You will never know how much you like punishment until you play Dark Souls. Is it evil? Yes. Is it fun? That’subjective. Is it a deeply rewarding experience that no other game on the market can provide? Absolutely… if you can survive it. Dark Souls by developer FromSoftware is a medieval fantasy game all about trial and error – more so error. While it’s probably harder than almost any game this side of 3D graphics, it isn’t half as frustrating as many of them, even on their highest difficulty settings. Thanks to some truly ingenious design, Dark Souls successfully distinguishes itself as the best at what it does: And what it does best is pummel you to death (sometimes by cute mini-mushroom babies) all across its well realized quasi-open-world until you get better at it. But that’s where all the fun lies. While it isn’t a technically perfect game, nor the prettiest, it is a very sound product, overall. Dark Souls, as the spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls, stands as an epic experience with a robust singleplayer and a seamlessly intergraded multiplayer component.
Though it is light on story, what is there exist with enough intrigue and mystery to keep players pressing forward. Set in the fictional land of Lordran, a place where dragon’s once reigned supreme, Dark Souls is very much the story of one man or woman that must save humanity from going hollow. Hollowness and humanity are two very important, contrasting concepts and gameplay mechanics in Dark Souls. To be hollowed in Dark Souls is to be essentially dead. It is hinted at that as one becomes more hollow, they loose their mind, or their humanity. Humanity, on the other hand is what everyone that’s alive has. It what keeps us sane, instead of becoming mindless creatures that roam around with broken swords and battered shields… or something to that effect.
Much of Dark Souls is a balancing act, – the combat, the character progression, the multiplayer features, the equipment and movement speed, the unimpressive environmental graphics vs. the fantastic environmental art direction, all of it. Take for example the way money works: Souls act as the currency of Dark Souls, and they are acquired by slaying demons and undead. If you die, all of them are lost and left at the place of death. Return to that place to reclaim your souls, but don’t die again before you get there or they are gone forever. Sound harsh? Good.
The NPCs encountered throughout the game are few and far between when compared to other RPGs. But every NPC in Dark Souls adds a little component to the story and serves some very useful function for the undead warriors that brave the land of Lordran. Some function as merchants, others as teachers of miracles and the dark arts. A few may only give tips on what to do next and where other characters are, but in a game like Dark Souls, where the tutorial has you facing off against a boss more than 10 times your size, tips are precious commodity.
The combat in Dark Souls is actually quite simple. While it is unmistakably and action formula, there are no long combos to remember, no moves list, nothing. What players have are a few sets of strikes that are specific to the numerous types of weapons being used i.e. straight swords, daggers, spears, axes, maces, and so forth. While a few have special abilities, like a sword obtained by severing a dragon’s tail that sends a shockwave across the ground, the majority of weapons pull their appeal from basic light and heavy attacks and the interplay between them. This is not so different from Demon’s Souls. In many ways, the combat hasn’t changed, an that’s not a bad thing. A methodical approach to nearly every single enemy is a must. Players will find that almost every enemy is quite capable of killing them – in one to three hits most of the time.
That said, players will find a system of combat that allows them to challenge most every enemy in the game with almost any level of stats… not saying it’d be a fair fight, but a highly skilled Demon’s Souls player knows well that it is less about what your hardware is, and more about learning the ins and outs of each enemies abilities and attack patterns.Don’t ta ke the word “pattern” as a suggestion of repetition though. Parrying (pushing an enemy’s attack away at the moment before impact) is just as fun as ever, now complete with even more brutality and satisfying gore.
While many things in the combat system are the same as Demon’s Souls, some things have changed for the better. In Demon’s Souls there existed only two real states of movement speed, a light character with light armor that could move like the flash and a character with heavy armor that clunked around with the speed and grace of a turtle (that was me!). In Dark Souls, however, there are more in-between movement speeds based on the percentage of how much is being equipped on the character at once. This leads to fine tuning of equipped equipment to suit many more play-styles and fashion styles all in one. Players will find a very deep combat system underneath a simplistic exterior. Pro tip: Never go exploring a new area without your shield raised and your right thumb ready to mash the roll button… you have been warned.
Some enemies attack in mobs, some in pairs and still others solo. All provide various challenges and patterns that must be learned and blocked or dodged just enough to keep you safe but not deplete your stamina, as you’ll be left vulnerable.
New attacks include a lunge attack where your character does an epic jump-to-stab move. Very useful. Less useful is the new kick, but it does allow players to reinact that famous “THIS IS SPARTA!!!” scene from “300.” There’s also a new falling plunge attack, and its full of win. It’s extremely powerful, but leaves you vulnerable and is quite circumstantial, unlike many attack moves in Dark Souls.
