I am about to divulge to you the very mysterious and quite unusual game called Dark Souls: a game centered in the land of lightness and darkness, of hope and despair, of reward and of punishment, and of good and of evil. Just ask yourself these questions before proceeding on ahead. Are you such a hearty game player to have driven yourself through all the lands of videogames since the bronze ages of Atari 2600 and NES? If not, do you enjoy games with great challenges where the impossible is code of honor? Can you resist the urge of throwing your controller straight into your television set from further frustration only to be even more frustrated that you broke your television from being angry over a small electronic device no larger than a shoebox? Do you enjoy trial-and-error games where you must rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, and rinse and repeat to the point of driving you into complete insanity just to proceed further ahead? Do you like to die in games? If not, then stay far away from this game, avoid it like a dark artifact come to haunt you for the rest of your life. Those who are up for the challenge will gladly be rewarded.
Dark Souls is a successor to 2009's Demon’s Souls, both games made by From Software. Now, I won’t lie to you. Before delving into Dark Souls I haven’t heard of Demon’s Souls outside of seeing it in a bargain bin a year ago. I have, however, heard of From Software. They are one of the most-exclusive and one of the best third-party developers of videogames.
I bought this game not knowing the company that developed Dark Souls was one of the companies whose games I cherished in my younger years as a teenager. They developed such games as Armored Core and, my favorite, the King’s Field series. True, From Software was licensed under ASCII all through King’s Field. Dark Souls is licensed under Ban-Dai/Namco, so I could see where I lost track of From Software.
Years ago I thought they bit the dust and was desperately searching games made by them to no avail. So one could imagine how I reacted to seeing the words "From Software" pop up across my screen. I almost jumped back with excitement, overwhelmed and all the grand memories came back to me. I was truly relieved that this company still exists. I just hoped the company hasn’t lost its formula over the years and floundered like many other company (successful or not all be applied).
Fellow gamers, I give to you my review on one of the most unique role playing games. Welcome to Dark Souls.
Presentation: 5 (out of 5)
From Software’s talent of making very aesthetic games stocked full of despair was not lost over the years. If one thing their games have is character, not characters (not to confuse you with the adjective and nouns). You begin the game in the most dismal state anyone has ever been in any game I have played thus far. You are in a cell (some people are picturing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion). I know it sounds familiar, but wait. You’re undead (Planescape: Torment is popping into other reader’s minds). There is no dialogue. The whole place is dim and you do not know what is ahead of you. There is no arrow pointing which way to go. Although the instruction manual is laughable (10 pages, half of which is written in French), there is a tutorial, a few in-game messages here and there, but it doesn’t hold your hand. It just tells you the basics and the rest is up to you.
Then, somewhere within the first 10 minutes of the game you die. That’s right. You will be wondering how and why if you have only fought less than a handful of enemies. You go back, hoping to get back to your starting point, telling yourself “it’s okay. I killed those baddies. I don’t have to face them ever again.” Then, like some sick joke, down a corridor you just crossed minutes prior, you see that one little creature that you just killed waiting for you. “No way, but I killed him!” Frustration lingers in, but you learned from your mistake and you best that and every creature you have faced and jog a little more to be crushed by a boulder ten times your size. You think this game can’t get any worse. After retracing your steps, improving your judgment, you finally reach the boss and get crushed in a couple of blows. He was barely crushed. You are shown two words used to make the most blatant phrase you have ever seen in substitute of game over. “You Died” is placarded across the screen. You bite your lower lip. You want to quit the game.
From Software has played its trump. It is your decision if you are going to let them win by giving up like the thousands of others who was intimidated by the first boss; possibly the most brutal first boss you have seen that could have any end boss of any other game of the present day for lunch. This is the point when most people give up and I tell you, they made a grave mistake. Dark Souls is supposed to be this way. It is a grim game amassed with melancholy, where the only people you scarcely will meet have already been driven to lunacy. It is, however, a more rewarding, and at times very fair, game where no kill is a cheap kill (as with most other games). This game requires more patience than skill; it is a learned, instead of a prepackaged, game of trial and error.
