Developer/Publisher – From Software/ Namco Bandai
Year – 2011
Genre – Action RPG
Formats – 360, PC, PS3 (version tested)
Players – 1
Dark Souls ® & © From Software
Review copy provided by Namco Bandai
The slogan on the back of the retail box is “Prepare To Die”, this should give you some indication of what to expect from Dark Souls, the spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls. Dark Souls is hard, sometimes to the point of sadistic
My favourite type of game, is also one of it oldest, the space shooter, from Space Invaders to more modern day games like Radiant Silvergun and Mushihime-sama – a region free Japanese only shooter for 360 notable for having sadistic bullet patterns, even for the bullet hell genre – and run ‘n gun games like Contra and Metal Slug. These game tend to be extremely hard, but based around the player ability to response to split-second changes to the on-screen action. With the notion of going through the whole game without using a single continue and raking up a huge score being their ultimate challenge.
Dark Souls is a different type of difficult. Slow and methodical; a test of patience, observation and willpower, and while it may seem to desire abusing its new owner at first, once you’ve broken through the pain barrier and play by its rules, you’ll come across one of the most exciting, and demanding of games to come out in recent years. Should you donate your soul to the darkness?
Once you’ve choosing you class – which range from an armour clad knight and warrior, to the more magically inclined to the sadistic Deprived class, who effectively starts with just his or her fists and a loincloth – you start the game in an asylum for the undead as a member of their ranks, only to have the key to your cell dropped down from above on the body of another unfortunate. This barebones escape tutorial lets you acquire the basic weapons that suit your character class, whilst allowing you to test them on a few fellow inmates; and a first confrontation with the game’s first boss – which the game offers the simple advice of “run”. While it isn’t as brutal a beginning as that of it predecessor’s un-winnable first area, itself designed to invoke the feeling of fear, the game hopes nonetheless to induce a feeling of forebodingness, and provides that promise of the painful journey to follow.
The entire game is a whole, consistent world, though you won’t be able to access the entire map all at once; either due to it being closed off or the necessary route being home to enemies you have no place facing at your current power. The game also gives little clues on where to go and how to do things (like how to access the aiming mode for bows, or jump). The game has little in the way of hints and tips, mostly in-between loading screens and item descriptions; you’re here to die and try again, with trial and error being the way forward.
Not that the game isn’t unfair, as Dark Souls also features some of the best third-person combat mechanics that have ever graced a videogame. Even the lowliest of enemy is dangerous and trying to take on more than one can often lead to them overwhelming you. Outside of combat, the A.I. isn’t that smart sometimes, I’ve watched more than a few enemies fall to their deaths on narrow ramparts in efforts to get past their more cautious allies, and they can be cohered into standing between you and a kick of a ledge to their death. Most of the time you’ll be engaging the enemies on more even grounds and they will defend themselves and bite hard, forcing you to find patterns in their behaviour for you to exploit.
While you’re capable of dying, you’re not defenceless, you can arm your character with all manner of swords and shields (or magic, etc), and equip armour for protection. Each weapon has a weight that applies when equipped, which will have consequences if its nearer the limits of your means, slowing you down and even preventing you from rolling, on the flip side, a weighty armour and shield will give you stronger motional resistance from enemy attacks (especially with a high stamina). While, less armoured/more agile characters can keep out of the way of harm, but risk a much quicker death if stuck.
Watching your Stamina – a gauge which dictates your ability to perform various actions, including attacking and blocking – is of key importance, as when it is depleted you’ll be unable to block any attack and be stunned when hit, which again can lead to an untimely death.
Bonfires act as respawn points, for both you and your enemies, and as a kind of safe-house where you can level up and – with the proper equipment, etc – repair and recharge your tools of warfare. Certain enemies in the game won’t respawn, most notably the bosses. Also note that non-spawning enemies can stay near the fireplace as you activate it, and attack you as you get up. When you are killed you’re returned to the last fireplace you visited, minus you souls and humanity.
Souls are the currency of the game, as well as acting as the experience points needed to level up. Collected from defeated enemies, these can be traded at merchants for better tools and equipment. Prices and levelling are expensive, which doesn’t sound so bad, however any souls – and humanity, which I get to in a sec – that you’re carrying are dropped onto the floor if you die, and the only way to reclaim them is to make it back to where you died and recover them. Note though that everything re-spawns when you die, including whatever killed you; die again and you’ll lose those souls for good and have to try to recollect what souls you happen to get along the way.
Humanity is another item that you’ll come across from time to time, and will allow you to become human again, at least until you next death. Being human grants some perks, including more health and more item drops (which increase with additional humanities), whist some characters will only talk to you, or at least not just ask you to go away, when you’re human.
Bosses are the most powerful, fearsome and deadly creatures in the game, with many able to pretty much kill you in one hit (jumping onto or body slamming you are two favourites). Preceded by a mist covered doorframe, these clashes with titans can be both aggravating and exhilarating, not to mention unnerving. Then there’s the times when the game asks you to take on two behemoths at once, which fits in with the whole sadism of the game. Yet there are few things more satisfying in gaming, than managing to fell one of these beasts after an intense battle.
As long as you’re connected to the servers (either through PSN or Live), you’ll see the ghostly shadows of other players going about their journeys, both you and them can purchase an item to leave and rate messages in the gaming world, though be wary of misinformation. Bloodstains left behind by other players can be used to view the passing moments of their deaths, perhaps giving a clue as to how to proceed into a dangerous area. You can lay down requests for help against particular foes, and invade and get invaded by other players (the latter happening only if you’re human). However the world can feel barren when no-one online happens to be in your area and requests are dependent on others heeding your call. The game creates a reasonable facsimile of the online game by creating AI partners to team up with and AI player baying for you blood to stand in for real ones.
While the lands of Dark Souls certainly are no slouch in the graphics department, it is not a perfect world, while at the middle distance that you’ll spent the majority of the time looking everything thing looks fine and on par, though it nowhere near the fidelity of other titles – read linear – titles on both formats. However, a few objects up close and distant don’t fare as well, becoming fuzzy and indistinct, looking as if they were imported from a much older game of the current generation. Enemy corpses roll around like old rag dolls with a complete lack of weight thanks to the game’s use of the Havok engine, which can look silly when you look as if you playing footie with them, instead of walking over/threading on them.
The frame rate frequently drops at times, coming to a near complete stop, though it runs more smoothly while unconnected to the internet, suggesting at least some of the issues may be with the online functionality than the graphics engine buckling under the strain. Music is saved mostly for boss battles, with ambient noise and swordplay and the sounds of a desolate, god forsaken land of the undeads.
Casual players are not the game’s intended audience, nor many of those who would call themselves core gamers. It for those that state that modern gaming has gotten too soft, and want and need a slow burner challenge. With its restless and armed to the teeth undead, Eldritch abomination bosses, and a brick wall of a difficulty, Dark Souls offers itself as an actual challenge. If you have the means to meet the game on its terms, and the gall to conquer, or are just plain masochistic, Dark Souls is worth it weight in souls.