlled by an enemy player? Badass. Not only did it replace the clunky AI of the boss when there were no players online to assume control, but it made the fight different each time. After several hours of having my ass handed to me I lost my temper and launched the controller at the wall opposite me. Picking up the remnants of my trusty friend I realised just how much this game had got to me in the past few days. It was draining both physically (12+hrs a day of almost non stop playing) and mentally. But goddamn was it rewarding.
When a videogame can give you such an overwhelming sense of achievement on the scale that the Souls games can you realise just how deeply they can affect you. Like all forms of art videogames can touch your soul and your mind and can leave you elated, miserable, scared, empowered and viciously alone. Not that that’s a bad thing. The isolation one feels when playing Demon’s Souls is amplified by the excellent production design and chillingly effective atmosphere, drawing you in to a broken world populated by Lovecraftian horrors and excruciatingly painful encounters. If there was ever a game that could suck you in so completely, Demon’s Souls was that game. This was enhanced at the time by my complete reversal of circadian rhythms – I had been living at night since finishing work for my extended Christmas holidays – getting out of bed around 4pm and sometimes as late as 6pm, eating barely enough for a hamster to survive and never seeing the sun. Interspersed with the complete season marathon of Trailer Park Boys (which I had also just discovered), occasional breaks to venture outside before the stores closed to stock up on junk food & caffeine, I played Demon’s Souls from the moment I woke up until the moment I crawled back into bed. When I dreamed I saw The Kingdom of Boletaria and it’s denizens surrounding me at every turn, at one point I even successfully worked out a boss strategy in a goddamn dream. To some this may sound pathetic, but for me it was heaven. Not since the golden age of Nintendo and Sega or since I quite playing World of Warcraft had I spent so much time on one game.
Demon’s Souls was a difficult game, but only if you allowed it to be. It punished you for making mistakes and refused to go easy on you until you learned from those mistakes. It forced you to be patient and observant. If you were not succeeding as fast as you would hope then it was your own fault for not paying close attention to patterns so you could adopt a winning strategy or simply rushing headlong into a poorly matched battle which more often than not resulted in your death and the loss of several hours of work. A lot of people who don’t enjoy the Souls games claim that it is unfair or demanded a masochistic view of games that sucked the enjoyment out of them. I agree with the masochistic part to some extent, but that never diminished my enjoyment. Sure I got frustrated, two broken controllers and a hole in the wall could testify to that, but by the next day you would adopt a new stance and come at the challenge with fresh eyes so that when you finally did succeed you felt positively charged with satisfaction. Very few games are capable of this, of giving you such an overwhelming sense of personal victory that you find yourself grinning from ear to ear each time.Demon’s Souls takes place in the Kingdom of Boletaria, where it is clear from the outset that something is very, very wrong
The first boss you encounter in this damned place called Boletaria was the Tower Knight. What’s the big deal about this guy being the first boss? Oh nothing except:This picture does not do it justice, the first time I saw this guy I was like “Really?? Come on yo”
It’s cool I’m just ten fucking times bigger than you and my lance is the size of a small aircraft. Oh and by the way how do you like my one shot kill foot stomp huh? Come at me bro. Plus if I don’t kill you my little gang of skeleton archers will chip away at your health until you’re not my problem any more! It took me several attempts before I learned his attack patterns and was able to defeat this behemoth and I remember thinking to myself as I sat on the edge of the sofa building up a sweat ‘This is the first goddamn boss?’
Nevertheless I was hooked. Yes it was frustrating, yes it seemed unfair at times, but the world was hauntingly beautiful and the character design was impeccable. Not to mention it was the best sword/shield combat mechanics I had ever experienced in a videogame.I have a shield and I’m not afraid to use it. ALL THE TIME.
Navigating through these dark and disorientating serpentines it was not uncommon to approach every corner with my shield raised just in case something was waiting to greet me at the end, with their steel pointed at my throat. Death came swiftly and without warning and I often found myself lost in vicious labyrinthine zones with no healing items and nothing but my trusty armour to rely on. The pre-boss stages could instil a creeping sense of dread just as unsettling as the awesome force of a boss’s shear size.All of a sudden I feel remarkably under-equipped
And there were so many bosses. Some of them even showed up later in the game as regular enemies, a tradition that Dark Souls expanded on, and then some. The grotesque, yet somehow elegant character design is a testament to the fantastic artists that worked on the game. You could tell straight away that this is a Japanese developed title, from the Resident Evil-esque font face to the unflinching horror of the monster models and set pieces. Some of the boss creatures were downright disgusting which made it all the more satisfying.Take a guess what it did with that tongue. It wasn’t pleasant.
