A little while ago I mentioned From Software’s Bloodborne as a game I was excited about in 2015. Well, it’s out now, and the reviews are pretty damn good. The trouble is, I don’t own a PlayStation 4, and the likelihood of Sony sharing rights to this property with anything that has ever even been in the same room as Microsoft (i.e., my PC) are slim to none. Instead of crying into my broken blood vials, though, I’m going to do what I should have done a couple years ago: actually finish Dark Souls, FromSoft’s sophomore hit that did release on multiple platforms back in 2011.
Dark Souls – and the entire Souls series, really, including Dark Souls 2 and the original PlayStation 3 title, Demon’s Souls – has become something of a sine qua non for serious gamers. To my shame however, since I began playing Dark Souls on the Xbox 360 in 2012, I never have completed the game, despite the many hours I’ve spent in its forlorn, evil world. But in the spirit of Pile of Shame, we’re going to (hopefully) rectify that now.
A couple programming notes: Instead of the Xbox 360 vanilla copy I’d played originally, I’m playing the aptly-named PC “Prepare to Die” edition, which includes additional content made available after the game’s initial release. I’m also using a mod called dsfix, which you can use to uncap the framerate from 30 fps, increase the game’s resolution to 1080p, and add some nice shading effects. The increased framerate may be slightly controversial – serious Souls players have had lengthy discussions about the use of “invincibility frames” in character animations, and changing the number of those frames displayed per second may slightly alter some of the game’s core combat mechanics. But, being that I’m abjectly terrible at Dark Souls, I can’t imagine this will have a major impact.
Firing the game up again, something that strikes me immediately is the distinction between fidelity and design. Too often in games, these are confused: “good graphics” means high resolutions, detailed textures, complex models. Dark Souls doesn’t really have any of these things, but it’s impossible to say that it’s not a good looking game – the art design poured into it is truly incredible, and with a couple notable exceptions we’ll get to eventually, it’s a real testament to a cohesive artistic vision of a dying world. Rotting planks span gaps in the place of stone walkways, the shattered remnants of which are scattered around as if they’ve been shelled by an invading army. Moss and lichen cling to ancient towers, trees grow through long-decayed roofs, and every stone is rounded by years of weathering and erosion.
You’re tossed into this world following an intro that talks about ancients, and fire, and disparity, and… actually, screw it. Watch it yourself and tell me if you can make head or tail of it.
From Software plays their narrative cards so close to the vest that piecing together any of the story becomes a Souls game in itself. But it has a neat X-Files vibe in that it lets players develop their own theories. It’s a nice change from being beaten over the head with the kind of pulp narrative that serves as pretext for most big-budget titles.
I’m an “undead,” and as the game opens I’m tossed through some trap door into a cell in the Undead Asylum, which serves as the game’s tutorial area. I say “tutorial,” but this is a different kind of tutorial than you’re used to experiencing if you’ve never played a Souls game: It has no compunctions whatever about murdering you. Sure, the sightless, starved corpses banging their heads against the wall as you leave your squalid cell don’t pose much of a threat, but it’s not long before you start encountering human-shaped husks that have donned armor and taken up various weapons… and there’s that nasty red glow where their eyes ought to be…
This is familiar territory. I have, after all, started playing this game at least three times. I know what the Undead Asylum has waiting for me, and I make my way through the glowing instructions chalked on the floor barely needing to read them. Using the controller, my right index finger handles attacks – the bumper launches a swift attack, while the trigger commits to a heavy attack. The left index finger handles defense (well, for now) – bumper holds up my shield, trigger causes me to sweep away an attack with my shield to parry.
Got it? Great, because I’m about to open a large door that has an obese, winged, 20-foot demon behind it, who is holding a club made out of most of a redwood sequoia.
In the next Dark Souls Diary, I’ll meet a very large crow and travel to the Firelink Shrine to begin my trip through Undead Burg. But first, there’s that demon to deal with.