Unlike other games, with Dark Souls skill takes time to learn, and those gamers who take on the challenge do blossom into better, more cautious gamers over time. If you progress into the deeper bowels of Dark Souls in the understanding that you will die, and it is okay to die in this game, then you will have accomplished the greatest challenge this game has to offer – facing any gamer’s ultimate fear. Even the back of the box says “Prepare to Die” which boggles me as to why people get so mad at Dark Souls and give up after dying. It’s not like the game said, “Come embark in a bubbly world full of lollipops, smiling clouds, cuddly bears, and dance and sing to Mother Goose.” That would probably have me feeling rather cheated out of my money because I would know by then that either I picked up the wrong game, or that that slogan was the biggest marketing scam ever concocted. In any case, as the game iterates, prepare to die.
Gameplay: 5 (out of 5)
I could write my dissertation on Dark Soul’s gameplay alone, but I will save your eyes from much unneeded work. Dark Souls is a lot like Castlevania in many respects: it is a challenging game in a castle setting where you have to backtrack and each area in connected in some way. The difference is that Dracula’s castle can take up a wing of the castle in Dark Souls. Lordran (the only name I can acquire for the name of the world) is a sweeping place of gigantic towers, expansive dungeons, underground bogs, and disease-infected towns flowing with creatures that have a taste for death. Lordran is not a small place, by any means, but as you progress deeper into the game, you’ll be surprised to see how something that took you an hour to get to can be easily accessed via elevator, ladder, stairs, door, or gate in a matter of minutes.
The game does not feature a save anywhere feature. There are bonfires meticulously placed in every area: some harrowingly offering only one pit, and many times further from a boss than desired. At these pits you can level up, remove your undead status, and kindle a flame to allow you to carry more health potions. The bonfires aren’t the typical waypoints found in other games. You can use them to increase your Estus Flask (energy) through the use of Kindling, which requires you to reverse Hallowing. You begin the game undead, but can be made human through using items called Humanities at bonfires to reverse Hollowing, and then if you want to increase your Estus Flask amount, that requires one additional Humanity point. Humanities are mostly gained as drops by killing creatures in an area where its boss hasn’t been defeated. There are other ways to gain humanity, but this is the most common way.
The game, instead, utilizes an autosave function that saves your progress when you exit the game. When you die, however, you returned to the bonfire where your guy is at full health with potions restored, all for the cost of your souls (and humanity if you have any) which you must traverse back to the area of your demise to reclaim if you wish to do so. There were countless times I had to make a hard decision as to whether or not my souls were worth tackling a throng of baddies. A lot of people argue on how unfair it is that the game has this function; the game may be harsh, but it has a fair way of letting the player learn from his or her mistakes. From Software could have been much crueler: soul loss with damage taken, no continues, or go all-out Resident Evil about it by supplying an X amount of ribbons throughout the whole game.
Now, on with the souls: they can be collected from enemies upon death, and serve two purposes. Souls be used to level up your character, or to be exchanged as currency for items. Some mobs drop fewer souls than others and the higher the level you become, the scarcer amounts of souls they drop. As for vendors, Dark Souls contains a fair amount of vendors, but many of them require much backtracking to reach, very reminiscent of the older RPG games. Another thing enemies occasionally drop are items ranging from junk, to much-needed items (Humanity), to common weapons, and even rare weapons or items.
What I also found unique about Dark Souls is the customization. Anything about your character can be customized (rather it be body mass, weapon/armor enhancements, or status leveling) and there are stark results in your choices. Your character may move slower from a larger frame and hit with a deadly swing of an axe (depending on those three variables previous mentioned) or he may be nimble, able to roll and dodge most blows on the risk of taking more damage if hit and attacking with less force. Some may be quick to say that to defeat Dark Souls is all about attuning to your own type of fighting style. In some ways, it does, but there are many, many moments when Dark Souls reminds you it is boss and you must fight how it wants you to or suffer the consequences. But in all fairness Dark Souls is still very fair for a ridiculously hard game.
