Review by Lady_Gweyn

"Is Dark Souls a True Sequel, or Just an Attempt to Cash In?"

When Demon's Souls was released back in 2009 exclusively on the Playstation 3, one could safely say that there was no other game on the market like it. It was an unabashedly old-school, fantasy dungeon crawler that, unlike nearly every game of the time (and since then for that matter), refused to hold your hand and presented such a high degree of difficulty that it became known as a game that was either deeply loved or excessively hated by members of the gaming community. But behind the countless deaths and sometimes agonizing boss fights was a deep and immersive RPG that heavily rewarded players for the painful suffering it inflicted upon them.

Two years later, From Software's “sequel,” Dark Souls, hits the market, but this time on the Xbox 360 in addition to the Ps3. Is Dark Souls a worthy successor to what many claim was the best game released on the Ps3 during 2009? Well…

Story – 7.5

Dark Souls' story isn't much of a departure from other grimdark fantasy narratives – a very long time ago, the world was encased in unspeakable darkness and cold, with countless dragons policing their barren world. Then suddenly, the Age of Fire began, with demi-gods rising from the ground in order to wage war against the dragons and bring an end to the despair which had plagued with world, a venture in which they were successful, bringing on years of peace and warmth. Yet at the beginning of Dark Souls, this Age of Fire is coming to an end, signaling the return of the dragons and with them, the crushing coldness. It is up to the player – an Undead condemned to spend eternity locked in a prison in the far north – to fulfill the prophecy and prevent this from happening.

The story, like in Demon's Souls, is very much understated. It is never the main focus of the game and only exists to provide context to your actions throughout the game. Though your character, a silent, background-deprived protagonist of your own creation, is the driving force behind the events in the game, the player never really develops an emotional attachment to him or her, unlike in other RPGs in which you create your own character (Dragon Age or Baldur's Gate, for instance). The story isn't presented to you in a linear fashion unlike in many other RPGs (think Final Fantasy) and unadventurous players will find that they miss out on large portions of the story.

And yet this is also a strength of the story. The progress you make in unraveling the plot feels directly tied to your actions and not given to you. In Final Fantasy, for example, the main storyline will unfold before you regardless of what you do, but this is not the case in Dark Souls. Those who normally rush through games will likely come away with only a vague understanding of the story and be dissatisfied with it, but those who take the time to explore the game world will find quite the opposite. I do wish, however, that more backstory about the world was given in the prologue. As it is, you are thrust into a world without really any knowledge of where you are. Early on in the game, this makes it difficult to find any meaning in your actions.

Design (Graphics and Sound) – 8

Ultimately, the graphics of the game were what I was disappointed most with. The look of the game is virtually identical to Demon's Souls – which is fine – except for the fact that Demon's Souls was released two years ago. My disappointment stems not from the fact that the graphics are bad per say, but rather from the fact that no improvements were made in a two year timeframe. Unfortunately, this gives the game the outward appearance of an expansion pack or a “.5 sequel” rather than a wholly new game in the series. While it is true that many games (see Modern Warfare 3) these days tend not to improve upon graphics from sequel to sequel, it still comes off as a lazy effort from From Software. They had the chance to improve upon what was one of the most unique looking games of the time and turn it into something spectacular, but instead they took the shortcut and it definitely shows.

That being said, the game does still look nice, albeit a bit dated. The first environment the player finds herself in is a dark dungeon filled with prisoners decaying from disease, and the graphical style lends well to a grimdark type game. You really get the sense that the dungeon itself is a festering cesspool of disease and gore, which adds significantly to the overall atmosphere of the game. While I would hesitate to call the game “horror,” most of the game's environments are quite dark with long shadows obscuring alcoves and corners. As I mentioned before, this is a realistic looking game, but not in the sense of a Battlefield 3 in which all of the color is washed out and the contrast turned to max. There is a lot of grey, true, but what else do you expect from stone walls?

The sound, much like the graphics, remains largely unchanged from the previous game. Whereas many contemporary games have sweeping symphonic scores accompanying your adventures, Dark Souls' soundtrack consists most of enemy growls and the sound of swords being parried and riposted. Music is reserved for certain moments in the game, such as boss battles or particular conversations with NPCs. This may be seen as a negative, but the lack of music during normal gameplay adds to the atmosphere of the game. Japanese horror is based around the idea of “being alone,” and you don't get more alone than in Dark Souls. Standing atop a battlement with nothing but the sound of the howling wind to keep you company is quite the immersive moment.

Gameplay – 9.0

The biggest draw to Demon's Souls was its difficultly, and the challenging nature of the game remains unchanged here. My biggest problem with Demon's Souls was that it made too much of a song and dance about being a back-breakingly hard game amongst far easier ones on the market, which ultimate led to frustration on part of the player. Demon's Souls was filled to the brim with cheap instant deaths and monotonous trial and error sections that were only in the game for the sake of being hard and extending the overall length rather than for the overall quality of the game itself. Thankfully, in Dark Souls, the difficulty has undergone a bit of an overhaul. Don't get me wrong; the game is still very challenging, arguably more so than its predecessor, but this time the game is difficult for the right reasons. Sure, there will be many times where you die instantly just because you don't know about the enemy with the firebomb lurking around the corner, but you soon learn to show caution when rounding a corner, and you never find yourself caught again – until, that is, the game puts two enemies around the corner. In essence, the difficulty isn't the sole selling point of the game this time and instead one of the reasons why everything works so well together.

