Dark Souls is the spiritual successor to the Playstation hit, Demon Souls. I’ll be honest here, you’ve probably read a review already. Or heard the hype about the difficulty. Well, I decided I didn’t want to push out a fast review, I wanted to play this for a month, rather than the usual ‘two day review time’ that reviewers allocate. Let me just say, I’m glad I did.
You start out alone in a prison cell. You are hollow, or well on your way to becoming so. The prison you are contained in is a prison for the undead, guarded by all. However, you break free from your cell, and make your way outside. Led by visions, you conquer the prisons demon guard and break free to the clifftops, whereby a giant raven carries you to Firelink shrine.
Yes, the intro sounds pretty surreal, but Dark Souls does not seem to have the worlds strongest plot. It’s an action RPG yes, but not a story driven one. At Firelink Shrine, you’ll meet a human NPC who vaguely guides you to your next destination. The whole plot of Dark Souls is vague. This is both a good thing, and a bad thing. It’s a good thing as it promotes a more realistic approach. You’ve just escaped from the prison, its down to you to make your own way in the world, just picking up tidbits of information from people and hopefully you’ll end up going the right way ; it’s a bad thing in that you can essentially spend hours ploughing in completely the wrong direction with no-one to let you know. From looking at both sides of the coin, I think I’d have preferred a more guided approach. I don’t want my hand holding don’t get me wrong, but just a little more of a nudge would have been appreciated.
You play with the setup you want, as long as you meet the stats requirement. The characters are fully customisable from the start, with both gender, hair, facial features being chosen by the player.
Now lets get to the major talking point. The difficulty. Is Dark Souls hard? Yes. Is it insanely hard? Yes. Is it impossible? No. And this is where the beauty of the game lies. You will die a lot in Dark Souls, an awful lot. Probably more than you ever have, in any game you’ve ever played. The thing about this is, it isn’t frustrating. Each death is a lesson, offering you the chance to go back and put what you’ve learnt into practice. I know your asking yourselves how dying over and over isn’t frustrating, and the best comparison I can offer is in the way I never found ‘Super Meat Boy’ frustrating.
When a game is that finely balanced, when there are no ‘cheap deaths’, then every mistake is your fault. Sure, you may have the odd moment where you rage at yourself, but never at the game. It’s down to this mentality, that it was YOUR fault, that you go back and try again. It’s an incredibly strange mechanic, but it’s beautifully executed. It’s also incredibly refreshing that a game offers a challenge.
There is no ‘casual’ mode, in fact there is only one difficulty setting. You can’t pause the game when you’re being over-ran giving yourself time to think or calm the nerves. You can’t even use party chat in co-op, instead communicating via in-game gestures. Everything that can be done to make this one big immersion experience has been done. You are there, and you are alone.
Dark Souls features a class system, but like the plot it’s a loose one. There are ten different classes, from the Cleric to the Pyromancer, the Knight to the Thief. It’s a loose system though, as any class can use any item, weapon or armour. The only thing that the class choice effects, is starting stats and starting spells/items. For example, the Cleric will start with the miracle heal where as the Pyromancer will start with the fireball spell. They will have similar stats, but the Cleric will have more faith and the pyro a higher magic attribute. Throughout the game, they can both use the same weapons from greatswords to small axes. This is not like typical RPGs as there are no restrictions whatsoever. You play with the setup you want, as long as you meet the stats requirement. The characters are fully customisable from the start, with both gender, hair, facial features being chosen by the player.
Within the game, Dark Souls features bonfires scattered around the world (and usually not that close together). These act as your safe haven and your respawn point should (when) you die. They are also the hub where you will level up and change your magic spells, and also offer you the option to ‘revert hollow’ (revert to human form) and ‘kindle’ (double the amount of Estus Flasks you can refill at that bonfire). In short, bonfires are your life line. Whatever your objective is at the time, you’ll find that you will put ‘finding the next bonfire’ at the top of the list. It’s that ‘just in case’ mentality that makes Dark Souls so intense, so exciting. The chance of death is that high, that panic is constantly there forcing you into perfection, and looking for that safe point. You’ll find yourself going a bit care-free once you’ve found a bonfire, until you realise progression will be lost until you reach the next one safely. Then it’s back to being careful.