There was not one moment when I died from a cheap hit. If most my meter went down it was because I didn’t block fast enough and the enemy impacted me in the ribs (yes, there are certain parts of the bodies that receive more damage than others), which leads me to the battle mechanics.
Dark Souls’ battle system, at first glance, seems simple, shallow, and (argued by some but not me) broken. The reason why the battle system may seem simple is all due to the basic controls: there are really four action buttons (hard block, knock back, hard swing, parry) and four actions, dodge, jump, kick, and roll. But do not get fooled, there is a calculating variation in the scheme of combat in which must you know when and how to utilize the commands at any given moment. To top it off, you have an array of weapons and spells (each and every one of them unique in their own way of attacking (they all have their strengths and weaknesses)) and you must decide which weapon type to use (blunt, sword, knife, halberd, spear) at what part of the creature and what exact moment of battle to determine what move would inflict maximum damage.
This leads to the combat as well. The AI (in most cases, though you can find one not-so-bright enemy in the lot) is very clever. If enemies spot you, they will hunt you down and engage in mortal combat. The controls are very responsive and the battles themselves seem more realistic than most games I have played.This is not the type of game where you engage in combat through a flurry of combos – this will get you killed. Each and every battle is like a sparring match where the best man leaves walking and the other if left to bite the dust. You will find yourself using your shield more times than desired and circling around the targeted creature to apply a cheap backstab for maximum damage.
There are, of course, other ways to avoid confrontation while causing a great amount of damage (as in throwing firebombs or sniping via bow-and-arrow). In many cases you engage in battle a lot like a barbaric Rambo (minus the machine gun) or even Conan, wherever need be applied, in that you engage in a lot of combat with devices at your disposal, in which you must determine which will better help your surival rate at any given moment. You are a one-person army, and you will take no prisoners in Dark Souls. And Lordrun is a diabolical force that shouldn't be reckoned with: it is a behemoth of mazes, pitfalls, dead ends, and traps where your character will be prone to explosion, poison, fire, and curses. There will be times when it feels like you are trudging trough quicksand, other times it feels like you are fighting through muddy bogs. In the end, it is all gratifying in that, for some reason, this game is just so enjoyable.
Now to speak about the meat of the game: the bosses. They are huge, they are brutal, and they will kill you in one crushing hit – if you are not careful. I have found each boss beatable, and there was no battle that I found went too long. Each boss is a colossus of anger that comes for blood, your blood. You must conquer your fears, tell yourself it will be okay, and find each and every one of their weaknesses. Once found, it is quite easy to best most of them. In actuality, the boss fights are very diverse. Certain people consider some bosses harder than others found easier, and vice versa. For an extra sense of difficulty, you could also try the more difficult approaches to killing them – the choice is ultimately yours. I guarantee this, though, that each and every person who I spoke with had the same experience I had when defeating that one tough boss (and there are a slew of them!) and there is this inexplicable sense of not only excitement, but disbelief and sublimity. Defeating bosses in Dark Souls is one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in a game.
The final point I am going to cover is the complete immersion of Dark Souls. It is mostly a free-for-all game that does not hold your hand. Besides a couple of things you have to do in order (especially when it comes to the first couple of hours) the rest of the world is open for your advantage. There is no set order of killing bosses. Most areas require a key for access have secret entrances and alternative passages. There is not one precise order to kill a group of enemies. There is also the choice to farm souls for hours on end and reach the highest Soul Level just as well as there is the option to defeat the game without leveling (remaining on Soul Level 1). As hard as it sounds, it is possible, just as anything else is possible in Dark Souls if given the right patience.
