Dark Souls Review: Death by Design
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), Playstation 3
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Released: October 4th, 2011
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There’s a scene in Zulu, the 1964 classic about war in South Africa between the British Empire and the titular locals. A young Michael Caine, playing the extravagantly named Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, leads a small contingent of troops as they defend the hamlet of Rorke’s Drift against 4,000 Zulus. As the battle begins, a troop of Zulus charges forward, then suddenly stops and begins chanting. They are cut down by British rifle fire.
Turning to Adendorff, the garrison’s Boer collaborator, Bromhead asks the obvious question: “what’s wrong with them? Why don’t they fight?” “Can’t you see that old boy up on the hill,” replies Adendorff, pointing to a greying Zulu general. “He’s counting your guns. Testing your firing power with the lives of his warriors.”
In Dark Souls, you will become a Zulu general. Every time you die, you’ll learn something about the challenges you face. It could be the location of an item or an enemy lying in ambush, the layout of a level, or the attack pattern of a boss. As they did before the barricades of Rorke’s drift, Dark Souls deaths become acts of suicidal reconnaissance.
Before you beat the game, you will die hundreds, if not thousands of times. I made an abortive attempt at keeping count when I started my playthrough, eventually losing track at 161, just two days in. Five days later, I persevered, after 75 hours that mixed triumph and sublime enjoyment with setbacks and agony.
Characters in Dark Souls can expect to be stabbed, beaten, burnt, devoured, crushed, and knocked off ledges to plummet to their demise. Created by iconoclastic Japanese developer From Software, the game is a follow-up to 2009′s sleeper hit Demon’s Souls, which also embraced uncompromising difficulty.
Dark Souls is not for everyone. Gamers have been increasingly conditioned to expect success with little effort, a convention that From Software abandons within about five minutes of Dark Souls’ beginning. The game is adept at eliciting frustration, hopelessness, and despair. If you play games to relax, or for some simplistic, circumscribed notion of “fun,” you’d be better off spending your money on something else.
Though the multitudinous deaths are frustrating, they’re rarely unfair. Staring grimly at the loading screen, you can usually ascribe your recent demise to some combination of carelessness, excessive ambition, desperation, or flagging concentration.