Is Dark Souls hard? Yes. Is it insanely hard? Yes. Is it impossible? No. And this is where the beauty of the game lies.
Currency is exceptionally important in Dark Souls, and as luck would have it, the currency is actually souls. Souls are reaped from enemies that you fell as you progress throughout the world. The bigger the enemy, the more souls you will reap. Souls are the lifeblood of the game, as not only are they the currency with which merchants will sell you wares, they are also the games ‘xp’ system. You spend the souls at bonfires to level up certain stats. This is just another fine example of Dark Souls offering you a very tough choice; do you go and buy that awesome armour from the vendor, or do you gain two or three levels? Ultimately, the choice is yours.
It’s at this point that the bonfire and currency system intertwine. If you die whilst roaming the landscape, you then drop all your souls on the ground and you’ll then respawn as mentioned earlier at the bonfire with no souls. If you can get back to the spot where you died, you may pick up your souls and they will add cumulatively on the souls you just earnt getting back to them; die along the way, and those souls you dropped are lost forever. It adds a tactical element to the game, in that death is not just a case of respawning at a checkpoint. It’s a case of respawning and losing all your XP and money. This only applies to souls you haven’t yet spent, as spending the souls on anything removes them from your person. Just another tactical element, as now you have to choose WHEN to bank your souls.
The whole system is just brilliant.
The combat in Dark Souls is based more on your positioning and timing than most other action-rpgs. Gone are special strikes, super abilities and player buffs. That may make the combat sound shallow, and in a way it is. But if you scratch beneath the surface, the fact you have to swing your sword exactly when required adds an element of realism. Depending on your weapon you can thrust or sideswipe, sometimes both to get around your enemy. An awful lot of enemies in Dark Souls feature shields or heavy armour, and generating that extra split second to flank an enemy is something a player will really have to work on. Dodging and blocking incoming attacks is just as important, as it offers the chance for either a parry/riposte counter or a dodge-roll counter. It might take a little while to get to grips with as players may be used to spamming their ‘insta-win special melee gib attack’ in other games, here you have to think on your feet, and act accordingly.
The game does feature boss battles against some spectacular creatures.
There are many different kinds of enemies within the game, from small insignificant hollowmen to enourmous dragons, and although I’ve not finished the game (may I point out, the only game I’ve ever reviewed that I didn’t complete first – it may take me weeks) I know I’ve not seen everything it has to offer in terms of enemies. Skeletons, Dragons, Drakes, Giants, humanoids, slimes, grotesque ogres with huge clubs,rabid dogs, cloaked assassins, suited black knights, the list is huge and each enemy fights differently. In fact, the same enemy can fight differently just depending on his weapon loadout. A normal hollowman with a sword and shield will fight totally differently to a hollowman with a polearm. It’s not only a case now of knowing thine enemy, it’s a case of looking at his equipment and anticipating the attack.
The game does feature boss battles against some spectacular creatures. I don’t want to give any spoilers in this review, so I’m just going to leave it with this : every boss I’ve fought so far has a)been hard and b)amazingly epic.
Items, Armor and Weapons
Items and armour do play a big part in Dark Souls, with a multitude of weapons, armour and consumbles at your disposal. The weapon choice is astounding with everything from dirks to great axes here, with the choice for each weapon to be dual wielded or used in conjunction with a shield or your talisman (the item required for casting spells), which poses the choice of damage versus defence.
Every weapon has a different base stat for damage and speed, and you’ll find out for yourself if you prefer the quicker weapons or the larger slower weapons. Weapons can also be upgraded in the traditional +1 sense as well as being turned into ‘divine’ weapons that deal massive amounts of damage to certain members of the undead horde.