Some people complain that Dark Souls lacks a story. The only shred of a story (outside from the opening sequence that explains things in a cryptic way) is evidences of what had happened. You are amidst a desolate castle overpopulated by dark souls in the aftermath of a calamity. There are very strange and unusual people you will meet who each are suffering some sort of psychological damage: from psychosis, to mania, to schizophrenia, to delirium. They are, as you, a victim of Lordran. What little they say also serves as back-stories to the very mysterious events that led to the obliteration of the lands.
Dark Souls, however, has a story that is very rich. It is not a cookie-cutter story with dramatic CGIs, events where the game holds your hand and directs you where next to go, or contain lore deep enough to confuse even the most adept readers of novels and books. No, this game is more simple, and in the end, more diverse. Dark Souls is your story, your adventure. It is as simple as that. Where you go, what you do, how you die, if you cower and quit or stride to get through the harrowing moments – it is all yours. I have commented on the absolute freedom of choice Skyrim had, but I think this game offers contrasting choices of freedom. This game offers free counseling, it’s called Message Boards, and the community is there and supportive because we can all relate with whatever success or failure we experienced in our journey though Dark Souls. Those experiences go unmatched.
Graphics: 4.25 (out of 5)
This game is the most beautiful nightmare my eyes have ever perceived. The world of Lordran is a grave, murky, and daunting place with some of the best architectural designs I have ever seen in gaming history. Each and every last area is not designed the same. I have travelled through ruined castles, to massive graveyards, to decimated churches, luminous forests, sweltering lava caverns, intolerable bogs, and was amazed by the precise design of every little thing. There is a moment in the game when I stopped just to sink it all in: the first encounter with a dragon, the realization of the enormity of the castle as you climb the highest towers and see the areas you were once at 15 minutes ago mapped out hundreds of feet below, the nightmarishly-enchanting bosses and beautiful CGIs. This game is the best visual getaway from the real world I have ever had.
There is also great artistry in creature and battlement design. Everything looks natural (when a creature breaks through barricades, boards fly and tumble this way and that so naturally) and so a part of this game that sometimes I have actually forgotten I was playing a game more than embarking on a perilous adventure. The shadow, water, and lighting effects bring about this aesthetic quality to the game that adds to the otherwise daunting mood.
Dark Souls, however, doesn’t go without its problems. There are occasional issues with frame-rate (which is highly uncommon) which affects certain battles. Sometime the game looks a bit gritty for most people’s tastes (although I think it is intentional to add character to the game). Even though the camera is not very terrible, there are some issues when engaged in targeting where I couldn’t see ahead of me and ran to my own doom. But these little quibbles do nothing to condemn the overall experience in the graphics department. As I said, this is the most grimly beautiful game I have ever played.
Sound: 4.5 (out of 5)
There is no problem I have found with the game in the sound department. You can hear each clink, shuffling, and footfall of each and every character in the game – listening to the environment also helps because sometimes there will be an enemy approaching you from behind, making you dead if you failed to hear the soft footsteps coming from behind. Sword-fight is really a symphony of flesh and steel. Everything is accounted for: the jingling of chains in chainmail, the clanging when a sword directly hits a shield, the clinging of two blades met to produce light sparks. The fiery breath from a dragon’s mouth never sounded as destructive as in Dark Souls (and, yes, I am comparing that to those dragons (if that’s what you consider them) in Skyrim). Each and every creature (believe me, there are dozens of types) produce their own unique sets of sounds (movement, growling, death, you name it!).
The voice acting is top-notch. Every character who had their sanity stolen from them speaks with such conviction that it fleshes out each character into something quite believable. Oh, and the natural effects (the sounds of water rolling down a waterfall, the emptiness in the rushing air of a cavern, and the creaking and sifting of grains of dirt as a skeleton rises from the grave) are experiences too intricate for writing to fully justify.
