You Are Not Prepared!
Let me preface my review of Dark Souls with the admission that I have not fully completed the game yet. However, as I would like to get this review out sometime within this decade, and my finishing the game does not particularly tarnish my views and opinions on it, I feel I am ready and able to give a fair and honest review of what Dark Souls has to offer. Also, as the game is not particularly story driven, I do not foresee any major plot twists coming my way that would significantly change how I feel about this game. Just know that I have spent enough time with Dark Souls to know that it is a punishing and uncaring mistress… and I love it all the more for it.
Prepare To Die!
Dark Souls is a game about dying. The game wants you to die so badly the first thing it does is kill you, and you are then left to play the remainder of the adventure as a zombie. There is some light backstory about all of the undead awaiting the end of days, and a lone zombie (presumably you) prophesied to leave the north and kill the dark souls plaguing the lands, but all of this is secondary to the game killing you. Dark Souls is not a robust RPG filled with rich cutscenes and deep dialogue, it is a classic dungeon crawler filled with pain and despair. The few characters you do meet will only have a few lines of dialogue to say to you and it mostly involves their utility, be they shopkeepers, blacksmiths, or just plain weirdos. This is not to say that Dark Souls is not a story driven or interesting game, far from it. Dark Souls is very different in that the story it tells is much more personal. The events of the game and how the story plays out is solely the experiences of the player, are you able to best the fiercest of opponents in single combat with ease or did you spend days grinding away in the sewer only to be cursed by yet another frog monster. The story of Dark Souls is more about the players personal journey and attempts to overcome the adversity the game puts before them than any other title on the market today (barring Demon’s Souls of course).
Character creation is a simple affair in Dark Souls. You pick a gender and can modify facial features and structure, though since you’re mostly a dried out zombie the whole game I wouldn’t spend too much time on this, and then you pick a class. The classes are generally unimportant this time around, there is no more Royal easy mode class like last time. Here classes simply give you your starting stats and equipment. However, should you choose a warrior class and then later decide you want to become a magic user all you have to do is level up your magic stats and you are all set. The starting level stats aren’t high enough to bar you from changing your mind on a class change early on and your abilities and attack power are governed more by your weapons and gear than your stats so swapping around roles is only a few hours of grinding away. The one indulgence Dark Souls gives you is the ability to choose a gift when making a character. The thief class starts with the Master Key so they in essence get to choose 2 gifts, however all the other items can be found in the game and aren’t must have items to complete the beginning areas, though having 10 fire bombs from the start of the game can be a great boon.
Tools of the Trade
As I mentioned before, your character stats are less important when deciding your attack and defensive power than the weapons you choose to equip. A mage with low strength will still be effective if he can wield a 200 attack power sword, just as a strong warrior will do as much damage with a single spell as a mage would. Your stats are more representative of what weapons/equipment you CAN use. For example a large sword might require 20 strength to wield properly. If you equip it without this requirement then you will be much slower and clumsier with the weapon, though you can 2 hand the weapon cutting its requirements in half though you will be unable to use a shield or an off-hand magical catalyst. There are a large number of weapons to choose ranging from swords, polearms, axes, bows and arrows, and even some more exotic fare such as the whip or brass knuckles. All these weapons can be powered up by blacksmiths making the base weapon even stronger and later on can be ascended into higher level equipment with status elements such as fire, lightning, and holy. The number of upgrade paths is impressive and the upgrade system has been streamlined from Demon’s Souls requiring you only have the correct shards and number of souls to upgrade, no special items or boss souls required. Some weapons do scale with your abilities, giving you more damage for high strength, dex, or int and these are clearly marked on the information screens of the items, however magical weapons do not scale so it is up to you to decide if you want to keep your attack scaling or gain a single bonus from elemental damage.
Oh The Humanity!
The multiplayer systems in Dark Souls mirror those of its Demon’s Souls brethren and will be instantly familiar to returning players, but also adds in a number of its own modifications and twists. As I mentioned already, you play the game as a zombie or hollow as they are referred to, and gain humanity which can return you to your living form. Humanity can be found as items in the world and also gained slowly over time by killing enemies without dying. This is similar to Demon’s Souls ghost form system, however unlike the ghost form you do not suffer 1/2 health in hollow form. The only benefit to being human is access to the multiplayer components of the game, and the ability to kindle bonfires doubling the healing items the bonfire gives you. As a human you can summon other players into your game to fight alongside you and help you defeat monsters or going into another players world and helping them fight the hordes, gaining humanity for your troubles. However, as a human form player, you can also be invaded by other players and be forced to play them in PVP combat. Lose and you suffer all the penalties of death while they reap the rewards, however their indiscretions are marked in the games book of sin. This book tallies which players have invaded and killed the most gamers and puts higher priority on invading them and grants greater reward should you kill them.
In addition to the co-op and PVP gameplay the series signature message system is back and it is pretty much the same as ever. You are able to write pre-scripted messages on the ground such as “Item Ahead” or “Be Ware of Traps” which other players can see and read in their games. This is an extremely interesting mechanic as it allows all gamers playing the game to band together to help warn each other of ambush locations, or point out hidden passages and items. However, one must always be careful of deceitful messages such as “Try Jumping” near a cliff edge, it could lead to a hidden ledge with some amazing armor or simply be a lie leading to your death. Half the fun of these messages is figuring out which ones are to be believed.
