Review by HailToTheGun

Reviewed: 10/20/11

There is no greater feeling of accomplishment in games than there is when playing Dark Souls.

You died.

Two simple words never evoked so much anguish in a person as they do in Dark Souls. They mark your failure, your inability to best the game and its creators. Somewhere at From Software HQ, Hidetaka Miyazaki, lead designer of Dark Souls, is laughing. A custom-made death counter is likely sitting on his desk next to digital photos of his family, striking another notch every time you perish. That’s just the kind of guy he is, so it’s no surprise that Dark Souls hates you with every pixel of its being. If you played Demon’s Souls, 2009’s runaway success and spiritual predecessor to Dark Souls, you may think you’re in for more of the same. And you’d be right. Dark Souls is the previous game amplified to 300. Except what you’re in for isn’t a continuation of a story, but rather an extension of a world filled to the brim with things that not even Wes Craven or John Carpenter could conceive; a nightmare so horrendous that it’s actually beautiful; a game that would relish nothing more than to see you give up.

Welcome to dying. Get used to it.

The story starts, as any Demon’s Souls fan might expect, with some ancient demons, dragons, and some kind of conflict. In the land of ancients, many untold years ago, the world was still a shapeless mass, filled with eternal dragons and mindless creatures. Then, one day, fire sparked into existence, and in this fire was an unimaginable power. Harnessing the flames for their own, four powerful figures emerged as the lords of this world: Nito, the first of the Undead; Gwyn, Lord of Cinder; The Witch of Izalith; and the furtive Pygmy. The four lords then challenged the dragons, and with the help of Seathe the Scaleless, who betrayed his kind, they succeeded in overthrowing their everlasting reign. But as time passed, the fire from these Lords began to fade, and with it their power. A mysterious dark symbol started appearing on the corpses of the deceased, and soon they rose from the dead. These undead were gathered and led to the north, locked away in an abandoned prison to await the end of the world.

It’s nothing special and quite vague at times, but where the Souls games fail to deliver in exposition, dialogue, and dramatic cutscenes, they flourish in a rich history and some compelling lore. For those who venture into the land of Lordran only willing to experience the surface, this is the most you’ll get from the story. But if you care to learn more, then true explorers will find a world brimming with characters that are all interconnected in some way, and weapons that reveal more about the history and the lords than the intro cinematic ever could. Demon’s Souls possessed a backdrop that, when fully realized, was one of the richest fictional worlds in recent memory and Dark Souls follows suit.

Where Dark Souls also continues tradition is in the combat, which is still one of the most refined and authentic fighting styles ever. The weight of every weapon, every shield, and every suit of armor feels precise and appropriate. Nearly every weapon in the game contains its own unique move set, with only some of the minor swings or stabs consistently carrying over. A greatsword makes no shame about how powerful and large a weapon it is, and as a result, you’ll never be going Cloud Strife on an enemy with it. If you prefer the more reserved combat, perhaps a shield and spear better call your name. The result is an assortment of gadgets that will please anyone, regardless of fighting style. Minor tweaks have also been made to the movement of the character, resulting in even greater flexibility with armor choices and encumbrance. Likewise, a jump has been added to replace the dodge-roll from a sprint, which makes platform elements a more welcome addition compared to Demon’s Souls.

As you progress through the world, you’ll start to notice things off in the distance, remarkable structures or gorgeous views that seem to serve as simply a backdrop to the game, a means to set some kind of medieval atmosphere. It’s not until four hours later when you’re progressed further into the game, that you look out again across the horizon and see exactly where you were standing the last time you looked out, only now, in the location you were previously gazing upon. Where Demon’s Souls was structured as a Megaman style adventure, in which you’d pick your stages individually and progress through them one at a time, Dark Souls approaches it like Shadow of the Colossus; a massive world interconnected by shortcuts, tunnels, bridges, and the like. There’s a moment early in the game that defines this experience: it’s only a few hours into the adventure, after you’ve managed to best the first actual boss of the game; you’ll come to a bridge where a dragon is ready to roast some marshmallows (sound familiar?). Only this time, you’re not running away from the flames – you’re running toward them. As you reach the halfway point of the bridge, you notice a staircase leading down. Rolling down quickly to avoid being toasted, you find a door to your right leading under the bridge, and more stairs leading down. As you descend further, a ladder is raised, waiting for you to kick it into place. Further down the rabbit hole, you find a bon fire – the same one you’d used, and likely rested at hundreds of times, on the way to the first boss. You didn’t just run in a straight line through the castle – you simply went up.

