Review by Xys` Tel Unaki
"They were right when they told you "Prepare to die.""
Lately there has been a flood of video games that have become too casual as one might put it. These games have the standard easy, normal, hard difficulty setup and while the hardest difficulty says it is hard and for advanced players, most can easily jump in and beat them without too much trouble. Games have gotten easier for everyone and those with new game+ modes strengthen their challenge but it is hardly enough for most of us. One game, however has come out that is showing gamers across the PS3 and 360 platforms that a game is supposed to be a challenge and is breaking the mold in which most developers have fallen into. From Software wants the player to die. They want them to learn that if you make a mistake, there won't be a nifty checkpoint every 5 feet. In the world of Lordran, you will be crushed. You will be pushed off into the abyss. You will be pierced by sharp objects and you will bleed. You will finally face challenges that will mentally crush your hopes and dreams. Welcome to Dark Souls.
Prepare to Die
Dark Souls is the successor to the wildly popular, and unforgiving, Demons Souls for the PS3 and it is the first of its kind to grace the Xbox 360. As said above, you will find ways to die that you never thought of. This game is difficult and From even states on the ads that you will die with its iconic Prepare to die. phrase. This is something that I highly praise because I personally love difficulty in my games and have even thrown my controller down in anger as I failed to beat a boss for the tenth time in a row. The game even features a unique multiplayer mechanic that was previously seen in Demon's Souls when it launched for both getting assistance and being rude and halting the progress of other players but I will discuss that in a later section. For now let us focus on the story of the game.
Dark Souls, while feeling devoid of any story outside of cutscenes, does have one that you really do have to uncover. The player is supposed to learn the story through NPC interactions but it can be a little hard to understand what exactly you are doing other than clearing each area of its own unique set of bosses. After looking at everything available to me, even though the story lacks narrative, it is there.
The basic story is that when the world was unformed, great dragons controlled it before four souls of lords were found in the fires by four demigods, so to speak. After they killed the dragons the Age of Fire began and the world slowly formed itself with great cities. After a period of time passed, a plague swept the land of Lordran and slowly consumed all its citizens. To attempt to save the remaining people from the plague, they shipped the undead to an Undead Asylum, which is their prison for eternity. The game starts with the player in a cell and he must escape. The player assumes the role of a hollow, which is the game's term for undead, or zombie who starts off in the cell and is rescued by a knight. After a little bit of exploring, you learn that you are the chosen undead to save the land and ring two bells to learn the fate of the undead. This is quite a surprising twist, being the chosen one and all. While it is overused like crazy, it is still something that does make up the whole of an interesting story. As I said before, other than the bit laid out in the beginning, you have to really explore and determine for yourself (or read the speculations and discussions on the dedicated wiki) to determine the story. Some gamers are put off by this and will tell you it doesn't exist due to lack of narrative but if the game had a narrative, it could potentially ruin the atmosphere the game has surrounding it. I find the story intriguing and I do enjoy having thoughtful discussions on elements of the story that seem to be open for personal interpretation. I won't ruin what those are but they are very deep parts of the story and well hidden but genuinely make you feel attached to Lordran and its citizens.
Another department that the game has done exceptionally well in is the art and sound of the world. The game has an exceptional soundtrack, which was free to all Collectors Edition buyers, with phenomenal scores that pump you up for the various creatures you encounter and for some, made me pull back in shame for what I was doing. The area soundtracks also fit well with their specific areas and match the tone set by the equally beautiful scenery. The game takes you through so many different areas that are all easily recognizable just by seeing a screenshot of the area. It takes you through an old and decaying castle, a dingy swamp riddled with mosquitoes and unsavory denizens and even to a completely different land splashed by the sun that would make it look like a painting. The enemies are also unique and rarely use the same models as so many games do. This game makes it easy to determine whether you are fighting a skilled knight, a simple undead footman or a poison infested ghoul. The enemies do however tend to clip into objects during and after death and even get stuck on the player model which kind of annoys me and makes me giggle at the same time. I found myself bored waiting for a summon once and tried to see how far I could fling a dead enemy from being stuck off my body and it turns out I threw him so far into the scenery he just vanished in mid-air.
