Dark Souls is beautiful game.
Beauty isn’t something often mentioned in the same breath as this game, from what I can find online. People mention the extremely high difficulty level, the satisfying/ infuriating challenge, the various trophies and secrets they’ve uncovered, but I can’t seem to find anything about how meticulously thought out its component parts are, how skilfully orchestrated its story, and just how devastating it feels to complete the game having spent weeks and weeks absorbed in its world.
Dark Souls is admittedly baffling at first. There’s a very loose set-up introduced, detailing the age of the everlasting dragons giving way to the age of gods and fire. To sum up the story’s origin simply, there is something called the First Flame, which, thousands of years ago, began to fade. Gwynn, the king of Anor Londo, fearing the first flame’s slow decline, asks the Witch of Izalith to create another flame using a soul. It goes wrong. The Witch is turned into a giant tree-like womb of hell, spawning grotesque demons. Gwynn then travels to the kiln of the First Flame, taking his trusted silver knights with him. He attempts to re-kindle the flame, only to have it consume him and use him as its fuel. The flame also incinerates his knights, charring them black, leaving them as restless spirits, and seemingly burns everything else in sight. Your character then steps into the fray, and it is your mission to either sacrifice yourself to the flame to let it burn longer and maintain the era of gods – or let the flame go out, and usher in the dark age of man.
The rich history of this world is not overtly explained to the player. You learn titbits of information from the weapons you pick up, the items you collect, and the scant stories told by the few inhabitants of the world. And it is a haunting world, almost completely empty, a dreamland of crumbling ruins, empty castles, dense forests, lava-drenched palaces, poisonous swamps and cities frozen in eternal dusk.
With such an engrossing atmosphere, there are so many memorable moments. The giant red dragon Hellkite perched atop the crumbling bridge – and how, if you manage to run past him, he takes off, drifting down the sky before the cloud-obstructed sun. It makes the world feel real, lived in; you wonder where that dragon is off to… There’s an incredible battle with the iconic duo of Ornstein the dragon slayer and Smough the royal executioner – a pair of gold armour-clad nightmares that’ll destroy you time and again before you manage to beat them. It’s spine-tingling stuff.
You have Seath the Scaleless, a blind albino dragon, encountered in a glittering crystal cave; the great grey wolf, Sif, fought in a moonlit graveyard; the battle against the ghosts of the four kings, deep in the blackness of the abyss; your first glimpse of the kiln of the First Flame, a gutted tower beneath sulphur skies where the ghosts of the black knights wander solemnly. And, possibly the most touching final boss battle I can recall in a game – the confrontation with Gwynn himself, who is now Lord of Cinder. Rather than the obvious “epic” boss music, you simply walk into the cave in which Gwynn guards the flame, and a sorrowful piano orchestration plays as you attempt to free him of his burden in the flickering firelight. There is no introductory cut-scene, no build-up – it feels like a very downplayed, very sad ending to a tragic man and a tragic world brought to ruin. It’s perfect.
Once you master how to play the game, when to block and when to strike, which areas to explore first and which to leave until you’re stronger – and once you’ve tasted the adrenaline of bringing an enormous boss to its knees after multiple tries, Dark Souls becomes a compulsive, enthralling, beautifully dark world you cannot bear to be away from for too long.