Review by Obsidus
Great game that is better than the sum of its parts.
Let me start by saying I have never written a review for anything, ever. I've been visiting Gamefaqs for as long as the site has been around but have never written a review, despite playing hundreds of games from Atari 2600 to PS3 and Xbox 360. That said this game compels me to write a review more than any other game has before.
The main reason I've never written a review (even though I'm the sort of person that analyzes things, and is outspoken and opinionated) is that I feel too often reviews end up being misleading. The reviewers often times are unable to understand the difference between an objective fault, and a subjective dislike. And many people seem to not realize that one thing that seems a huge issue to them, might matter drastically less to another person. So I've always taken reviews with a grain of salt (especially ones by "professional" game reviewers).
I'd also like to address the whole fanboy thing right away aswell, since in regards to this game that term gets thrown around alot. There are certainly fanboys and fangirls out there, I myself haven't been one over anything at all in a long time, but despite that I and alot of other people get called that quite often. There is even a review for this game where the reviewer basically says his review is fact based and anyone that disagrees is a blind fanboy.
This is the epitome of a pure, limp, unoriginal ad hominem, no logic whatsoever and the last vestige of an "argument" that a person with little to offer puts forth. I have no interest and nothing to gain by being dishonest or misleading about the game, and any praise or insults that get thrown From Softs way I have no personal stake in, whether it be gain or loss, as I don't gain a sense of self esteem and worth by the things I do and associate with to such a extent that if someone criticizes them I feel personally affronted and due to a wounded ego feel the need to counter.
Anyhow, onto the business at hand.
Dark Souls is the spiritual successor to the 2009 surprise hit Demon's Souls. Made by the Japanese developer From Software that was before hand not really known for very much aside from their excellent (though never really critically acclaimed or popular) Armored Core and King's Field series. Right away I should say I am going to avoid comparing this game to Demon's Souls as much as possible, those that have played it will find a great deal of similarities in Dark Souls, but that is as far as I will go.
The reason being is that Dark Souls is a victim of the classic "sequel syndrome" with alot of people, that is to say, people with nostalgia and rose tinited glasses of hindsight will almost always view a sequel (or prequel for that matter) of something from the past that they love, unfavourably in some way. Many of these people buy too much into hype (or hype themselves up) and expect the sequel to just about completely make them relive all the joy and good feelings that the first did, and even exceed it. Sort of like expecting your second girlfriend to completely live up to all the good, fresh, exciting feelings of your very first love and also be better aswell. When she doesn't you hold her in contempt and disappointment and act as if she is factually at fault for being "inferior" to the first. This sort of thinking happens with books, movies and video games quite often. It is never objective to act like this, and yet many people feel compelled to bad mouth something because it didn't make them on some subjective level feel as great as the thing in the past they're comapring it to.
To begin, let me bring up the difficulty of this game first. As it is such a selling point and a huge matter of contention.
Dark Souls is a strange game in the sense that yes it is hard (they advertised this game as Prepare to Die afterall), but most of the time it is hard in a good way. Good as in yes you will probably rage, a controller MAY grow wings and fly across the room, and many explicatives shall be screamed red faced at the TV. But you'll keep coming back, keep wanting to try again and again until finally you overcome the thing that has been hardening your arteries and making your spouse/neighboors hate you. Eventually the game trains you, and you get to the point where you don't get mad as much anymore, you learn to accept death and stalwartly move on, in the end picking up a little more skill and knowledge till you genuinely feel like you've gotten better and can kick the crap out of things that were owning you without breaking a sweat.
There are only one or two things in the whole entire game that feel "cheap", and only one or two things that feel artificially difficult or difficult in a gimmicky sort of way. Everything else is up to you, to be well equipped, to know your enemies patterns, and to fight effectively, or die. Alot of your deaths in this game are environmentally induced, falling into pits, getting knocked off narrow ledges and cliffs, getting hit by giant bladed pendulums that send you flying off a narrow walkway to your death. But almost every time it is because you didn't pay attention, charged ahead too quickly, fought an enemy in a precarious position or didn't time a jump well enough. There are few situations where you pretty much discover something by dying to it and therefore it is unavoidable until it kills you at least once (if you are careful). Dark Souls isn't anywhere near the hardest game ever made, I wouldn't even put it in the top 10. The game requires little actual skill, and it isn't loaded with ridiculous scenarios that you have to overcome (like Ninja Gaiden on NES) , so the game isn't nearly as bad as some may portray it. Think of Dark Souls as being Castlevania meets Mega Man meets a Survival Horror game with RPG elements. That is to say alot of enemies whose patterns and weaknesses you need to learn, lots of weapons and armor to get ahold of and switch out to your advantage, and a feeling of being alone, with everything stacked against you and no idea what is around that corner that may eat your face. Play cautiously , learn, adapt, and you will triumph.