The exquisitely orchestrated soundtrack sent me in a stream of turbulent emotions. In an hour of gameplay, there is music that will send you through contentment to hostility; and from serenity to pure urgency. There are times when the music is non-existent, while still managing to set tension into the wary travelers who watch their every step that may lead to an imminent doom. There is a main score throughout the game, and it is a gothic sound that resounds with despair and loss. But there is subtle beauty enamated from the shifts of the violin cords that is rich to the ears. It's like you are lost in some vivid dream you already had in some part of your life and as you are playing, certain areas feel like deja vu. It’s bad enough the there are times when you will feel lost, alone, and helpless. The soundtrack does its best to remind you just in case you have, for the shred of a millisecond, somehow forgotten.
Replayability: 5 (out of 5)
Dark Souls is a gigantic and intimidating game. You will spend most of the time retracing your steps, running through certain areas dozens of times, traversing here and there as if the traversing found in games like Metroid Prime and Castlevania had been increased tenfold. There will not be a moment, however, when the areas seem boring (no matter how many times you passed that tree, scaled that cliff, or climbed that staircase) because everything just feels so natural. This game takes 60 hours to defeat in this first run, further runs shorter or longer depending on the person playing. But once the game is defeated, you find yourself just beginning. There is a feature called New Game where it takes your character (at whatever level and state he or she may be in) and starts from the beginning all over. The game will heighten in each stackable New Game (yes, you could continue New Game to a newer game of more incredible difficulty).
Dark Souls seamlessly comes in 2 modes: offline and online. Offline mode is just the basic game while online mode offers a better experience. There is co-op, where people can gather together (using a soapstone (an item used also to leave behind messages on the ground for other gamers to read) and defeat a boss. There is also Player versus Player (PvP) in which actual gamers go to intricately placed spawn location and invade other gamers in duels in prospect of humanity, souls, or any other objects. PvP is intense because while the winner wins, the loser is sent back to his bonfire and must re-track back to his point of death – marked by a huge bloodstain. At times, it does get infuriating playing PvP because there can be an invasion upon any poor soul who wanders in the wrong location with a decked-out invader waiting to destroy him.
There is a way to decide to play PvE or PvP: all you have to do is remain undead. Once you go through the hollowing process (only while online, that is) you are instantly made vulnerable in the PvP world. There is a downside to remaining on PvE and the one I find not worth sacrificing is that you cannot gain humanity as quickly as you would when in PvP. Whenever another character in a radius from you gets Humanity, you too will receive humanity. Humanity is a precious resource that is very difficult to attain and/or regain.
Some people have had a problem with the way in which the online feature is constructed. The interactive feature is much to be desired. There is no voice chatting, for one, and the other thing is that if you engage in sending messages then it bumps you out of PvP. So, especially in co-op, you have to be ever-watchful of other peoples’ next moves. Another thing, well especially in PvE mode, is that you don’t really see anyone. It is bare. Unless human, everybody will look as flickering phantoms for a couple of seconds and then fade. The only time when in PvE when you do see the solid form of another player is at a bonfire, which struck me as kind of odd. These really aren’t gripes, just some issues to be aware of when embarking on PvP. Just as a reminder, some PvP fights will be very unfair. But so is life. I think online mode is very well done because, in the end, when it comes to Dark Souls you are really on your own adventure. Everyone is a victim. Everyone dies. Everyone is suffering.
There is however a huge factor that outweighs all the hardship this game has to offer and that is its community. It is a very tightly-knit community where each and every person is on the same level with everyone else. Most people are very generous, will offer help and guidance, and work well as a team. I think that goes all in the fact that there is such a high turnover rate of players, as most people quit well before the first 5 hours – the moment where the game starts to really make sense and things begin blossoming. After that, there is nearly no end to Dark Souls.
Overall: 4.8 (out of 5)
After having played Dark Souls, I go back to games I previously considered difficult with a new sense of awareness, and now very little in the gaming community seems impossible to me now (with the exception of completing Super Ghosts and Goblins without dying). All I have to say is this: Thank you From Software, I am glad I have defended you all these years.
