Ya'ver drink Brazilian bold from fkn dunkn donuts!
From Software left me awestruck when they released Demon's Souls, a game with a super steep learning curve, seemingly unfair mechanics, vicious enemies and oppressive atmosphere. Despite the difficulties I faced with it initially, it became one of my favourite games on the PS3, it rewarded diligence, patience and skill and for that it left me very satisfied when I finished it. It wasn't without problems, but in comparison with its peers, Demon's Souls was a hallmark of excellent game design and a more than worthy challenge. Now we have Dark Souls, a new entry into the 'Souls' series, let's see if it can match, or even better surpass its predecessor and leave us in tears once again.
A grim reality
In the dark beginnings of the world, within the obscuring fog lived the eternal dragons, when fire came into the world, and introduced light and dark, life and death and the lord souls for which man became drawn too. Of the lord souls there was Nito the lord of the dead, the Chaos Witches with their control of flame, Gwyn the lord of Sunlight and the furtive Pygmy. They rebelled against the Eternal Dragons and fought to destroy them, with the help of Seath the Scaleless, a dragon who betrayed his own kind, they were successful and ushered the age of fire with Gwyn as the Sheppard of mankind.
The darksign however is a part of man, and upon death can cause him to become hollow, a creature without humanity or souls and thus very hostile. They are couped together in the Northern part of the world to wait until the end of days, and this is where the adventure begins, for you are a hollowed creature, locked away with the other hollowed beings. Upon your escape of your cell, it all stars.
Stab the rich! Stab the poor! Dark Souls!
Death is a large part of the lore and mechanics of Dark Souls, like Demon's Souls, dying will not mark the end of the game, the darksign will transport you to your last safe location with all your equipment intact, however all the humanity and souls you acquire along the way will be pooled upon your bloodstain. Souls are the main currency and the key to upgrading your character, when you kill something you gain its souls, when you buy something, you trade souls, hoarding souls may not be the best for first time players, spending it is important to keep you strong.
Chop chop, dig dig
Humanity however is a new concept, when you are hollow, and have no humanity, you are limited in the interaction with other beings from other worlds. When you gain humanity by taking it from the creatures of the land, or from finding it on corpses you have the ability to spend it at bonfires, the equivalent of a safe zone in the game, and become unhollow, or human. Unlike Demon's Souls where being undead meant having your life bar halved, in Dark Souls you retain your health to its fullest, but you cannot summon, be summoned, invade or be invaded, all of which are integral, yet still optional components of online play.
When you are alive, you can find other players soul signs on the ground, upon activating that soul sign you can bring that player into your world as a phantom to assist you. With a maximum of two phantoms, you can engage in jolly co-operation as you clear areas and bosses. When a boss is defeated, or you or a phantom dies co-op finishes and you either move on, or retry. You can only summon other players within around the same level as you, which can help with keeping the game balanced, unless you meet a person who has finished the game at an early level in which case they have all this sweet gear making them stronger.
I SAID NO SALESMAN!
Speaking of equipment, Dark Souls is swimming in it. There are dozens of armour sets to find, all of them with different strengths and weaknesses, from high poise which makes it harder for enemies to knock you down, to high resistances in specific areas like curse or poison, some of them weigh huge amounts leaving you feeling over encumbered, some light as a feather leaving you free to roll around like nobody's business. Choosing the right equipment for each occasion is important and you will find yourself unlikely to stick with the same load outs with each area or boss encounter.
Weapons too are greatly varied, from knives with good backstab ability, to all round swords and axes, spears, bows and giant weapons, there are more weapons than anyone will ever need, choosing the right one and the right upgrade path to suit your needs are critical in keeping your character strong end effective, without it you will be left weak and will find it difficult to kill things effectively. To upgrade weapons, you need to find or buy titanite materials to give weapons new abilities, such as fire, magic, lightning, or even keeping it normal and letting your stats give you boosts with each weapons grading in accordance with your natural abilities.
With levelling your character, it can pay to invest souls into your equipment rather than your soul level, while having really high health and strength sounds good, it will possibly let you down if your equipment isn't maintained well. Levelling too fast can also leave you alone in the game world, while other characters may have stayed at lower levels and let their equipment carry them through. To stay effective, you need to balance your levels with your equipment, from having enough stamina to leave you enough ability to physically wear your armour, to enough strength and stamina to swing the weapons without looking like a stumbling fool, to having enough intelligence or faith to wield sorcery's or miracles, keeping the balance right will mean success, being hasty and rushing through without thinking about your immediate needs can lead to trouble.
Probably the final and biggest change with regards to basic mechanics of your character is the absence of a mana bar and herb items, instead abilities such as healing with your estus flask or offensive capabilities such as pyromancy, miracles and spells all now have finite uses, a fire ball for instance has about 8 uses, your estus flask to restore health will have initially 5 uses, when those are used up you will have to recharge them at a bonfire, fear not for it doesn't cost anything to get them back again, but you have to be mindful about using them willy nilly.