This is what separates Dark Souls from many games of this type. It’s not a flat sandbox experience, and I think this is where the confusion comes from when people hear the term “open world” being used to describe the game. It is open, and it’s vast, but it’s not a sandbox. It’s a vertical world where height and elevation are key elements in its structure. As you descend into the bowels of the Demon Ruins in the later part of the game, you may look up, and through openings in the wall, you’ll see the Tomb of the Giants. From this exact location in the Tomb, you’ll look out and see the Demon Ruins. Moments like these are littered throughout the game, giving you a real sense that this world is whole and complete. There’s no loading screen between areas should you decide to walk there, with one exception later where your character is carried off to a different kingdom. This isn’t a sandbox, but it’s still your playground to explore.

The bon fires of Dark Souls are, aside from their warm guidance in a cold, decrepit world, the source of nearly all of your basic functions. It starts out simply as a place for respite, a checkpoint you will respawn when you die, and the place where you’ll spend souls to level up. Resting at a bon fire will restore your Estus Flask, the primary consumable healing resource in the game, as well as all of your magic. Spells now work off of individual casts; gone is the dependency of mana or MP. Now, every magic in the game has a limited amount of times it can be cast, and to replenish this, you need only sit down by the fire. You’ll also manage a resource known as Humanity, which ties into both the single player and multiplayer aspects of the game. It serves as a means to kindle bon fires, which strengthens the flames and allows you to gain even more charges of the Estus Flask with every kindling. Online, it is the dividing factor between co-op and competitive play. Those in hollowed form, or undead, can co-op with people in Human form, but cannot be invaded. Those in Human form can do the same, but are susceptible to the forceful torment of other players.

As you progress through the game, you’ll gain more functions for the bon fire: the ability to repair weapons or armor at it first, and later to upgrade them on your own. You’ll still need to find a blacksmith to perform some high-grade work, but the most fundamental functions are at your fingertips. Similarly, you’ll eventually gain access to an item known as the Bottomless Box, which serves as your infinite depository. Removed is the pesky item burden from Demon’s Souls, so there’s no penalty for holding on to everything in your inventory. However, it’s still nice to be able to store away things you have no use for just to remove some of the clutter of sifting through your stock. As their most primitive function, bon fires serve as markers in the world where you’ll respawn when you die (because you will die). You’ll have lost all souls you have collected, which act as both currency and experience, and left them in a puddle of your own blood at the sight of your demise. Venture back to the location and collect them once more, lest you fail and lose them for good.

The returning multiplayer features continue to redefine the idea of what multiplayer is supposed to be, and they, too, have had some minor alterations. Bloodstains, messages, and the wispy silhouettes of other players are back, giving you a sense that you are not alone, even when it feels like it. The basic structure of the co-op and pvp also remains the same, with players laying down their special items and waiting for a summon or an invasion. However, the addition of covenants and some limitations on the actual multiplayer separate it distinctly from Demon’s Souls. As either a friendly phantom in co-op, or a bloodthirsty one in pvp, you are prevented from using your own Estus Flask for recovery. Should you get damaged in co-op, you must hope the host has enough supply, or enough common sense, to use one, which will restore you for the same amount. This creates incredible tension in some rough situations, but also a greater sense of cooperation even though there is still no voice chat in the game.

Covenants are the biggest feature that affects multiplayer. Throughout the game, you’ll have the opportunity to join covenants, or factions. On their own these groups offer basic advantages: the Way of the White will teach you some Miracles, while the Chaos Servant offers some Pyromancy spells. At first glance, all of the incentives seem offline-focused. Until you find the Darkmoon Blade, the Forest Hunters, the Path of the Dragon, or the Gravelord Servant. These are covenants focused specifically on invading people, but not for just the act of invasion. They all have different goals for the kill. The Darkmoon Blade serves as a fist of justice, invading people selected from something known as the Book of the Guilty, a list of players who have sinned by either betraying their own covenant, or invading someone else for fun. Forest Hunters are guardians of the Darkroot Garden, and will be summoned to protect it anytime someone in Human form comes traipsing through their woods. Each faction is awarded with resources specific to them upon successful kills, which they can then offer up as a means to increase their rank, and as a result, be given special rewards.