This is the most fulfilling game I have played in a while. This is the game I think about constantly, and it has – many times – haunted my own dreams with flights of mystery. There are only 3 games in my entire life that had had the impact on me that Dark Souls has: King’s Field II, Shining Force II and Super Mario Bros. 3. It has been these 3 games that I never put down and could not, even if I tried, to stop myself from playing. I thought there wouldn't be another game that gave me the experience as those games had. I was entirely mistaken. I find myself losing concentration when not playing the game, as I draw images of creatures I found in the Lordran. That’s saying a lot.
One might ask why a difficult game such as Dark Souls has me so addicted. I can’t explain it. This is a game I am not supposed to like. Everything about it begs detestation. I am not the greatest videogamer in the world. In fact, I am pretty terrible when it comes to difficult games. I normally give up after a while. The only “hard” game I stomached completing was Ninja Gaiden on Xbox, and I wanted so bad to throw the disc out the window in hopes that a garbage truck so happened trundle over it, followed by a steam roller, a school bus, a marching band, and a street-sweeper.
Dark Souls, however, is a different issue. This game motivated me, above anything else, to move ahead. It tells you, it’s okay if you die, just try again. I have consoled with myself that I am not the only one, that I am one in a sea of gamers who have grieved over the difficulty in this game. Everyone has tasted defeat in Dark Souls, including masters who can probably play Ninja Gaiden blindfolded. I am just one in the hundreds of thousands, and that makes things feel much better. Death seems a part in Dark Souls as blood is to the heart. I would have not treated Dark Souls with the same respect had it been without the difficult moments I have experienced.
Dark Souls is very difficult, but not impossible, and at the same time it is very fair. Once you “get it” and the game mechanics make sense to you, you go from plummeting off a waterfall into a quagmire of game-overs, to rocky rapids, and eventually its smooth sailing for the most part (you'll understand what I mean once you hit that "a-ha!" moment. Everyone has.). 49 out of about 50 deaths (yes I admit without shame that I am certain I died hundreds of times the first play through) was ever the games fault and more like my fault from poor judgment. Never go into this game confident, because no matter how powerful your character may be, this game is adamant about showing you where you truly stand and at times embarrasses you by having your character die by a low-level creature.
From someone who has never played Demon's Souls (I don’t have a PS3, now I wish I did) Dark Souls is a beast – one of the most ferocious beasts I have ever encountered in video games. There may be harder games looming out there in the market, but none (besides maybe Ninja Gaiden) exists since the golden days of NES. From Software has created this game for the hardcore gamers of role-playing-games who (no matter their skill) gave their very best to complete games that most found impossible. Dark Souls is designed for people who have spent countless hours on Atari 2600s, Nintendo Entertainment Systems, and Playstation 1s playing the most grueling games ever conceived by the twisted minds of sadist developers.
Dark Souls is the last hope us fellow RPG enthusiasts had in a shallow world of Mass Effects and Final Fantasys. From Software has heard our pleas for a game to challenge us, and they delivered it in spades. Finally, there is a glimmer of hope. The games of old have not died. From Software emerged like a phoenix and overwhelmed me with what I call a masterpiece in the art of gaming. Dark Souls is an adventure all its own, and from that I find it more than just a videogame – it is an experience that should not be missed; one I will frequent until the next chapter of the saga unfolds in sometime in the imminent future.
Difficulty: Very Difficult
Hours to Completion: 60 hours
Player(s): 1-player offline (also has an online option)
Rated M for Mature: For blood and gore, violence and (very) partial nudity
Thank you for reading this intolerably lengthy opinion fellow video game travelers and RPG thrill-seekers. I apologize for the length, but this is just a fraction of all the greatness there is to endure in Dark Souls. Nevertheless, I hope I steered you in the right direction. Good luck on your journeys!
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