Remember 2011 for: Dark Souls

As 2011 draws to a close TVGB takes this week to look at some of the best games of the year. No, we’re not going to be the hundredth site to tell you that Portal 2/Skyrim/Batman/Uncharted 3 was the best game to release in the last 365 days (that was Uncharted, duh), but rather remember some of the titles that, while not necessarily forgotten, won’t be at the forefront of the GOTY nominations. Prepare to die as we bring you today’s pick – Dark Souls.

It’s three in the morning and I’m stuck in Blighttown, low on health and out of healing items. To one side of me, an army of fire-spurting, poison-giving bugs and an equally treacherous swamp. On the other, a swarm of dagger-wielding minions, club-swinging giants and a steep climb up to the safety of a bonfire. I have somewhere in the reach of 20,000 souls which, with one wrong move, will all disappear.

It’s at a time like this, when every slight step brings about a whimper of fear or a skip of the heartbeat and your eyes scour every inch of the screen for any possible sign of a threat that Dark Souls is at its best. So often it evokes emotions like this, engulfing you in a way that only games can, making 2011’s hardest game also, in my opinion, very much its greatest.

Sure, Dark Souls is a hard game from a mechanical standpoint. Enemies usually boast attacks that will slice off half of your health bar if not more, and its bosses like to eat you up and spit you out 100 times in a row before you work out their weak points. But theoretically it’s not as challenging as that, given the right mind set. If you embrace death as part of the game, if you let it teach you the intricacies of the land and your enemies, then a potentially gruelling slog turns into one of the most rewarding game there’s ever been to play.

Even the slightest bit of hesitation in this third person RPG will land you in the pit. The game requires every facet of your attention for each encounter with one of its many fearsome foes. There’s no half-assed approach to any one fight, and no regenerating health to save you. Learning the attack patterns of any enemy, boss or otherwise, is essential. As much as the game is about levelling up your character’s attributes, it’s also about improving your own skill with the controller as you go; you mess up and your souls are gone and the ground you’ve gained is lost.

High stakes means high tension. Many of today’s action packed blockbusters fail to capture the level of tension Dark Souls provides given a situation like the one in the opening paragraph. And when you make it through that tough section, when hours of levelling and planning pulls off, there’s a sense of achievement unlike anything else. As the Gaping Dragon falls to the ground or the wonderfully-named Ceaseless Discharge actually ceases, you capture a feeling that you may well not have felt since a pre-save point, regenerating health era. Each boss fight is like completing an entire game in itself.

Then there’s the online component which furthers the innovation. The sense of accomplishment one can gain from playing single player is only doubled when overcoming a surprise ambush from an invading online player. Its cooperative option is among the most fun to play this generation thanks to a system that pushes strangers together and gives them nothing to communicate with other than a set of Home-like gestures and the will of kill everything in sight. Playing in single player, Dark Souls is an incredible game, but taking it online pushes it that little bit further into masterpiece territory.

It’s also complimented by one of the best artistic directions in gaming, with twisted enemy design and environments so moody they make Modor look like Disney Land. It’s commitment to making you biblically unhappy is an ironically endearing quality.

Arguably this has all been seen in Souls’ spiritual predecessor, Demon’s Souls, but here everything is improved upon to make for a game that, while equally as challenging, feels pacier and somehow more accessible. That’s mostly thanks to those bonfires that serve as checkpoints. It lessens the difficulty a touch, but also inspires that ‘5 more minutes’ play style to see if you can reach the next safe zone. Hence why I was up a three that night, with none of my real work done.

In gaming we’re too used to settling for action games that bring us closer to the experience through presentation or playing RPGs that streamline mechanics to appeal to wider audiences. But every once in a while a game comes along that, through its innovation, reminds us of the truly unique experiences this medium can give us. I don’t think we’ve seen such a game since the Shadow of the Colossus, but Dark Souls is certainly one of them, and we should definitely raise our glasses to it come year’s end.

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