Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Running the Gauntlet

I thought I wanted to be done with it—to move on with my gaming life. I was wrong.

Having clocked in at more than 108 hours on my first play through, Dark Souls comes pretty close to being the longest game I've ever played. Granted, I could have finished it sooner, but I knew that once I defeated the game's final boss I'd be forced back to the beginning of a new play through—my access to all the unexplored locations cut off until I could manage to run my way back through the long, punishing gauntlet once again.

So I consulted online to see what other optional content was left to experience. I let myself be pulled into the Painted World of Ariamis, a ruined stronghold with an apparent legacy of bloody violence, strewn as it was with hanging and impaled corpses, infested with crazed and in some cases gigantically head-swollen, toxic-blooded hollows (insane, undead enemies), as well as new monsters even more fearsome and grotesque than almost anything previously encountered. Even in this cut-off—possibly imaginary—place of magical exile, the undead curse had taken hold.

I later made my descent (more like a death-defying, vertical plummet) through the Great Hollow to the quiet and immense basin of Ash Lake, a place where immortal pillars of vegetation held up the canopy of the entire world above.

By chance, I managed to pick up the Artorias of the Abyss DLC for a discount price on Xbox Live, and the timing couldn't have been better. After a frustrating first night of halted progress—hindered by my inability to slay the corrupted knight Artorias—my second evening with the new content was among my most fruitful hours of play in the game to date. After deftly taking down Artorias with the help of a summoned phantom, I managed to go solo against two further bosses (two of the toughest in the entire game) and restore peace—perhaps?—to the land of Oolacile.

I vanquished another hidden boss. I sought out any remaining secrets until there was nothing left to do. By the time I found myself attacking the game's non-aggressive NPCs, simply to claim their loot and humanity for a possible NG+ (new game plus) run, I knew it was time to finish the game—time to put this long journey to bed.

But then—lo and behold!—almost as immediately as I had cut down the ancient Lord Gwyn with my black knight great axe, pondered the unsettling non-closure of its ending cinematic, and returned to the game's title screen, I found myself back inside the character creation interface, trying to come up with a name for my brand new female sorcerer.

Just to be clear, I have never done this before! As much as I've enjoyed a good role-playing game in the past, I've never felt compelled enough to go back and do it again—at least not without a considerable amount of time in the interim, as in several years. And even then, I've never managed to make it very far into a second play through before abandoning my quest.

The funny thing is, I know I'm not the only person who has experienced this with Dark Souls. What is it about this game?

There's already been a lot of insightful commentary written about this game. The sense of place is palpable, something I've only marginally conveyed in my above descriptions. Lordran is a world with variety, character, and genuine "wow"-factor scale. The game's online interconnectivity with other players is forward-thinking.

What surprises me the most, however, is how well the game overcomes what might otherwise be considered a rather simplistic element of its design, which is the largely static nature of things. I'm talking about a game world populated entirely with pre-positioned enemies who remain non-aggressive—and for the most part motionless—until a certain programmed radius is intruded upon.

Once that radius is breached, of course, the meat of the game ensues. The dance of combat. Relentless exchange of swings, kicks, rolls, blocks, parries, and dodges as each enemy reveals its unique pattern of movement and defense. This is a far cry from the world of procedural generation or dynamic world simulation. It's a rudimentary approach, but it's designed with precision. And it works. Each new enemy or group of enemies presents a distinct, life-threatening challenge that is typically bested only with patience, practice, and observation.

Taken as a whole, the game is really one giant crushing gauntlet, a multi-directional barrage of pain. Everywhere you go, your enemies await—on your left, on your right, from above—their only purpose to deal the most possible damage and humiliation as you pass. And it is painful. As the game deals death after death, the repetition can be excruciating—like a nightmare version of the Groundhog Day syndrome.

But … it gets better. The grind pays off, and not only because the player gains a statistical advantage through leveling. There's an equal growth curve in terms of skill.

My first play through of the game was as a bandit build. I started out proportionately high in strength and continued in that vein through my leveling. But I also got a little distracted by throwing some precious points into faith, intelligence, and attunement, traits that I did not utilize practically at all. My best bet in battles was generally to strike hard and heavy and to block between hits—keeping an eye on my stamina gauge. By the time I had discovered a full set of black knight armor near the final boss, I couldn't resist turning it into my main duds for the rest of my play session.

With my sorcery build, I've been smarter in my leveling. I understand the convoluted mechanics more clearly. And it's been a much different overall experience, easier in some instances and more difficult in others. This time my main strategy has been to take enemies down using magic projectiles—trying to steer clear of physical contact as much as possible.

If it had simply felt like more and more of the same, I might never have kept playing. As it stands, I'm now over 50 hours in and arrived once again at the previous crossroads. Having vanquished all of the required bosses save for the final Lord Gwyn, I could easily make my way to the Kiln of the First Flame and cash out. Instead I'm poised ready to try my hand once more at saving the darkened kingdom of Oolacile in the DLC content. From there it will be another trip to the Great Hollow and Ash Lake. And then—finally—I might actually conquer the final obstacle and retire from the world of Dark Souls once and for all.

But I'm not making any promises.

Images were borrowed from