Dark Souls – Review

Platform | Release Date
PS3 | October 4, 2011
X360 | October 4, 2011

Developed by From Software
Published by Namco Bandai

The Pitch:

Dark Souls is a brand new action RPG (role playing game) set in a rich, dark fantasy universe. Tense dungeon crawling, fearsome enemy encounters and groundbreaking online features combine for a truly unique RPG experience.

Dark Souls breaks down barriers with a seamless world design that encourages exploration and fosters an adaptable gameplay experience. As players encounter terrifying enemies and discover new areas, the unerring foundation of challenge and reward permeates to offer an unparalleled sense of achievement.

“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”

- The Myth of Sisyphus,
Albert Camus

When Sisyphus awoke on the shores of the river Styx, I have to imagine his eyes narrowed with quiet rage. The icy water gently lapped at his ankles, deliberately surfacing the realization that his wife had indeed, betrayed him. What’s worse, she had shown disrespect. This king was not one to be shamed without retribution, however. With Hades in the background, looming like a judge over a guilty party, he sought out Persephone. After some appeal, he was able to convince the goddess to allow him a return to the corporal world, where justice could be served. But King Sisyphus was crafty. In life and in death, it was never his intent for the gods to control his fate. And so it was that he made the ultimate decision and defied them. Lamentably for this king of wills, it is not so easy to thwart the gods. As punishment, Sisyphus was condemned to endless labor, pushing a boulder up a mountain. Just as he would near the precipice, his footing would loosen and the rock would tumble to the bottom.

I can see him at that moment looking back. Watching the stone that is his burden tumble to the beginning of eternity. I suppose his hands slowly balled into fists, his knuckles whitening as he took those first cursed steps back down the mountain. Only because I’ve recently experienced the plight of Sisyphus and consequently failed in my charge, can I look at him with any sort of, what I’m somewhat hesitant to call, admiration.

Dark Souls is bitingly cold. The player is thrust into the midst of this desolate landscape without explanation, hopeless and lacking direction. If you were smart, this is where you would stop. Eject the disk. Maybe put it on eBay or just store it on your shelf as a memento. Unlike Sisyphus, the choice has been given. Don’t fool yourself; you don’t have to begin this.

But if you’re anything like me, it can’t be helped. It’s a compulsion – a sickness.

What can make something that is so prominently menacing, simultaneously so compelling? For me, I believe it to be the lure of victory. The lie that tragedy can be conquered. From top to bottom, this game is designed as a prison. The great trick that developer From Software pulls is in convincing the player that somehow they are special. If you can level up your character in a certain way, if you can just master the next encounter, somehow you will be able to escape; that through your own proficiency, you will rise above the nightmare.

The atmosphere and environments are twisting labyrinths, skillfully crafted with this singular deceit ever tangible. Sometimes they take the form of other hapless souls stuck in the same predicament. Sure they speak to you, but not really. It’s more like they are talking past you. Their slow and disjointed cadence serves as a metaphor for their condition, and an arrant reminder of your own. The foggy sky, just barely blocking out the sun only helps to cement this feeling. Every once in awhile, golden rays burst forth, but it’s a temporary respite. They will inevitably be replaced by brick and mortar, only inches away.

Then there’s the scathing arduousness of the encounters. I’m sure you’ve either heard about or experienced these at this point. On the surface, this level of difficulty comes from the unflinching gameplay. Enemy attack patterns can be daunting, especially when stacked by multiple assailants all aiming for your throat. Taken one at a time, however, it’s actually not that bad. In fact, the more you learn a situation and are able to power through it, the more hope is allowed to well within you. But inevitably, like the pendulum on its return swing, even this is cut away, leaving you naked and shivering.

Thus, the nefarious nature of this prison is revealed. The light in the distance, the one that lifts your heart and momentarily gives you hope, incessantly reveals itself to be the flicker of hatred in your adversary’s well trained eye, as he waits to cut you down.

I’ve commonly heard the world of Dark Souls described as a form of purgatory. This is not accurate. Purgatory is a condition of temporary judgement, a holding cell before final placement in heaven or hell. The predicament in Dark Souls is nothing of the sort. After the final encounter is finished and the inauspicious credits roll, you awaken back in your cell. Make no mistake: this is you, here at the beginning of all things, with a giant boulder looming ominously. At this moment the true difficulty of the prison is revealed. The oppressiveness of this epiphany cannot be overstated.

In his analysis, Camus opines that by recognizing his fate, Sisyphus is able to harness it, transfiguring the absurd into a form of heroism. It is the instant, Camus states, when Sisyphus purposefully marches back down the mountain, that he is able to transcend his torment. In this moment of steely resolve, he becomes a hero. I could not rise up to this charge. Dark Souls consumed me, leaving me empty and purposeless. There was a stark moment of consciousness in the middle of my second play through when the futile nature of the situation struck me. I was toiling away for nothing. The task was to keep repeating the cycle, to accept this monstrous lot with hushed accedence, but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t beat Dark Souls even though I had finished the “final” encounter. It had beaten me.

So I ejected the disk and put it away. And I hung my head.

About Peter

Peter is Content Designer for Splitkick. He tries to get that ricotta. It's not working.
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