It seems I've spent too much time talking about basic mechanics, it seems like there is a lot to get your head around, and you'd be right, but that is in part of what makes this game so fantastic. What really tips it over the edge however is the way the world has been designed. I've been going on about bonfires, these are key aspects to advancing in the world, gone is the centralised area of the nexus and instead a more open world feel with no real definite hub world to come back to. While the initial area Firelink shrine is somewhere you will visit often, you won't be staying there long as it merely links into other areas of the world.
Resting at a bonfire will also reset the world and bring back all the lower level enemies to their normal state, this is great when you want to repeatedly kill certain enemies for souls or to farm titanite or humanity, but it can also be oppressive when you have cleared out an entire area, only for them to come back to life after you leave your safe zone. This only reinforces the relentless and oppressive nature of Dark Souls.
At first I visited the cemetery, which turned out to be a royal mistake as my character was way too underpowered and got whomped by a bunch of skeletons. Taking off in the opposite direction was much more fruitful as I could actually to some decent damage.
In a way this is how Dark Souls tells you where to go, if you are not doing sufficient damage, or are dying too regularly, its best to look for other areas to explore before you press on. Without anyone to hold your hand or to tell you where to go, it feels like a very natural way to progress and encourages you to explore, rather than rush in.
You know things are serious when the shrubbery attacks.
What is most impressive is the way the way each area feels completely different and unique. Initially you are fighting through an undead infested castle area, there aren't any people around and there is no sign of them being there for a long time. Just by stopping for a second, to take in all the details which From have seemingly painstakingly put into each area you can fill in the story of Lordran, the world you are exploring. From forests with hostile human people, to long abandoned cities with telltale signs of mass homicide, or the beautiful architecture of a kingdom where giants once ruled, each area tells a very different story of how the world has evolved under the guise of lord Gwynn, and very little of it is gives the impression of happiness.
To further explain the events of the world, you have to look for clues and fish for tiny bits of information from the few characters that you encounter. Reading item descriptions funnily enough is the best way to get a feel for the history of the Dark Souls world, you will never be outright told what is going on, having to find it out on your own will require effort on your behalf, in this capacity it makes the story all the more powerful and intriguing. While games have increasingly tried to become more like Hollywood or like movies (Heavy Rain, Uncharted for example), Dark Souls takes a great step in the other direction and arguably, make the story more poignant and fascinating. It might seem like so much work, but believe me, it is entirely worth the effort put together all the pieces yourself.
Ooooh mummy, don't let the big man hurt me.
In each area of the land there is a major boss to fight and in order to progress the story, you must be victorious. In Demon's Souls the bosses were the highlight and offered the biggest challenge. Dark Souls has tried to continue on with that tradition, but doesn't always succeed. The initial bosses by comparison are much simpler, while they may smack you about on your initial attempts, finding out their attack patterns and telegraphing your assault isn't overly difficult to discover, and once you have, the challenge quickly dissipates, the trick is to be calm and patient enough to find out what to do.
Dark Souls also borrows heavily from Demon's Souls boss design, on numerous occasions I felt I was fighting an easier version from the first game and at times it felt rather disappointing. The Belltower Gargoyles for instance feel like an easier version of the Gargoyles from Demon's Souls, right down to how the fight plays out, only with a bit more face to face combat and easier to telegraph attack patterns. To new players it would probably feel like a good challenge, but to those who have played Demon's Souls, a little too repetitive.
When the game does throw you something new on occasion however, the results are staggering and on one occasion I felt really bad for defeating the boss, Demon's Souls is the only other game I've ever played which simultaneously gave me a sense of great victory, but also sorrow for my conquest.
Aside from all the bosses and regular enemies to fight, other players have the potential to invade your world to kill you and steal your souls. You can choose to do this as well, while this system on paper sounds pretty great, in execution there is great potential for exploits and with the net code not being the strongest, it can be an overall unpleasant experience. Amongst the pitfalls of PvP, lag can seriously dampen any invasion, there were several instances where an opponent will come into my world, be 10 feet in front of me and will instantly teleport behind me for a backstab critical hit, after the animation is finished he would be 10 feet in front of me again, and would once again land another backstab. It would be tolerable if this happened only occasionally, however it happens more frequently than not.
Along your adventure you will meet different covenant leaders with each of them offering different challenges and bonus rewards. The earliest you will receive is the Way of the White covenant, while you are in this group you will be paired online more favourably with other members of the covenant, leaving the covenant can leave you with penalties, such as becoming a sinner and having a member of a different covenant to come and punish you.
Some covenants offer special items and spells, or even a very favourable shortcut through one of the more difficult areas, deciding to join a covenant can in a very special way change the way you play the game, be it in order to help others, kill sinners, or just to suck the life out of other players. This subset of the game adds so many new layers of interactivity, and although it isn't the most fleshed out at times, and some of them logistically do not work due to the nature of how others play, along with the sometimes buggy net code it can come off a bit short, never the less it is a superb addition to the game.