While the boss fights offered a tough but eventually predictable fight sequence, there was another aspect to the game that both amazed and terrified me in equal measure. You were not alone in Boletaria. In the story’s lore you were one of an infinite number of heroes existing alongside each other in parallel worlds. You were able to summon other players in to your own reality using special stones to assist you in boss fights and level clearing. This wasn’t just to help yourself, as the ghosts of those that you summon were looking to regain what they had lost in their own world- life. Death in Boletaria was not the end for these brave adventurers as when you died you joined the ranks of the undead, with various penalties applied. Your maximum HP was halved and you became slightly weaker and more susceptible to curses. Not to mention your body changing from a fleshy well fed hero to emaciated ghoul . One of the only ways to regain your former glory was to help another player defeat a boss, and boy was this fun.“Look I appreciate the help man but arrows? Against that? Seriously?”
When you were undead you were always on the lookout for shimmering messages on the ground, another genius mechanic, where hapless warriors would ask for help usually right outside the boss’s door. You whip out your soul stone, place your own sign on the ground and wait to be summoned in to the other hero’s world. Likewise, as long as you were not undead yourself you could summon others to your world to assist in dispatching the boss you were stuck on. This unconventional method of encouraging multiplayer was unique to Demon’s Souls and expanded upon in Dark Souls to an arguably better system. By never explicitly being able to invite players in to your world you were at the mercy of whoever you could find that was willing to help at that particular time, often with hilarious results. There was no way to tell if you were going to be aided by a seasoned veteran or a Leeroy Jenkins who would charge blindly in to battle only to get well and truly stomped in a matter of seconds. Nevertheless when such partnerships came to fruition the sense of community and mutual victory was a feeling to behold. Knowing that somewhere in the multiverse someone else was having the same hardships as you and desperately wanted to offer you their help in exchange for mutual benefit genuinely bolstered your determination. It spurred you on and made it all the more satisfying when you were the phantom assisting someone else in their hour of need, aware that you could be the one summoning them from the ether in the not too distant future.
But it wasn’t all peaches and cream. There was a dark side to multiplayer that all players in human form would dread initially (and some would grow to relish). For there was one other way to regain your living form other than assisting with boss kills. Invasions.“Well this looks like a positively divine staircase! I’ll just shuffle down here and OH MY FUCK WHAT IS THAT ARRRRGH-“
Another aspect of the game that Souls detractors complain about. If you were not undead, you were open to invasions from other players at any time other than boss fights themselves. Undead phantoms looking to get back on top could use a different type of soul stone to penetrate space and time and invade your world. If they could successfully track and kill you in your reality they would return to their own world in human form, which was obviously the desired to state to be in for boss fights. Invasions were glorious PvP fests which could be equally hilarious and soul crushing. A number of times I was so intent on keeping my target in my sights that I completely neglected to notice the edge of a cliff or a swinging pendulum that would result in my swift death and banishment back to my own world, without the host ever landing a blow. But when I did achieve the goal of murdering my victim in a flurry of strikes, counter attacks and environmental trickery a wicked smile would form on my lips. Conversely, being unceremoniously bushwhacked by a sneaky thief role player and getting dragged kicking & screaming back to your own world was often heartbreaking. Not only were you relegated back to undead form you also lost all your souls, the game’s currency for everything including gaining levels and equipment. The added insult that it was an actual player who had done this to you and not the game’s AI made it all the more pitiful. Oh and did I mention that every time you die, no matter how you met your end, every single enemy in the zone respawns. You have one chance to get back to your bloodstain that appears where you were killed and reclaim your souls but if you die again enroute, they are gone for good.“This isn’t going to end well is it?”
With its intense boss fights and claustrophobic environment, and a highly competent and rewarding multiplayer system, Demon’s Soul changed the face of gaming for me. By the time you finished the game you were a changed person. In fact I can honestly say that I chose to look at games much differently from that point on. Not since System Shock 2 (my all time favourite PC title) had a videogame left me with such a lasting emotional impact. Demon’s Souls had worn me out, but in a most satisfying way. I didn’t think anything would be able to beat it until two years later when it’ spiritual successor Dark Souls was released.‘Prepare to FUCKING die constantly’ was not allowed on the marketing materials
Dark Souls is not a direct sequel to Demon’s Souls in that they do not take part in the same universe. Much speculation exists as to whether or not there is a latent connection between the two games but From Software have never explicitly confirmed nor denied a solid link. In terms of gameplay however they are very similar, with Dark Souls refining certain aspects of the gameplay mechanics and introducing a whole different way of resurrecting your undead hero.
In Dark Souls you are a member of the undead inhabitants, known as Hollows, in the Land of Lordran. Lordran is the land of the Ancient Lords forged in the primordial fires by the Ancient Dragons. In the lore an ancient being known as Gwyn discovered a lord’s soul and used it to vanquish the Dragons to usher in the Age of Fire and thus, humanity. This is where you find yourself at the start of the game, as a chosen undead who bears the Darksign. Legend has it they who bear the Darksign are the only ones capable of defeating Gwyn and restoring balance or further plunging the world into darkness.
