Finding Joy & Suffering in Resting at a Bonfire in Dark Souls


by Jonathan Pilley (@omnicomic)

When the NES was “replaced” by the SNES, game difficulty in console games became something that was sacrificed in exchange for flashier graphics and quicker gameplay. It’s a trend that’s held steady for the better part of twenty years now, with present-day console games relying on cut-scenes, online multiplayer and DLC to add longevity to a game.

Partially because of the controls, games have just gotten easier. NES games were difficult primarily as a function of their limited controls. You had a four-direction D-pad and two buttons (A and B). Your options were pretty limited as far as controls, meaning you could pretty much move left/right/up/down, attack and jump. That’s it.

Both the SNES and Sega Genesis added more buttons to the controller. PlayStation added a couple more. So on, so forth. And here we are now, with the Xbox 360 and PS3 controllers offering a whopping eight buttons, two analog joysticks and a D-pad. Just because. And now games are easier because gamers can do more with the characters.

The gamer’s attention span is also being stretched thin. There are just too many games and not enough time. You have to pick and choose what console games to play and finding those that are worthy challenges is, well, a challenge. Games nowadays are designed to be played through fairly quickly, with the extended value coming in “optional” modes, such as multiplayer.

There are fewer games out that you actually feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. Games that afford you an overwhelming experience that makes you feel angry and happy, thoughtful and inquisitive. That’s why Dark Souls is quite possibly one of the best and most challenging games to come along in a while.

And it hurts to play.

For the unfamiliar, Dark Souls was released Fall 2011 and is the spiritual (soulful?) successor to Demon’s Souls, a PS3 release in 2009. It’s a dungeon crawler at its heart, with action and RPG elements thrown in to create a truly immersive game. The player can find tons of weapons, armor, rings, magic, items and various other loot. And you’ll need it. All of it. Because Dark Souls is a game that’s unforgiving of the player.

I hemmed and hawed about picking it up on Amazon for $20. I had read the reviews about it and while everyone raved, their enthusiasm came with a caveat. This game is a time sink in the best way possible. It’s a constant game of saving and reloading, trial and error. The beauty is in the gameplay.

The story is simple. You escape from the Undead Asylum, Undead, but not yet Hollow. Your quest is to ring the two Bells of Awakening in Lordran. After the bells have been rung, you’re then tasked with succeeding Lord Gwyn and removing the Darksign affliction, your decision dictating whether the Age of Flame continues or the Age of Dark commences.

The gameplay is equally as simple, but a bit more elegant. Throughout the land you’ll come across bonfires that act as checkpoints. If you rest at a bonfire, it resets all the enemies in the area you’ve already defeated. This dynamic adds a layer of strategy to the game. After you’ve cleared an area, you can’t just go back and save. If you do, the area is no longer cleared.

Of course, the only way to level up is by resting at a bonfire. Bonfires are your best friend and worst enemy in this game. Dying returns you to the last bonfire rested at. Which means—of course—all the enemies are reset.

Can you remember the last time you played a game where you actually sighed when it loads up? A sigh that’s a mixture of both despair that you died and the realization of what you’ll have to go through again? Dark Souls does that to you.

It’s a game where you have to be patient in combat. Sure, there are parts where you can sprint through, hoping that the army of enemies you accumulated stops following you. Chances are, if you stop to make a stand, you won’t survive, no matter how beefed up your character is. And that’s a good thing.

There are blocks, parries and ripostes. Swords, spears and bows. A wide variety of armor and weapons, all of which can be chosen depending on your fighting style. Maybe you’d rather play as a polearm thief instead of a backstabbing knife thief. A tank knight. Pretty much whatever style you want is there. The best thing is that there’s really no one way that’s better than another.

You will die, though. A lot.

Enemies will sneak up on you from every direction. An opponent you’ve handled with ease the previous 100 times will break out a new dodge you weren’t expecting and counter with a deadly blow. You’ll fall off a cliff running. You’ll be invaded by another player.

That’s right. In Dark Souls, other people can use an item, invade your game and kill you. They can also help you, but playing five minutes of any multiplayer game online will tell you to expect the former before the latter.

Dark Souls clings to its atmosphere, not overwhelming you with bombast at every turn. There are some stretches where you’ll be wandering through a catacomb, the sloshing water the only sound you hear. Until a shriek pierces the silence, a shriek belonging to one of three ghosts who have been hunting you.

You’ll move through ruined castles, sweeping caves and massive forests. The entire world is dripping with life, reminiscent of Castelvania: Symphony of the Night. You’ll fight enemies as small as rats to great dragons as big as something you’d find in God of War. This game takes inspirations from so many other games and throws it all into one big pot, where the resulting, simmered stew is a treat.

The era of challenging console games may be a distant memory at this point, but Dark Souls is one that bucks the trend. This isn’t a game you pick up and finish in a weekend. It’s not a rental. It’s also not a game that you can expect to be finished within a month. No, Dark Souls requires your full and total attention.

The sense of satisfaction you get from playing Dark Souls is greater than any killstreak in Call of Duty or completing all the guilds in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It’s a sense of accomplishment. What it offers you is something that seems so trivial on its surface, but looking deeper you’ll see that the complexity is insane. It’s a welcome challenge.

There’s nothing nearly as satisfying as finally toppling that insanely large boss. Finally getting through that one trouble area after hours of trying. Remember that feeling you got when you beat Mega Man? Kid Icarus? Metroid (without Justin Bailey)? Final Fantasy? You get that feeling with Dark Souls.

Dark Souls is a testament to what it means to be a great and challenging game. It asks a lot of the player, but the reward is completely worth it.

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