Some things that disturb me in certain aspects of the sound are the armor and water noises. The water is nice to look at itself but stepping in water is very loud and annoying. The armor also clinks with each step, which is also loud and like water can get in the way of hearing certain things in the game such as enemies trying to attack me from behind that give themselves away with grunts or exaggerate movements before an attack. There are a lot of areas in the game where I would be in water or wearing heavy armor and stop completely and the sound would continue even though nothing was near me that would enter the water. It was like an echo that lasted for about 10 seconds and it slightly scared me because I thought something had found me in the darkness and was trying to kill me. Turns out that it was just a bit of sound that the game didn't bother to stop. Regardless, there isn't much to knock other than the movement sounds continuing when they shouldn't and after a while you may want to turn the tv down if you are going to do something else for a moment.
No game is complete without its gameplay and Dark Souls, on the outside seems like a simple dungeon crawler with hack-n-slash gameplay. Yes it does involve a lot of running through dungeon-like areas but the gameplay is nowhere near a frantic hack-n-slash like Dynasty Warriors or God of War. The gameplay is much slower and because the game puts you up against unfair odds quite a lot, you must learn how to use everything at your disposal at the right time to emerge victorious. The control scheme used for this gameplay is a simple but very interesting scheme. The game utilizes the D-Pad as the main method of switching between equipped items, of which you can only have two items in each hand and a certain number of spells which makes sense due to the equipment load system. The more you physically equip to your character, the higher your load becomes. As your load starts to max out, you will notice your stamina regenerates slower and goes down just a little faster with each action until you become over-encumbered and have to remove something. The player is also allowed 5 quick items which are used with the X button and are managed via down on the D-Pad, two arrow sets, two bolt sets, two rings, and depending on the level of the attunement stat, a certain amount of spells to use which are managed via up on the pad. The left and right are reserved for the left and right hand equipment which, more often than not, is going to be your shield and your main weapon. You can have two of each hand and can switch freely but shields are best used in the left hand and weapons in the right or they lose specific movesets while spellcasting tools (required to cast various spells) can be used in either the left or right hand. The shoulder buttons control your weapons, shield, spells and quick-slot items. The Y button switches between single and two-hand for your various weapons, the B button allows for rolls, dodges, jumping and sprinting, the A button is your basic selection button and really has very little use other than to initiate conversation or activate an object. And finally we have the X button which will be pressed multiple times throughout the game as you heal yourself or use other various objects. It allows you to use you equipped quick-select items. The start button opens the menu and the select button opens your gestures, or emotes as some may call them.
Now, there are a ton of weapons in the game. They range from the tiny but agile dagger to super greatswords and scythes with a nice selection of bows and crossbows. With bows, if you two-hand them, you can go into aiming mode and select your arrows and manually fire them while the crossbows do not have this feature and seem to be generally used for initiating fights from range before entering melee. Now, as far as weapons go, each weapon type scales off of a certain stat such as strength or dexterity. Generally its easy to tell which weapons scales off which stat without looking at that page but you are generally going to raise your dexterity for thrusting weapons or smaller blades while greatsword, hammers and axes are going to scale off strength. This is a very interesting concept but after quite a bit of gameplay and leveling of stats, it does seem that the scaling does kind of stop and elemental weapons become a bit more effective as enemies start to have specific weaknesses and strengths. One thing I have noticed, there is one powerful weapon you can get early which lasts for a long time but suddenly feels extremely weak at a certain point in the game.
Dark Souls lets players use NPCs in various areas to upgrade and repair equipment. After spending enough resources and getting the right items and the right amount of souls (Which is both experience and currency at the same time. This makes you decide between upgrading equipment, buying items or leveling up), you are able to visit the smith and ascend a weapon, which is upgrading it past its full potential and either increasing its raw damage output or favoring an elemental weapon that does magic, fire, or lightning damage with each attack. This is where you start to find combinations of weapons, spells, and equipment to negate enemy strengths and take advantage of their inherent weaknesses which is something I highly commend From Software for doing with Dark Souls.
