From Software's action RPG, Demon's Souls, became a surprise hit in 2009 with its uncompromising blend of upgrade carrots and deadly, no-frills combat set within a grim fantasy world. As if it were a repudiation of doing anything to widen its appeal, its approach steadfastly clung to a challenging repertoire of tough-as-nails combat, dungeon-crawling mechanics, and statistics-laden customization.
The spiritual sequel, Dark Souls, brings back all of that and loads up on even more of the grueling battles. Even with the experience of the first game behind me, Dark Souls has proven how unrelenting it can be in making good on its promise to "Prepare to Die." In much the same way that the Rock Monster in the first Mega Man from Capcom had withered players like myself years ago, Dark Souls returns to the same lessons nearly every step of the way.
But like those experiences, it teaches as much as it provides an obstacle course for your reflexes. No fight in Dark Souls is impossible, and there is always some way to win. As viciously efficient as the monsters and its world can be in dispatching the careless, it's also deeply rewarding once you work out a strategy to slip past their defenses.
And I'm not even talking about the bosses.
Dark Souls isn't a direct sequel to Demon's Souls story-wise, as it wipes the slate clean much like how Square Enix's Final Fantasy does with every installment. In addition to bringing a new, open approach to exploring the world, the basics remain mostly the same, making it feel both familiar and new at the same time for veterans.
Similar to Demon's Souls story, Dark Souls won't burden the player with anything more than subtle nudges following a lavish opening movie, though the story seems a lot lighter here. In this world, the flame that has driven back the darkness is beginning to die, and that brings on a plague of Undead, people who have been marked with a special sigil and are expected to lose their minds as they turn "Hollow." You are one of these Undead sent into exile at a ruined asylum when a mysterious stranger drops a key to free you from your cell. From there, the adventure drops you into a world filled with shadowy creatures.
This isn't the kind of RPG steeped in dialogue, but players won't be at a loss about what to do next. It isn't so much about who you have to see, but where you can go and how to survive in getting there. Dark Souls' hidden pathways, ruined halls, and towering castle walls are a feast for the curious. Depending on how much you want to delve into exploring the game, you might not even reach the halfway mark after 30 hours of gameplay. Even more time can be spent after finishing the game when it restarts with your geared-up character in tow — although you'll be facing even tougher monsters.
Unlike Demon's Souls' hub-based world, Dark Souls opens up by allowing the player to find his way through a nearly seamless interconnected series of areas. Bonfires provide spots where players can save their progress and perform other tasks as they unlock additional options, ranging from repairing armor and weapons to attuning magic spells for use. Later, you can even warp between them, though only between a small number of chosen points.
As an Undead, players have several advantages. Special items, called "Humanity," can restore you to "living" status, which is necessary to do certain things, such as improve the strength of the bonfires, which refill a healing relic that you gain early on. The stronger the bonfire, the more charges that the relic can carry.
At the same time, resting at a bonfire also respawns all of the monsters you killed, save for the bosses themselves. Bonfires are also where you respawn when you die. It's not really a matter of if you die in this game, but more of when and how, even with all of the tools that it provides.
Dark Souls is tough. As veterans from Demon's Souls will tell you, the gameplay isn't designed to coddle anyone. There isn't even a difficulty level selector. Wandering into a place where monsters can kill you with one hit is not unusual, and the environment is just as deadly with falls off cliffs and walls or into flaming lava. Bonfire saves often do not sit at the doorsteps of bosses, threatening to grind down your resolve by forcing you to fight your way back to them.
Souls are the currency around which upgrades revolve, whether they are your weapons and armor, which also require special ingredients, or your statistics as you rest at a bonfire. Everything is open for your own interpretation on how you want to play the game, whether it's as a muscled brute or an experienced sorcerer. Despite picking a class at the start, it's only a leg up on your character as a finely tuned cipher. Early on, upgrades are cheap; it doesn't last very long, but everything comes together to give you a chance at fighting back.
Dying leaves a bloodspot that you can get back to and recover your lost souls, but if you die again before reaching it, it's gone, making it a gamble on whether you should retreat with a stash of souls or press on. There are items that help mitigate this somewhat, but they break after one use and aren't cheap. Dark Souls also employs an autosave feature, so there's no backtracking certain mistakes, such as if you "accidentally" kill an NPC merchant just to see what he might drop. Like the bosses that you defeat, they'll stay dead, and it's up to you to live with the consequences until you decide to start a new game.