Just like weapons, there is also an awful lot of armour contained within the game. The choices posed to the player are manoeuvrability versus damage protection, with heavy steel armours causing you to lumber around slower than the lighter cloth pieces.
The great thing about armour is, in Dark Souls the weight of an armour suit actually effects your character in game. Wear a lightweight cloth suit and you’ll run faster and roll with ease; stick on a set of chain mail pieces, and your movement is slow and cumbersome with rolls taking an eternity to execute. It’s a great touch, and one that really effects the decisions you make.
Enemies and Consumables
There are many different kinds of enemies within the game, from small insignificant hollowmen to enourmous dragons.
There are also plenty of consumables within Dark Souls from the prominent Estus Flasks (health potions) to firebombs, weapon oils, poison cures. The choice in weapons, armour and items is phenomenal and as currency is so valuable its definitely a major decision each time you purchase something.
Dark Souls does look great. There are better looking games in the genre, with Dragon Age 2 springing to mind but that’s not what Dark Souls is about. That nice polished look just wouldn’t feel right here. Dark Souls is, as the name suggests, dark. It’s gritty, and this is resembled in the game. The enemy creatures look and move fantastic, as does your own character until you zoom in far too close. Some creatures are tens of feet tall, and they fill the screen majestically and all look proportioned just as they should.
The characters movements are fluid where they should be, and the combat looks realistic. There are no over the top moves, just combat as it would happen if you were placed there yourself.
The audio in Dark Souls is pretty good too. Once again, it’s dark. It generates the atmosphere well with its ambient music and the enemies/combat sounds are spot on. Nothing here will get repetitive, except maybe the little ditty that plays everytime the ‘You Have Died’ screen pops up. You’ll probably hear that one a lot.
Dark Souls does feature multiplayer although not in the traditional sense. You can join other peoples worlds via the use of items within the game itself to be transported or summoned to your partner. However, party chat is disabled and you can only communicate via in game gestures.
There have been many great games so far in 2011, but this is the best of the bunch yet.
Help or Hinderance
When in other peoples worlds, you have the option of being a help or a hindrance, and there are rewards and consequences whichever way you choose to play it. Kill another player in their world and you may be blacklisted by that player, which leads to serious repercussions. It’s a nice touch to the game, but it’s definitely a back seat thing over the single player. The lack of party chat removes the ‘banter’ had with friends, and the intense difficulty means its a game you concentrate with not chill out on.
This is not a game for you achievement hunters. The achievements here are hard, just like the game. They are not given out easily, and you will have to fight for every single point you earn. The full 1000g I would say is nigh impossible (although I’ll be proven wrong eventually), but no matter how possible its still very hard and going to take an awful long time to complete. I think your given three easy achievements near the start, but after that, your on your own.
The game has flaws, it does, but that’s ok as no game is perfect. I’d like a little more guidance from time to time so I don’t waste countless hours for example, but as I said, no game is perfect. Dark Souls comes very close however, and I can’t rate it highly enough. It’s difficult. It’s dark and gritty. It has epic creatures to fight against. It’s brilliantly balanced. It’s a truly exceptional title in an era where the masses are catered for, but by going against the grain it has swallowed up gamers in a way like nothing else has done since the 90′s.
There have been many great games so far in 2011, but this is the best of the bunch yet. It’s got a few strong contenders yet to come for Game of the Year, and whether it takes the title officially, From Software can take solice in the fact that it will be Game of the Year for the large majority of people that play it.
Thanks to Namco Bandai for supplying us with a promotional sample in order to provide this review
Dark Souls: Dark Souls is a notoriously difficult action role-playing game that is set in a dark and foreboding world. Players navigate a harsh and unforgiving landscape filled with deadly enemies, intricate level designs, and challenging boss battles. With limited resources, players must carefully manage their health, stamina, and equipment while exploring the game's mysterious lore and uncovering its secrets. The game's punishing difficulty and intricate mechanics have earned it a reputation as one of the most challenging and rewarding gaming experiences available. – gamereuphoria