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• Dark Souls

developed by From Software, published by Namco-Bandai
1 player / PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC / 04.10.2011

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For the past twenty years From Software has struggled to light the world on fire with its staunchly traditional medieval fantasy role-playing games, beginning with King’s Field on the original PlayStation (1994). I remember renting it at the time, and having a difficult time understanding the appeal, particularly with the likes of Final Fantasy VII around. Perhaps it was because of its first-person perspective, or the clunky real-time combat, or maybe it was simply because the technology at the time was incapable of properly rendering the dark fantasy world its designers had envisioned. Times have changed and the company has finally hit pay-dirt with its bleak Souls franchise, which has enthralled millions of players around the world.

Story

Dark Souls is a little malnourished in the plot department, especially compared to other RPGs. You’re provided with a little backstory in the grand fantasy tradition of “things that took place eons ago”, but that’s about it. Over the course of the game you’ll slowly learn bits of lore from the few NPCs you’ll encounter, but your character never speaks, and it’s up to you to put the puzzle together. Don’t expect any flashy cut-scenes or cinematic sequences, because this game likes to suggest rather than explicitly tell.

Building a Hero / Heroine

You begin by choosing one of several classes, but this only determines the initial dice roll for beginning level statistics (such as strength, endurance, and intelligence). There are no class-based items or equipment in the game, so players are free to mold their character into whatever kind they see fit from that point on. A warrior can become a sorcerer, and vice versa.

Interconnected Worlds

One of the really cool features of the Souls series is its unique online elements. If you play online, you’ll see glowing graffiti left by other players everywhere you go. Anyone can leave these short memos, which are often helpful for finding secrets or avoiding traps.

You can also leave invitations to join another player’s game. These can lead to cooperative battles with the game’s bosses, or duels between players, depending on the type of invitation. Some items allow you to forcefully invade another player’s game at random, where you will appear as a ghostly phantom with the goal of killing the host. This means you’ll also be invaded from time to time, which can be a heart-pounding experience.

Invasions only occur if you are in a powered-up “human” form, so if you don’t want to be invaded you can simply play as a “hollow”. And the game doesn’t allow players to invade just anyone, preventing experienced players from invading weaklings. However, be aware that there is no upper limit on who you might invade!

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Souls are everything

The Souls games have a reputation for being brutally hard, but for the uninitiated that’s a fairly nebulous attribute. To best understand, one need look no further than the game’s primary form of currency and experience points: souls. You’ll mainly get souls for killing enemies, which can then be used to level up or buy items. The thing is, souls aren’t safely deposited into a bank; if your character dies, you’ll lose all the souls you were carrying at the time.

As an undead hollow, you’ll be resurrected good as new at bonfires (the game’s checkpoints). You then have a chance to regain any lost souls by making your way back to the spot where you died, marked by a glowing bloodstain. However, if you die again before you touch the bloodstain, you’ll create a new one that erases the old one (and all the souls along with it).

Another somewhat cruel joke is that almost all enemies respawn when you do, so you’ll have to fight your way through them all over again. This is made a bit more palatable since you’ll often find shortcuts that allow you to bypass difficult gauntlets completely. This may sound punishing, and it certainly can be, but it’s also one of the most exciting and rewarding things about the game! There’s nothing quite so harrowing (or ill-advised) as going into a boss fight with many souls in tow, or as disappointing as dying before you can recoup your losses.

Stamina, Combat, and Magic

Combat emphasizes precision timing. You can choose to carry a shield into battle, or wield your weapon with both hands to do more damage. You may prefer to attack from a distance with a bow or magic spells. There’s lots of ways to skin a cat, but once you choose to attack you have committed to that action, for better or worse. You can’t interrupt actions like you do in other games. On paper it’s a simple system, but in practice it adds an incredible amount of strategy, variety, and realism to the game’s combat.

Every time you attack, deflect a blow with your shield, or perform any other action your stamina drains. The amount depends on the strength of the attack you make or the blow you deflect, meaning you can’t sprint, attack, or hide behind your shield indefinitely. You automatically regain stamina at a walking pace, but do so more slowly in a defensive posture. This means that during intense battles, you’ll have to distance yourself from a foe and momentarily lower your defenses to regain your stamina before your next move.

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Equipment, Encumbrance, and Upgrades

Your character has an equipment load which determines how quickly (or slowly) your character can move, and it’s based on the weight of the equipment you are carrying. Careful management is required to ensure your character can run and roll fast enough to stay out of harm’s way. There are different speeds depending on the percentage of weight you are carrying.

However, the game still allows you to wear whatever you want, and some players may prefer to play as slow-moving “tanks” that wear extremely heavy (and resistant) armor. Or you may want to wear lightweight armor such as cloth to ensure speedy movement. It’s another slice of realism that adds tremendously to the enjoyment of outfitting a character.

