Review by godpyre

"A gorgeous game with a mean stranglehold, Dark Souls plays for keeps"

In 2009, I had the joy of playing developer From Software's Demon's Souls, one of the most punishing games in recent memory. It was gorgeously rendered, depressingly atmospheric, and above all, insanely difficult. The spiritual successor to Demon's Souls, Dark Souls aims to take the high benchmark in quality, no nonsense gaming established by its predecessor and utterly destroy it. Dark Souls promises to be larger with a seamless open world, have more variety in terms of combat and magic, and be so soul crushingly difficult that your friends and family will feel the weight of your failures…and loathe you for it. Dark Souls is a terribly difficult game though not impossible, but is the frustration and punishment that pave the way to serene accomplishment worth the price of entry? My answer- a resounding HELL YES!

Story:

The story of Dark Souls is unorthodox in both the naming schemes used and the way it is unveiled to the player. In the opening cinematic you learn that dragons once ruled the land in what is known as the “Age of the Ancients”. The world was covered in fog and ash but soon the birth of fire came forth, which in turn created life and death, light and dark. In the flames, Lordsouls were found that gave birth to four gods; Gravelord Nito, the Witch of Izalith and her Daughters of Chaos, the Sunlord Gwyn and his army of knights, and an all but forgotten lord Pygmy. These four lords with Seathe the Scaleless, a dragon who betrays his own kind, defeat the dragons and pave the way for the “Age of Fire”. Hundreds of years later, at the tail end of the Age of Fire a sickness is spreading through the land creating countless undead that roam the Earth in search of death. You are the chosen undead, one with a secret lineage that has the ability to rekindle the “Age of Fire” to end the curse or usher in the “Age of Dark” which brings with it the world of men.

Throughout your experience with Dark Souls there is little to be gained by way of exposition. Any insight you gather from the game comes from your own exploration and determination. Two people can play this game and have mostly different experiences due to NPC requirements and item retrieval. You gain more information about the world and its inhabitants via conversations with NPCs, while items carry with them stories about the past. Even the armor, magic, and weapons that you gain have a story associated with them that adds to the mythos of this mysterious world. The difficulty is putting all the pieces together into a coherent whole when a single, 90 hour play through can represent things from the opening cinematic that you might have forgotten or miss a conversation with an NPC. The story is intriguing and the world interesting, just don't expect it to be the highlight of the game and carry you through its entirety. On the plus side it does not get in the way and allows you to enjoy the game play in all its heart crushing glory.

Game Play:

Like its predecessor, Dark Souls is a Fantasy themed Action RPG dungeon crawler with an emphasis on exploration and survival based on trial and error. There is no question about it, you will die a lot and the game tries its hardest to do this while at the same time giving you the necessary tools to succeed with multiple methods to engage your enemies. In the beginning you are allowed to choose a given class, these vary in terms of starting stats and equipment, but as you progress through the game you are able to balance out your character or pump specific stats to your choosing giving you room to deviate if you wish. I started out as a thief but by the end of the game I was wielding heavy armor and broadswords to engage enemies head on.

Increasing stats, reinforcing equipment, and purchasing items can all be done through one currency, souls. You gain souls by defeating enemies or collecting them off the bodies of the dead through exploration. Fighting enemies is done primarily with the bumper and trigger buttons, each side representing the respective hands of your character. You can dual wield, block, parry, riposte, jump attack, kick and perform all sorts of spells giving you a wider variety of attacks than Demon's Souls. All these combat choices are executed extremely well and are a joy to play for hours on end. You will eventually want to take full advantage of this variety in choice due to the fact that enemies are cruel, relentless, numerous, and will do their best to make you throw your controller at your TV thereby “beating” you definitively.

An aspect of the game that will pose one of the greater difficulties, at least for the first 20 hours or so, is the management of the souls you gain. You want to horde souls because they are your only form of doing practically anything in the game but here's the catch, you can lose them, and only have one chance to regain them again (shown in the form of a blood stain at the last point you died) but if you die while trying to retrieve them they are lost forever. The souls you gain can be used only at merchants or way points called bonfires. At a bonfire you are able to “save” your progress, automatically refill your health, level up your character, refill your health goblet, and regain your humanity (I'll get to this later). The thing is, bonfires are usually located in the center of enemy territory and defeating numerous enemies to get to a bonfire can be an arduous task only to be compounded by the fact that once you rest at a bonfire, all the enemies you defeated respawn.

