Does anyone remember the PlayStation 3’s 2009 gem, Demon’s Souls? Would you believe that some critics actually equated it to God of War II? Here’s another imponderable: The game’s spiritual successor, FromSoftware’s Dark Souls, was often given the misnomer “beat-‘em-up.” Even now, after the recent release of the game’s first downloadable content, some reviewers stand by this claim. I’ll let the improper gaming jargon slide (we have the term “hack and slash” for a reason, people—hence the swords), but I’ll gladly consign myself to an early doom in Lordran before letting that joke of a label stand unchallenged. So bust out your gaming dictionaries and follow closely, because genre just got serious.
Obviously, these claims exist for a reason. So let’s talk combat. Whether you’re cleaving through hordes of demons as Death in Darksiders II or beating angels down as the sassy witch Bayonetta, you’ll spend most of your time tearing it up in a combo playground. That or you’re that guy who repeats the same input like it’s going out of style. (You know who you are, so stop it.)
I schoolyard-style dare you to try either of those tactics in Dark Souls. The adjective “crushing” isn’t handed out lightly in the gaming world, but this Gothic no-man’s-land stole it with little resistance.
Dark Souls is governed by caution, risk, and reward—a rule to which the combat is no exception. You aren’t timing your attacks for the sake of a pretty combo counter; you just want the only living thing on screen to be you—with hard-earned souls still intact. Don’t get me wrong, combos definitely exist, as any “D. Souls” veteran will tell you. But they don’t launch enemies in the air or send them ragdolling across the room, nor do they need to. Instead, you’re just trying to stun “Enemy A” to give you time to deal with “Enemy B” or lure “Enemy C” into back-stab position, and the like. Subtle actions like these add a layer of depth and strategy to Dark Souls that simply can’t be matched by the fast-paced chaos in hack and slash games.
While I have you here, let’s look at the dirty little secret of hack and slash fans. We never block. The button exists, but it sees about as much action as the brakes in Burnout 3: Takedown, because, quite frankly, that half second not spent kicking ass is a total killjoy. That couldn’t be more backwards in the health-limiting, checkpoint-hoarding realm of Dark Souls. Although the truly daring may blaze a trail through Lordran two-handing or even dual-wielding, you’re probably going to want a quality shield. If nothing else, just for moral support—but blocking is nice too.
Well, if Dark Souls isn’t a hack and slash game, then what is it? Although the words “nightmarish” and “rewarding” immediately come to mind, let’s call it a hardcore western RPG—just to shake things up. Some of you may be thinking, “Well, Mr. Journalist, what exactly makes it an RPG?” Worry not, dear readers; I don’t just throw that term out there without evidence.
If you’ve seen any gameplay of Dark Souls, you’ll immediately notice that you aren't War, Rick Taylor, Gabriel Belmont, Kratos, or Nariko. (Kudos if you knew at least three of those protagonists.) You are <i>your</i> character, and you’ve undoubtedly tailored him to meet your strict tastes. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking for an RPG—shocking, I know—but it’s pretty undeniable that it gives you better control over playstyle than in any hack and slash. And consequently, you have even more variables to manage. If stat allocation isn’t enough for you, take a look at the brilliant—and just plain mean—hybridization of currency and spendable experience. Now, you have to balance character strength with equipment strength. Is your health a bit too low, or is your guard broken too easily? Do you want to be able to equip that new gear, or is that spell priority number one? Wait, you’ve only got how many of that consumable? And when was the last time you repaired your equipment? Oh the questions you’ll face, all while struggling to prevent that devilish little death message’s umpteenth appearance.
And we haven’t even covered what I consider the best part of the game: the weaponry. Let’s face it, most hack and slash games follow the formula of “you’ll get a main weapon, and a handful of similar alternatives.” (I’m pointing all ten fingers at you, God of War III.) Luckily, that isn’t the case with Dark Souls. You’ll build up an arsenal of longswords, curved swords, greatswords, katanas, daggers, maces, and unique demon weapons throughout your quest. And thank god you do, because there is no universal beat-stick in Lordran. That lightning spear you found? Yeah, the one that saved your life in Sen’s Fortress? Well, Dragon Slayer Ornstein—you know, the next boss—would pick his teeth with it. Chaos Iaito, meet fire defense. Wizards, say hello to magic-resistant enemies. I could go on, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll assume you get the point.
You’ll constantly be rethinking your strategies and swapping your armaments to make it through this RPG—if not for the most efficient damage type, then for a more versatile moveset. The swiftness of scimitars that served you well against the hulking Giants of Anor Londo is pretty worthless against the AOE-savvy Four Kings of the Abyss—maybe grab a straightsword with a thrust attack. Of course, there are few absolutes in RPG combat, so weapon choice is completely up to the player. Regardless, you’ll still need to pick a good moveset—which includes running, rolling, backpedaling, heavy, normal, two-handed, and guard-breaking attacks—for the fight. Hell, you’ll even have to consider seemingly minute details like cast speed. Otherwise, you’ll become quite well acquainted with the most recent bonfire.
At first glance, I can almost see how some might mistake Dark Souls for a regular ol’ button-masher. Almost. After all, how many labels are there for playing as some maniac swinging a sword around like—well, a maniac? It’s only after delving deeper into the system that you understand what you’ve gotten yourself into. Forget fast, to hell with area gates, and put flashy aside—it’s “Dark” Souls for a reason. Every last enemy, no matter how weak, can and will kill you if given the chance. So you’d better sweep your Devil May Cry ways under the rug before you even dream of seeing this game’s credits roll.
Date: December 10, 2012