The rest of the lore, as with Demon’s Souls is left for you to figure out on your own via conversations with various characters throughout the game or from items found on your journey. It is actually an incredibly detailed and rich story but like everything in the Souls universe, it makes you work to uncover its secrets and I’m not going to elaborate on it further to avoid spoiling it for those who have not yet played these games.Just one of the many items in game that contains tidbits of lore which when pieced together form an incredibly rich narrative
Many of the same gameplay mechanics remain in Dark Souls. The sword and shield combat is still excellent, and a larger array of spells exist for those who like to wield mystical powers however there are some notable differences. The summoning system for multiplayer remains largely the same with the exception that invasions can only be performed a set number of times using certain special items. That is unless you join certain Covenants (sort of like guilds with specific purposes) available in game which are geared towards PvP. You can still be summoned for boss fights or conversely offer your services as many times as you want and there is even a covenant specifically made for assisting in this, which makes finding like minded souls easier.
Instead of the limited healing items that you held on to like gold dust in Demon’s Souls, you are now equipped with an Estus flask which you can chug during battle to restore some of your health. These have limited charges however and can only be replenished at the bonfires you find dotted around Lordran. These bonfires offer some respite from the lurking horrors but also serve to reset the zone in a similar way to Demon’s Souls i.e. once you sit down to rest at a bonfire every enemy once again respawns.The joy of finding a new bonfire is akin to getting laid for the first time. Only afterwards you are going to be murdered.
The bonfires also replace the central hub world, The Nexus, that was one of the only zones in Demon’s Souls where you were truly safe. You level up and attune magic at these cozy rest stops before pressing on in to the darkness. You may also return yourself to the ‘unhollowed’ form that was essentially the same as the human form in Demon’s Souls by using special items known as Huamnity. Getting ahold of and keeping your humanity could be tricky at times, but it offered a new way to regain your former, uninhibited state. Much later on in the game you gained the ability to warp between certain bonfires which made navigating the world slightly easier. Which brings me to another marvel, the world design of Dark Souls is truly something to behold. The whole of Lordran is carefully constructed and connected to itself in a myriad of ways. There are no loading screens and no zoning in other than in some very specific locations. The whole world feels like a living, breathing entity. From the shining monolithic structures towering above the ancient city of Anor Londo to the shambling horrors of Blighttown, the game world is impeccably rendered in a beautiful but haunting manner. It’s without a doubt the most awe inspiring environment in a game that I have ever witnessed. When you first experience the sublime tranquility of Ash Lake I promise it will take your breath away.That shiny thing up there is not your friend
The creatures that inhabit Lordran are just as menacing if not more so than their counterparts in Boletaria. Screaming ghouls, vicious cerberus like dogs, some really pissed off monster clams and of course the bosses are just as intimidating and awe inspiring. From Software took Demon’s Souls and made it better, something that I didn’t think was possible. They even released DLC which was surprisingly well realised. A lot of AAA titles have a slew of DLC that I abhor for the simple reason that it doesn’t really add all that much to the gaming experience. The Dark Souls DLC – Artorias of the Abyss – not only added an entire new zone to the game with many extra hours of gameplay and some fantastic boss fights but also heavily expanded on the lore and managed to integrate into the main game in a truly awesome way.Artorias the Abysswalker, mentioned only in passing through item descriptions the shipped game, was an important part of the DLC experience
I clocked around seven hundred hours all in all on this game. Starting on the PS3 and then again when they released the PC edition. Whilst the PC edition was initially plagued by some technical issues, the absolutely amazing modding community that sprung up around the game managed to correct all these issues and provided a true high definition Dark Souls experience that I can still go back to even now.
So why have I spent all this time writing about some video games that you might never play or not be interested in? It’s because in 3 days time Dark Souls 2 is released in Europe. It is already commanding extremely positive review scores and I know for certain that From Software will not disappoint on this third outing in the Souls franchise. I have the game pre-ordered to arrive on launch day and I have booked the week of work to get acquainted with the new world, called Drangleic, and the fresh horrors that await within. These games have brought me so much joy in the past, more so than any other console titles and I felt like it deserved a thorough retrospective.
From Software already had a loyal following, being a PlayStation exclusive developer for some time before the Souls series with their Armored Core, King’s Field and Tenchu series of games. However with the Souls series they have cemented themselves as one of the greatest development teams in existence today.
I am prepared to die once more. Do not expect many blog posts during next week for I will be lost to this world and transported to the virgin shores of Drangleic, may the Dark have have mercy on my soul.
Dark Souls 2 is out to buy on PS3 and Xbox 360 on Friday the 14th March (earlier this week in the US and Japan). I cannot recommend it enough and I haven’t even laid eyes on it yet.