Dark Souls Review
Prepare to die. No really, prepare for it.
From Software are taking the formula that worked so well in the hugely popular, PS3 exclusive, Demon Souls and expanding it into an open world. While not a sequel, Dark Souls has the elements that made its successor great; high difficulty, tense gameplay and an atmosphere that is unforgettable. This game will take you back to a time when finishing a game was hard to do, but will rarely leave you frustrated. You won’t find an RPG that will leave you feeling more satisfied with each victory than Dark Souls.
Dark Souls is an Action RPG with emphasis on the action. This isn’t to say you’ll be hacking apart hordes of enemies quickly, quite the opposite, but you are never out of the action. There are no towns, no hubs and very few safe areas. Bonfires are placed around the world offering you a place to rest, refill your health potions and level your character up. Bonfires offer a minimal respite from the worry that is constantly nipping at your heals. There wasn’t a moment in Dark Souls where I was not worried about something. Enemies will not wander into a Bonfire area but will follow you in if they are chasing you, making these safe havens only minimally safe.
Combat is the first thing you will have to worry about when playing Dark Souls. Each class differs in the broad approach you’ll take but in the end you’ll be fighting with a melee weapon and a shield the majority of the time. Blocking is crucial and the ability to effectively parry and riposte, by timing your blocks, will help you greatly. Set your shield aside for any period of time and you’ll find yourself quite dead. Most enemies can take you out in a couple of hits if you aren’t blocking. Spell casting classes will have to keep their distance as you cannot hold a shield and cast spells at the same time. You can, however, assign two items to each hand so you can quickly flip between shield and casting staff.
To further complicate things, your character has a stamina meter and each attack, dodge or roll eats away at it. Stamina replenishes quickly but you will often have to step back from an enemy to avoid being knocked down while it recharges. Did I forget to mention that blocking attacks eats Stamina too? It does, so you won’t be able to sit behind your shield and take a breather. The good news is that you won’t often be facing multiple enemies, three at a time is the most I encountered.
Your next worry will be the environment. Dark Souls does a fantastic job of creating a huge, open world while penning your character in at the same time. Most paths you will find yourself on have a steep drop on one side, if not both sides. If you’re inside, it will be a dark tunnel with dangers waiting around every corner, or inside a building in a cramped hallway, unable to swing your sword fully due to the confined space. This isn’t to say the game is linear; far from it. After the opening sequence you will be presented with a number of paths to take, some obvious, some hidden but you are never without a few options. You will quickly notice that, though the environment is huge, and you may feel far from a certain point, you will eventually connect the different areas. This offers some comfort and a lot of satisfaction when you realize just where that elevator you fixed takes you. This sense of elation comes along to drag you out of the loneliness of Dark Souls. Never have I felt so alone, for such long periods of time, in a game.
The creatures you encounter in Dark Souls are some of the coolest, and scariest you’ll see in any game. Bosses are huge and intimidating, minor enemies are quick and cunning and can dispatch you just as fast if you’re careless. When you do die, and you will, frequently, your character will respawn at the last Bonfire you rested at. You’ll lose all of your Souls, which are both currency and experience, but they can be retrieved. You simply have to make it back to the place you died and collect them, without dying again in between. Not only is Dark Souls difficult, it’s unforgiving. The satisfaction you get from recovering your souls is a good trade-off though, as you’ve likely built up even more on your way back. The only problem is, the monster who killed you in the first place will be waiting there, right next to your precious Souls.
The Dark Souls single player campaign is huge, rewarding and surprisingly addictive. Your journey will be an exercise in trial and error as, much like classics like The Legend of Zelda (NES), you’re dropped into the world and allowed to go anywhere, whether the enemies there will destroy you or not. It’s up to you to explore, conquer and find the points of interest. It’s truly your adventure as you aren’t given any set quests, map or clear goal. Just a sword, shield and a survival instinct.
Multiplayer in Dark Souls is a ‘good news, bad news’ situation. First the good news. From Software have created a couple of new and innovative ways to tie the online community together without having you join each other’s game. Through the use of the guidance stone you can leave messages scrawled on the ground for other players to read. Warnings, directions or tales of treasure can be written and will show up in other player’s worlds. You will also come across blood stains and if you examine them you will see a phantom replay of how another player died in this spot. You will see other players as phantoms any time you are near a bonfire. This doesn’t serve any purpose, it’s just to give you a bit of a pick-me-up and to let you know that we’re all in this together. Lastly, when you or another player defeat a main area boss you will be able to ring a bell, this bell will be heard by other players online, letting them know of your accomplishment as well as letting them know that this boss can be defeated. These are all really cool, and innovative ideas. Well done.
The bad news is co-op. From Software tried to come up with a cool, new mechanic but, in my opinion, failed. You cannot simply invite your friends to your game for some backup or to enjoy the adventure together. Instead you can set down a message inviting other players to help you for a short period. Players have to come across your message on the ground in their game and choose to join you. When you join another player you will join as a phantom who, for some reason, cannot use health potions. When you die, you’ll return to your game with a few Souls for your trouble, but no way to return to the co-op game. There is also no voice chat during co-op; the game even goes so far as to boot you offline if you join a party while in any online mode, not just in a co-op session. I understand what they were trying to do with this, but there really needs to be an option to just invite my friends to my game. I don’t care if you remove me from the leaderboards or apply some other penalty, if there is co-op, I should be able to play with my friends and have them join whenever I want. A missed opportunity, for sure.
Most of the achievements in Dark Souls are awarded for defeating bosses and other monsters. This aligns well with the sense of accomplishment you already feel when you finally defeat said monsters. A lot are secret so I won’t give them away here.
Despite flying too close to the sun with the co-op, From Software have put together a fantastic game. Dark Souls is innovative and old-school at the same time. With bold new ideas and classic gameplay ideas, Dark Souls is unforgettable. Extreme difficulty is met with extreme satisfaction and there is always a compelling reason to keep going, no matter how many times you’ve been smacked down.