This game is NOT like the scores of other games out there that make you overpowered by default because you're the "hero", and make you feel like a bad dude when you steamroll enemy after enemy. You will die alot, but most of the time dying isn't all that punishing, usually amounting to a short or moderate run back to where you were from the bonfire and trying again. It is only really punishing if you die AGAIN while on the way back to your blood stain (a marker you drop when you die that holds your souls and humanity points), which will cause you to lose all souls and humanity points being held the first time you died. Alot of people say this game is full of cheapness and gimmicky "fake difficulty", which to me is a fairly open statment that is up to opinion and therefore has no real meaning except to those saying it. That said I disagree, I have played many harder games, and TONS of flat out badly designed, ridiculously cheap games (mostly on the NES) and this isn't like that. The bonfire (real quick) is like a checkpoint that heals you, restores your spell charges, and allows you to turn into your human form, level up, store items etc. These bonfires make some areas easier than others depending on where they are at in each level in relation to where you died, but generally they are spaced well and in a balanced manner.
I'm not gonna go over the interface and controls too much as they are very self explanitory and easy to get used to. Suffice to say the main gameplay screen and your inventory/character stat screen are well designed and give you almost all the information you need with only a few minor things missing that would be nice to have (such as being told how many souls you need to get the next level, which it doesn't). The controls are good with only a few minor targeting issues with selecting the exact enemy you want sometimes being a chore. Moving the lock on icon to switch between groups of enemies at first is confusing, as you cannot just press the analog stick to cycle through them, you have to flick it quickly to get it to respond. The only solid fault with the controls is that there is sometimes a command queue bug that causes you to delay in executing something. Unfortunately it is almost always with item usage, so you'll wait for your opponent to miss an attack and quickly hit the square button to use a healing item, only to have your character continue to move for a second or two and then suddenly stop and use the item, usually resulting in being interrupted, hit when you wouldn't have been, or killed. Though it doesn't happen too often. Some say the controls are "sluggish" and everything feels slow about the combat and how you move. This I didn't see and don't agree with except in instances where it makes sense (such as being in full plate and swinging a huge two handed sword), this is just another subjective statment and you'll either agree due to your perception/preference, or you'll be fine with it.
This game has little music comapred to most RPGS but what music it does have is very good. It is beautiful, haunting, atmospheric and sets the mood perfectly. And that is the entire point of the limited music in this game in my opinion, it is there to set the mood, to play at your feelings at certain points. It is NOT meant you be like your character has an iPod going while he is running around killing monsters. And that is wonderful, this games soundtrack is very good and worth getting ahold of. But despite that fact there isn't constant music going on, this isn't a quiet game at all. The sound of your boots hitting different surfaces, the sound of your armor clangning, moans and wails , water rushing, you name it, this game has atmosphere and makes you want to pay attention to what is going on, with the sounds and noises that fill the areas being more than sufficient to make up for a lack of constant background music.
I've never been a person that obsesses over graphics, but I feel this games graphics are very good. Are they cutting edge, brand new FPS from a big developer or Final Fantasy level of graphics? No. But they don't need to be. The areas in this game are visually impressive and expansive (there are no zones or loading screens between areas, everything is seamlees and connected), many of them are quite beautiful or intimidating as the case may be. One area in particular called Ash Lake was extremely beautiful and tranquil and when I first entered it I just stood there and listened to the music and stared off into the distance and wished it was a real place and I was there. The areas are detailed, with bricks in walls looking slimly, moss covered and eroded, armor looking burnished and worn, and enemies looking very real and not plastic or fake at all. The game has very good lighting/shadows/ reflective effects and it helps greatly to make the game feel more detailed and immersive. Asfar as art direction goes, it is also very good. The enemies in particular are original and aisde from staples like skeletons, zombies, etc don't fall back on stock, unoriginal design concepts for fictitious beasts. The weapons and armor are well designed and impressive looking, making your character looks quite awesome later on. And there is plenty to chose from to get a look you love (if you can ignore the issues with stats, which I will cover).
