Dark Souls: One of the best RPG’s of the year? Undoubtedly. One of the best action games of the year? The combat mechanics certainly seem tight enough. Best survival horror…? Wait.. What?!
The truth is that Dark Souls’ genre classification is anything but simple. It’s a hybrid. While it is easily identifiable as an Action RPG, it borrows elements from some of the best survival horrors around, specifically the landmark Resident Evil.
Forget for the moment that Dark Souls pits you against an army of what seem to be lumbering undead. A survival horror that maketh not; most zombie games since Resident Evil have not even come close to survival horror. What they have in common are core mechanics: Exploration and inventory management, supply rationing and terror of the common enemy.
While the playable map is far more expansive, the layout of the various areas in Dark Souls, especially the beginning few, is highly reminiscent of the mansion from the original Resident Evil. The mansion was littered with locked doors and secret passageways, unlockable shortcuts from new areas to previous ones.
Progression in Dark Souls goes much the same way. Brand new areas and secret treasures lay locked away behind doors. Progressing through the game, or combing for secrets, nets you these keys and the way forward. Doors only operable from one side are first found, circumvented, and then finally opened to link the previous area with the new. Though the world of Dark Soul’s seems wide and vast, I still got the sense that I was once again locked inside that troublesome mansion, certain of a tricky secret passage or fantastically useful treasure if only I was thorough enough. In short, the level design is superb; the requisite sense of mystery and discovery fully intact.
But simply allowing the player to traverse from point to point, freely searching for secrets, is not survival horror’s style. Survival horror requires a pervasive sense of urgency and danger. In Resident Evil it was the limited health and ammo pickups and the management of your dwindling inventory. Would you have enough herbs to make it to the next save room? Even if you made it to the next boss, were you certain you had enough ammunition to drop it? The resource management of survival horror presents players with some very interesting options; sometimes it is better to flee from danger, to forgo various risks and rewards for the sheer sake of survival and progression.
Dark Souls presents similar options in much the same way. Players are supplied with a limited number of health-refilling flasks, flasks that are only replenished when the player reaches the next checkpoint, or retreats to an old one. Certain supplemental weapons can be found or purchased, but these can be depleted and must be put to good use in a world where resources are scarce.
The option of fight or flight is what separates survival horror from so many other genres where the only option is to kill repeatedly to progress. Consider many other action games, like Devil May Cry or God of War, that straight up lock you in room after room until said room has been cleared of enemies.
To present players with such a choice, players must first be genuinely terrified, stressed out, or altogether diffident of their ability to tackle the next challenge. In many survival horror games, this is achieved by making even the most common enemies completely dangerous and fatal. There is no cannon fodder to be found here. Zombies in Resident Evil were capable of grabbing you and inflicting serious damage. After two or three bites you were dead, or at best, critical and limping forward slowly. What’s more, if the downed corpses of these zombies weren’t methodically burned, they would revive later in the game, far faster and far, far stronger. These zombies, the most common and basic enemies in the game, could be destroyed, but had to be approached with extreme caution and care.
Dark Souls stresses players in a similar fashion. Areas in the game are crawling with your common zombie, but, what in many games would be nothing more than lumbering targets, here can easily spell your doom. Drop your guard, take a few hits, and suddenly you are dead or dying. While it’s true that as you gain power and levels enemies from previous areas become relatively weak, new areas will be filled with the same common zombie, now even stronger than before, and backed up by a whole slew of nasty, nightmarish creatures. No matter what, when exploring a new area, each and every enemy must be considered a threat.
Exploring mysterious locations, scrounging for weapons and supplies, feeling constantly threatened and on the run – this is the heart of survival horror. Just as Dark Souls is undebatably an RPG, and undebatably an action game, it also undebatably meets these requirements of survival horror. The significance is that, while this year and the last and the next will be filled with RPG releases, just as it will be with action games in spades, these years are seeing hardly any notable survival horror releases, and fans of the genre would be remiss not to recognize Dark Souls for what it is: a hybrid, true, but one that is keeping the classic survival horror formula alive.