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Dark Souls, Laced with Pertinent Issues

23/03/2012 Dark Souls Review
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Dark Souls PS3

Dark Souls




Further reading:
Demon's Souls

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Dark Souls has plenty of dramatic challenges to test adventurers, but it also has a more contemplative side. From its murky, disease-ridden depths to its radiant halls, the hidden corners of the microcosm reveal a rich, many-layered story to those willing to seek it out. The world is decaying -- full of overgrown ruins and abandoned buildings -- but it remains compelling and vivid.

My rough old bandit starts out wielding a battle axe. It's crude, but effective at crunching bone and slicing withered flesh. She's barely got more meat on her bones than the wretched undead she fights, long since hollowed of all humanity and decency. But she winds her silver hair into a neat bun and carries on, just barely maintaining her own grip on sanity.

The prophecy says that one day an undead will be chosen to succeed Lord Gwyn and free the undead from their curse, but that hardly matters right now. All that matters is hacking through just one more enemy. Judging exactly when to block, dodge to the side, or sneak in a crushing overhead blow. Wearily making it to the next bonfire for brief moment's rest, or falling short and tenaciously beginning the ordeal over again.

Dark Souls is often viewed as a cycle of failure and repetition, gradually clawing forward to a satisfying, hard-won victory. As a Demon's Souls veteran Dark Souls wasn't as steep a challenge for me this time around.

In some ways Dark Souls is harder than its spiritual predecessor, but the difficulty is balanced out by access to better equipment. Still, even with experience, Dark Souls demands a focused, considered approach. It sets the pace for a slower burning tale than your usual hack-and-slash.

My character might be a wizened, battle-hardened fighter but I approach Dark Souls with more adventure in mind. I'm a detective, hunting for clues and piecing together the nature of the world. Between the two of us we might just be able to get a handle on this place. Thankfully, there's more to it than yet another bland prophecy about a chosen one.

Dark Souls is a transition to an open world done well. There is a much bigger environment to explore this time around, but everything is still tight and interconnected. Every part feels like it's there for a reason; even barren and lonely places seem to be that way by design. With the larger world comes a bigger scope to the narrative.

Like a lot of fantasy, Dark Souls has a mediaeval style, but it remains up to date in the issues it explores such as institutionalised prejudice, conflict between science and religion, and desperate tactics to maintain the status quo.

I can't help but make some links to current events.

These aren't exactly new themes, but I can't help but make some links to current events. Our world's changing and with that comes fear, just as power players in Dark Souls fear the coming darkness. There isn't necessarily a superior choice between the old and the new, but change is inevitable. Attempts to maintain current power structures tend to come across as desperate, inflexible and backward-thinking.

Dark Souls' Lordran is a world that stuck to the old ways well past the point of sustainability. Even sanity has become a limited resource. Extreme conservatism killed a thriving civilisation, and we're left to pick through the ruins. We're coming in at the end of this story, but there's a rich history to uncover. I don't want to spoil the details, but I recommend Dark Souls to anyone who enjoys speculating and piecing ideas together. What the story lacks in voice acting and dialogue quality it makes up for in depth. It's a limited microcosm, but well realised and with a surprisingly broad scope.

Dark Souls barely uses cut-scenes, and instead tells a story in small snippets of dialogue and item descriptions. It's subtle, and easy to ignore if you've no interest in the lore, but possibly more impacful for its restraint. Information is disjointed and there are many gaps, lies and illusions, but forming your own connections can be part of the appeal.

A complex fantasy laced with pertinent issues.

Piecing bits and pieces together instead of being fed a coherent plot is one way to create more investment in the story. Next to Dark Souls, many other fantasy games feel cheesy. Just as the combat respects your ability to handle a challenge without hand-holding, the story respects your ability to reason. Not being treated like an idiot is one of the most enjoyable things about the setting.

It would be a mistake to write Dark Souls off as shallow just because of its challenging reputation. It's certainly a fantasy, but a complex one laced with pertinent issues. You won't get everything laid out for you, but there's plenty there for those who want to take advantage of it.

Written by Amber Gilmore

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Amber Gilmore writes the Microcosm Gamer column.

"Games provide me with a diverse range of miniature worlds to explore. I'm fascinated by the myriad of ways these microcosms recreate elements of reality. Even the most fantastical or abstract games stem from real world concepts when studied under the scope. Far from being mindless escapism, playing games prompts me to reflect on the concepts presented and how they inform my outlook."

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