As for another issue that people hold against this game majorly, which is the FPS dropping in certain areas. Are they there? Yes. Are they bad? That depends. First of all it honestly truly seems like just how bad the FPS takes a dump really does vary from person to person. Some people report really bad FPS in areas that others don't, and even in the same areas the severity seems to vary.
It also depends on your opinion of it. I myself used to have to play mmos on a terrible computer often running around and doing things at 15-25 FPS at times. And you know what, I got used to it. Even when doing things like healing or being a tank in those games, roles where I have to react fast and be on my game, it didn't bother me. In terms of holding me back it didn't bother me, although it did irritate me to see it and know that I had to deal with it.
It is the same thing with this game. When the FPS issues do happen, 9 out of 10 times it is just an annoyance and not something that will genuinely screw you over. It really truly depends on how you as a person adapt to it and how bad it is for you. So yes they are there, but some people just indulge in a bit of hyperbole and blow things out of proportion. Some of these people probably hold the standard of the game has to look like a million bucks and run at 50-60 FPS or else it is a catastrophe. The one area where it is consistently noticeable is an area called Blightown, where the FPS does drop alot, which at worst might make you lag off a platform to your death, but is generally just an annoyance. Blightown is an obnoxious and irritating area in any case even without the FPS issues, and I think this contributes to the over emotional rants about how "zomg terribad" the fps is in this game.
Charatcer development / weapons/ item upgrade and creation / Spells etc: 8
In any RPG character development is a big deal and accounts for a huge amount of the fun of RPGS, and Dark Souls is no different. This section has the potential to be absolutely massive and I am not going to write a book on all the details of leveling up, all the different spells and items etc, so I will keep things simple and short. Leveling is accomplished by spending souls that you get from killing enemies and using consumeable soul items, souls are for all intents and puproses EXP, while also being the games currency which is a original system first seen in Demon's Souls. Each starting class starts at a certain "Soul Level" with each stat varying according to which starter class you choose. For evey point you raise a statistic past its base, you go up one level, and each level costs souls. Increasing in cost the higher you go. Leveling up is done at a decent pace until you reach about soul level 80, when it starts to get to the point where you'll need to farm souls to level up at a decent rate.
The game does not lock you into a certain class even if it seems like it at the character creation screen. Infact you can build just about any type of character you want. Want you use small fast weapons, big ones, heavy armor, robes, magic, miracles? Well you can. That is not to say that everything is equally as effective, Pyromancy and Sorcery at higher levels in particular cheese the difficulty of this game (atleast the first time through) allowing you to blow enemies away with little effort, including alot of bosses.
Stat scaling is one of the true flaws in this game. What I mean by that is this, certain weapons scale with an associated stat indicated on the item screen. A "Painting Guardians Sword" for example scales with the dexterity stat at a "A" rating (ranging from best to worst S,A,B,C,D,E non scaling), so the higher you raise your dexterity, the more damage you will do with this sword past its listed base. The problem is there are also elemental weapons that scale with no stat, but add a certain amount of elemental damage ontop of the base physical damage. The math has been done, and except for at very high souls levels and in certain circumstances, these elemental weapons either out damage their STR,DEX,INT,Faith scaling counterparts, or are only slightly weaker, but not having to pump all these other stats to high levels by using an elemental weapon allows you to pump another stat like VIT or END much higher. The HP gain from pumping VIT and using an elemental weapon is in the end better than pumping one of the other stats and using a stat scaling weapon. Aside from this all of the stats are worthwhile in some way depending on your build, except for the resistance stat which is considered to be largely useless.
The above issue limits build viability but also screws up the item creation and modification system. There are multiple paths to upgrade a weapon:
Raw goes up to +5: Removes all stat scaling but increases base level damage by a decent amount. Able to be enchanted with Magic Weapon type spells.
Standard + which goes up to +15 : This increases base damage and leaves scaling as is and is able to be enchanted.
Magic/enchanted up to +5: Scales with INT stat, adds magic damage etc.
Divine/Occult up to +5: Scales with faith.
Flame up to +5: No scaling but adds fire damae.
Lightning up to +5: No scaling but adds lightning damage.
