I give up.
I’m waving the white flag. I’m leaving that pool of blood and souls right where it is. I don’t care anymore. I’ve gone Hollow. Forever.
You’ve probably read a lot about Dark Souls lately, here on Bitmob or elsewhere. You probably know all about the game’s extreme difficulty, its attempts at fantasy-realism, and its intricate level design.
What I know is that, after about 15 hours of gameplay, I’m through with Dark Souls. Whatever wonders lie ahead, I don’t have the will to seek them. Why? Because Dark Souls asks too much…and rewards too little.
Dark Souls is hard; no one denies this. And honestly, I’m OK with hard. What I’m not OK with is a thwarted sense of achievement.
You can play Dark Souls for hours on end and make literally no progress in the game, either in accessing new areas or strengthening your character. Even consciously choosing to grind for souls (Dark Souls’ currency-cum-experience-points) often bears little fruit, as the cost of improving attributes increases exponentially beyond the first 20 levels or so. And since you can only level up at pre-set checkpoints, if you venture too far, any souls you gain will be effectively useless, since you don’t retain them upon death.
And heaven help you if you choose the wrong stat to boost. (Dark Souls is incredibly non-communicative about its system of attributes and abilities. Like Lucille Bluth, it apparently gets off on being withholding.) Not that you’ll see much of a difference in your character’s performance either way.
Eventually, you’ll be forced to forge ahead, throwing yourself over and over again at the same enemies in a tiny geographical area within the game world. You’ll lose thousands upon thousands of souls in the process. And that means your character won’t improve.
When, by stubborn force of will or sheer luck, you finally do win through to an area’s boss, it will annihilate you in seconds. And what do you receive as encouragement for making it that far? Absolutely nothing…except the privilege of trying again.
Albert Einstein defined insanity as performing the same actions over and over again and expecting different results. Going by that definition, playing Dark Souls is pure lunacy. And I’m not crazy enough to go along with it.
Dark Souls has no tutorial. You get a few cursory messages on the game’s controls, but that’s it. Damage types, statistical breakdowns, status effects…you have to figure all of them out through trial and error (or via the tiny messages left by other online players). Some may welcome that challenge. I can’t handle it.
Hell, I even bought the official Dark Souls strategy guide, hoping that it would explain more about which statistics to improve for various character builds. No such luck. Like the game itself, the guide seems to delight in obfuscation.
It reminds me a little of the secret leveling metagame hidden in the Pokémon series. Though the titles never mention it, your critters can earn a whole sub-level of statistics known as effort values. These are key to determining the growth potential of a particular Pokémon, even at max level.
The thing is, you can enjoy every single Pokémon game and never bother with effort values, because the series rewards a variety of gameplay styles. You can play through the main quest. You can catch 'em all. You can trade with others. You can breed and evolve the creatures you catch. All of these choices are valid and provide positive reinforcement.
By contrast, you’ll encounter certain points in Dark Souls where you can’t proceed if you don’t already understand something the game never explained to you.
For example, while exploring a certain area, I ran across an enemy I couldn’t harm. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize I couldn’t harm it until it had killed me several times.
I later figured out that I had found a consumable item that would let me damage this foe. After a few more deaths, I ran out of the item. With no way to obtain more, I was stuck. Everything I had done for the last hour was in vain.
If that was Dark Souls' way of telling me not to go in that direction yet, I learned my lesson…but at the cost of some extremely un-fun, discouraging play.
In another instance, I was attempting to take down the boss of an early area, but I kept dying. Getting back to the boss meant a perilous journey through a chapel filled with burly knights and crazed zombies. After a number of failures, I suddenly respawned with a shard of Humanity, which enabled me to summon an NPC companion in the boss fight.
Together, we defeated the enemy. But why did I even get that Humanity in the first place? I have no idea. And that drives me crazy.
I’ve heard people say that Dark Souls rewards persistence — that as you progress through the game things start to open up. And I’ve heard that the New Game+ mode is almost an entirely different experience.
Those things may well be true. But the time and effort required to find out are completely beyond me. And if this game expects me to stick with it through dozens of hours of drudgery before I actually enjoy it…well, I’m sorry, but it’s not gonna happen.
I’ll draw another analogy to a very different title: Final Fantasy 13. One of the main criticisms of that game was that you had to play for more than 20 hours before you really had all the play mechanics at your command.
That’s a lot for a game to ask. But FF13 tempered that expectation with other benefits. You got to see storylines unfold. You saw tangible improvements in your characters. And you explored several different environments, each more vibrant and beautiful than the last.
Dark Souls has barely any story to speak of — at least not in the time I played. As previously discussed, character growth is difficult at best and nonexistent at worst. And each dark, repetitive environment bleeds into the next (aside from brief moments of sunlight, punctuated by user messages “praising the Sun!”).
Obviously, the two titles have little in common. But they serve to illustrate different ways a game can encourage and reward a player. I know which method I prefer.
Defenders of Dark Souls frequently say (in a somewhat condescending tone) that the game "isn’t for everyone." I say that Dark Souls could have been for everyone, but it doesn’t do enough to motivate players to give it a chance. I wish it did…but not enough to keep playing.
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