Dark Souls is like the worst relationship you’ve ever had. Most of the time, it’s hard to tell if it hates you or just doesn’t care about you at all. And that contempt makes things exciting, especially when so many others seem pathetically eager to please. But it’s ultimately unrewarding and abusive, and if you have any real friends, they’ll eventually sit you down and ask if this pain is really worth your time.
Dark Souls is a third-person demon-killing game, in which you acquire different weapons, shields, and armor, each with their own complicated stats and attacks, to fight enemies with methodical precision. Basically, it’s Monster Hunter without the creativity and wit. It’s just as hard as you’ve heard (many enemies can kill you with a couple of blows), but it does (mostly) give you the tools to fight back. Careful observation of enemy patterns will yield a winning strategy in most fights, so long as you’re willing to be patient, keep calm, and pull the fight onto your own terms.
There’s definitely satisfaction to be found in triumphing over a boss that seemed unbeatable; there’s nothing like the war-whoop you’ll let out when a creature that killed you repeatedly finally falls to your superior strategy. But once I worked out the basics of combat, I started noticing that the basics are all there is. The combo system in Dark Souls is terribly underdeveloped, a bone-simple three-strike timing system with a few extra moves that are unnecessarily difficult to pull off; next to the brilliantly complex systems of Bayonetta, it’s a relic.
Combat isn’t the only thing about Dark Souls that seems antiquated. Along with the old-fashioned difficulty, there’s some old-fashioned design flaws, like piling on minor enemies between checkpoints and boss fights, a move that developers stopped doing, not because it’s hard, but because it’s boring to wade through scrubs after every necessary reconnaissance death. There’s also plenty of old-fashioned bugs, including embarrassing clipping and pathfinding errors (enemies have a bad habit of getting stuck on doorframes with their knees sticking through the wall), a terrible lock-on system, and ragdoll physics that were obsolete by the time Halo came out, including corpses that tend to get stuck to your ankles.
Worst of all, the fighting never feels natural enough to make the challenge fun. I understand that when you’re going for precision, it helps to have the controls be somewhat stylized so it’s easier to know what you’re doing wrong. But Dark Souls, with its eight-point turning and delayed button reactions, just feels clumsy. Playing Dark Souls next to God of War is a perfect illustration of how Japan fell behind in game development; it seems perversely proud of the ways it fails to immerse the player in the action. The game’s realistic visual aesthetic constantly conflicts with the self-consciousness induced by the awkward controls, and the effect is like doing logic puzzles against a smug 12-year-old; you’re not so much impressed that he can stump you as incredulous that he thinks this is worthwhile.
The most interesting thing about Dark Souls is its JRPG-influenced fetish for opaque systems. The game introduces you to its Humanity gauge early, but deliberately refuses to clarify what the benefits of being Human or Hollowed are. Each weapon has very different advantages, and the player is left to figure them out. Even the level design revels in your confusion: The game works hard to obscure what path is the “right” one, and it’s cheerfully willing to let you get lost and wander into enemies that are way above your weight class. Like the combat, the game systems are meant to be a mountain you scale through incremental trial and error, and there’s certainly satisfaction in making the climb without a chairlift.
But what’s at the top? Every challenging video game requires observation and learning to beat it, but every one also has an uncomfortable question lurking at its core: Why is this worth getting good at? In a good game, the answer is “because it’s fun,” or “because it’s exciting,” or “because it’s beautiful.” Dark Souls isn’t any of those things. It’s clunky, it’s ugly, and it’s immersive only on a reflex level. The satisfaction felt at beating a difficult boss is too often derived from the gratuitous challenges created by the bad game design, and it’s as phony as the satisfactions of Farmville. Take the hours you would pour into this game and read a book instead, or watch a movie, or make love, or just play a better-designed video game. You’ll thank me for it later.