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Dark Souls is the debut Japanese-style RPG from Warfare Studios. It was created using RPG Maker XP and boasts an extensive amount of detailed custom sprite work and a cool anti-hero protagonist to complement its traditional music and gameplay. Dark Souls has some impressive components, but it falls short of the standards set by its contemporaries such as Eternal Eden, 3 Stars of Destiny, and the Aveyond games.
The main character is a gruff, world-weary mercenary named Gauly. If Ryudo from Grandia II hadn't become such a bleeding heart at the end of that game, he would have grown up to be just like Gauly. Gauly develops in a believable manner and slowly comes to terms with a few of his inner conflicts without turning into a big softie at the end of the game. The other characters in the game are not as memorable, but do have distinct personalities and play their parts as foils for Gauly.
The tale begins with a wanted Gauly evading a group of guards by ducking into a small town in the shadow of an insanely large and prominent church. The church's patriarch hires the reluctant mercenary to safely escort a young priestess and her mentor to Shankar Temple to perform a ceremony of salvation. The mentor has a strong dislike for "Gauly's kind" and is not shy about telling him so, but reluctantly kowtows to the patriarch's bidding.
In true RPG fashion, this contract is deceptively simple and Murphy's Law rears its ugly head. Between running from the law, dealing with naive maidens, being caught up in a war brewing between the church and its defectors, and facing his own internal struggles, Gauly certainly has his work cut out for him. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
If I had to lob a minor complaint about the story, it's that the dialogue has some spelling errors, grammatical errors, and awkward phrasing in spots. This is more visible in commercial RPG Maker games from developers whose native language is not English. Developers are improving in this area, and I do predict that soon we will see consistent, professional quality text from independent developers that rivals that from more prominent developers and publishing companies. That being said, Dark Souls' text is smooth compared to its contemporaries and I'll take this over "Engrish" any day.
The graphics are a mixed bag in this game. Some of the visuals are absolutely gorgeous, some are rather plain, and others are just plain ugly. The most striking visuals belong to the battle sprites of the heroes. These anime-inspired sprites are beautifully drawn, detailed, and animate more fluidly than sprites in many professional-grade games. The enemy sprites do not animate and have a more glossy, CG look without the black outlines of the heroes. They look quite good, but the contrast between the art styles of the monsters and the heroes is quite apparent. It should be noted that all the sprites in this game are custom-made. There is not a single RPG Maker stock sprite to be found here.
The field graphics look somewhat plain. Towns and the field areas between towns merely get the job done and lack the flair of, say, Aldorlea's games whose excellent, detailed mapping makes me want to hang out in various locales and not just jump over them as quickly as possible like mere stepping stones. It's important that an RPG's world be just as engaging as the characters, and Dark Souls' world just isn't very engaging.
It is a good thing that characters such as Gauly have such engaging personalities because the portraits that accompany dialogue boxes contain some of the ugliest character art I've seen since Shadow Madness. It's original artwork to be sure, but not at all appealing. What gets to me is the inconsistency in Gauly's character art. Gauly's dialogue portrait makes him look like a battle-hardened man in his mid to late 30s (maybe even early 40s), which I find the most credible. However, his status screen portrait and the title screen make him look like a younger, slicker, anime dude with the face of a 20 year-old. Fortunately, these inconsistencies are less apparent among the other characters' art.
The MIDI music consists mainly of RPG Maker stock pieces, which are good for what they are and get the job done, but the lack of original music feels like a cop out. Given how much effort was put into the custom sprites, I would have liked to see more effort put into composing and incorporating original music. With RPG Maker games such as the Aveyond series, 3 Stars of Destiny, and Quintessence: The Blighted Venom sporting beautiful soundtracks with lush MP3 quality music, other indie developers really need to bring their A-game in this area. I'm sorry to say that Warfare Studios falls short here. This is a pity because music is a key ingredient to my overall RPG enjoyment.
If you've played a traditional JRPG, the straightforward gameplay is nothing new to you. Dark Souls contains your basic town-field-dungeon progression where defeating monsters yields experience for growth and money for new equipment, although I wish the monsters carried more change in their pockets. The large, mazelike dungeons are quite fun to explore, much more so than the linear field areas. Battles occur randomly, and the random encounter rate is not very high. Boss battles are often challenging, requiring a combination of light grinding, strategy, and sometimes a bit of luck. I would say the game's difficulty is on par with most 16-bit RPGs.
The best aspects of the gameplay are the ability to save anywhere outside of battle and that non-active party members gain full experience after battles. There can only be three active battle participants at a time, but since everyone gains experience post-battle, there is no need to constantly swap out characters to keep everyone adequately leveled. This should be a standard feature in every JRPG since it allows the game to proceed at a smooth pace.
Dark Souls may not be the most refined RPG Maker effort, but it is not a bad RPG. The custom sprite work and the anti-hero protagonist are easily the game's strongest aspects. The protagonist is the biggest reason I genuinely enjoyed the game and overlooked the weaker aspects such as bland locations, lack of original music, and ugly character art in dialogue portraits. Warfare Studios' debut shows a lot of potential and I hope to see this potential further realized in their future efforts. I have been told that a direct sequel is in the works to further chronicle Gauly's adventures, and I would be glad to journey with him again.