The respawn is both a blessing and a curse in that it allows you to gain more souls but at the same time can put you in a dangerous position surrounded by enemies putting you in a constant cycle of death in the early game. This format harkens back to an old school mentality of difficulty whereby giving you one life to overcome ridiculous odds, but if you overcome it you will be granted not only a stronger character but also a sense of accomplishment that has been unrivaled since Dark Souls' predecessor. The constant overcoming of trial and error is Dark Souls' greatest strength in terms of game play in that it compels the player and empowers them to face the rising difficulty head on, to destroy the obstacles that stand in their way and feel pride in their accomplishments. Dark Souls is amazing for this by riding the fine line between harsh overwhelming difficulty and stupid, cheap, “the computer cheats” cheesiness. This isn't to say that Dark Souls is perfect, it has its fair share of issues too.

The game play is solid and while the difficulty may seem unforgiving sometimes it teeters to one of two ways due to technical issues, the game is cheating the player or the player is cheating the game (taking advantage, whatever). In terms of the game cheating, odd things occurred throughout my time in Dark Souls' world that had me cursing it with rage. Hit boxes on some enemies are odd making me whiff my hits, some enemies can hit through walls having an unfair advantage, and other times they would back stab me when they were facing me head on, with my shield up. These problems, though reoccurring, only served to strengthen my resolve to defeat this game.

In terms of the player, there are odd technical hiccups that have enemies stay stationary when attacked at a distance, allowing you to whittle their health down with projectiles without retaliation. Other times, enemies will chase you frantically only to give up after a certain distance and in an overwhelming urge to get back to their designated area will soak up any kind of damage. These issues coupled with the ones stated above are in no way game breaking but they do hinder the flow and polish of an otherwise perfectly hardcore game.

To return to a previous point, humanity is the concept used in the game to determine your status and whether you are capable of playing co-op or facing the game's many terrors alone. You have two different status', hollow or human. You become hollow when you die, in this state you are unable to summon help from NPC's or online players and do less damage. The only way to become human again is to consume humanity at a bonfire then you are able to summon other players for help, have an increased loot drop rate, and increased damage.

The caveat to being human though is that you are also liable to be invaded by players seeking to steal your humanity for their own. This unorthodox way of tackling online increases the game's tension and unpredictability that is quite frankly both unnerving and awesome. Unnerving in that your world can be invaded at any moment and if you defeat the invading black phantom it is an awesome feeling, or defeat a difficult boss with summoned blue phantoms and vice versa. Throughout the course of your play through you can pick up items that allow you to invade or be summoned for help as well allowing you multiple ways to get more souls and humanity.

Finally, one of the last additions to this finely crafted game are that of covenants or guilds. Covenants can be made with specific NPC's that give you access to special items and game events that add depth to the world as well as variety in terms of quests to accomplish for specific covenants. The Dragon Covenant has you invade players with dragon scales in their inventory to steal for your own use. The Forest Covenant summons you to the forest to invade players that are enemies to the covenant and so on and so forth. Though the game is unforgiving and does absolutely no hand holding, it is full of meaningful content and practically demands the player to explore every nook and cranny available to immerse yourself in its world.

Presentation:

Dark Souls is an amazing looking game with a seamless world that you can traverse from one end to the other without so much as a loading screen. That alone is a marvelous technical feat that I haven't seen accomplished in any recent game on consoles. The different locations you will traverse are varied from expansive to narrow, beautiful to pitch dark, depressing to down right disgusting. The enemies are as varied as the locations and serve to strengthen the believability of Dark Souls‘ gorgeous yet gloomy world(Once you get to Ash Lake you'll understand what I mean).

As beautiful as the world looks it is not met without limitations. There is unfortunately some slow down that plagues the game as well as clipping. Slow down sometimes occurs randomly even when there isn't much happening on screen but is completely aggravating when it happens during a boss fight. Also in terms of the enemies, they look gorgeous when they're alive and moving, but when they die the rag doll physics kick in to high gear and ugly effect. I had an enemy follow me across a bridge only because it was stuck to my feet. Overall these are small blemishes on an otherwise expansive and alluring game.

The sound design is primarily restrained to ambient noise as well as the clanging of weapons and the death throes of the dying, whether it be your character or the enemies that you fell. When the music comes, during boss fights or specific locations, it is some of the most hauntingly beautiful music I have heard in recent memory (Only seconded to Demon's Souls) and is a pure delight to listen to (again, Ash Lake).

Final Comments:

Dark Souls is not for the faint of heart. To defeat this game you require patience and a willingness to learn from repeated mistakes. If you're capable of overcoming the steep difficulty and explore the stunningly grotesque depths of this game you will achieve a sense of accomplishment the likes that haven't been seen since Demon's Souls in 2009. Games nowadays are littered with auto-saves, helpful tips, and hand holding. If you're prepared to go against the grain and seek a challenge, I can see no better way than to play Dark Souls. Just prepare to die again, and again, and again.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 10/20/11

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


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