This quick list is by no means comprehensive, just an overview of the upgrade paths. You'll need certain ores and a smith with a certain special ember (depending on smith) to upgrade these weapons. Some minor upgrades can be done by yourself at a bonfire after obtaining the proper items. It also costs souls. Later on you'll often need to go out of your way to farm souls andthe ore to do this. Named or unique weapons can only be upgraded to + 5 and it takes rarer materials and more souls to do so.
As far as armor goes there is a huge variety, sadly not all of it is very useful at first. Some sets look AMAZING but have somewhat poor stats, with there being two sets that have extremely good stats that are easy to get that kind of hose alot of the other armors in the game (the Gold Hemmed set which is light and has good armor and resists, and the Havels set which is heavy plate and the epitome of a heavy tank set). Some of this can be undone by upgrading the armor at a blacksmith, but not all of it can be. There are also alot of rings, and they are fairly well balanced and designed with plenty to chose from to suit your tastes and the needs of the situation.
Spells in this game are fairly interesting. The directly offensive damaging ones are quite potent and allow you to deal with enemies fairly easily, the only downsides being slow casting time that can be interrupted, slow projectile travel time that is easy to dodge, and limited uses (uses get refreshed by visiting a bonfire.) Healing miracles are good for supplemental healing after battle, as their casting time is too slow to be of much use in active combat. There are also plenty of utility type spells which are all useful or at least fun. For PVE Pyromancy, Sorcery and Miracles are all useful and fun, but in pvp Miracles reign supreme due to powerful utility spells and its damage spells being very fast to cast (pyromancy has combustion which is very good, but otherwise the rest of it and the majority of sorcery spells are FAR too slow to cast and easy to dodge in pvp). Sorcery as may be guessed relies on INT , Miracles on Faith and Pyromancy scales with nothing except its version of a catalyst called a Pyromancers flame (which can be upgraded to + 15 which is the only reliable way to increase Pyro damage). This means that you can have a INT pumped character that uses heavy Sorcery and ALSO has Pyromancy, or a heavy FAITH toon that uses Miracles and Pyromancy, this I think is a little imbalanced and kind of ruins build flavor by allowing too much "jack of all trades master of more than I should be" sort of design, but really isn't a huge deal. It is a pain to get a Pyromancy Flame without starting as a Pyromancer, and upgrading it is expensive.
The story in this game is obscure. They don't throw it in your face at all and you WILL need to read every item description, listen to all voiced dialouge, speak with every npc as much as you can, and pay attention to the world around you inoder to piece together what is going on. When you accumulate enough info and piece it together, the result is quite surprisingly good. Makes the world feel more real, like you're discovering all of these things about the world and the people in it, instead of forced discussions loaded with tangents and NPCS divulging huge amounts of info like history teachers just because they want to or because you asked them, like in most other rpgs. Alot of people get irritated with this and claim this game has no story and the world has no lore, but to be quite honest they're just being lazy, which is their right, but it doesn't, make them correct. It isn't amazing by any standard, but it is nice and it gets the job done. If you work for it and pay attention.
Online multiplayer: 7
The first truly damning strike against this game, and the only one. First of all, this game uses a P2P lobby system instead of a server based setup. The result is that it can be a crapshoot to play with other people. Invading, being invaded and doing co-op against bosses can be very hit or miss. Some people say they have no issues getting to play with others, while some people can wait a long time and get nothing but failed to invade messages and the chance to refresh their white souls sign. Although the devs are looking into this along with some overpowered items, item balance etc in a coming patch that should address alot of these issues, anyhow.
Co-Op when you do get to do it in this game is fun and rewarding, no issues whatsoever.
The pvp however.....
Due to item imbalances and a few overpowered items and spells, pvp in this game is spotty at best. Either you'll fight "noobs" who are actually more fun to fight as they kinda just have at it and do whatever they can to win, or you'll fight the power gamers with Lightning + 5 weapons, Tranquil Walk of Peace (an aoe movement slow miracle that is basically an Iwin button unless you use it on them aswell since there is no way to break it) Ring of For (a ring that makes it so you can be locked onto) and other predictable, boring, but effective setups.
