I bought Demon’s Souls because it was a game for the hard core gamers. It was a game that was hard as hell, even for the most insanely good gamers out there. I bought it because I felt up to the challenge. I was very quickly put in my place. I was woefully defeated time and time again, replaying the same level (the first one) over and over before I dared to move on. Might I also add, that I had the limited edition that came with a walkthrough, which I mostly followed to the letter and I still died so much. I lost hope, I traded in. It is one of my biggest regrets. So why did I ask to review Dark Souls, a pseudo sequel that is by all accounts a harder game? In every hero’s journey there is a moment of failure, he lost the battle, his friends died, he dropped the ball. Whatever, he fucked up. However, a hero will always come back, stronger and more determined than ever. Well I want to be a hero that conquers the world that From Software has created. Like Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls is a brave step in the right direction for gaming. A title not pandering to the masses but instead catering for a select few. It might not be to everyone’s taste but Dark Souls is Haute cuisine, a rare vintage that will reward those who can acquire its taste.
Dark Souls is a niche title given a triple A treatment. While the graphics are not up there with the likes of Witcher 2, the art direction is of such a high calibre that anyone who witnesses the world of Dark Souls will be seduced. The opening video is one of the most stunning examples of CGI I have ever seen and the in game graphics do well to keep the visual quality high. Unlike its predecessor, Dark Souls is an open world, though it isn’t one that will be readily available to begin with. As you progress you open up the world like a giant puzzle, creating short cuts and finding hidden pathways. Progression isn’t capped in a strict sense but it is impossible to progress too far due to the enemies you will face further afield. The different areas are widely diverse, from castles build into great ravines to murky swamps and netherworlds. The character design is also widely imaginative, with some truly original beasts later on in the game. As with most RPGs, you can create your own customised character or just choose a pre-set, but it is sadly Dark Souls weakest visual aspect. Your character will inevitably look lumpy and ill and it is thankful that they are almost always draped head to toe in armour and weaponry. It also feels redundant, as you will probably spend most of your time hollow (similar to being dead in Demon’s Souls) which gives you a zombie face anyway. The weak character creator is redeemed, however, by the huge range of armour and equipment that you use to customise your character. Thankfully there is no limit to the amount you can carry so you can completely change your character to suit the situation, or your whims. The armour also looks especially nice, picking up the colour tones from the sky and giving off a beautiful glow.
Much like Demon’s Souls, the sound in Dark Souls isn’t amazing. It isn’t weak exactly, there are some nice musical touches and the sound effects are solid but it never gels perfectly. The score, while unique and atmospheric sounds last generation. The synthesised orchestra sounds used are out of date, sounding like midi rather than a real instrument. The voice acting is also bad, amazingly coming across as both wooden and twee.
The gameplay is largely unchanged from Demon’s Souls, utilising basic melee with ranged weapons and magic. Magic is no longer limited by a regenerating bar, instead each spell has a certain amount of usages. Once depleted you will have to rest at a fire to recharge the spell. It pushes you away from the safe mid-range combat that could be utilised in Demon’s Souls and forces you to embrace the melee combat. Melee isn’t very deep, or especially smooth and is incredibly difficult to be effective at. Even the most basic and weak enemies will kill you in a second if you mess up, which can be very frustrating when making your way to a boss fight for the 20th time. There is no room for the gung ho in Dark Souls, haste is ALWAYS punished. You have to master the combat and learn attack patterns to be of any use in a fight. You also need to be strong enough otherwise you will be spending a very long time fighting an enemy for very little reward. It doesn’t sound all that fun on paper but because progression is so difficult, when you do move on you are so elated you feel like a god.
I will freely admit that I got stuck on the second boss, the Taurus Demon for the best part of an afternoon. I spent hours facing it again and again, getting increasingly frustrated. I used the F word a lot. But when I finally beat it, I not only felt amazing, I got to face my first dragon (in the most pathetic and cowardly way) which looked amazing and instantly made up for the hours of despair. I should point out that while the difficulty of Dark Souls is very much the intention of the developer, it doesn’t change the fact that many players, even seasoned gamers will be put off in the end. It is hard to call it a negative point when it is the whole point of the game. If you can get past the grinding and repetition you will eventually be rewarded. But it is still so punishing at times that it isn’t fun any more, and that is a bad thing however you look at it. Unless you suck you shouldn’t get stuck too often, though there are some enemies and bosses that a little forewarning for is worth its weight in gold. I wont list them here so as not to spoil the surprise for those who don’t use guides but for the rest, it is well worth talking with friends or checking out guides for hints and tips if nothing else.
What makes Dark Souls so fun is a hard thing to put to words. As with with all other RPGs you progressively get stronger, and that is always a big part of the enjoyment. But about 20 hours in it fell into place, you as a player, are also leveling up. You may think I’m being facetious and suggest that with all games you improve the longer you play, and its true, but your progression in Dark Souls is boundless. While on one of my many (many) trips around Undead Burg, I realised that, though I had not leveled up in hours, I was beating the crap out of knights that had previously had me running scared. None of my stats or weapons had improved, but I had come on leaps and bounds. For such a simplistic battle system, that is very impressive. The art of combat in Dark Souls is knowing your enemy and only through trial and error can that be achieved.
The world of Dark Souls is intimidating and bleak and can threaten to turn into an exercise in restraint (restraining hurling your controller at the TV) however, one thing saves you from despair, and it will surprise those who are new to the franchise. As long as you are connected to the internet you are playing the online multiplayer version of the game. Throughout your sessions you will see the ghosts of other players who are near to you at that exact moment. You can’t chat, or help them directly but you know they are there and it makes you feel less alone. It sounds weird and it is, but it helps trust me. People can also leave messages pointing out ambushes, hidden items or helpfully suggesting that you jump off a cliff. Quick tip, ignore those ones. If you find them irksome you can just walk on by, but it is another factor that creates a sense that you are in it together. You will also find bloodstains that will show you the last moments of an unfortunate players life which can also help forewarn you. Your main objective early on is to ring two bells, one high and one low. When you are near the bells you will notice every once in a while it will ring. This isn’t some diegetic sound employed for atmosphere but a player who has succeeded in reaching that momentous point in the game. It reminds you that its possible, and when you ring that bell you will feel so much pride in yourself, knowing that others have heard your victory.
You can also join friends or strangers in their own campaigns against the dark hordes by being summoned or invading games. By doing so you can earn souls and humanity (the two currencies of the game) and also learn from other players. Some bosses are so difficult you can even summon an NPC in place of a fellow player. It is a unique co-op experience and enriches the experience but it is also refreshing to have a game where multiplayer and single player are a harmonious whole rather than different games using the same mechanics. I think developers could learn a trick or two from From Software, not just on how to create a bastard of a trap, but on how to encourage a gaming community to get along. Many games have tried to create a sense of camaraderie among strangers but few have been as successful as From Software and you can’t even talk to each other (which probably helps).
Few games come close to being so well conceived, everything from the visuals to the gameplay is finely tuned, creating a world so immersive you can lose your self. That is, if you can take it. The sheer number of messages left around the place saying “I can’t take this” and “Tears ahead” (and this is before release) suggest that there will be many who can not. I’m not suggesting that anyone is a lesser man/woman for not enjoying this game, there will be people who are turned off by the gothic fantasy setting or the simplistic combat. There will be many who do not enjoy repetition and grinding, both of which are unavoidable. That is all ok, because this game was never made for you. Thankfully, this game was aimed at a target audience rather than a mass audience, it will never rival the triple A titles in terms of sales but for those who indulge in its unique brand of fun it will deliver so much more.