The thoughtful and large scale boss battles that made Demon’s Souls so famous are back in droves. You will die at their hands countless times, you will rejoice over their disintegrating corpses like there’s no tomorrow. At many points in Dark Souls, I found my self in a state of laughter. This was usually when I first encountered a new boss: Some are so big or ferocious that all you can do is helplessly watch as they use one of their numerous mega-attacks to kill you almost instantly. It’s great. There;s even a huge assortment of mini-bosses littered throughout the world to give you that little extra beating the game knows players are missing between big boss battles. Things going to well for you? WATCH OUT, there’s a metal boar about to stampede your sorry hollow arse. On a mountain ledge, feeling good about besting some lightning-breathing wyverns (small-dragons) after your fifth or tenth try? BAM! A poisonous undead dragon the size of several houses is about to own your demon slaying carcass. I don’t want too spoil much of the bosses, because they are truly the highlight of the experience. They will come in all different sizes and their abilities will never, ever, be the same. Each boss fight feels fresh and will demolish you multiple times until you either go grind for more souls (the currency of Loudran that lets you level up and buy items) or you learn all of its moves and how to counter each one.
Lets talk character progression: You can initially choose from a wide range of starting classes that run the gamut of fantasy heros and anti-heros. No matter which one players decide to go with, they will be able to take their character down any path they like, just know that the farther one ranks, the more expensive ranking up becomes. With over 700 soul levels in total, this game will give you more bang than you can shake a broken sword at.
New to the mix are covenants, factions that can be joined that grant widely differing benefits and require its members to do a number of different things to progress further into the faction. Right now I’m a member of Path of the Dragon… I actually had to pray to this rather large eternal dragon to become a member. The perks are I get this stone that lets me turn my head into a dragon’s head that lets me breath fire. If I continue to progress in the covenant, I will get an item that lets my temporarily transform my entire body into a dragon with tiny wings and scales. I can’t fly, but it looks awesome and gives you one hell of a punch. Many of the covenants have perks like these. For mine, I am tasked with invading other players worlds and killing them to collect dragon scales. This leads us to the multiplayer facets of the game.
Still one of the most unique multiplayer suites on consoles, Dark Soul’s lets players either aid random players as co-op partners or become other players’ worst nightmare as they invade them in hopes of slaying them and securing large amounts of souls. Players can also assist other players in a few different ways. If a player dies and is connected online, they leave a bloodstain that can be seen by other players. When interacted with, the player who died can be seen as a ghost in their last moments before death. This gives clues as to whether a cliff fall is ahead or an enemy hidden in some dark corner waiting to ambush you. A more direct method of help allows players to write and rate messages on the ground, anywhere, at any time. There are only pre-set combinations that can be chosen, but there are enough of them that I hardly ever felt like I couldn’t convey what I needed to say or understand what message another player left. Again, not a new feature from Demon’s Souls, but it is just as innovative and helpful as ever. Other players phantoms can be seen in real time also every now and again, particularly when players gather around bonfires.
Bonfires are one of the most welcome new additions to Dark Souls as they act as the save points and places where players can level up or adjust their character. Players can also kindle them which makes them stronger by giving players more health restoring potions, and restore their humanity (see: only way to get help from other players, or engage in person-to-person combat [pvp]). But be warned, resting at a bonfire will respawn every enemy killed between then and the time of the last bonfire resting or death, except for bosses and mini-bosses. Finally there are the technical parts of Dark Souls, and honestly this is the weakest part of the package. The frame rate can crawl at times. Collision bugs that sometimes make it highly difficult to reach certain play spaces. They can cause players to fall to unnecessary deaths. Also enemies still ragdoll hilariously after death and can be dragged by your avatar’s body for several yards when you run over them. While funny, it sucked me out of the experience often.
Technical issues aside, Dark Souls just doesn’t impress with its visuals very often. It’s not a bad looking game by any means, but it just lacks that flare that many titles triple-A titles have. That said, some of the environments have to be seen to be believed. They are expertly crafted and some are highly unique, like Ash Lake – endless black waters with hundreds of office building-sized trees stretching out as far as the eye can see both outwards and upwards. The environments, music and sounds, really invoke a sense of place, albeit a cursed one where your soul is dinner for some of the most fearsome monsters and demon’s in gaming. The atmosphere is great overall and at many points, I really started feel a sense of hopelessness as I made literally feet of progress just to die and start from my last bonfire over and over again. The new open-world structure lends itself well to this atmosphere, where you are stuck and the way forward is paved in blood, your blood.
Though its not perfect, Dark Souls is an incredible, depressing, highly-rewarding, thought-provoking experience that is expertly crafted to make even the most hardcore of the gaming crowd question their abilities to properly wield a controller. But it is not unfair, not really, just strict. No other game invokes the feeling of accomplishment like it. Your mental limits will be tested and tried, and it is seemingly at just the point where things look most bleak that you finally slay that mo-fo that’s killed you literally over a dozen times straight – sending you into an eruption of audible cheers and victory dances. It isn’t for everyone. But to all who surrender their soul unto it, Dark Souls is a game, nay, a testament to human error, stubbornness, and triumph. Once it has you in its demon-like clutches, you’re in it’s 60-hour-plus ride for the long haul. If you like a real challenge and fancy yourself an expert at games, Dark Souls is a must-have experience with riches untold… but for goodness sakes, man, go into it with your shield up!