Review by White Ninja
"A Soul Searching Journey"
In a world where most developers seemed to have locked onto a standard formula for producing video games, From Software stands alone as a bit of an enigma. Most big budget titles today are story driven, leading the player through the game's events while offering a fairly lenient difficulty curve. Most games hardly last longer than 10 hours, but usually offer some multiplayer modes separate from the main campaign to create some replayability. These games can be extremely well crafted and wonderfully presented, yet there's something about their experience that feels limiting. No matter how finely tuned the gameplay or how well written the story might be, such games place more emphasis on the game leading the player rather than the player exploring the game.
So along came From Software who in 2009 released Demon's Souls as an exclusive for the PS3. While technically a spiritual successor to the King's Field series, Demon's Souls brought some new ideas to the table that the current gaming market sorely lacked. Story was not the driving force of the game, but rather it was the player who was forced to explore the game world and reveal the story on his own. The combat mechanics had a level of depth that stood out in a world saturated with "hack-and-slash" style adventure games. Environments were intricate, widely varied, and expertly crafted, yet the player was given virtually no direction on how to explore them. Multiplayer was turned on its head, being fully integrated into the main campaign, allowing players to interact on many different levels, both cooperatively and as adversaries. Basically, From Software managed to create a player-driven experience, wherein the game essentially stands out of the way and lets the player discover its wonders.
It was also hard. Very hard. My experience playing Demon's Souls was a continuous flux between frustration, realization, and unbridled satisfaction. Every setback was a learning experience. Every wall I hit was a challenge that I needed to grasp then surmount. While the learning curve in Demon's Souls was steeper than most games, it was also more organic. Once again, I as the player had to overcome obstacles through my own experiences. Finishing the game brings a sense of satisfaction that I'm fairly certain is unique in the gaming world. Not because it was difficult, but because I beat it through my own experiences, suffering, and merit.
It's important to understand the kind of experience and impact that Demon's Souls created in order to fully appreciate its spiritual successor, Dark Souls. The reason is because Dark Souls is far less accessible to new players than Demon's Souls. It isn't simply that the game is more difficult (although it is), it's that its scope is far wider and more daunting than its predecessor. Dark Souls builds on the concept that Demon's Souls introduced, that of a player-driven experience by removing the last few remnants of player-guiding mechanics.
For starters, the tutorial is much more in-depth, complete with a mandatory boss fight that both veteran players and newcomers might find staggering. The game demands much more of players much more quickly. For example, parries and ripostes, a tricky maneuver to perform which was mostly trivial in Demon's Souls is now one of the only viable options to defeat certain shielded enemies in the early game. Also, new maneuvers are introduced, most notably the plunging attack, which the player is highly encouraged to use on the very first boss fight of the game.
Once the first boss is defeated, the player immediately gains access to the ENTIRE game world (save a few restricted areas). The hub world of Demon's Souls is gone. There is no longer an introductory level. The player is given absolutely no guidance on where to go, just a vague notion that he must ring a set of bells. There is no immediate access to blacksmiths or merchants. It is a cold, dark, wide world and the player must face it alone. Even as a veteran of Demon's Souls, this was something that I found quite overwhelming. Yet at the same time, it sparked this deep urge to explore and discover an unknown world. That world is also much, much larger than that of Demon's Souls, boasting around 25 different environments.
Exploration is still somewhat limited in the early game however. Since this is Dark Souls, the player learns this through experience, and early deaths are common simply from exploring areas that are too difficult for low level players. Another thing that quickly becomes a burden is the fact that you have a limited supply of healing items. Random drops no longer occur, and healing is only possible through spells and "Estus Flasks", which are replenished at Bonfires. As the game no longer has a hub world, Bonfires are the only checkpoints available to players. While using them will heal, replenish Estus Flasks, and perform other useful services, they also cause all enemies to respawn. This means that you need to be extremely resourceful on how you use Estus Flasks, and any minor setback might force you to return to a Bonfire, essentially reversing any progress you've made.
Deaths are generally much more frequent in Dark Souls compared to Demon's Souls. Enemies are tougher, more unpredictable, and have better player detection and tracking. Environments are also more difficult to navigate, with small walkways, bottomless pits, and other types of obstacles being far more common. Player movement is also more restricted and deliberate, with actions feeling slower and more sluggish compared to the enemies. And finally, I must mention the greatest obstacle and my biggest gripe with this game - controls and camera. The combat system in Dark Souls is one of the deepest and most subtle I've ever seen in an action RPG, but precise combat requires precise controls, and on this front the game simply doesn't deliver. Input delays are a common occurrence, and the lock on system is atrocious and wildly unpredictable. Camera flailing or spasms are also a problem and it can even clip through walls. All of these things can and will result in your immediate death.
The level of frustration I have felt while playing Dark Souls has yet to be surpassed by any other video game. It isn't simply about dying. It isn't even about losing progress. It's about attaining a level of such utter hopelessness, feeling as though I will never be able to surmount an obstacle. When you hit a wall, you hit it hard, and there are a lot of walls in Dark Souls. The important part is that when I finally broke through those walls, I got that same wonderful sense of satisfaction that I got while playing Demon's Souls. Although the learning curve is steeper than Demon's Souls, it's just as organic and grounded in personal experience.
As the game progresses, you really get a sense of how vast and beautiful the world of Dark Souls really is. Frustration and hopelessness fall away as you suddenly reach a breathtaking panorama and remember how uniquely wonderful this experience truly is. Graphically, Dark Souls is amazing; quite possibly the best looking game on the PS3. Unfortunately, that comes at the price of noticeable, and frankly unacceptable slowdown in a few areas. However, exploration is also very rewarding in terms of loot, and to a much greater extent than Demon's Souls. Virtually all items are obtainable through a single playthrough, and the world/player tendency that limited certain areas in Demon's Souls has thankfully been discarded.
Stat building is mostly unchanged in Dark Souls, although Strength and Dexterity now affect attack animations and player movement. "Souls" are still the main currency and are still as valuable yet fleeting as ever. In addition to souls, players now collect "humanity", which allows players to attain human form, increases item drop rates, and has a few other uses. Overall, it's a nice addition and I much prefer it over the Soul/Human form system in Demon's Souls. While deaths are more frequent in Dark Souls, they are also less punishing, and you no longer lose half your life bar when dying in human form.
The multiplayer system, possibly the most unique aspect of Demon's Souls, has been slightly expanded. You can now punish invading players by "indicting" them, increasing the chances that they get invaded themselves. Possibly one of the most interesting new features in Dark Souls is the covenants system. Players can now join one of nine covenants that gives them access to special items and privileges, and in some cases even affects the way they interact with other players online.
The experience of playing through Dark Souls is one that's ultimately difficult to describe. My feelings about the game changed often as I was playing it, from uncontrollable anger to wide-eyed wonder and awe. In the end, Dark Souls is about the player's journey. How you choose to approach and undertake that journey will likely affect your feelings about the game. This is not a game that leads you by the hand. It's not a game that exists to tell you a story. Dark Souls is about experiencing something unique, about discovering a world and conquering it on your own merit. Like any meaningful experience, you will stumble and falter along the way. But I find that it's the things that require the most effort that are often the most rewarding. And Dark Souls is nothing if not rewarding.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 10/20/11
Game Release: Dark Souls (US, 10/04/11)
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