Sometime back in 2012 I tried out FromSoftware’s Demon’s Souls for the first time, mainly because of its infamous legacy of being excruciatingly difficult. I thought to myself that the brutal difficulty would be similar to some of the old school Castlevania titles, where it was challenging, yet fair. Demon’s Souls fell well short of my expectations and even though the controls were decent and the graphics were well detailed, the level design did not feel fair in the slightest. The most scarring memory of that game was one section near the beginning where you have to cross a bridge and a dragon swoops in, breathing fire such that you can’t even get a hair of it on your head without dying immediately, and the only way you can cross the bridge is with pixel perfect timing. It was a trial and error process that right away turned me off of the game, but I managed to persist past that obstacle, only to come across several others in later areas, all of which eventually caused me to give up and play something else.
Dark Souls, its spiritual successor, also made by FromSoftware, would hopefully provide a better challenge, despite the hair pulling difficulty. At around fifty hours of playing time, it was going to have to be much better balanced than its predecessor.
The opening cutscene gives us the basis of Dark Souls’ story, but ultimately it is up to the players to piece together from the little bits of information you obtain from exploring the game and talking with the various NPCs you encounter. In the land of the dragons, the First Flame was ignited which brought disparity in the form of hot and cold, life and death, and light and dark. Within the Flame came the undead, and four other creatures who discovered the Lord Souls and became godlike, defeating the dragons and beginning their Age Of Fire. It is up to our protagonist, named by the player, to stop these demonic beings and save the world.
Dark Souls is a medieval fantasy third-person action RPG where you must traverse a massive world and fight your way through an onslaught of enemies using a number of melee weapons, such as swords, battle axes and pikes. You can choose to wield your weapon with both hands, dealing more damage, or equip a shield to prevent taking damage, however some weapons require both hands to use them to their full potential. Before starting the main game, the player can choose the class of their character, giving them different attributes, like being able to wear heavy armour and use bigger weapons, or the ability to perform various magic spells. Don’t think you can use your weapons continuously though, as each time you swing your weapon, block an attack with your shield or dodge out of the way, a bit of your stamina gauge is taken off, no longer allowing you to do any of those things and leaving you more open to attacks.
You can level up your stats, such as stamina, vitality, and strength by finding bonfires in each area, which also allow you to save the game, refill flasks that restore your health, and other features that I’ll get into in a bit. Levelling up requires spending the in-game currency of “souls”, which you receive by killing enemies. The tougher the enemy, the more souls you gain. These can also be used to buy items and weapons at the Blacksmith’s, as well as repairing your equipment, unless you buy the tools from him to do it yourself at a bonfire.
Unlike Demon’s Souls where you respawned as a soul with only half of your health after dying, leaving you to get the rest back and return to human form by defeating a boss, Dark Souls lets you keep your full health no matter what, which is already a huge plus over Demon’s Souls. Instead of being a soul after dying, you play as an undead, and the only way to return to human form is to spend a humanity point in a bonfire. When playing as a human, you can spend another humanity point on kindling for the bonfire to give you more health-restoring flasks for your journey. Humanity points are earned in various ways like defeating a boss, killing numerous enemies in certain areas before defeating a boss, or using a consumable item to grant you one, two, or five humanity points at once. In addition to human and bonfire properties, humanity points also increase your curse resistance against enemies. Humanity points are a tad scarce, so you may want to keep them as long as you can.
Being human also opens up the online play of Dark Souls where players can be invaded by the phantoms of enemy players which earn you humanity points when beaten, but being human also means that you can summon NPCs in certain locations to help make your progress a bit easier (assuming you haven’t killed them). For example, there was a boss fight I really struggled with on my own where I had to fight a stone gargoyle come to life, and a second gargoyle arrived on the scene just as I drained half the health of the first one. I tried many times to beat it, but I just could not do it, until I discovered online that the NPC I rescued from a cell just before the boss fight was able to assist me if I was human and called him, which made the boss battle a whole lot less frustrating. This is the kind of thing Demon’s Souls really needed and I’m glad this feature was added.
