Developer: From Software / Publisher: Namco Bandai Games / ESRB: M (Blood and Gore, Partial Nudity, Violence) / Price: $59.99 / Played On: PS3, Xbox 360
Demon’s Souls was a revelation when it came out in 2009. It was bleak and tough as nails. It was an old school action RPG in almost every way. And yet it somehow attracted gamers with its brutal difficulty and addictive gameplay. Lo and behold, two years later From Software is back with the spiritual successor (don’t call it a sequel), Dark Souls. Taking the exact gameplay template from Demon’s Souls and tweaking many of the game systems, From has crafted another chilling, terrifying action RPG that is as frustrating as it is incredible.
If you played Demon’s Souls, nothing has changed here as it relates to combat or game structure. Souls are still both your monetary and leveling currency, and yes, you still drop all of the souls you’re carrying when you die. Is it hard? Of course it’s hard; it wouldn’t have the word souls at the end of the title if it wasn’t. It might be a little too hard, however, at least in some spots. The difficulty curve, especially at the start of your adventure, is wildly unbalanced. One minute you’re mowing through enemies, the next you’re one-hit killed by a boss that you didn’t expect to be in that next room. Or one-hit killed by a regular enemy that ambushes you. Or mobbed to death by a group of undead warriors. You die a lot, as it turns out.
I found all these deaths and defeats unfair. In Demon’s Souls, you always learned something from death, like to how to proceed more safely and successfully through the area that just killed you. Each death was a little quiz on just how you were supposed to play the game. In Dark Souls, that’s still intact… just not all the time. In an apparent effort to make the game harder than its predecessor, some questionable design choices mess up the flow. For one, most rooms now feature up to half a dozen enemies who will more often than not swarm you to death. Unlike the strategic one-on-one battles from Demon’s Souls, these moments feel like a cheap and frustrating way to stymie your progress without actually having to design complex AI routines or tactics. Despite what you may think, it’s simply not fun to get gangbanged from behind by three skeletons. That doesn’t teach me how to play better, it teaches me I need to exploit the AI pathfinding to kill the enemy group one at a time. That’s not rewarding, it’s cheap and tedious.
Then there’s the camera and lock-on system. These are two foes you can’t kill though you’re fighting them constantly, especially in tight, narrow areas. And god help you if you get next to a cliff; trying to swing the camera around or switch lock-ons might just cause you to navigate your character to his death. It’s a shame these features couldn’t be fixed or at least improved, but they’re largely as unwieldy and clunky as they were in Demon’s Souls.
That said, Dark Souls shines marvelously in other areas. Gone is the complex world tendency and soul/body form systems, which has been replaced by Humanity. Humanity is an item found in the world, on enemies, and on dead characters that allows you to perform a number of actions, including reviving to human form from Hollowed (the game’s term for dying and reviving as a ghoulish figure). Humanity also lets you strengthen bonfires, the game’s checkpoint and healing stations that dispense Estus, a liquid that can be used to refill your HP.
Multiplayer is largely the same as it was in Demon’s Souls, with Hollowed characters offering their services to those in human form for co-op mode to tackle bosses. You’re also able to invade other players’ games if you want to cause some strife by killing them (though this time there’s an item that lets you tag an invading player on a global leaderboard, the description of which promises an ominous, unspecified hardship for regular online trolls).
Then there’s the game world, which is one giant interconnected dungeon of varying sights and horrors. Castles, forests, swamps, sewers and many more locales all snake their way in and out of each other, offering different enemy types and traps of all sizes. Really, the most satisfying part of Dark Souls is the exploration, that tense, frightening exploration of what eldritch creature or wonderful item could be around the next corner. And because there are no loading screens, you can see parts of the game from other areas of the game across vast distances, meaning Lordran, the land in which Dark Souls takes place, feels like a vast, haunted kingdom. Opening shortcuts back to your bonfires is just about the most relieving feeling when you realize you can bypass that horde of demons guarding a bridge.
Dark, crumbling castles. Sinister forests. Oozing, crawling sewers. From Software knows how to put the dark in dark fantasy. The texture of the moss-covered walls seeps into you as you play. In all aspects, from armor design to environmental flora and fauna, from architecture to the hideousness of the monsters, Dark Souls is about as morbidly beautiful as games can come. The look conveys an atmosphere, and that atmosphere permeates through the controller and into your head. Rarely are games this intense, immersive, and engaging. In this land of death and despair, it speaks volumes that I would still visit Lordran if given the opportunity in real life. From Software is one of the best in the business at making the game world compelling.
Character animations are also polished to a fine degree. Dark Souls adds new weapon animations for the various types of spears, clubs, and swords in the game, both one- and two-handed. You can now leap attack forward, a handy offensive tool against approaching enemies. The twisted creatures you dispatch on your journey also stride, sidle, sprint, hop, and crawl their way with authentic disgusting horror.
In an age where big games are advertised six months out and gamers know everything about every feature before they even have the disc in their hands, Dark Souls manages to retain its sense of mystery. Item descriptions are appropriately vague, fresh areas constantly open new avenues or traversal. Part of the fun of playing these games is the oral lore passed around the internet as the community figures out hidden clues or special activities that the developers so carefully placed within the depths. Sure this means that sometimes you feel aimless, but part of the fun of the Dark Souls experience is making your own way, and then helping those who come after you. Poke at the world and it will poke back with a vengeance. But death is not permanent, and there are always more souls to obtain, more dungeons to delve into, and more bosses to slay. Dark Souls has hooks, and those hooks are in me deep; I’m already planning my next several playthroughs as different classes, and for a game that is 80+ hours, that’s a testament to its gripping quality.