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Reviewing Dark Souls: the (Email) Chain of Pain

Painful insights from the first to play it

Go ahead and call us game reviewers, but we saw ourselves differently. We were the first scouting party. We had no clue what we were doing.

Since From Software's masterful RPG hadn't been released yet, there were no wikis or strategy guides to consult for guidance. But we'd been taught as kids that it was dangerous to go alone so a group of us agreed to stay in touch by email and support each other in the struggle against a game that's both brutally hard and wilfully, bafflingly opposed to telling you how to play it. If a tree chews you to death in Darkroot Garden, costing you 12,000 souls, and there's nobody around to hear your lamentations, is there any therapeutic relief in that? We decided there was not.

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At first it was just three of us. Then more drifters gradually joined our fraternity. By the end, we were ten strong. It didn't matter that we represented competing outlets. We were the journalistic equivalent of the travelling party in Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring, a ragtag collection of different races who didn't typically work together until they realised the sky was about to crash down on their heads.

Being among the first handful of people in the world to experience Dark Souls is a dubious sort of privilege. Like being an infantryman in 1944 discovering you'll be part of that first wave off the landing craft onto Omaha Beach. We'd all played Demon's Souls so we knew the sequel was going to be a bloodbath, but we'd volunteered for this because we wanted to be the first to explore the Lordran, the new world. We wanted to be the first to die there, and by extension the first to untangle the mysteries of how not to die. IGN's Keza MacDonald, who initially floated the idea of banding together, would also be the person to give it a name: The Chain of Pain.

The first thing you need to understand is that there are two basic types of Dark Souls players - explorers and tourists. The explorer doesn't mind journeying without a map, because they realise that, just as in real life, explorers are the only reason maps came to exist in the first place. They leave the bloodstains that the tourists who trail behind will tiptoe nervously around before continuing on their way. The tourist, meanwhile, cares primarily about reaching their destination, following walkthroughs like turn-by-turn directions. In their mind, the journey is a formality. They play for the trophy, not the thrill of competition.

One of the things that makes Dark Souls so special is that it assumes you're an explorer. It feels good to have a game assume that you're brave, up to the task at hand. But it's more than that. Dark Souls is one of the few contemporary games in which it's even possible to have the experience of true exploration. We've gotten used to waypoints flashing on our minimap. Or if the game senses you dallying in one location too long, a text hint will appear onscreen or, worse, another character in the game will spit out a piece of dialogue meant to steer you back on track. Dark Souls has no truck with such things.

The thing that struck me most when I went back and started re-reading the email exchanges in the Chain of Pain was how painstakingly slow and incremental the progress was on that first playthrough. Being left mostly to our own devices, we were forced to think, strategise, rehearse, pry off the game's locks with the crowbar of sheer persistence. Most of us would burn at least an hour on the Taurus Demon alone - the very first post-tutorial boss in the game - without realising that a simple exploit of his attack pattern can make him feel about as threatening as one of Fable's Hobbes. I'm glad I had to struggle. The victory was sweet. When he paid out that soul bonus, it felt like wages I'd earned from an honest day's work.

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