Dark Souls, or The Hero with a Thousand Pointless Faces

So I'm rolling a character in Dark Souls, which is like rolling a character in Demon's Souls, which is like rolling a character in most roleplaying games the past three or four decades: gender as aesthetic, ye olde tank/nuke/stealth professions, and eight more or less classic attributes, e.g. strength, dexterity, intelligence. Someone's stuck a yellowish Conan of Cimmeria-style face left of the "Create Character" text. "Everyman" looks like Conan, I guess.

I'm playing a Wanderer, which is basically Dark Souls' Rogue (high dexterity, scimitar, rust-colored leather armor over slate gray hoodie). I was toying with the Deprived class, the game's Joe the Plumber perfect average, but he starts out wearing leather butt floss (he's described, not flatteringly, as an "unclothed enigma"). Since this is one of those game where the camera spends 99 percent of the time behind your avatar...a Wanderer it is!

Does anyone get why the face you can spend so much time pinching and pulling isn't your dead one? You spend most of this game undead, looking like Frank in Hellraiser, just skin-peeled muscle and sinew. But no, Dark Souls' design team thinks we care about "jaw contour" and "nose bridge asperity" and "nasolabial folds"—and we might, if the camera ever dropped down close enough to matter. Dark Souls' character manipulation tool is pretty much worthless, then, as the rest of the game goes.

This isn't my first startup. I made it as far as Sen's Fortress playing a Warrior last weekend, then opted for a reboot to pull in the hidden items and rare drops I missed. Dark Souls is one of those games that snares obsessive-compulsive types: the completionist impulse to probe every dread-soaked pixel.

As in Demon's Souls, there's an introduction video, this one playing the Manichaean light/dark creation myth card, culminating in a war between animist gods and dragons (the dragons lose), and something about the Undead more recently being locked up in the north. That's where the game starts, in some northern asylum/prison. A knight drops a body into your cell, and the body just so happens to contain a get-out-of-jail key. Will we ever know why? Probably not. After the intro, any sense of narrative connection vanishes and the story's what you make it, moving from one location to the next, clearing levels and taking on boss-style creatures that exist to serve up an object that unlocks the next level. Put another way: the original Diablo had more going on, plot-wise. I'm not complaining, just noting the design choice. I read somewhere that the game's director, Hidetaka Miyazaki, was intentionally abstruse because he wanted players to feel disjointed and confused. He's succeeded, creating a beautiful but weird-horror-filled world that's stylistically similar to Fumito Ueda's nebulous and bleak (but also beautiful) ICO.

You have to love how the design team gives you glimpses of what'll eventually be pounding the bejesus out of you, like the well-upholstered Asylum Demon pacing behind bars off to your right as you creep out of your cell and start poking around the prison. Speaking of, anyone notice you're your own personal torch? Pay attention to the lighting as you tromp down a lightless corridor—yep, you're a necro-luminescent light source.

The intro area brings you up to speed using fiery orange messages scrawled like arcane graffiti on the ground, though I wasn't sure at first whether to trust the notes. In Demon's Souls, anyone could leave messages anywhere, and they often lied. In Dark Souls, it looks like they've mitigated (if not altogether eliminated) capricious note-laying by giving each message an in-game cost.

The first battle with an Asylum Demon, though not the same one spotted roaming the under-area earlier, asks little of you. You can knock half its life away with an opening plunge attack (you start above it on a ledge) before settling into classic lock-on, roll-to-dodge, circle-strafe combat patterns. I'm glad they kept Demon's Souls' foggy gray connective doors. Half the time they're harmless, unlocking new areas, but the other half they lead to inescapable boss battles. That jibes with a broader approach philosophy, wagering where you're at ability-wise with where you're going and rewarding repeat visits (and sacrificial deaths) to suss your opponent's patterns before fleshing out a winning strategy.

Afterward, you're whisked away by a giant raven to the game's hub area, Firelink Shrine. Much has been made of Dark Souls' "open," continuous world (contrast with Demon's Souls' disconnected areas joined by an ethereal Nexus). There's nothing to the ado, save the absence of occasional load screens. Far more important: Dark Souls' campfires. These allow you to grind in certain areas as well as repair items or level up without visiting broken-off pocket areas or loading in and out just to trigger creature respawns. Consequently you level up faster in Dark Souls, which—whether that translates as absolutely faster (than Demon's Souls)—doesn't really matter, because your psychological progress-button's getting pushed. And that's what'll keep you playing.

Next up: From Firelink Shrine to Undead Burg

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