Another problem is that spells in this games pvp are largely awful, the Wrath of God miracle and a few spells like it are VERY powerful, dealing nice damage, knocking the enemy down and being nearly insta cast. Pyromancy has Combustion and Greater Combustion which are melee range but do good damage and are also nearly insta cast, but thats where it ends. Every single other offensive spell is extremely slow to cast, easy to interrupt and easy to sidestep or dodge, trivially easy. Even a high level Sorcery spell called Homing Crystal Soulmass (which fires FIVE semi homing projectiles ) is extremely easy to avoid. And the cast time on these spells means that you'll either be interrupted anyhow OR they'll move in for a backstab. Which leads to the real problem with this games pvp..
Backstabs, and the netcode. Backstabs work the same way on players as they do on monsters in pve, except in this games pvp the net code is so bad, the lag is so awful a large amount of the time, that you'll get backstabbed from what appears to be 15 feet away, from the front through a shield, the enemy player will seemingly slide with your roll and backstab you at the end of it even though you clearly rolled very cleanly away from them. And 1 backstab can do more than 3/4ths of your life and it knocks you down at the end. This has lead to alot of the pvp fights in this game literally being nothing more than 2 guys locked on to one another with their shields up, endlessly circle strafing and waiting for a backstab (or lagstab as I call it) and literally doing NOTHING else. Trying to fight these people by being aggressive, casting spells, rolling etc will likely only lead to them turtling and then catching you in multiple backstabs while you very clearly get a few attacks cleanly on their back and never initiate a single backstab. Now I am not the only one that has noticed this, and some people will say "lol your internet is bad don't blame the game" but I have all my ports open, turbo speed cable internet, and can play games like WoW and Rift even on busy servers at peak time and get sub 100 latency. It isn't me. This sort of play is infuriating, unfun and ruins pvp even more than poor scaling and overpowered items/ spells etc.
That said if some of this is patched and fixed up, then the pvp in this game could be very fun and intense. So the basis for a good pvp game is there, it just needs tweaks.
I've already beaten this game three times. Took me 80 hours on the first time, and roughly 40 the other two, and I'm working on another playthrough. With all the build possibilities and the pvp and newgame + increasing the power of the monsters, there is plenty of replayability.Once they patch more of the bugs and work on item scaling issues there will be even more.
Now I am not using averages or any other sort of made up system to arrive at that score. I fully believe a game can be riddled with flaws and still be a great game to an individual, while other games are very thoroughly well made, bug free, etc, but just are boring. So I have the view that a game can be greater than the sum of its parts. This game is a very good game, a very ambitious game in many ways for a moderate sized developer like From Software, I think they took alot of gambles and shot for the stars when making this game and I really respect that. Despite that, this game was in a curious position you don't see often. It essentially is very much a niche game, not at all for the majority of gamers or casual people who play games to relax and beat the crap out of things, yet it was marketed alot more and got alot more attention and hype than games of this nature usually do. This has pulled in alot of people that probably shouldn't be playing this game, that are, and then are turning around and freaking out about things and trash talking it because it doesn't suit their tastes or appeal to their sensibilities, and I feel that is very unfair.
Is it flawed? Absolutely. But as I said at the start of this review, some flaws are a matter of opinion and perspective. Others may be more factual but how an individual deals with that is different from person to person. I myself take the flaws of this game in stride and don't let it stop me from enjoying a really good game (which is still getting patched and tweaked by the devs so its likely to get better), and I really hope you will aswell. Much like a relationship in real life, Dark Souls has its ups anddowns, but can ultimately be rewarding with the right effort and proper perspective.
- Massive, detailed and beautiful world.
- Great enemy design.
- Wonderful sound track.
- Challenging and rewarding without feeling cheap.
- Impressive array of equipment to seek out and use.
- Flexible character development/ creation system.
- Atmoshperic and immersive.
- Lots of replay value.
- Great feeling of accomplishment when winning/progressing.
- Some control issues such as input delay.
- Some issues with equipment stats not being balanced. Huge variety of looks, much smaller variety of things that are actually viable in the long run.
- Items that scale with stats in terms of damage are somewhat weak and not worthwhile.
- A few irritating, unfair, trial and error type of difficulty areas.
- Lingering bugs and glitches.
- Covenants aren't as fleshed out as they could be.
- Pvp balance is bad.
- Online P2P system is hit or miss and inferior to a server based system. Net code and lag in pvp is god awful.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Dark Souls (US, 10/04/11)
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