20th October 2011 - Dark Souls is the spiritual successor to the cult sleeper Demon Souls (read our review HERE) which arrived on Aussie shores last year. Demon Souls was lauded around the world as a PS3 exclusive that broke the current trend by delivering a game truly designed for hard core gamers. None of this hand-holding nonsense, Demon Souls punished you - hard and made no apologies for it. If you wanted to get past a difficult section you had to improve your character, improve your skill and tactics, and die a lot in the process. It was simultaneously one of the most infuriating and rewarding gaming experience I can ever remember on any platform over the last 10 years. Dark Souls is the successor - not a direct sequel, but in the same vein. And boy is it a doozy!
Dark Souls has all the elements of any standard RPG. You choose a character and class, battle a variety of increasingly difficult enemies in different environments, upgrade your stats and equipment, and ultimately save the day. That’s all par for the course. What separates it is the unabashed way you get your arse handed to you if you don’t learn quick (and sometimes even when you do). Now for those who haven’t played Demon Souls you may think that doesn’t sound like much fun, and at times it isn’t. But there is an incredible sense of satisfaction and achievement that comes with persisting and finally beating the enemy or succession of enemies that have just killed you a dozen times. No guts, no glory or something like that.
Part of the difficulty lies in the beauty of the controls and timing. The shoulder buttons control light and heavy attacks for each hand, and the face buttons for running dodging and items - pretty standard. What makes it tough but engaging is timing your movements against enemies that can be lightning quick sometimes and slow and predictable at others. There is also an endurance bar that goes down with every physical action except spell casting. Whether striking your sword, blocking an attack or rolling out of the way the bar goes down. If the bar gets to zilch you cannot perform any action - the real killer in that situation being no blocking or diving out of the way. In other words you’re going to die. Speaking of dying, as I said earlier, get used to it. You will die from being impaled, poisoned, burnt, falling, crushed and bitten to name a few!
From Software are not complete sadists though. The slaying of difficult enemies spews forth a bucket-load of souls used to upgrade your stats, equipment and purchase items. Likewise exploration off the beaten track has numerous hazards but it often rewards players with rare and very valuable items. Unlike Demon Souls, which consisted of a base area with portals to different sections to visit, Dark Souls is true open world environment and is a better experience for it. There is a better flow to the game and truer sense of exploring where you want, limited only by access with a key in some sections or enemies too powerful for you yet in others. The level design is well thought out with different sections of the sprawling fortress and ruins eventually linking up with a series of gates, ladders and tunnels. Bonfires are spotted throughout the land and act as re-spawn spots upon death. On top of this they act to replenish your health and give you a location to upgrade your character and perform other tasks. In true From Software form, the bonfires are a double edged sword. If you use them to heal yourself, or if you die and re-spawn, all the enemies you have defeated also re-spawn (except bosses and some very high ranking enemies). This can be a mixed blessing. Sometimes if you have just spent a great deal of time getting through a series of tough demons and get taken out by the last one or accidently roll off a cliff, you want to throw your controller at the screen and throw a tantrum. Particularly if it’s your 10th try. On the other hand re-spawning of enemies can be handy in spots if you want to grind to collect souls and do some serious upgrading.
On the subject of grinding it seems to be one of the bugbears of RPGs, although not particularly bad in Dark Souls. You will need to do it from time to time in order to progress as the difficulty is just so high. The demons that try to run away with your innards are a variety of mostly humanoid type undead of different shapes and sizes. There are a number of more exotic creatures, the most fearsome of which reserved for bosses. Most of these are friggin’ huge and enjoy killing you a little too easily the first couple of times. I must admit though whether it’s due to playing Demon Souls previously and being more experienced, or the difficulty has been tweaked down, the bosses don’t seem to be as tough. A challenge for sure but it didn’t seem to take as long to figure out a way of killing them.
The online community serves two purposes in Dark Souls. Firstly players can leave notes written on the floor as hints for others. Anything from a warning of a trap, tips on how to defeat an upcoming enemy or simply to boast they got past a difficult boss. The beauty of this is that the reliability of the information is governed by the community of online players via a rating system. If you agree with a statement you can like it which adds to its credibility. This helps reduce numb nuts who write unhelpful things to try and intentionally get you killed. A similar related feature allows you to see a spiritual apparition of other player’s moments leading up to their death, potentially giving you insight into the road ahead.
The other online feature helpful for bosses is to summon other players to help you. This can be NPC or other gamers online. The ability to summon players to help you in your quest, or to invade player’s worlds, kill them and take their loot was a standout feature in Demon Souls. I have to say in my experience playing Dark Souls though the system seemed to be a little flawed. I would often write a summon spot on the ground and wait for a long time only to have nothing happen. It was rare for me to see anyone’s sign either. This may have just been my experience but if you jump on some forums it’s a fairly common topic of discussion and criticism.
The only other real criticism of the game is the lack of story. There isn’t really much context or purpose to the game throughout most of it. This doesn’t cause much of a problem though as the fighting and exploring are by far the star attractions.
Set in a gloomy medieval style world, majority of your environment is a fortress or castle of some description with plenty of dank dungeons, sewers and hidden passageways. The environments are fairly drab which in the context works well, with spots of light and colour coming from the occasional rays of sun penetrating clouds overlooking some beautiful scenery. The only other bursts of light and colour come from fire and magic. The character models are done well with a good level of detail with each piece of armour and weapon. Finally the demons look fantastic, with a variety of intricately designed weapons and appendages perfect for sending you straight back to the nearest bonfire.
I only experienced some slow down with frame rate on two occasions which is pretty good considering there are virtually no loading screens once the game is up and running.
The NPC have some of the worst voice acting and terribly cheesy scripts I can remember in recent RPGs. This is a shame because there really isn’t much dialogue throughout Dark Souls. Kind of makes you wish they didn’t bother with voices at all.
Fortunately redemption comes in the form of sounds effects. Swords clanging against shields, the sounds of flesh being sliced or the roar of a dragon are all satisfying and help give you clues what’s happening around you. The musical score takes a backseat to the effects except for boss fights where the increased volume and tempo adds to your panic in an effective if not clichéd way.
Although Dark Souls selling point is the quality of the gameplay not the quantity, it’s not a short quest. The game should take most players around 50-60 hours to complete. This obviously can vary greatly depending on how quickly you want to cut to the chase, what equipment and items you want to hunt down etc but for most it will be a ride that is pretty much on the money for length. Added to that the huge variety of ways you can focus your characters development and fighting tactics and its begging to be picked up on completion for a replay. The only question will be how long the online component is supported.
Demon Souls was a game that took RPGs back to the basics and challenged players like few others in recent memory. Dark Souls is the spiritual successor and has everything that made Demon Souls a great game. Solid controls that require timing and tactics rather than button mashing and keen management of your endurance. The enemies are tough, you will die a lot, but it’s also very rewarding to complete a real challenge. Excellent level design and plenty of equipment and items to find and forge mean a good scratch of the exploration bug. There are a few minor issues and no real storyline, but really that’s irrelevant. Dark Souls is a comprehensive and challenging RPG that gives hard-core gamers something to really get stuck into.
+ Great gameplay with smart use of endurance
+ Challenging enemies
+ Upgrades galore
- Annoying NPC
- No real story
- Difficulty may ward off less dedicated gamers
Written and reviewed by Khye Davey