Review: Dark Souls

Dark Souls was a pretty noteworthy game.  Spiritual sequel to 2009’s hard-as-balls dark fantasy Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls shares much of its predecessor’s reputation for being tough as nails.  A PC port is also being developed after a successful petition.  This port, however, has received great amounts of criticism due to locked 1024×720 texture resolution and framebuffering, locked 30 fps frame rate, and Games for Windows Live online system.  Now, I took a very long hiatus because the game’s pretty long, but due to news of the PC port, I’ve actually gotten back into it.  Just in time too, since the DLC is coming out soon.

I’m really glad I eventually finished it; I think Dark Souls is a fantastic game.  Moreover, I think it’s a product of very excellent design.  People go on and on about Dark Souls’ difficulty, and how it seems to be a bastion against many modern game aspects that don’t sit well with many gamers.  I think, however, the popular opinion in this case doesn’t go far enough to describe Dark Souls effectively.  Dark Souls is a beautiful game in my opinion, one designed so well it makes me wonder why other games are designed so shakily.

At first glance, Dark Souls presents itself in a pretty simple manner.  You’re basically an undead who finds himself on a journey to keep the Age of Fire continuing as it has been for centuries.  In Dark Souls’ world, the world was originally ruled by dragons in a period called the Age of Dark, but several lords overthrew the dragons and instituted the Age of Fire.  The Age of Fire is reportedly great for everyone involved, whereas the Age of Dark reportedly sucks, so it’s probably in your best interest to actually go on this journey.

You start your journey in an isolated asylum, but after stumbling around for a while, you’ll find yourself outside of the asylum, dropped almost smack dab in the heart of a large kingdom.  From here, you’re told to go find two ancient bells, the Bells of Awakening.  Simple enough, right?  Nope, finding your way to these bells is part of the adventure.  You see, Dark Souls never tells you where to actually go, and instead expects you to discover where to go for yourself.  However, you’re not completely hopeless, as your objectives are usually quite clear, and you’re often given the right heading.  In fact, I’d call the game a 3D Metroidvania adventure.  Dark Souls feels tremendously like Metroid Prime, in the way both games guide you without explicitly telling you where to go.  Kind of strange to have games with no hand-holding, huh.

Though NPCs and such do try to guide you, you're never explicitly told where exactly to go, and must often go out and explore on your own.

The plot I mentioned above works sort of similarly.  While there is a very explicit plot, if you’re willing to go out of your way to explore, or find items (and read their descriptions), you’ll find a ton of information about the world.  You may not even find just trivia, but knowledge that will reveal things about highly important characters in the backstory, or even knowledge that gives new context to the plot.  Dark Souls isn’t a plot-heavy game, sure, but it does a pretty good job of letting you decide just how much plot you want to experience.

Another aspect of the game’s presentation that I very much appreciated is its atmosphere.  As the name implies, Dark Souls is very dark.  Depressingly dark, the game’s world does nothing to make you feel like a hero, a savior, or anything all that special, really.  It’s very good at making you feel very much like a denizen of this dark, brutal world.  Dark Souls is practically oozing loneliness.  Fortunately for one’s sanity, there are other undead (NPCs) you can interact with, and NPCs who often feel like you.  I found it very easy to empathize with many of them, to help them whenever I can.  Of course, being the brutal world Dark Souls is, I screwed up with a few of them, which rather depressed me.  The brutal, dark game succeeded, I suppose.

However, like every aspect so far, there are some other little aspects about the game that make you feel like you’re not totally alone.  Aside from the aforementioned NPCs, you also get to see and interact with other players online.  Other players, who are just like you.  While going through Dark Souls’ unforgiving world can induce crushing loneliness, something so small, so trivial, as sharing a bonfire with another player is ultimately proof enough that you’re not alone, that there are other people going through the same troubles as you.  I think that just about says enough of this game, that one doesn’t need overwhelming amounts of reinforcement to keep going.

The presence of other individuals and these bonfires themselves are very comforting, both of which happen to be the only solace one finds in this depressing land.

The best part of Dark Souls is the gameplay, however.  Dark Souls is basically a third person action game, but everything’s slower and a lot more realistic (in terms of physics and stuff, not in terms of creatures).  It’s also known to be really, really tough.  You can build your character any way you want, can equip all sorts of armor, learn all sorts of magic, and wield all sorts of weapons.  However, the gameplay itself is pretty brutal.  Enemies can hurt you real hard, you can be swarmed by tons of enemies.  You can be swept off cliffs.  You can be instantly killed.  Essentially, you can and will die.

But death in Dark Souls isn’t a “you suck!” moment.  It’s more of a “you suck!  Go find out why you died, so you won’t die the same way twice”.  Whenever you die, it’s almost always your fault, and if you take the time to learn why you died, you’ll find it much easier to avoid dying the same way.  Granted, it’s easy to find yourself stuck on one part, dying repeatedly.  I won’t ignore that, I think some parts are way too cruel.  The game sending you back to the bonfire every time you die, with every enemy alive again (except for the very special ones) certainly doesn’t help matters much.