Horrors often come in swinging, but standing toe-to-toe with them is possible thanks to the finely tuned controls that allow you to dodge, roll, backstep, block and slug it out. The AI puts up a good fight at almost every opportunity, and areas can often be saturated with ranged fighters perched on difficult-to-reach ledges, with ground-pounders tactically placed to rush you as you try to pick off their friends. Bosses lavish punishment on the player, whether it's in the form of spewing lava, crystal curses, summoned help or a vulgar display of power. Status-affecting poisons and curses are in ample supply, as are the remedies — for the right price. Like a good dungeon master, Dark Souls toys with its environment so that you never know what's around the corner or what you will see next — until it's too late.
The loot-minded will also appreciate the large number of weapons, armor and knickknacks that are sequestered in chests, on corpses, sold by unscrupulous merchants, or dropped by particularly powerful guardians. This allows for even more customization in addition to the wide array of statistics that define your character's path.
Spells have undergone a change from Demon's Souls, with each one having only a certain number of uses before needing to recharge at a bonfire. There's no mana bar this time around. This sounds like a big change, but it's manageable enough.
Covenants also provide an additional challenge. Though you can only belong to one at any time and certain covenants can never be rejoined if you break them, they offer a number of benefits, such as offering spells and items, thus enhancing the online experience. Some covenants are also well hidden, and others can simply be unavailable because of a missed event.
As it was with its predecessor, the online component is a major part of the experience. Using a built-in editor, players can piece together messages that are shared with other players as hints in how to fight certain bosses or cruel tricks, such as suggesting jumping off a ledge to find nonexistent treasure. Ghostly images also occasionally appear, showing other players hovering at a bonfire. Blood spots from other worlds, when touched, also show the last moments of a player's life, though I miss Demon's Souls' red-tinted apparitions.
Invaders can also enter your world if you happen to be online and "human" to fight you for souls and Humanity points; it's thrilling but keeps things within the correct range for your level in an attempt to keep things fair. After attaining a specific item, you can also engage in a little of your own PvP on your own terms. Items left on the ground can also spawn in other "worlds" as monsters to haunt players, though there's no way of knowing when it happens. Even in offline mode, the game invades itself with tough Black Phantoms to cover for live opponents that might have otherwise ruined your day.
Yet it's not all opportunistic capitalism for souls. Players can also play co-op to take down bosses or back up each other by leaving marks on the ground for others to summon them, whether they are human or recently deceased, and help earn rewards that way. Reinforcing bonfires at which others may be resting can help by giving them an additional healing charge. It's not all about PvP if you don't want it to be.
It can be easy to blame the game mechanics for things that it doesn't do well, and with a game as tough as Dark Souls, it's harder when it can blur the lines between what is intended and what is genuinely an issue. Being unable to team up with specific friends online because of the random nature of Dark Souls' implementation makes sense within its lore, but some might not feel the same way. One thing that it can't deny is that the engine pushing these monsters onto your screen doesn't do as good a job with the world.
At the ruins of New Londo, for example, there's a ladder where you can climb down that nearly killed the frame rate to the point where I thought my PS3 had actually frozen up until I started moving again nearly a minute later. Occasional slowdown is scattered elsewhere, sometimes by simply panning around a particularly busy scene. The good news is that it doesn't interfere with the gameplay, though other issues can. The camera can sometimes clip behind walls or inside large monsters, and oddball collision detection can sometimes block you from walking over ankle-high obstacles or leave arrows hanging in midair next to corners.
The presentation of Dark Souls also doesn't seem as strong as it did in Demon's Souls, with some areas feeling somewhat generic compared to those in the last game. After experiencing the otherworldly cosmology of the Nexus and its tied-in worlds, Dark Souls' shattered kingdom seemed almost too ordinary despite delivering on the gameplay. A few locales, such as Sen's trap-laden fortress and the grand city of Anor Londo, stood out, but overall, many others fell short when compared to Demon's Souls' Tower of Latria and Boletarian Palace.
With Dark Souls, From Software has written another unflinching homage to the kind of hardcore hazing that market-minded publishers find risky with its defiant gameplay. It's tough, it's brutal, and when I was killed by one smashing blast with a weapon larger than my own character, it's seemingly unfair. It's "seemingly" because as with every struggle in the game, there is always a way to seize the advantage with death as your tutor just as it always has been with games such as Capcom's Mega Man and Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden. It doesn't roll out the welcome mat for anyone who simply rushes in. In taking the time to wheedle through its hidden nuances and navigate each fight to seize the advantage, successfully surviving a journey such as this has never been as sweet.
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