As I mentioned before, the design of the world is really something else, the amount of work which has gone into developing the atmosphere is staggering, from the oppressive grey clouds overhead only allowing a few rays of sunlight through, to the burnt out cities below Firelink shrine, to the Dark Forest, the bright architecture of Anor Londo, the horrific flooded New Londo ruins, every single area of the game is nothing but spectacular. The designs for each boss, enemy, weapon, armour piece all have a phenomenal amount of design and work put into them to make them look gorgeous.
The animation system is amongst some of the best of this generation, from swinging weapons and blocking attacks, running, dodging, it all looks seamless and meshes well with the beautiful visual design. There is a bit of slowdown, some areas will severely hurt the frame rate thanks to excessive bloom or lighting effects, this can make progression and timing hard, however there are only a few areas which are especially bad, on the whole the game is pretty generous with the frame rate.
Holy grail? We've already got one!
The audio however, my god the audio is phenomenal. Each boss has its own soundtrack and each of them have been tailored perfectly the theme and pacing of each foe, from menacing oppressive and quite vocal orchestral pieces, to some of the most beautiful and melancholy orchestral pieces you will ever hear, the atmosphere is majorly enhanced by the soundtrack and must be some of the best music composed to suit a videogame I've ever heard.
While Dark Souls has seen a massive improvement in the overall design of the game, there are still several issues which haven't really been changed since Demon's Souls, while they do serve a certain play style and atmosphere, they can also be interpreted as being an annoyance. First off is the way enemies will engage you, all enemies have an aggro range where once you cross the threshold, they will mercilessly pursue you, until that point, they tend to just stand there motionless. While the time and dimensions of the Dark Souls universe are in a constant state of flux, it somewhat breaks the atmosphere to think there are creatures who do nothing but remain stationary until something else moves.
In contrast to that, when they do find you, they will not stop chasing you, in some instances they will relentlessly hunt you until they can kill you, other times they will reach a threshold and turn and walk away, while this binary behaviour that the A.I adheres to allows for a play style that rewards study and allows exploitation, it can be a little limiting scope wise.
The finding of certain titanite items can also be an exercise in excruciating repetitiveness. Twinkling titanite is used to upgrade a large section of weapons and armour, it is also amongst the hardest to find and does not drop very easily, considering that at least 10 pieces are required to fully upgrade one piece of armour, you must be prepared to grind away to level up your equipment to help you proceed through the game. This means eating up time you could be spending exploring. While grinding is nothing new to RPG's, having to go through it is always an exercise in tedium.
The worst however is the aiming system, when you target an enemy you should have the ability to switch between foes, while this wasn't a problem in Demon's Souls, in Dark Souls it just barely works, so you instead have to work around it by disengaging, and re-engaging the targeting system, which is a real oversight and a royal pain when under pressure.
In all seriousness , Solaire may be the best guy in videogames ever.
I also previously mentioned that progression is also derived from how strong you are or from the equipment you have, this is essentially true because you really have to pay attention on where you are heading out to. The game will not assist you on where to go next, only by conquoring bosses will you unlock paths which you are barred from progressing through, in this regard progression can become a bit vague unless you are paying attention on what you are doing.
Will you link the fire, or plunge us all into dark?
I've rattled on so much in this review, there really is an enormous amount I would love to talk about in this game, From Software have gone the yards and have created an incredible game, from the intricacies in the combat and equipment, to the phenomenal level design and art direction, there is so much to appreciate. The game however is not for everyone, the game will punish you for not paying attention, then when you finally understand what is going on, it will punish you some more for not being good enough with a controller, the oppressive nature of Dark Souls is both its biggest success and its greatest downfall, mainly in that the game will go largely unplayed due to its steep learning curve and oppressive difficulty.
Never the less, it is a game that demands to be conquered, and its one I have been fascinated to do so, the difficulty is there, but so is the bountiful reward, the primal pleasure when you have defeated that same sonofa***** that has beaten you over and over again. With at least 40-80 hours in your first play through, there is a humungous amount to see, do and ponder afterwards.
The best part of the game is also its most hidden; its story. There hasn't been a game that has satisfied me on just about every technical front than Dark Souls and despite its glaring faults that I have and have not mentioned here, the game is phenomenal and I urge anyone who wants a challenge to give it a shot.
You will be disappointed, but only because you weren't good enough to beat it. As harsh as it sounds, this is the grim and oppressive nature of Dark Souls, easily one of the best games of the year, and possibly of all time.
Supplementary: The 1.05 patch
From Software have released a patch and have changed a great many things. Summons and invasions work a lot better now, you can summon anyone who is within 10 levels of your own which has reduced the level balance issue somewhat, enemies aggravation range has been modified to the point where some enemies will not chase you unless you are essentially on top of them, weapons and spells have been rebalanced and the drop rate for rare items and humanity have been greatly increased. Overall it fixes a lot of balance issues and reduces the grinding aspect of the game by quite a bit most importantly however is the targeting system is fixed and works flawlessly. In short the game plays a bit easier, and on the whole a lot more palatable.