Review by Bill Wood
"Lordran is a wonderful place to die."
Before we begin, I have two confessions to make. The first is that I nearly gave up on Dark Souls. About five or six hours in, after suffering brutal death after brutal death with seemingly little chance of progress, I considered that maybe this game was not for me. The second is that I haven't finished yet, although I definitely plan (hope?) to. Really, these two admissions should tell you all you need to know about the game's undeniable appeal and why it has inspired such a devoted fanbase. Play this game and you'll be bludgeoned, backstabbed, and beaten to a pulp more times than you'd care to keep track of. But if you love a good -- and mostly fair -- challenge, you'll always keep coming back for more.
I'll skip over the obvious for this review. Yes, Dark Souls is difficult, unrelentingly so at times. Simply learning to survive for extended periods of time will require a fair amount of commitment. But you've probably heard this all before, so let's focus instead on the things that make the game such an enjoyable and rewarding experience. First and foremost, Lordran is an amazingly unforgettable realm down to the most minor of details, a living, breathing hell where the darkest of evils lurk around every corner. Undead snipers take aim from gothic towers, ghoulish assassins lie in ambush behind crooked doors and alleys. Dense woods are festering with wicked tree creatures and armor-clad golems, dimly-lit catacombs are haunted by bloated slimes and curse-inducing frog beasts. A quick trip through a seemingly innocuous portal will produce instant death at the hands of a gargantuan demon. Every step forward may reveal a potential new wonder or a potential lesson in treachery. The tension is always palpable, death ever imminent, but the reward of traversing a difficult path and finally reaching your goal produces a feeling of elation that few other games can hope to attain.
The heavy emphasis on exploration, risk and reward reminds me of another all-time personal favorite, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I've heard the same comment from others, perhaps because Dark Souls feels more like a true spiritual successor to that game than any recent Castlevania offering. That's not a knock on the Konami games as much as a testament to the worthiness of this one. There is the same excitement in locating a new area, the same humiliation in realizing you're not close to prepared for this area, and the same ultimate satisfaction in eventually going back and laying waste to everything in sight. Indeed, long-time SotN fans would do well to give Dark Souls a chance.
The landscape of Lordran is truly the star of this show, a massive and hopeless feast for the eyes. Given all the recent criticisms about the state of the Japanese gaming industry, it's almost ironic that an Eastern-produced video game can capture the essence of Western medieval architecture and folklore so brilliantly. There are monumental valleys and towers which seem to stretch on for ages, and labyrinthine caverns deep underground from which no light can escape. The horrors lurking within are truly the stuff of nightmares, of course there are your basic "garden-variety" giant rats and skeletons but venture a bit deeper you'll uncover some truly terrible denizens that are obviously the product of some very creative (and very disturbed!) minds. Without spoiling anything, there were points in Dark Souls where I was actually scared to move forward. Forget the "official" game, Lordran is closer to Dante Aligheri's telling of The Inferno than anything you've ever played.
The superbly designed world is complimented by equally superb combat, at least most of the time. Since Dark Souls plays like nothing else (save its PS3-exclusive predecessor, Demon's Souls), there is a learning curve. Beginners may need to unlearn hasty combat habits developed over the last decade or so, with action games like God of War and Devil May Cry producing effortless and seemingly limitless combos. Dark Souls is an entirely different and much more methodical combat experience, attempt to button mash your way through the game and you will prepare to die over and over again. Patience and timing are key virtues, the upside being that your movement and attacks carry some serious weight. Never has a basic block-and-counter approach felt so awesome. Never has wielding a simple club felt so immensely gratifying.
However, the combat is not all wines and roses. There are occasions -- particularly in Blighttown or during big boss battles -- when the frame rate takes a heavy hit. It doesn't sour the experience much, but it is noticeable and can be a distraction, especially in a game where every swing of the sword and every swig from the health flask counts. Second -- and this is a minor gripe -- is that while collision is mostly spot-on, there are rare occasions where an attack will miss its intended target even when it seems like a sure thing. Note that this can be rectified somewhat by using the game's lock-on feature (there is no auto-target to speak of). Finally, there were extremely rare occasions where a weird camera angle or terrain obstruction threw my character completely out of view, requiring some quick adjustment of the manual camera. These instances were so rare that they hardly deserve mention.
Knowing nothing about the game going in, I just assumed Dark Souls would be another single-player role-playing adventure in the vein of Skyrim. Wow, was I ever wrong. Although you can absolutely play through in single-player mode and still get everything out of it, the game really gets interesting once you factor in the wildly innovative online component. Things are initially vague as you're given little direction or space to communicate, but after you learn the system you'll be viewing clues left behind by players, revisiting their deaths, and even inviting them to aid you in your difficult trek. The underlying theme is that you are trapped within this desperate world, but you are never alone. Of course, everything in Dark Souls comes with a cost, and the price of seeking out a friendly helper is the risk of having your world invaded by a hostile attacker. These players will be more than happy to invade your world and assassinate you at the worst possible moment, depriving you of your hard-earned currency or worse, forcing you to backtrack all the way back to that boss that was waiting in the next room. Curses!
Character customization is another feature that deserves high praise, as Dark Souls gives you the ability to create your ideal medieval protagonist then tailor him to exactly suit your needs. I've always favored the knight/cleric hybrid in fantasy games, and after proper leveling and exploration I found myself with a perfect version of the character I had in mind. In addition, you can begin with a certain character type and eventually develop into him or her something totally different. For example, you can start as a thief and end up a high-level wizard. It's all about player choice, which may be taken for granted in modern RPGs but is a really satisfying feature that merits special mention.
One personal nag of mine is the inability to pause the game. I realize that this is a series that prides itself on denying the player modern conveniences such as area maps and multiple save states, but this decision is a bit too unforgiving, even if the "always online" factor does necessitate it somewhat. During long play sessions there will undoubtedly be times when the phone rings or nature calls, leaving you with little option but to save and quit (fortunately the game will remember your progress and return you to your exact location) or seek out a safe haven and pray you're familiar enough with the terrain to know that you won't be invaded or surprised.
But really, it's hard to dwell on the negatives when the positives outweigh them by a metric ton. I could go on and on about the awesome weapons and armor, Humanity, bonfires, and a host of other topics that are available on any number of wiki pages. But ultimately, it's the risk/reward factor in traversing and discovering the bleak world of Lordran that makes Dark Souls such a wondrous gem of modern gaming. There will undoubtedly be times when you curse yourself for repeated failures, but finally triumphing over that boss or reaching that next area are among the best moments gaming has to offer.
At the start of this review, I mentioned that I hadn't finished Dark Souls. Well that has changed since my initial writing, not only did I finish the game but I am already playing through New Game+, which is a strong statement about the game's quality and replayability. Difficult? Sure. Worth playing? Absolutely.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 01/07/13, Updated 01/17/13
Game Release: Dark Souls (US, 10/04/11)
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