There are even some minor friendly benefits to covenants as well: Warriors of Sunlight will appear a gold color when summoned for co-op, while members of the Way of the White will be able to see player-hints and summon signs more frequently than anyone else. Unfortunately, the effects of covenants end there. With as many different ones as there are, one would think they would have some kind of impact on the outcome of the story or the end-game. They do not. Regardless of covenant, there are still only a few predetermined endings, and the only decisions that affect this are at the end of the adventure. Having an ending specific to each covenant could have added some greater replay value, especially if there was one for betraying a covenant. But for a game not largely focused on its story, I supposed this was to be expected.

The multiplayer takes a small hit in one particular area, and that’s in the matchmaking. The infrastructure of the servers is designed in a way to handle stress from every version of the game, considering Dark Souls is not specific to regions like Demon’s Souls was. This means players in the US can play with people in Japan. But because of this, there are clouds of invisible servers that you’re automatically logged into when you load up the game, randomly placed into one that’s not quite as populated as another to keep everything balanced and maintained. The result is incredibly frustrating at times when trying to coordinate with a friend on where to drop his summon sign down like one might have done in Demon’s Souls. It seems From Software is intent on make the multiplayer of this game as sublime and flighty as possible, designed only to call on random strangers for help, and wish them a passing “good luck” on their adventure once you’ve bested a mighty boss.

One area of the game that suffers as a result of the open world structure is the framerate. Particularly in places of either intense lighting or constant special effects, the framerate drops considerably. Blighttown is perhaps the most notorious for this, as the entire dungeon is played in almost a crawl compared to the rest of the game. It’s not entirely hindering, but it’s certainly noticeable, and a major blemish on an otherwise gorgeous looking game. If not for these issues, Dark Souls’ atmospheric beauty and amazing landscape could have easily fooled me into thinking this game looked better than Crysis 2. It’s not a technological achievement, but an artistic one. The magnitude and scope of the world, the colors of sunlight as they bounce off the stone castles or shine through the treetops of the garden. Make no mistake, this game is stunning to look at in still photos, but simply breathtaking in motion. I remember quite vividly the moment I ventured into Ash Lake. The ambience of the location, mixed with an unexpected music accompaniment, created a truly jaw-dropping experience.

Dark Souls isn’t a game you can whole-heartedly recommend to everyone. I’ve talked with people who have said they get frustrated when they die and respawn back at the beginning of the world in Super Mario Galaxy – Dark Souls is not for them. But for those who pull back its veil and pierce its tough exterior, you will find a truly marvelous game and an experience that is unmatched. Fulfilling in every sense of the word, compelling, and relentless, Dark Souls offers for today’s gaming world what was once thought long forgotten. It may only continue the trend that Demon’s Souls laid the blueprints for two years ago, but it does it with such finesse, and exceeds in all of the areas that matter, that it’s quite easy to say that Dark Souls has defined a genre. In 10 years’ time when people have forgotten Modern Warfare 3 because Activision is up to Modern Warfare 13, and the console generation has reached a point where all games include a “Play Itself” feature, Dark Souls will be remembered for many things, chief among them: You died.

Praise the Sun!

Graphics: 95
Amazing artistic direction in both the environment and enemy design, these are some of the most horrendously beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen.

Gameplay: 100
Precise, weighty, fluid – the combat is so good and so authentic; Dark Souls might as well be called a fighting simulator, not a dungeon crawler.

Production: 85
The framerate issues and some of the inconvenience of the multiplayer hinder the overall production value, but can hardly put a damper on this wild fire.

Sound: 98
From the clanging of your suit of armor as you trudge along, to the terrifying shrills of enemies as they die, the sound is so chilling and so atmospheric that the lack of music while exploring is actually a blessing.

Lasting Appeal: 95
With even greater combat customization compared to Demon’s Souls, a much vaster world, and the addition of the Covenants, there’s very little reason why you wouldn’t want to dump hundreds of hours into this game.

Overall: 95
There is no greater feeling of accomplishment in games than there is when playing Dark Souls.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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

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