Grind Your Bones
The systems in Dark Souls all work well with each other, but as has become its trademark the game is not in any way shape or form easy. Most of your time will be spent grinding on enemies to collect souls to level up your character, weapons, and purchase necessary items. This comes at a price though, as most items are very expensive it means you will constantly have to carry a large number of souls on you before you can trade them in, and if you die (which you will) you will lose all the souls you just spent hours collecting. You are then tasked with getting back to the spot you died without dying again at which point you can collect your items and you won’t lose anything. This is the fairness that Dark Souls will show you. Sure it may kill you with a well placed ambush that you could never see coming, but it gives you a chance to earn everything back and as long as you learn from your mistakes you should be able to succeed. It is in this manner that the difficulty of Dark Souls has become legendary rather than reviled. The game never resorts to cheap tactics, whenever you die losing all your progress you should honestly feel it is your fault.
The enemy AI in the game isn’t particularly smart or intuitive. Enemies follow basic patterns that you can recognize and exploit. They are aggressive though, and unlike Demon’s Souls will not stop chasing you once they have been alerted to your presence. I was once killed by an enemy who had chased me all the way from the starting area and was able to stab me in the back, I lost all my souls I had on me because I was careless in clearing out a much easier enemy earlier in the zone. That is how you die in Dark Souls. You will spend hours exploring an area, learning every intricate detail of how the area is laid out, where the enemies are hiding, how they attack you and you will have it down to a science on how to progress through the zone. Then, inevitably, you will get killed and have to retread the area to collect your souls, but this time you will be so confident in your abilities that you will get sloppy. You will rush through the area and forget to kill a certain enemy or you will aggro too many at once and get surrounded and then you will die again knowing that had you just followed the proper steps and taken everything in turn you would have been fine.
A Silver Lining
Dark Souls does deviate from its predecessor in one key area which actually helps the player, that being the elimination of the Nexus. The world of Dark Souls is completely interconnected so there is no need for a central hub location which teleports you to the zones. This also means that death does not send you back to a central starting point forcing you to traverse the entire area again. Rather the game has bonfires placed throughout the various sections of the world. These bonfires serve as checkpoints where you can level up your character, repair and upgrade your weapons (if you have the proper items, and you should), and replenish your vial of health potions. Gone are the days of popping grass constantly to keep yourself alive, you are now limited to 5 (or more if the fire has been kindled) health potions per bonfire you visit. This is convenient as you no longer have to spend souls on health items, though it can be limiting if the next bonfire is far away and the enemies you are facing are extremely aggressive. The one downside to the bonfire is that using one will revive every enemy that you have killed in the area, except for bosses and some larger enemies. This means that while a bonfire may look like a godsend to an adventurer low on health and healing potions, it will require they resurrect everything that just spent all that time killing them in the first place. Dark Souls now has the new mechanic of deciding when to best use your checkpoints to level and heal so as to not get stuck fighting the same enemies over and over again.
Another benefit of the bonfires being located in the zones rather than in a central hub is they are much closer to the bosses of the game. Unlike the regular enemies in the game which you can usually plan for and take down with little trouble, the bosses are a much different story and you’ll be glad the bonfires are as close as they are as you struggle to learn the weaknesses of these giant demons. The bosses are all extremely impressive to behold, from the hideously inappropriate Gaping Dragon to the giant Ceaseless Discharge. They will tower over your puny character only reinforcing how hopeless your battle is. They are generally too strong for normal tactics and require impeccable timing with blocking, attacking, potion and spell usage. While it may seem impossible to defeat these behemoths, especially when suddenly there are two of them, you can always summon another hero to your aid and even the odds. If you can overcome them and defeat them yourself, however, I guarantee there is nothing available in video games today that will mirror the satisfaction you will feel.
Dead and Loving It
Despite all the frustration and anger that Dark Souls can create in me, like the first time I was cursed and saw that encompassed a one hit instant kill and having to play with 1/2 of my health bar until I could cure it, or the innumerable deaths I suffered at the hands of the denizens of the game I absolutely love the game. Not a day went by that I couldn’t get the game out of my head, thinking of new strategies to defeat bosses, or tactics to traverse difficult areas that had given me trouble the day previous. Not only do I feel Dark Souls is a great game, but it and its predecessor are necessary games. In a gaming world populated by easy buttons and no-risk platforming it is refreshing to actually be challenged for once. Even amazing titles such as Assassins Creed and Uncharted have virtually no penalty for death, and if the player is persistent enough they will eventually get through to the end. Dark Souls is much different, it is not unfair or cheap, but it does ask more of the player. You cannot simply breeze through Dark Souls, and you cannot progress by being persistent, all that will get you is the same death over and over. Rather you must adapt your strategy, you must perfect your skills, and you must perform to perfection in every facet of the game. Any slip or missed opportunity will be exploited and punished resulting in a death that is entirely your fault, and the inability to learn from that will be your undoing.
Certainly this game is not for everyone. It is based on an old school game mentality where gameplay trumps story and character. If you are the type of gamer that gets frustrated when you die playing Call of Duty or other modern games, then this is probably not the title for you. If you played Demon’s Souls and absolutely hated everything about that game then Dark Souls will not change your mind on the formula. Dark Souls feels as if From Software recognized that we have all now played Demon’s Souls and there is no surprise left, so they cranked the difficulty up even further and told us to deal with it. For gamers who are looking for a challenge, and want to feel the rush of adrenaline that gaming with real consequences can give you then get ready to have the time of your life because there is no more rewarding game than Dark Souls. It is difficult but fair, and every victory you achieve in the game is yours alone.