I’m glad Dark Souls has become the phenomenon it has.
Just this week I was chatting with someone who had recently become a fan, inundated with cries of “you have to play this!” for years on end before he finally caved with Dark Souls II. Before he knew it he had bought the sequel and was looking into trying out Bloodborne. I was watching his excitement grow before my eyes, and remembered all of my first experiences with each game fondly in that moment. It’s magical. So when I heard that the world was going to be expanded through multiple forms of media, I jumped on the opportunity to give them a go. Now I see just how perfect the series is when its confined to a videogame. In Dark Souls: Winter’s Spite, readers get the chance to get in on the ground floor without any preconceived notions or complex lore tying them up.
This is the story of Andred of Ithvale, a knight that wants revenge after someone “stole his birthright”—a sufficiently vague Souls-like setup, naturally. The narrative is told in media res, explaining how Andred got into the gladiatorial predicament he’s in and how he tracked his nemesis across lands both familiar and unfamiliar to those who have played the games. It’s a tantalizing tease, all told, as most of these glimpses are fleeting moments.
This style allows the hero narrate the tale, providing exposition of his journey and context for his travels (like where he’s been and where he’s going) as well as a general overview of the action. It’s partially effective, because while the device itself is sound, the way it’s done feels a little heavy-handed at times. Imagine the movie trailer voice, but instead of providing a compelling voiceover for an interesting looking movie, it’s a living parody of that “epic” concept—then you’ll get an idea of how it sounds every ten pages or so in Dark Souls: Winter’s Spite.
There’s some attempt to transcend the “kill stuff” theme of the game here too, but it’s a little murky just one issue in. Andred has pity for one of the creatures he kills, but it kind of just stops there, and before you know it, the issue is over and promising more cryptic antics. That’s part of why the volume-centric “cliffhanger” format doesn’t really work for something like the Souls series. When playing one of the games you can seek out everything in one long session spanning an entire day if you want. It’s the type of creative medium that indulges the insatiable masses, but with a comic, you’re going to have to deal with the “same Bat Channel” shtick just while things were getting interesting.
Alan Quah’s art is a little more nuanced. I especially like how skilled he is at creating snowcapped landscapes, and there are several shots of old creatures from previous games that are perhaps more detailed than their rendered models or bits of concept drawings found in artbooks. He’s equally talented at creating compelling architecture, and manages to cram in more story without saying a word.
I still left Dark Souls: Winter’s Spite feeling a big hollow. I’m not invested in Andred at all, and any breadcrumbs given (including his compassion) have failed to hook me. But the art, including that of the four other guest artists who handled the alternate covers, is true to the source. Unless you’re a diehard, stick with the games.