Few games in recent years have garnered the amount of attention from the hardcore gaming crowd as the Dark Souls franchise. With it’s zero tolerance for hand-holding and bone crushing difficulty, the franchise has won many a fan.
The first game initially passed me by, but after continually hearing good things about Dark Souls II, I decided to give it a try. After spending about 11 hours with the game I’ve come to a conclusion – Dark Souls isn’t for me.
Dark Souls isn’t fun in the same way less difficult games are. The game is renowned for repeatedly handing players their collective butts over and over again, forcing you to improve. The fun of Dark Souls comes from learning how to play a game that gives you nearly zero help, as well as those triumphant moments when you finally defeat a challenging foe after numerous attempts. I did actually experience this. I experienced all the moments of self-paced discovery, brutal difficulty, and eventual victory that causes so many gamers to hold Dark Souls upon high. I can easily see why people enjoy the franchise. But I don’t.
Before we go into my problems with Dark Souls, let me go ahead and lead with this statement: I love a challenge. Nearly every shooter I play I crank up the difficulty to the max. I balked at the idea that many gamers declared Witcher 2 too difficult. I’m about as stubborn as they come, especially when it comes to losing. I will try over and over again to come out on top. I play League of Legends in unhealthy amounts, and if you know anything about LoL then you know it’s a game with steep learning curve that is constantly infuriating.
It’s not the difficulty of Dark Souls that turns me off (I actually really enjoy the combat). Rather, it’s the core gameplay mechanic that for the purposes of this article I will call “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back” that makes enjoying the game difficult for me. Improving the stats of your character and purchasing items is done with souls. Souls are acquired from defeating the game’s various enemies. Sounds simple enough, but once you die (which is almost constantly) you drop all the souls you were carrying on your person, requiring you to run back to your corpse and pray you are not killed again before you pick them back up. If you die in route to picking up your soul stash, the souls are gone forever. It’s all very stressful, which I guess is by design.
My main problem with this mechanic is that the entire point of the game is to trial and error your way through increasingly difficult battles. Many battles require way more than two attempts, and more often than not instead of focusing on strategy or tactics, you are instead primarily concerned with recollecting your souls and running far enough out of harms way so when you die again your souls will be easier to recover. The entire point of the game is to try, die, try again, but doing so puts your primary means of improving your characters ability at constant risk. This encourages you to spend your souls and upgrade your character whenever possible, but stats can only be improved while sitting at a bonfire, which are of course few and far between.
The result is I would regularly lose thousands of souls, especially during boss fights when I have no means of retreating and usually die over and over again. For every step forward I would make, I would take two steps back after messing up and losing thousands of souls, putting me back another lengthy gameplay session before I could get back to the amount I had before. Dark Souls isn’t a game where a less than stellar player can grind their way to eventual victory. It instead forces you to improve your skills, and if you can’t, it wants nothing to do with you.
From what I’ve read, Dark Souls II takes the idea of kicking the player while their down up another notch by knocking off a portion of your characters health bar after death in addition to losing souls, up to a maximum of 50 percent reduced max health. The more you die, the more difficult the game becomes, despite the entire point of the game being to die.
If dying simply meant I sucked and needed to rethink my strategy, I wouldn’t have a problem with Dark Souls. I do, however, have a problem with a game that artificially creates length by robbing players of progress, punishing them time and time again for failing by inhibiting character growth.
I can appreciate the game’s zero tolerance policy towards hand-holding and tutorials. In theory. In actuality, I find myself constantly suffering from a feeling of inadequacy. What stats should I be improving? What gear should I be using? How do I improve items? What the heck does this thing do? You kind of figure it out as you go, but when I talk to friends who love the game they just tell me “Look up a guide online, that’s what I did and it became much more fun.” I don’t want to have to look up a guide online just to be able to play the game. This, coupled with constantly losing progress, to me does not a fun game make. But to each their own.
A game does not necessarily have to be fun for me to enjoy it. The Last of Us, for example, isn’t a fun game. It’s a stressful, violent, and intense ride from start to finish. Its gameplay isn’t “fun.” I finished and enjoyed The Last of Us not because of its difficulty or its gameplay, but because of the game’s story. The scarcity of resources and violence found in the gameplay reinforced the themes of the narrative, making me care about its characters and crafting a compelling experience that I had to see finished. I played through The Last of Us to see how the tale of Joel and Ellie concluded, and fought through each encounter to see what developments would happen next.
Dark Souls has none of that. I can’t tell you anything about the world of Dark Souls, the characters, the story, any of it. You are a zombie, trying to not become a zombie, and you die a lot. Occasionally you encounter strange side characters who you have very little interaction with and whose purpose is entirely unknown to me. The story of Dark Souls is your personal story of overcoming adversity and reaching salvation.
That doesn’t captivate me in the same way a great story does. If I’m going to play a game that is distinctly not fun, one that punishes me at every turn, I need a good reason. As the classic saying goes, “What is my motivation?” Dark Souls doesn’t really provide one. It doesn’t care if you make it to the end or not. If you want to bite the bullet and fight your way through just for the sake of doing so, go for it. Dark Souls will be there for you, kicking you every step of the way. Me on other hand, I’m perfectly fine not participating, and I don’t feel like I’m missing anything essential.