An unfortunate element returning from Demon’s Souls however, dying still makes you lose all of the souls that you’ve collected as well as your humanity points, but luckily you still get to keep your equipment, so the game at least has some mercy. You can get your souls and humanity points back by returning to the place where you last died and touch your green flaming bloodstain. Oh the humanity! If you die while trying to get there though, then you lose those souls and humanity points and your own will to live.
Going back to the online aspects, players can see messages left on the floor by people online who either provide tips to help you progress, or in some cases troll you in an attempt to make you kill yourself. This can be particularly useful though when you’re just about to engage with a powerful enemy, either warning you of what lies ahead, or giving you advice as to how to beat it. Some may say this ruins the suspense, but for a game this difficult, I was happy to have it.
Even without the messages, I’d say I’ve so far had an easier time with Dark Souls than I did with Demon’s Souls. It’s still teeth-grindingly infuriating and it has at a few points made me rage-quit, but unlike Demon’s Souls, it never felt impossible. The level design encouraged me to keep going and that maybe next time I could conquer that area I was struggling with. Throughout your travels, you will come across hidden chests or dead bodies that give you more equipment and/or items with consumable or temporary effects to buff up your character and make you less vulnerable to enemies.
Dark Souls only has a few problems with the gameplay. One minor and two major. To start with the minor problem, while the controls are fine for this kind of game, the parry system can be pretty difficult to time correctly. Enemies’ attack patterns are very unpredictable and the parry itself isn’t always accurate, so it’s a matter of testing as to whether the parry will work or not, but if you can get it to work, you can unleash a powerful attack that will drain a good portion of the enemy’s health. It’s a pain to use, but satisfying when you nail it.
The two major problems involve multiple paths and the game not explaining itself very well. The idea of multiple paths has always been a good concept. When players get past the prologue, you can choose which path you want to take, as long as you reach the end and fulfil your objectives. Sounds neat, right? Well what’s not so neat is that each path is more brutal than the last, ranging from hard, very hard to masochist levels of hard. Fundamentally this means that unless you’re an extremely skilled player, are a glutton for punishment, or are playing on New Game Plus, there’s only one path you should take before heading to the next, which I learned the hard way. I stepped into the New Londo Ruins after the prologue and found my backside served to me on a silver platter by an army of ghosts which I couldn’t attack. Then I went to the Catacombs, where I was thrashed by a bunch of skeletons that kept coming back after killing them and an irritating undead wizard that was spamming fireballs at me like a coward. Thankfully, after once again looking online, I found out that there was another path that lead to the Undead territory, where it actually seemed like I stood a chance of pulling through. For newcomers to the game or the series in general, take this path first. Heed my advice brave adventurer, and go forth.
The other major problem with Dark Souls is that players will most likely have to consult guides to understand how the game works. You get brief tutorial messages on the ground and text boxes to explain the controls, bonfires, levelling up and such, but they don’t go into a whole lot of detail, especially with items and equipment that you don’t know how to use properly. The humanity points, for instance I had to look up online because the description was needlessly cryptic. How do the developers expect the player to enjoy their game if they don’t explain to them how to play it? Again, some may argue that figuring out what to do is all part of the fun, which in some games it can be. The Wonderful 101 for example, a game which doesn’t explain itself well, but in which figuring out how to defeat the foes is a big part of the experience. Dark Souls does not pull this off well and this along with the multiple paths issue might put off some newcomers.
Dark Souls seems like one of those games that people who grew up in the NES-era would imagine games would look like in the future. Hard as nails with nicer looking graphics. Saying that Dark Souls is not for casual gamers would be a huge understatement. It’s a game for people who not only like to explore the unknown, but also to explore the mechanics of the game, while being repeatedly kicked in the face. It may take a good while to get through one section of the game, but when you do, it’s rewarding but bitter sweet. Dark Souls is an aggravating, yet addictive kind of game that keeps you coming back for more and encourages you to prove that you are a super player.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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