Guest Review by Sulivan McBride
Over the course of gaming history there has been a popular urban myth that many games actively attempt to spite players over time. From random drops only appearing when you aren’t looking for them in Monster Hunter, or any MMO; to Castlevania intentionally spawning in Medusa Heads at just the right spot to ruin your day; to that elusive Abra always appearing right when you run out of PokeBalls, it has been a common and popular practice to assume that games just have it in for us. And why not? Clearly it has to be SOMEONE’S fault! Well, normally this is not true. The game is just generating random numbers based on algorithms and variables, etc., and you keep drawing the short straw. Unless, of course, you are talking about From Software’s Dark Souls. With a soul-crushing vindictive hatred for everyone who plays it, Dark Souls will take you out, kick you while you’re down, and laugh as you squirm. And you will realize that it was exactly what you wanted all along.
On paper, Dark Souls is a simple action-adventure RPG. You go through stages packed with all manner of evil and slay them for the good of the land, collecting items and souls to increase your avatar’s power. You have one of several starting classes to choose from, but all of them start to lose focus as you approach the game’s 700+ level cap at an infinitesimal rate. By the end of the game anyone can become any role to suit their choosing, so your starting class largely only affects the opening few stages. Some people find this lack of definition a negative, but I embrace it; as it means your characters become defined by your direct choices instead of an arbitrary job you chose three hundred levels ago.Level design is both consistent and inspired. Dark Souls is non linear via its own intersecting linearity. All of the levels are clearly designed with a beginning and end, but they weave together within each other to create an intricate web of branching paths that form together in one solid, cohesive world. It is truly a remarkable sight to see how well the game integrates every single stage without ever once making you sit through a loading screen.
The controls feel well polished and very easily memorized and accessed. You can equip any manner of weapons and shields and what not to your left and right hands, in any combination you like. The R buttons control the right hands, and the L buttons control the left hands. The most common (and ideal) configuration has you pressing R1 to attack, R2 to power-attack, L1 to block, and L2 to either shield bash or parry. Pressing the triangle button allows you to hold your weapon of choice in both hands, drastically increasing damage output at the cost of blocking ability. Circle has your character dodge in the direction you hold the control stick at the cost of stamina, and square allows you to use the item currently set in your hot bar. The D-pad allows you to quickly shift through two sets of equipment for either of your hands, as well as scroll through a list of items set to your hot bar. Overall, the interface of Dark souls is elegant and simple to master, which is very important when moving on to the next topic:
This game hates you, and everyone you know.
To say that Dark Souls is hard is like saying that the Pacific Ocean is just a little bit of water. Every single aspect of the level design in Dark Souls has been engineered with the cruel precision of an evil mastermind to make you hate yourself. Enemies will ambush you constantly, deal unholy amounts of damage, and often absorb incomprehensible amounts of damage before finally dropping dead the first time you find them, only to most likely reappear the next time you rest. Projectiles will pierce you at best, or blow you right to hell at worst. Large enemies will crush you, fast enemies will parry you, invisible enemies will slit your throat from behind, and gigantic dragons will roast you from the sky before you can even say “eep.” Boulders will crush you, lava will boil you, spikes will impale you, head parasites will eat your brains, treasure chests will devour you, swamps will poison you, trees will whip you, and a fat man with a hammer will completely break your will to live. You can’t even pause the game.
If all of this sounds ludicrously unfair, then you will be quite surprised to hear that, well, it isn’t. The game rarely, if ever, deviates into the “Oh COME ON that was just CHEAP!” territory, as it is very clear with almost every single death that it was your fault entirely. The game is a perfect example of forcing the player to rely on their own personal skill rather than the strength of their avatar. This trait was exemplified in games like Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden on the NES, along with the entire Mega Man series. There are no easy ways to success here. You have to earn every single step you take, and it is every bit as gratifying as it is an exercise in self-flagellation.
Dark Souls is unique from other games in the current “RPG” genre in that it could very easily have been released on the NES (albeit not in the same exact form it has now) and nobody would give it a second glance. As a JRPG that mimics western medieval fantasy ala the NES days with a difficulty curve that could be more easily be described as a brick wall, Dark Souls is a game that you just cannot find anymore on modern systems, and the change of pace is remarkably refreshing.
Adding to the robust core feature set is a unique method of online play (unique inasmuch as the only other game to ever do it was its predecessor, Demon’s Souls) that places all of the world’s players in the same game while only letting them interact in cursory ways. You can leave messages on the ground that other players can find and read, and you can summon other players “Phantoms” to help you defeat enemies and bosses, and the game’s difficulty becomes somewhat abated via camaraderie. The other side of the coin is that dickheads can invade your world at the same time, and completely destroy you with end-game level gear before you can even figure out where they are. Griefing is an unfortunate problem in Dark Souls, but the game’s penalty for death is admittedly fairly lax so it never becomes a serious issue. Yes, you lose all of your souls, but it is both easy and enjoyable to grind out more so it never really becomes more than a few minutes annoyance.
The core elements of Dark Souls are very well polished, but the peripherals are somewhat hit and miss. The music is very well composed and always fits the mood of the fight at hand, but the visuals sometimes suffer from a lack of definition and clarity. In particular, Blighttown becomes a complete mess of brown and grey platforms that make avoiding the massive amounts of enemies somewhat of a chore. The graphics aren’t -bad- by any means, but they look and feel like they were an afterthought. The game also suffers from some noticeable frame dropping, especially in the aforementioned Blighttown. It seems that if you angle the camera just right in certain areas the frame rate takes a complete nose dive. Never a deal breaker, it can still be a bit annoying.
Overall, Dark Souls is an exceptional game. It has truly outrageous amounts of content all honed to a sharp, if occasionally chipped, edge. By combining old-school sensibilities with modern technology and systems, From Software has crafted one of the finest RPGs ever made, and a genuine force to be reckoned with. You owe it to yourself it at least play the first five hours.
This Review was written using the PlayStation 3 version of the game. It is also available on the Xbox 360. Online access is recommended to fully enjoy this game. If you made that “Jolly Cooperations!” image, please let us know so we can credit you!