Presentation

Dark Souls excels in many areas, but if there’s one thing it does extremely well, it’s atmosphere. The designers at From Software have created the best looking dark fantasy game I’ve ever seen. Almost all of the weapons and armors in the game look authentic (or at least plausible), without the usual gaudy neon glows and other bad design choices seen in many other fantasy games. The enemy designs, especially the bosses, are suitably terrifying and manage to be quite imaginative and stylish despite the fact they fall squarely within genre traditions. This alone is quite an accomplishment given the sheer variety of these sorts of games, but it gets better.

The thing I love most about Dark Souls is its world, which has been designed to feel cohesive. It’s not exactly an open-world game, but the way each area connects to the next is really ingenious. Eventually you can warp around the world, but for the most part you explore it without seeing any loading screens or arbitrary cut-off points. It really creates the illusion that you’re in a place that exists in its own physical reality. If you see something in the distance, chances are you will eventually go there!

And the world itself is incredibly diverse. You’ll explore just about every imaginable fantasy landscape, and each one has a distinctly lonely and somber atmosphere. The environment isn’t just a place to explore and conquer, but an important character with a narrative of its own. Unfortunately the frame rate does suffer in some areas, but generally it’s smooth sailing.

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Legendary Difficulty?

Dark Souls’ reputation for being extremely difficult is somewhat misleading. It’s certainly tougher than many other games, but it’s far from being the most difficult game I’ve ever played. For example, there are bosses and scenarios in Resident Evil 4 that resulted in more repeated attempts (failures) than anything I faced in Dark Souls.

In many ways Dark Souls is easier than a typical survival horror game. Games like Resident Evil allow the player to carry only a small number of restorative items and ammunition, which aren’t magically replenished at every save point. In contrast, here your main healing potions and magic are restored every time you rest at a bonfire (most enemies will also respawn, though certain powerful foes will be gone for good). You might even say the game is a little bit lenient in comparison.

One of the things that can make Dark Souls feel more intimidating at first is the lack of an in-game map. This makes exploring one or two areas much more confusing than they might be otherwise, while the rest are fairly straight forward. Besides, it’s refreshing to play a game that doesn’t hold your hand, constantly telling you exactly where to go next (like the recent Zelda games).

Conclusion

Dark Souls is a good game, with some really cool online features and fantastic art direction, but it’s not perfect. One flaw that becomes more and more apparent is the poor enemy a.i., which too often falls prey to the simple strategy of bait-defend-attack. On the flip side, there are some monsters that are seemingly impossible to kill without cheesing them (usually by sniping at them with arrows from beyond their reach).

The most disappointing thing about the game is its rather anti-climactic ending — if you can even call it that. There’s no big pay-off, or even an explanatory epilogue that could have illuminated what the game was really all about. When you combine that with an underwhelming final boss that requires little more strategy than that used to survive the first tough enemies the player encounters, you might feel a little short-changed.

Upon some reflection, I realized that this game is all about the journey and not the destination. You’ll scour every inch of the world, slaying an endless parade of new ghouls along the way, and you’ll love every minute of it. You have the freedom to build whatever kind of character suits you, and the sense of empowerment you get when you succeed is incredibly satisfying (not to mention addictive). That you can then test your character against other players online is a nice feature that can add hours of enjoyment to the experience.

Perhaps that explains why so many players immediately jump into the game’s New Game +, which lets you do it all over again beginning with all your soul levels and equipment intact with even stronger enemies. It had me positively hooked for more than 60 hours my first time through, and now I’m eager to explore the other games in the series.

Despite it’s shortcomings it’s easy to recommend Dark Souls, both for its epic sense of scale and its incredibly deep role-playing. It’s not as tough as its reputation may have you believe, and you’ll probably find yourself enjoying the fact that it demands more from you than most other games these days. Just try not to rely on walkthroughs or FAQs too much, as the best way to experience the game is doing it all firsthand.

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Quick Run Down

PROs:

  • Freedom to build whatever character you desire
  • Simple but engrossing combat system
  • Humongous, cohesive world
  • Fairly non-linear progression
  • Sinfully good monster and architectural designs
  • Cool and innovative online features

CONs:

  • Light on story/ characterization (disappointing finale)
  • High difficulty in the beginning may turn some off
  • Obtuse game systems will have you FAQ-checking
  • Difficult to find evenly-matched PVP encounters
  • Ugly-looking face customization options (thank you, helmets!)

One Sentence Review: A dark and mysterious fantasy adventure with humble beginnings grows into an epic of legendary proportions.

One Word Review: Evil.

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