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Gamers have grown accustomed to living in complete fantasy worlds. Role-playing games, in particular, allow players to commit egregious violations of the laws of nature, physics, and common sense. Where else can a scrawny teenager expertly wield a sword that is both taller and also weighs more than he does? How likely is it really that a ninja can critically hit a being made of solid stone with a simple shuriken?
While any fantasy game requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, most current titles essentially ask us to toss logic completely out the window. In interviews, developers commonly cite gameplay or “fun factor” as justification for ludicrous design decisions. Even worse, they often expect us to accept absurd mechanics for no other reason than the previous nine entries in the series handled them in exactly the same way.
Thankfully, Dark Souls (the spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls) continues From Software’s attempts to break many of these existing RPG conventions and helps prove that realism and fantasy don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Sure, you can argue that demons, dragons, and animated corpses in various states of decay don’t exist in the real world (at least not yet), but that doesn’t mean that our interactions with such creatures need to defy all sense of reason. In the Final Fantasy series, a dragon may breathe fire on your party and hit each member for a few hundred points of damage, which is just a small percentage of your multi-thousand HP totals. In Dark Souls, however, when a dragon catches you fully exposed and unleashes his fiery breath, you make an immediate transition into a smoldering, over-cooked human barbecue.
From Software doesn’t just apply this common-sense approach to mythical encounters either. Even the lowliest sword-wielding enemy can reduce you to a pile of giblets if you fail to dodge or block their strikes. While armor mitigates a small amount of this damage, it’s no substitute for not getting hit in the first place. This makes sense to me. Swords are hard and sharp. The human body is soft and bleeds. The two don’t often mix with pleasant results.
Similar design decisions round-out the experience. Heavy armor slows you down, and less-encumbered characters have an easier time attaining favorable tactical positions. You can block things with your shield, but it doesn’t protect your back or let you defend against an unlimited number of enemies. Heavier weapons take more strength to wield and do more damage, but they also swing slower and take longer to get back into position. Attempt to swing a two-handed sword in a narrow corridor, and you might be disappointed that it clangs against the wall instead of slicing your enemy in half.
Many players have complained about the difficulty of Dark Souls. Even the publisher’s website for this release (www.preparetodie.com) suggests that we should expect a hard time while playing this game. For me, however, Dark Souls presents a welcome divergence from the nonsensical RPG design that game programmers have subjected me to for nearly 30 years. If that 20-foot-tall demon hits me on the head with his 800-pound axe, I’m going to die. And I’m ok with that because it simply makes sense to me.