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The Dark Souls Review Diary: Part 3
Read how we're getting on with Dark Souls in the run-up to review.
After Part 1 and Part 2, Keza's time with Dark Souls before the review is coming to and end. SPOILER WARNING: Very minor spoilers ahead.
What's striking me about Dark Souls, after five days in its company, is how open-ended it is compared to Demon's Souls. Every single time I talk to someone about this game, I learn something new – where to find an ashen lake hidden down below a swampy mire, what that bird in Fire link Shrine does, which characters are hidden in the game's dungeons, or which rare items can be found by chance, through valiant deeds or as the result of careful exploration.
There's no fixed route through the game. There's a chain of progression, but most things can be done in any order. It means there's always something else to attempt, some new corner to peek around. It also means that there are entire areas of the game that you might never see, unless someone casually alerts you to their existence.
The Dark Souls Reviewers' Support Group (or the Chain of Pain, as I called it back in Part One) has been an invaluable source of information and emotional comfort during this week. This feeds into something that's essential to Dark Souls: it not only encourages, but actively necessitates communication and co-operation. It's difficult to overstate how crucial the online component is to Dark Souls. Without it, you're a wanderer lost alone in a vicious and cruel world, almost unable to survive. With the help, soapstone messages and strategic advice of other travelers, though, you can prevail.
Dark Souls' online elements are similar to Demon's Souls', but it's more nuanced and developed. You can still offer your services to other players as a Blue Phantom (in all but name), helping them take down a boss to gain yourself souls, humanity and a sense of achievement and well-being. Souls are what you use to level yourself up and boost your abilities, giving you slightly more chance of survival. Humanity is what you use to kindle bonfires, giving yourself more Estus Flasks to boost your health. It also lets you revive yourself from your Hollow undead form to a flesh-and-blood Human, which in turn lets you summon other players into your world.
It's a clever system, this. It was clever in Demon's Souls too, but given Dark Souls' increased difficulty and the way that it's more tightly designed around community, it's absolutely integral now. When you reach a dead-end in your own game, you can pop into someone else's and help them out for a while. Similarly, when you're butting your head up against a brick wall of a boss, a helpful stranger can make things approximately 500% easier. It's this that stops Dark Souls from being straightforwardly impossible, even at its worst, most punishing moments. There is always someone around to help you out with their knowledge, experience or discoveries.
Over the weekend, I've taken a break from my own game to go online with a retail version, starting again from scratch. Around bonfires, you see the ghostly forms of other travelers crouched and resting, preparing themselves for their next challenge. Messages already litter the game world, making you feel less alone. You catch the ghostly echoes of other players' deaths and triumphs; walking around Undead Burg, you sometimes hear the tolling of the bell at the top of the gargoyle tower, letting you know that some other soul has just had a monumental victory. It spurs you on to try harder yourself, or makes you smile at the memory of your own conquest if you're already further on.
It's as a result of this sense of camaraderie and community that your experience with Dark Souls will almost certainly be easier and, probably, more enjoyable than mine. The online experience casts Dark Souls' difficulty in a different light. In any of my Demon's Souls play throughs, nothing gave me as much trouble as I've been having with some of Dark Souls' worst confrontations. I now realize that it's because Dark Souls is designed more tightly around online than Demon's Souls was; certain sections of the game push you towards co-operation, offering you rich rewards for helping others.
Meanwhile, I'm pretty much on my own out here, and it's getting to my head. Yesterday was largely wasted trying to fight two bosses simultaneously, on my own, having long since run out of arrows for my bow or Humanity with which to kindle my bonfire. If I had been playing the retail version, I'd have been able to call upon some help – or offer help myself, guiding another player through an earlier confrontation that's giving them as much trouble as this one is giving me.
The game does offer non-player characters that you can summon for fights like these, if you're stuck offline and on your own like I am. But if you run out of humanity, that's it – you can't summon anymore. It's not impossible. It's never impossible. It's just almost impossible. With another day, some careful grinding and some repeated attempts, these bosses will fall just as all the others did before them. But I know – and this is a problem that reviewers of online-enabled games often face – that this time around, I'm not getting the Dark Souls experience that was intended for me.
The upshot of all of this? I can't wait to start again once the game's actually out. Until then, Dark Souls is incomplete; a tantalizing teaser of the breathtaking communal effort that it will eventually become. I've had a taste of that now, and my final impressions of this exceptional game are starting to crystallize in my mind.