One downside to having so many weapons is that since there are so many, after a mere twenty or so hours, a lot of them just become either novelties or are just plain useless with no real benefit other than being unique. One such example is the whip. There are few whips in the game but none of them have any real use because their damage output is so low and they take so long to actually animate and this makes them poor choices for a main weapon. They do upgrade into the much more powerful, but still highly situational scythe later on but halberds do this as well and are faster and harder hitting. Again that was only an example but after going through the game and seeing how others play, most gravitate towards either the spears, shortswords or ultra greatswords. The same can also be said for armor as well where people will either wear one specific robe or suit of armor.
The game also uses a unique style of multiplayer and for the Xbox version of the game, From has decided to disable party chat during normal play unless in offline mode. To me this is a plus but it is easier to see where the hate for this decision comes from with players wanting to talk to their friends while playing. They did this to both strengthen the immersion one gets from the game itself and to strengthen the bond between the community members. The way the game works is the player has several choices; Place his sign down to be summoned to another player's world, summon someone or invade the world of another who is chosen at random by the player. Since this game has the potential to have level 700 and above characters, the developers have left restrictions in place for all aspects of the multiplayer. To invade a person through normal means, they must be within 10% of your level and the same goes for summoning. This means that if you were a level 40, you would only be able to interact with characters ranging from 36 to 44. The other restriction is, you must be human. Now, being human is a simple task but early on, it can be very difficult to acquire the item called humanity which is needed to become human but once you have it, you can spot both NPC summon signs, from whom you have spoken to before, and players but also comes with the risk of being invaded. Its a fun system that works very well with the game but as of this writing, the game itself is separated into different servers so you may at one point not see a single person due to the server not containing anyone who wants to cooperate or invade your world. There are loopholes to the human rule though such as rings you can get via covenants or random items that you create with specific NPCs which allow you to invade under specific conditions. This includes the Cat Covenant Ring which allows you to invade the world of a random person fighting in certain sections of the forest.
Also as of this writing, Dark Souls does have several glitches in the game that are easy to discover and some are hard to exploit. Right now there is a patch in the works to fix some things and unfortunately, certain things cant be fixed without a overhaul of the game. The game suffers from major lag in the swamp area due to so many objects being populated and rendered with the very large swamp itself. After that, you also have some interesting spots where the camera will fight you and end up giving you less of a view than if you left it but this generally only occurs in small enclosed areas, which happens often between zone transitions. I have also found myself jumping off a building while fighting a boss because I had turned my camera too far and didnt notice as I rolled and jumped to avoid his attacks. That, however was not really the game's fault more than it was mine for not paying attention. As I said, the game is unforgiving and will easily let you fall to your death if you aren't careful.
Finally we come to the game's helpful and sometimes frustrating checkpoint system. The checkpoints in the game are bonfires. As you roam the world you come across fires that you must light. As you sit at the fire, your soul is saved to it so that if you die, you resurrect at that point and can go and reach your fallen self to recover any looted souls or humanity. You can level these up to give you more healing items and even do basic smithing or repairs at them with the right items but they serve more as checkpoints. As I have found, bonfires are generally far away from boss fights but if you hunt around, there can be shortcuts that shorten your time between the fire and the fog for the boss. You will find that you will die quite a bit to a boss's hands before finally learning how they operate and taking them down and while I myself like the challenge, I have found myself getting very frustrated with having to run through a lot of enemies or few powerful enemies (For those who played, a hint: What is fat and skinny and kicks your butt?) to the point where I did turn the game off to take a break. The fires also serve as a safe haven and as a main summoning area. You cant be attacked or invaded while sitting at a fire and the enemy AI will poof out of existence and reset once you sit if you are being chased so its good to use these as a human if you need to take a break.
Finally, Dark Souls is a game that requires extreme patience and the willingness to learn from your mistakes. Follow that advice and you may just enjoy it. This is not a game that is meant to be beaten in one sitting and with the scaling new game+ mode, which truly increases difficulty with each completion, you can play this game in so many ways and it has a high replayability due to that. Your NG+ status also does not affect your summoning or invasion capabilities as you are only bound by your soul level, not your game completion status.
For all that From Software has done to bring a game like this to life and to make sure the Demons Souls series becomes a bigger name, which I hope ends up being a strong multi-game franchise, this game deserves an 8/10. I would recommend you buy it now and not wait if possible or even gamefly it if they have it now.
Welcome to Lordran. Prepare to die.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 10/20/11
Game Release: Dark Souls (US, 10/04/11)
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