Though I’ve been a faithful gamer since the Atari 2600, and have been writing for hollywoodjesus for going on a decade, I have never (till now) reviewed a video game. Believe me, dozens of review-worthy games have come and gone in my life since I started here in 2004, but I just never got around to putting my thoughts about any of them to print (till now, when I figured: why not?). So then, my first video game micro-review, of From Software’s action/adventure fantasy role-playing game Dark Souls . . .
Dark Souls is already several months old, and I’m not even half-way through it—truth be told, I may never have the skills or dedication required to finish it—but it nevertheless already occupies a memorable place in my gaming landscape. With oppressive atmosphere and game world structure reminiscent of Metroid, and game mechanics and level design reminiscent of Zelda, Dark Souls is both firmly entrenched in gaming tropes and singular in its specific incarnation of them. Twenty hours in and I’ve already explored mysterious worlds, spoken with strange beings, hunted for rare items, learned magic, slayed dragons, traded and upgraded weapons, and done my best to fulfill my clouded destiny, both like and yet unlike how I’ve done in countless other titles.
But the main thing you need to know about the game is: it’s challenging. From the start, the player is released into a dark, foreboding world, given little information about how to best proceed, and is almost immediately introduced to the game’s high-stakes version of role-playing. As other reviewers have noted, player death itself is used uniquely by Dark Souls as a central game mechanic. Not only will you die in the game, but you’ll die a lot, and will eventually realize just how much of the game—like many games to some extent—depends on strategic death. Where will you die? When? While holding what? Before another event happens or after? All of these considerations come into play and add to the intellectual challenge of Dark Souls.
Finally though, all the death also adds to the thematic impact of the game. When playing online, players often leave the message “Praise the Sun!” for each other to find in the form of marks on the floor. Why praise the sun? Because so much of Dark Souls is spent in frightening, labyrinthine, dangerous, constrictive, confined, scary, dark places. Similarly, bonfires act as safe spots and checkpoints. Why? Because fires symbolize, primordially, safety and comfort and knowing in the midst of the unknown dark and death that surrounds. Thematically then, Dark Souls becomes an acting-out by the player of one of the oldest stories imaginable: the story of a world that is dark and dead and formless and void, but which eventually gets invaded and brought to life by light.
Dark Souls isn’t for the casual gamer, that’s for sure, but for those brave enough to attempt it, you won’t find many games as atmospheric, challenging, and worthwhile.