I’ve been raised on western role-playing games (RPGs). Beyond the epic storylines, the fantasy worlds and the connection to my forged character, there’s one reason I turn to them time and time again: it’s a safe formula.
Most western RPGs allow me to start off as a pretty hardy character that can run through a dozen enemies, using the old hack ’n slash technique to mow them down. If one area happens to be too challenging, I can spend hours mining lower-level minions for experience points (XP), playing and replaying moments to boost my stats, weaponry and abilities so that the rest of the game is a tad easier.
If I die, I’m not worried. All the experience I’ve collected stays with me when I re-spawn. This is the style of RPG on which I’ve been raised – a safe formula. All that changed when I played the newest Dark Souls game.
With Dark Souls II, my years of experience were rendered useless. This is a game in which painful reality is the name of the game so that, from the onset, you’re the weak character. A few slashes from any character and it’s game over, returning you to the start of the level. Drat!
Forget about charging into a group of enemies. Even if you have decent armour, your stamina prevents you from hacking and slashing your way to victory, and the enemies are just too powerful in the early stages of the game to take on in groups any larger than one or two at a time. Double drat!
Then there’s the XP travesty. As you kill enemies, you accumulate souls (XP) for upgrading weapons and skills. Pretty standard. But unlike other RPGs, when – not if – you die, you lose all the souls you’ve collected. Where do they go? They are left right on the spot where you died, taunting you to return to the point of your own demise to reclaim them. Die before you can get back to the same spot to collect your dropped souls, and you lose it all. Triple drat!
I can’t tell you how many jaw-clenching, swear-stifling, controller-almost-thrown-across-the-room moments I experienced just in the initial hours. My wife and daughter would head out to run errands for an hour, allowing me a rare window of game time, and when they returned an hour later, I was still at the same spot.
So yes, I hated Dark Souls II. And I’ll confess: I didn’t finish it. I couldn’t, not in the standard 40-hour timeframe I give myself to finish a game before review. I simply wasn’t good enough. The bitter taste of defeat wreaked havoc on my confidence.
But then I realized that the problem wasn’t with the game. It was with me. I’d been spoiled on RPGs like Skyrim and Final Fantasy, finding loopholes within those games in order to appear as a better player than I actually am. Dark Souls II refutes this faĂ§ade and forces you to play with much more realistic stakes.
I could no longer hurl myself into a group and slash my way to victory. Think about it: in a true medieval war, anyone swinging an uncontrolled sword would be cut down in an instant. Dark Souls doesn’t allow for button-mashing. It forces you to pay attention to what each enemy does, to engage them one at a time, and to use the skills you have to parry and attack with patience and precision.
There are certainly no boring moments in the game, with every battle, large or small, turning into a battle for your life. You need to master your character, the controls, the barrage of abilities and weaponry at your disposal, just to survive. And the rewards are not simple in item drops and souls collected; it’s in gratification of a job well done. If you’re a gamer who has finished Dark Souls II, my hat goes off to you.
When he’s not teaching high school, St. Albert Catholic High School alumnus Derek Mitchell can be found attached to a video game console.
Rating: M (violence)
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3
+ A monumental challenge for any RPG gamer
+ Fantastic presentation, from score to graphics
- Made me feel weak (sorry, have to be honest)