Combat is largely unchanged from the prior game – the shoulder buttons control your left and right hands, allowing you to block, parry, riposte, and attack enemies with relative ease. Magic, which many thought was the only real exploitable element in Demon's Souls, has been significantly changed in favor of a Dungeons and Dragons type of system. The mana bar no longer exists, and instead each of your spells and miracles have a number of charges that, once depleted, can only be restored by resting at a bonfire, which act as the games safe areas. Bonfires not only restore your health, but refill your charges of health potions that are invaluable during your questing. But much like the rest of the game, nothing is without consequence. Using a bonfire in this way also causes all non-boss enemies to respawn, thus ensuring the player doesn't abuse this healing system. Dying once again carries the task of retrieving your corpse (an element first started in Everquest) if you want to regain your “souls,” which act as currency and experience in the game. Dying once more before retrieving your body causes all of those souls to be lost forever, making you begin anew.

My biggest complaint about the combat is the camera, which seems to work only when it wants to. During exploration, the camera is fine, but during combat it can become a problem. If you use the lock-on system to focus on one enemy, the camera may – and often does – start behaving erratically. This is most notably a problem against fights with agile enemies, who may jump around the screen, which results in the camera rapidly shifting in order for the player to keep the enemy centered. Often, this results in the camera swinging you into a corner, unable to see the incoming enemy attack. In instances like this, From Software should have had the camera zoom out to provide you with a better view, but as it is, the camera can and will lead to some deaths.

The most innovative feature of Demon's Souls was that of its multiplayer – players could not only team up and help out others defeat difficult sections of the game, but players could also invade other people's games and kill them as they went about their business of having their soul crushed by the game's difficulty. This led to widespread player griefing and turned many off to the game solely because of members of the game's community that exploited certain tatics in order to harass others. Thankfully, the online focus of Dark Souls isn't on invading others, but rather teaming up and helping them overcome challenging portions of the game. You can still choose to invade someone else's game and kill them, but the times when you can are limited and not necessarily at your choosing. If you do this, you run the risk of having your name entered into the Book of the Guilty, which makes you a constant target for a special group of very powerful players. I think that this change is for the better, as the focus of the majority of online games these days is proving superiority over other players by way of killing them at whatever means possible, even those means include cheesing or using unfair advantages. Hopefully the focus on supporting your fellow player will lead to less bitterness in the community and a better one overall, but only time will tell if it does.

Value – 9.0

There's a lot of content to be had in Dark Souls; a first playthrough of a game should last someone anywhere from forty to sixty hours, depending on how much she likes to explore. This is excellent value, especially in an era of gaming when a twelve hour shooter is considered “quite lengthy.” While I wouldn't go as far as saying the game has more to do than say Elder Scrolls 4, it does come close. Like its predecessor, the game is well suited and even encourages you to have multiple playthroughs, even if you're the type of person who only plays a game once and then never again.

I would also recommend playing Dark Souls without the aid of an online FAQ or the official strategy guide. While it is true that you're almost certain to miss a few hidden items or story points in the game playing through without any help, the end result of beating a tough boss on your own or discovering a hidden item is exponentially more rewarding in Dark Souls than in other games due to the high degree of difficulty. If you do choose to pick up the official guide with the game, expect your total play time to drop by as much as half and an overall less enjoyable experience.

Summary

Dark Souls improves on its predecessor in nearly every single way – except for the visuals. What it lacks in aesthetic improvement it certainly makes up with in addressing some of the gameplay issues present in the first game. But because of the minimal graphical improvements, the game comes off as more of an expansion pack rather than a true sequel to Demon's Souls. That being said, fans of the original will certainly like the game, and even if you weren't among many of its fans (myself included), Dark Souls is still worth your time – if you're one that doesn't mind a challenge.

On the Positive Side…
+ A near-perfect blend of challenging yet rewarding gameplay
+ Beautifully atmospheric world
+ A lengthy experience which has built-in replayability

On the Negative Side…
- Visuals remain largely unchanged from Demon's Souls
- Camera issues can and will lead to unavoidable deaths
- Story could have been more fleshed out at the beginning

What You Should Expect:
A rarity of a game in 2011 that provides a hefty challenge while still remaining fun and rewarding. Any fan of old school dungeon crawlers or Demon's Souls will find themselves at home.

What You Should Not Expect:
A game with a deeply intricate story that immediately draws you in. Dark Souls is a game that's lifeblood is the challenging gameplay, not a compelling narrative. Those who expect to be good at games immediately or don't like a challenge should also stay away.

Story – 7.5
Design (Graphics and Sound) – 8.0
Gameplay – 9.0
Value –9.0

Overall Score – 8.4


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 10/11/11

Game Release: Dark Souls (US, 10/04/11)


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