PS3 - Xbox 360
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Release Date: October 4th, 2011
- Each checkpoint gives a feeling of accomplishment
- Gorgeous vistas and backdrops
- Variety of tactical approaches and classes to fit your play style
- Hours of content and a huge world to explore
- Lack of true "tutorial" leaves much unexplained
- Difficulty will turn off many players
- Terrible Lock-On system
- The Online is a step back from the previous installment
Demons Souls was the underdog title that nobody saw coming, taking many by surprise. The refreshing challenge and fantastic presentation of a dreary fantasy world were unmatched. With a unique take on multiplayer integration into a single player campaign, the game became a cult hit and fans were ready for more punishment. Enter Dark Souls, a more difficult and expansive game that continues the punishing difficulty and sense of accomplishment.
Left in the Dark
The first thing everyone wants to know about Dark Souls is if the game is as difficult as everyone makes it out to be. The answer is a very clear yes. Dark Souls is in fact more difficult than Demons Souls, and dying is an actual part of this game. Much like a grumpy step parent in a feel-good comedy film, your continually sought after approval will be met with death, disappointment, and frustration; which makes the slight nod in your favor that much more meaningful.
The difficulty of the game lies in ignorance, rather than actual skill. Dark Souls does the exact same thing Demons Souls did; it throws you into the game without any real explanation of how it works. While I could look past this in Demons Souls, the system has become more complex for Dark Souls. The bonfire checkpoint system, humanity status, and a series of RPG elements are just thrown at you with no personal explanation of what you can or should do with them. Not even the instruction manual with the game explains the various symbols and glyphs showcased on an item's stat sheet.
Then there is the new, more open world feature of the game. Demons Souls had a linear progression from start to finish, allowing you to branch off every now and then but basically laying out your challenge for you. In Dark Souls there is no real sense of direction save for a few NPCs' subtle hints, and with a game promising difficulty it is too much to determine whether the player should continue attempting a difficult enemy in their path or try another route. Eventually you find the group you were fighting is way beyond your level, and you were suppose to go up the stairs, not down.
In the end it is the player's lack of knowledge that makes the game so tough, and while I do not mind a lack of in-depth tutorials for the basics, the second you fire up the game you feel like you have no idea what you are doing or where you are going. While some argue this is the point of the "lost and lonely ambiance" of the game, I find that having to hit the Internet in order to decipher a stat screen or gain a sense of direction puts a halt to the experience.
Beacon of Light
Now to state the obvious; Dark Souls is one pretty game. The glint of light off of a suit of armor from a torch, the wave of fur as the wind blows on a boss's hide, and other subtle touches in the game give a hint of beauty in an utterly hopeless world. Backdrops look as if they were taken from a painting and are worth the risk of falling off of a cliff to your death to behold. The character models for each enemy are more imposing than the last, and the sheer scale of the some of the bosses is enticing and frightening all at once. Though your personal character up close is no looker and the occasional texture can be a bit jagged, the overall look of the game is more impressive than the first.
Story for the game makes as much sense as you could imagine. The previous game at least involved a fog that fell over the world and your attempt to lift it. This game opens with a narrative of how the world came to this state of madness and sets you off to escape it. Needless to say if you are looking for a tale of a gallant hero riding his white steed to save a princess...look elsewhere. Random NPCs will detail their exploits which you will quickly forget as you were pining after their armor instead of listening. While the difficulty and challenge drive you forward, the story is easily forgotten.
It is the scenic vistas and impressive lighting in the game that really bring the world to life. Dreary forests, dark caverns, and ruined castles are just a taste of what you will traverse in the game. The world gives off this ever present sense of danger, and at the same time entices you to explore further.
The first lesson you learn is that patience is everything, and careful progression is the only way to get from point to point. Enemies are ruthless and every mistake made is costly. Different approaches and tactics are encouraged with each death, as you search for areas you might have missed or locales to assist you. Tactics like leading enemies to fight on your terms and always keeping your shield up become adapted norms, and eventually the game shapes you to play like your chosen class.
Enemies are fairly intelligent. They will soon catch on to patterns and mix up their fighting styles to adapt. Switching up tactics and waiting for an opening soon become a big focus, and the game is fairly good at offering variety. Death in the game is usually the fault of the player, and each time I had to retry it was usually remedied with a more careful approach.
There is a huge sense of achievement when a boss is toppled and a sigh of relief at the sight of the nearest checkpoint. The satisfaction of reward after the incredible punishment the game dishes out is a relaxing feeling and one unique to this game. The refreshing challenge the first game offered has indeed returned.
At the bonfire you will have the opportunity to repair, rest, and mentally prepare yourself for the task ahead. It is also where your actions have trade offs. The bonfires act as checkpoints, but once triggered will also respawn every enemy you killed. Using "Humanity" will bring you back to your human state and allow more health potions and better item drop rate, but leave you prone to online invasion from another player. Staying in Undead form will keep you safe from invasion, but limit your amount of potions you can carry. This dilemma of using the bonfire or continuing onward keeps the game interesting and is a welcome addition tot he gameplay.
Equipment requires repair and upkeeps, which you use souls to gain. Killing enemies grants souls, which can purchase items or level your character's abilities, etc. However dying causes you to return with no souls, and you begin the long trek back to your corpse to recover them.
Welcome to My World
Much like the last game, the unique multiplayer remains. Ominous messages may be left to warn of upcoming traps or call out tactics for battles. Co-op "spirits" can inhabit the game to help out or invade your game to kill you. It is such a unique and interesting way of bringing multiple players together for a single player game, and has not lost its impact since the last installment.
It has, however, taken a step back from the previous title. Dark Souls does not run on dedicated servers, and you are thrown into peer to peer servers. This means you will not always be seeing the big group that purchased this game running around, you will be playing with only a handful. It also means any hope of co-op or invasion of a friend's game is impossible without manipulation and constant retries to get to the same area.
The amount of ghosts, bloodstains, and messages in the previous installment were countless. In this installment the amount of other players seen and their specific messages has decreased. Finding a co-op partner can prove time consuming, responding or writing a message requires you to look through your inventory; it is just a mess of what it used to be. Though it still works for the most part, the multiplayer integration seems to have taken a backseat in this game.
Dark Souls at its core is a dark-fantasy, hardcore RPG. With a complex inventory system and world to explore, it is a dangerous game full of challenge, reward, and satisfaction. If you can suffer the deaths and are willing to take time to learn, the game is a rewarding experience unmatched by any other. Just be sure that if you are new to the series, you pick up a few extra controllers...