Dark Souls Review
Developer: From Software
Platforms: Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3
Reviewed on Xbox 360
Oh, yes. Dark Souls has a plot – something about the world filling with hollow men, undead who are imprisoned until the end of time, and a single hollow one who will fulfill a prophecy. Mostly it's about death. Your death. Over and over. Dark Souls prides itself on being the most difficult game in stores.
"Prepare to die!" That's what it says on the box for Dark Souls. It's also the game's website. As the spiritual successor to Demon's Souls it should come as no surprise that this is a game that will kill you a lot. Dark Souls takes pride in unwinnable battles, hopeless odds, "gotcha" traps and insta-death at every turn. Let's not forget the unforgiving combat and plentiful ledges overlooking fatal falls. This game is hardcore even by hardcore gamers' standards.
This game of playing an undead hero hopelessly battling against powerful foes reminds me of nothing more than my ancient struggle to defeat Ghosts 'n Goblins. That was a staggeringly difficult arcade experience that had me banging my head against the controller as I steadfastly replayed the same sequence over and over. And over. Then over a bit more. Then taking a break and playing it over. At times I wish my hero in Dark Souls would dance around in his boxers like Sir Arthur from Ghosts 'n Goblins just to lighten the mood.
Dark Souls is a tremendous game, in that it delivers exactly the experience it promises. Frankly, Dark Souls is one of the best games around that I don't want to play. Dark Souls is that special type of game that won't let you pause and allows other players to leap into your world and kill you. Yes, other players can also be summoned to help, but the world is hardly kind. Frankly, it's even better than i>Demon's Souls, I just think it took me two years to come to grips with the fact that I don't want to play a game that pushes me around, kicks sand in my face, stabs and poisons me to death and then teabags my corpse.
I've long criticized games for placing a tough boss battle at the end of a long level with no checkpoints or saves, forcing players to replay that entire section every time they make the tiniest mistake. If you enjoy that, that's the premise that built Dark Souls. You will replay the same tiny section of game repeatedly to learn every "gotcha" moment until you sidestep every trap and smash every hidden enemy in the face. Even then, you'll make mistakes and have to replay the section several times more. I found myself spending a long time farming the easiest of undead just to raise my stats enough to have a fighting chance. That's the design of the game – you're intended to farm and grind just to survive.
There was a tremendous amount of pride and satisfaction each time I reached a new fire that would serve as my respawn point, and even more each time I defeated a grotesquely beautiful (and devastatingly deadly) boss. My enjoyment faltered because my deaths were so often pointless. Each time you die in Dark Souls, you lose the souls and humanity you have gathered. Souls are experience for your avatar and the currency you need to purchase and repair items rolled into one. If you make it to the spot where you died before dying again, you recover what you have lost. All too often, a casual mis-swing of my claymore led me to fall off a cliff on the way to recover my lost souls, rendering my past hours' work moot.
I don't mind dying in games. If I did, there'd be no games left for me to play. What I resent is wasting my time. If I die in a game, I want to feel my pre-death efforts contributed to my success. In Dark Souls, most of the time, my death was a failure of my twitch reflexes, and set me so far back that after an initial six hours of play, I'd only just managed to wind my way past the dragon in the Undead Burg. A few hours past that and I'd rung a bell, but was searching through a forest and graveyard for something against which I had even a slight chance. Dark Souls is frustrating, and that's something I don't enjoy. It's like finding yourself on a multiplayer first-person shooter map you've never seen, filled with expert camping snipers. That one kill you got in 20 minutes of play was satisfying, but not worth it. Of course, if you tough your way through, you have the feeling of accomplishment that only comes from a truly difficult task, and bragging rights, if what you really want is to rub the noses of other gamers' in your prowess (or stubbornness).
The world of Dark Souls is beautiful, in a dark, moss-covered, undead-filled sort of way. It's splendidly designed, with bosses as putrid and horrifying as they are elegant and awe-inspiring. To emphasize how dank and dismal the game setting actually is, occasionally I would off a particularly difficult mini-boss to climb to the top of a tower and see the world sprawled before me with pillars of sunlight poking through, taunting me with the hope of something less than total failure. The pale echoes of other players' specters passing just lets you know how many other players share your frustration. Of course, you can learn from the demise of others just by touching the bloodstains that many others have left on the paving stones.
The crux of Dark Souls is combat, and the combat engine is lovingly detailed. It will require substantial skill in parrying and counterstrikes to defeat the many foes. Even if you pursue a path of magic or archery, plenty of surprise, close-range attacks will require prowess with the timing of shoulder buttons. Despite the difficulty of mastering the combat system and steep learning curve, it's extremely rewarding to escape a challenging duel unscathed. Of course, if you're anything like me, that's usually when I fell off a cliff... before recovering my lost souls and humanity.
The advancement systems and even the main plot are purposefully cryptic. Even if you've played Demon's Souls, you'll screw up your first build and actions so much you'll feel obligated to restart just to do things right. Again, if you're anything like me, you'll be restarting several times. At least, in desperate boss battles, you can lay down a glyph that requests help from other players.
Dark Souls manages to do what it attempts exceedingly well. I'm hesitant to criticize the way the game obfuscates even the manner in which you play, advance your character, repair weapons and even interact with vendors, since that seems to be part of the point. The main failure of Dark Souls that can't be intentional is the AI. Enemies will track you down, to the point of leaping off ledges to their own doom. Frankly, I was thankful for that failure, as that's often all that saved me from losing my latest collection of souls. The other issue was that when I slew an enemy in melee, I often ended up with a ragdoll corpse entangled in my armor, dragging it along as I ran.
Dark Souls highlights the problem with absolute review scores. It decidedly deserves an excellent score, as it does a superb job of serving its fans the same way that a hockey game is only for hockey fans. Just to be clear, I didn't finish Dark Souls. This is a game for those who want to enjoy merciless self abuse, and not the kind that will grow hair on your palms.