The back of the Dark Souls box says, "Prepare to die," so it can be very easy to be intimidated by the game. Its PS3-exclusive predecessor, Demon's Souls, is renowned as one of the harder games on the market. The thing that tends to be overlooked about these games is that they're not for everyone, but at the same time, they don't deserve the reputation they've earned. Dark Souls is not a game that is difficult for the sake of being difficult. It's difficult because it is masterfully designed. Although not every player will find Dark Souls to their liking, I'll also say this: Even if you don't like tough games, Dark Souls may be right for you. There's almost nothing else like it on the market, and the challenge is far different from finishing Halo on Legendary difficulty.
Dark Souls puts the player in the role of a human who's been cursed with a terrible affliction. Along with countless others, your character has become an undead monster known as a Hollow. Unlike most Hollows, your character has maintained a sense of self. After being thrown in an asylum for the undead, you escape and discover that there is potential salvation for those inflicted with the Hollow sickness. It won't be easy, and you'll have to traverse many lands and face untold dangers to find an eventual cure. There isn't a very deep plot, but that's because the plot and characters are not the stars of the show. There are some interesting things in the Dark Souls story line, but the real fun is in exploring the world.
If I had one major frustration with Dark Souls, it's with the translation, which ranges from awkward to downright inaccurate. A lot of the wording choices make it very easy to misunderstand an item's function. For example, one item says that it causes you to regenerate health over time. What it actually does is offer a small, almost insignificant, health bonus. Minor inaccuracies like this are not game-breaking, but they can be very frustrating for players who just want to play instead of relying on wikis and online help to figure out the best approach to the game. A lot of the game mechanics and features are only explained in the vaguest terms in-game, so putting some more effort into the translation would have gone a long way toward making a difficult game more accessible. As it stands, something that should be self-explanatory requires trial and error to figure out.
Dark Souls has done away with Demon's Souls' hub-like system in favor of a large, interconnected world map, and that is a tremendous improvement over the first game. The world goes from feeling rather disconnected and … well, video-gamey to a place that you can actually explore. When you are given the freedom to pick a direction, wander and see what you find, it really adds to the experience. After you escape from the asylum, you're dropped off in the middle of Lordran with nothing more to your name than some cheap armor and weapons. There are multiple directions you can go, and each can lead somewhere different. I wandered in one direction and encountered horrible ghosts that seemed nearly invulnerable. I ran in another and discovered a town full of undead who, at very least, I could stab with greater ease. At no point did I feel railroaded by this. The exploration felt like a natural part of the game. Advancement is charted by bonfires that you kindle; a bonfire is a checkpoint. Not only does it mark your progress, but it can also refill your all-important health flasks, repair or store items, and level up. This feels a lot more natural than the Nexus in Demon's Souls and helps encourage the player to keep going forward instead of turning back.
There are plenty of enemies to fight in Dark Souls, and each must be approached as intently and carefully as you would a boss battle in any other game. If you played Demon's Souls, you'll find that the combat is almost identical. You have bows, magic, shields and weapons, and each can be used in various ways. A sword, for example, can be wielded along with a shield in a defensive stance or used two-handed to put more power behind your swings. You can play offensively or defensively, and the game supports your play style. For example, you can block attacks with your shield or parry them to leave the enemy vulnerable to a riposte, which does a lot of damage to them. Combat is simple, but that doesn't mean it's easy. Beating enemies involves figuring out the holes in their defenses and exploiting them while preventing them from flanking you or tiring out your character. That may sound easy, but enemies come in so many shapes and sizes that you'll constantly have to adapt to new enemies.
The combat in Dark Souls works so well because it has weight. That may sound off, but compared to almost any other action game on the market, everything you do in the game has a sense of weight and meaning behind it. You don't wildly swing you sword as you would in a Devil May Cry game; instead, you make each strike count. Blades bounce off shields and walls, or an enemy may leave himself vulnerable while he utilizes a giant weapon. Being hit isn't something you can shrug off; even weak enemies can kill you with only a few thrusts of their blade. On the other hand, your trusty shield lets you weather attacks and counter while enemies are vulnerable. There are a few times when the gameplay feels awkward, but for the most part, it is immensely solid and satisfying. You almost always feel like your attacks matter, and if they don't, it is because the enemy should be shrugging off the stabs of your sword or bolts from your crossbow.
