Review: Dark Souls

During the course of the Herculean undertaking that this series has proven to be, I’ve found time to beat Dark Souls. It’s been a wonderful experience, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes frustrating, always addictive. It’s easily one of the best-looking, most well-designed, and all around greatest games of the past console generation. It is everything that Demon’s Souls promised to be but didn’t quite live up to.

It’s not quite a sequel to Demon’s Souls, as it takes place in a slightly different scenario in a nominally different world, but it is in all respects similar. The controls and gameplay style are very much the same—though I note with enthusiasm that Dark Souls is designed to allow a greater variety of approaches to the game, so that its plethora of classes have actual distinctions between them. One of the innovations is a third class of magic (other than the traditional white and black) called pyromancy, which is available to all classes of character. This means that some low-level magic is accessible to anyone, which allows warrior and knight-type characters to use the spells they need without crowding in on the casters’ territory.

The promise of Demon’s Souls was difficulty and big scary bosses. It delivered on one of those things. For the most part the bosses were rather pesky pushovers, none of whom were very impressive-looking. In Dark Souls, you fight a massive demon within the first ten minutes of the game. There are a few lazily palette-swapped demons, but there’s a much wider range than before and they are so imposing in size that it seems scarcely believable that you can block their attacks.

Dark Souls is at least as difficult as Demon’s Souls, but in better ways. The enemies are too powerful to be taken on in several at a time, the way you might in a different game. But this means that it forces you to play intelligently. Instead of a hub world with very few checkpoints inside the levels, Dark Souls has a continuous world with checkpoints at regular (though often distant) intervals throughout. Each checkpoint restores your health and status, refills your healing items, and respawns all the enemies in the world. You can upgrade these checkpoints to increase the number of healing items you get, which allows you to venture farther in one go. This makes the sense of being at home in the world, of pushing forward and establishing camps along the way, much more palpable.

Another similarity with the previous game is that the levels are extremely well-structured, with a coherent sense of geography throughout. The innovation of Dark Souls is that it all takes place in one more or less continuous world. So the background scenery in one area becomes playable territory later on and vice versa. The graphics are also much improved, which makes for stunning visuals—the fantasy city of Anor Londo is by far one of the most remarkable-looking levels in recent gaming history.

An interesting parallel is that both games more or less require reference material to be fully enjoyed. But the game’s designers didn’t put out any reference material. There are three Dark Souls wikis that I am aware of, all fan-made. It’s interesting, first of all, that in recent years both published game guides and ASCII walkthroughs seem to be fading away in favour of wikis. It makes sense, but as a GameFAQs user from way back I think it’s a little sad. It’s also perhaps a little nefarious that the game’s designers are able to outsource this one cost to willing volunteers.

Another less savoury thing the two games have in common is the excessive amount of grinding and commuting they require. I believe that level grinding is a necessary aspect of pacing in most RPGs, but no more than five to ten minutes of it should be required at a time. If it’s possible to spend a four-hour playing session grinding toward one goal, there’s something funny about the numbers in the game. In general the prices for items and upgrades in Dark Souls are much steeper than in Demon’s Souls, and the cost of basics rises so it is always disproportionately higher than your income.

There is one respect in which Dark Souls is more forgiving than Demon’s Souls. That is in repairing stupid mistakes, such as accidentally attacking a shopkeeper. In Demon’s Souls, if this happened your save file was essentially ruined. Dark Souls has a mechanism for forgiveness, though it makes you work hard for it. I had to use it early in the game—it costs 500 souls per level, which is an unfathomable amount early in the game when it is difficult to raise even 1000 souls.

Dark Souls seems to have a greater tendency than the previous game to force you into extended sword fights. All enemies have some chance of killing you, especially early in the game, which means that it pays to be methodical when fighting them. I am by inclination a button-masher, but it is impossible to play through Dark Souls without becoming sensitive to its rhythms. You also need to think about stats and equipment a great deal more, and unlike in many RPGs there are real tradeoffs between different setups.

The biggest tour de force of the game, however, is in its storytelling. Demon’s Souls was contorted and confusing, always leaving you with the feeling that there was something terribly important no one had bothered to explain to you. The concept was that the story would be revealed in optional bits and pieces here and there, so the degree to which you participated in it would be up to you, and each playthrough would be a vastly different experience vis a vis the overarching plot of the game. In practice it just looked like incoherence.

Dark Souls is a much more successful implementation of the concept. By default the plot—insofar as it exists at all—happens totally above your head and all you ever see is the results. You can choose to take a more active role in the plot if you wish, but each plot-related event happens within a specific window, and if you fail to trigger it before moving on in the game, you can miss it entirely. So for someone who’s not religiously reading the Dark Souls wiki, characters just come and go seemingly at random, according to their own agendas. Some don’t show up at all unless you go to a certain place at a certain time. Two whole subplots don’t even occur unless you fulfil incredibly specific requirements, and it’s not clear how you’re supposed to discover them at all except by accident.

How much exploration you do is up to a combination of your personal preferences and what seems logical for your character. Dark Souls offers you a rich world that can be viewed in greater or lesser detail from many different vantage points. It allows for many different gameplay styles that entail greater or lesser degrees of skill—though anyone playing the game will have to develop some degree of skill just to survive. All of this adds up to a game that can be played and enjoyed in a unique way by just about anyone.


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