By browsing through various game of the year polls on the internet and casually unsubscribing from a huge influx of rabid social networking outbursts of Bethesda-worshipping crazies, it is clear that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is one of the most hyped, played and loved games of 2011. The world has seen a wealth of FUS DO RAH (or whatever it is), arrows to the knee and Norse warrior helmets poorly photoshopped onto random memes. And it’s good. Skyrim has been a fantastical hit, praised for its hugely immersing world that’s utterly full of life and works around you (minus a few hundred bugs or so) like clockwork. That’s what RPG players want. A hugely open environment in which you are literally free to do anything you like, whether it’s slaying dragons or sifting through avalanches of gorgeously detailed back story that constructs an alive and vivid world. Bethesda, and Skyrim have achieved this to a grand scale. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the game and I can already see how vast the world is, and I can admit that the sheer scale and amount of description it contains is and will be hugely intriguing. However – and this is something of a biased opinion given that I’m nowhere near into Skyrim, I’d like to make that clear – despite this trove of visual and descriptive gameplay I’m offered, I find myself somewhat disinterested entirely in Bethesda’s blockbuster.
For me, 2011 has been a fantastic year for gaming. Whether I’ve been picking up remastered classics or trying something new entirely, I can safely say that this year has been hugely important in the gaming industry. However, it seems that most of my time spent playing games has not been spent on Uncharted 3 or Arkham City (which I’m yet to pick up, admittedly), or Deus Ex – but on something of an overlooked (and I say that with my own social circle in mind) little soul-destroying gem named Dark Souls, the follow up to 2009’s gruelling Demon Souls.
Soul-destroying I hear you cry? Yes. Dark Souls is difficult, brutal and punishing. As if to to add insult to injury, you begin as an undead to set out on a sprawling, and genuinely tough journey – the finer details I’ll leave out for spoiler reasons. You’re given a broken hilt of a sword and somewhat vague gameplay techniques to begin with before you’re thrown into a world of dark and an endless repetition of death and anxiety. Enemy encounters are in real time, and provide a large level of challenge even for seasoned RPG veterans. These encounters are given to you in abundance between bonfires, which act as both save points and a switch to respawn every normal enemy you’ve just dragged yourself through. Never before will you have been so glad to see a tiny lick of flame in a dreary and dark world. These act as ‘bases’, and while you rest there your health restores fully (as does your ‘Estus’, which acts as the game’s primary source of HP regeneration) and you can upgrade or repair equipment.
From a gameplay standpoint, Dark Souls is almost flawless. The real time combat requires genuine skill and concentration, and little help to perfect parries or critical ‘backstabs’ is given. You as a player, are thrust into this world with a only a vague understanding of its central mechanics. In fact, the only mechanic you will gain absolute confidence in will be dying. Normal mob encounters can be fatal if you’re not prepared – and the bosses are a wholly different experience. You will die. You will die over and over, and these towering monstrosities will incite mind-numbing rage and expletives you thought you could never muster. Dying will become routine, and through this you are forced to learn and adapt so you can utterly destroy the two massive gargoyles that have been pulling you into the brink of ragequitting all day. There is no hand holding in Dark Souls, and that’s what is so wonderful about the game as a whole.
The same player driven approach is also applied to the storytelling of Dark Souls. On the surface, you are given just over nothing to truly understand what exactly your aim in the game is. You’re given a vague, partially correct prompt by the first NPC you ever come across in the game, and the game gives you little else to work with. Everything is subtly added together through a wealth of item descriptions and NPC interactions – the latter sometimes being all together useless. NPCs have their own story along with you that constantly requires your attention, else you risk missing an important nugget of information or a new spell to fiddle with. What’s more is that these side characters genuinely feel as much a part of your experience as your controlled character does, and when you find out that you could have helped them when you didn’t you’ll almost feel as crushed as you were by the initial Asylum Demon’s hammer.
It’s this player driven approach that really emphasises just how much of an excellent game Dark Souls is. Not that I’m speaking from a wealth of experience, but this game manages to highlight what was once staple in RPG franchises. Do we all remember the first time we played Final Fantasy I? We were thrown into an encounter-every-step world with almost no backstory to be seen. And although the two are incomparable given that they’re completely different franchises, it’s important to see that Dark Souls is bringing back so many older elements of a genre that I’ve loved through childhood and onwards. Though much of the story is vauge and little is given to you without you as a player looking for it, I can only take this as a pro of the game, and it is a stark contrast to Skyrim. Both present their worlds in completely different manners, and my personal belief is that Dark Souls’ method is far more immersing, which is somewhat ironic given that Skyrim’s given tagline is just that. Less is better, and Dark Souls commits to this through its almost confusingly vague story, that is left to you as a player to understand. Skyrim’s level of detail is still striking in its own way, but there is almost no room for interpretation. Everything is given to you if you want it, and it’s here where I think Dark Souls excels.
Of course, something like a person’s taste in games is completely subjective, and Skyrim has its pros too. Dark Souls’ list of cons (which I suppose can be applied to other games as well) is limited by what you as a gamer can take. The crushing difficulty and vast melancholy that results is not everyone’s cup of tea. Yet, it’s through this that the real shining force in Dark Souls is mustered – relief, and a following sense of utter victory. Few games have made me feel so proud of myself than this one has, and although I’m not far enough into Skyrim to make much of a comparison, I can safely say I’ll probably feel the exact same way after I’ve completed the latter. That is assuming I’m not drawn back in by Dark Souls’ grim and unrelenting charm.