The death system in Dark Souls is extremely similar to the one in Demon's Souls, with some minor differences. You have two forms: Hollow and human. You'll spend most of your time in your Hollow form, where you're a disgusting, rotting, undead monster. Unlike Demon's Souls, you don't take a significant hit to your stats as a zombie. You're disgusting to look at, but you're almost at full fighting capabilities. You can switch back to a human by gathering Humanity and using it at a bonfire to return to human form. This is a double-edged sword. As a human, you get significantly increased drop rates and can get rare items from enemies, but you also leave yourself vulnerable to enemy attacks. The punishment for death is fairly light. If you die, you lose all the Souls you've gathered from enemies. However, should you return to where you died without dying again, you'll find a bloodstain from which you can recover your lost souls. If you die as a human, you'll also be returned to your undead form. While it may sound like it grows tedious, it doesn't. You're just encouraged to get back there and overcome whatever had killed you before.
Dark Souls is a tough game. You can — and will — die rather often. However, what saves this from frustration and tedium is that death in Dark Souls rarely feels unfair. More often than not, death feels like the player's fault as opposed to the game being a jerk. If you get too aggressive, too arrogant, or just stop being cautious, you'll die, but it could've been avoided if you'd known how to approach the situation and when to advance, be aggressive or play defensively. There are times when you'll feel as if there is no way to avoid the trap or enemy that killed you. Sometimes, that's a warning that you're in an area that you can't handle yet, but other times, it can just be the game's nasty sense of humor. These moments can be frustrating but are mercifully rare.
Dark Souls uses much the same online system as Demon's Souls, but that is entirely to its benefit. While you're exploring the world, you'll discover traces of other players' games. Sometimes this may be bloodstains from where someone died. You can check these bloodstains to see a replay of the player's last moments. Other times, messages that are scrawled on the ground can offer hints or tips about upcoming danger, although only in vague, short sentences. Because they're from other players, they can also be dirty lies, but most players want to help instead of hinder. You can also join Covenants, which offer special bonuses to the player and may also, in certain situations, grant bonuses to other covenant members. These covenants come in many forms, but there's something important to note: They have rules, and breaking a covenant can earn you harsh penalties from the game and other players.
When you're in human form, you can encounter other players more directly. There are a lot of cool ways this can happen. You can summon friendly ghosts into your world to help you kill bosses or get past tough areas, but you can also be invaded by players who want to kill you and steal your precious humanity. Sometimes, items you drop may invade another player's world as a rare monster that can be killed for special loot. There are bounty hunters who hunt down certain players, so it isn't a competitive multiplayer game. These interactions are all unique and special additions to an otherwise single-player game, but they add something special. Knowing that you may be attacked by a nasty invader at any time means that even explored areas can be immensely dangerous, but also very potentially rewarding.
Dark Souls is a sterling example of how a game doesn't need AAA production values to look great. The character models are simple, but the art design is exceptional. Each enemy clearly communicates many aspects of themselves at a glance. When you encounter a giant armored knight, it is intimidating despite being a giant hulk of metal. The environments are spooky and memorable, and although they're not the most unique settings, you're sure to remember each one.
With that said, the game suffers from some technical snafus. I encountered more than a few situations where the frame rate chugged when a lot was happening on-screen at once. It wasn't enough to ruin the experience, but it certainly a detractor. There were also some annoying moments of pop-in, but those were relatively rare. The soundtrack is quite good and does a masterful job of setting the atmosphere. One of the potential downsides is that the game disallows any form of chat for multiplayer. This helps keep the game's atmosphere but may be annoying for players who prefer chatting with friends over preserving the "atmosphere" of the game.
Dark Souls is easily one of the best RPGs on the market and manages to even eclipse Demon's Souls, its predecessor. The gameplay is slow and methodical, but never in a way that feels boring. The game is hard, but almost always in a fair way. You'll die … but it's a mark to the game's quality that the reaction to death is to get right back up and try again until you succeed. It's easy to see a player spending hours upon hours in this game, building up their weapons, invading or being invaded by other players, doing quests, trying different covenants or just exploring. If you're willing to put up with the pain that comes from frequent deaths, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable game than Dark Souls.
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