However, the feeling of elation you get when you clear one of those sticky parts is like no other.  In fact, as you may have noticed, that seems to fit what I believe Dark Souls’ philosophy to be.  Fortunately, the gameplay itself isn’t difficult all the time, nor does it strive to be.  While it may seem brutal, the game teaches you to err on the side of caution.  And once you start doing that, you’ll find the game a lot easier.  Not so easy that you won’t die if you get too careless, of course.  Once you get skilled enough at the game, you’ll become something like a beautiful ice skater doing figure eights.  Comparatively, earlier in the game, you’ll feel like someone who keeps slipping at the local ice rink.

Though you'll learn to avoid slipping, just like at the local ice rink, you're never alone, as others will be there to help you out.

Another terrific aspect of Dark Souls is the variety.  You have a ton of different weapons, each with different movesets, several ways of improving and adding properties to these weapons.  You also have armor with varying degrees of protection, weight, and special effects (the weight’s important because it affects how fast you move and dodge roll).  Then there’s three different categories of magic: sorcery, pyromancy, and miracles.  Spells under each category are vastly different, though you can mix and match spells to “equip” (similar to how one memorizes spells in D&D).  You can even combine spellcasting with a melee class.

And that’s only character building, too.  While the plot progression in Dark Souls is somewhat linear, going about that plot is not, as you can tackle areas in different orders, and there are even entire optional zones and bosses.  There are hundreds of different ways to play the game, and I’m positive you’ll never see everything on your first playthrough.  Basically, Dark Souls has a ton of variety, and if you play it just once, you’ll be missing out.

To be fair, I have some issues with the gameplay.  Netcode for online play (quick summary of online play; you can summon other players to help you as phantoms, or players can actually invade your game and try to kill you, among other options) can use a lot of work, as the general lag makes avoiding backstabs and ripostes a guessing game.  Dying to a boss means you’ll have to run all the way back to the boss, usually through tons of enemies.  While the respawning enemies feature technically prevents players from chipping away at the game’s challenge, you get to a point where you can clear all the enemies before the boss without any trouble, so running back just becomes a chore, rather than a test of skill.  Some of the areas are also highly annoying, with some silly gimmicks to make them harder than they should be.

Didn't know there was a trap at the top of the elevator shaft? Sorry chap, try to avoid it next time!

However, I’m willing to go to great lengths to defend Dark Souls’ gameplay.  I rarely come across a system that’s so heavily rewarding, that doesn’t feel like cheap empowerment, that actually trains you to get better.  It’s a really beautiful system,  one that causes me to nearly overlook its flaws.  Basically, Dark Souls is home to some of the best gameplay I’ve seen in years.

I also happen to admire the graphics quite a bit.  Art design is stellar, with highly imaginative monsters, areas, and items.  The graphics themselves aren’t the best, I suppose, and they could be a bit better.  The framerate also isn’t the best.  While it tries to stay at a stable 30 FPS, Dark Souls will not uncommonly dip below that, and those dips are pretty noticeable.  There is one area in the game, Blighttown, which is probably stuck at a constant 15 FPS or something.  Still, many of the areas and monsters have left me frozen in pure awe.

One of my favorite areas in the game. This city is just so captivating and beautiful.

Sound is pretty damned good.  Music is used sparingly in the game, but is always used for the most dramatic moments.  As such, I remember a good chunk of the soundtrack.  That’s a really important accomplishment.  Unfortunately, I think the music is a bit too repetitive, and uses the same type of chanting way too much.  Sound design is quite amazing, though.  In the absence of music, all that’s left is ambient sound, and the ambient sound is used quite well.  Essentially, any sound you hear belongs to something that you’re gonna have to deal with in some way, shape or form.  Sounds, in this case, work well to build anticipation and suspense.  Voice acting, though still quite good, isn’t as good as the other aspects of sound.

Rating Breakdown
The presentation is strong in many ways, all of which exemplify Dark Souls' theme, the light shining in the overwhelming darkness.
Fantastic, highly rewarding gameplay that carries a sense of weight like no other. Though Dark Souls can be frustrating, it is entirely fair, always teaching the player through their shortcomings. Netcode and certain frustrating areas need work.
Though the game struggles to run smoothly, the game's art and design is quite breath taking.
Highly memorable music with amazing sound design, despite the less-than-great, but still pretty good, voice acting.
A number of ways to build one's character coupled with numerous ways to clear the game lead to extreme amounts of replayability.
Dark Souls is a fantastic game, with every aspect not only performing admirably, but coming together in such a way that makes the overall experience that much better. Dark Souls has many amazing aspects. Dark Souls also has its flaws. Most importantly though, Dark Souls is about that small bit of hope hiding in the engulfing darkness, that small bit of hope that allows anyone to keep going. And it does a masterful job of conveying that hope to the player.


Miscellaneous details:
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Available on: PS3
Genre: Action role-playing
Rating: M
Release date: October 4th, 2011

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A mad scientist who's so cool!


A mad scientist who's so cool!

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