The club lands with a thud, cracking the skull in three different places. The animated skeleton falls limp, bones rolling on the floor and down the hill of corpses. I quickly turn around, shield raised and arms weary from the first attacker’s assault. The next skeleton dances around me, testing my defenses. Each strike sends a thunderous pain through my arms. An opening finally appears and a quick swing of the club strikes true, cracking and splintering ribs. One more solid strike should do the trick, but a sudden noise puts my stomach in knots. The previous skeleton rises from his crumpled state, and stabs me viciously in the back.
Turns out the skeletons of the dreaded catacombs can regenerate. Duly noted…
The spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls is a game about preparation, exploration, tactics and knowledge. You have no way of knowing what’s ahead of you, so the plan is to investigate the horrors of the unknown so that you can be better prepared for the next encounter. Death is almost assured, but it is also part of the natural cycle. You have to make peace with the pain and suffering of Dark Souls, which provides the strictest barrier to entry I’ve ever seen. This isn’t a game that you recommend to friends without hesitation like Halo, Call of Duty, or The Elder Scrolls. Dark Souls is like wine; an acquired taste that provides both deep satisfaction and – at times – tremendous frustration.
Dark Souls doesn’t feature a narrative in the traditional sense. Sure, an opening cinematic provides background and context, but the game is more about themes and ideas rather than a strict plot. This is a dark fantasy world where the dead are housed in an asylum for transportation to the nether realm. Prophecy speaks of a chosen undead who will light the fires and bring about the end of the demon lords who challenged the dragons of ages past. In a shocking turn, you are that chosen undead. Congratulations, and get ready to die (again…). Following a harrowing tutorial, a giant raven transports you to the land of Lordran, which acts as your personal purgatory of death and rebirth. Interestingly, the focus on theme instead of story helps to tie the gameplay elements together. Commander Shepard rarely talks about his daily activities that often consist of opening safes and computer terminals using a hacking mini-game. In contrast, the undead hero of Dark Souls seeks out fire and humanity to repair the world, and they also help in your quest. It’s a unique way to create a sense of self and place, and one that creates more immersion than intrigue.
Demon’s Souls veterans should feel right at home with the mechanics of Dark Souls. The weapons-based combat still provides some of the most satisfying battles in any video game. You feel the weight of each thrust or slash, and the knowledge that even the most basic looking mook can end you in a quick series of blows creates actual tension. You never want to fight a group. Singling out targets provides the best chance of success, but even then you aren’t completely safe. The green stamina bar will quickly become your most valuable resource. You need stamina for every attack and shield-based defensive stance. Stamina determines when an enemy will finally crack through and leave you a bloody stain on the floor. This isn’t a game about massive combos, but one about feints and ripostes. Magic and archery help to round out the combat mechanics, though the latter has taken a welcome backseat. You won’t be firing arrows to get the demon’s attention so much in Dark Souls; a welcome change from the preferred method of monster eradication from the previous game. Magic, however, remains just as, if not more, powerful than before. I struggled with some early fights until I began to invest in the deadly art of pyromancy. These fire-based spells provide heavy damage but a limited number of charges that must be replenished at bonfire checkpoints around the environment.
And thank God for those bonfires, as they help to alleviate some of the tedium from Demon’s Souls. Bonfires replenish your health and supplies, allow you to return to human form (more on that in a bit) or use precious souls to level up, warp to other locations late in the game, and even repair equipment after acquiring a certain toolset. More importantly, you’re sent back to your previous bonfire when you die. Bonfires are, thankfully, almost always placed in an optimum position, often after a particularly difficult section or right before a boss. This helps to downplay some of the needless backtracking associated with the waypoints in Demon’s Souls and puts the focus on lighting and resting at a fire to mark the success of your seemingly doomed excursion. The comfort and joy of spotting a bonfire begins to resemble a welcome reunion with an old friend. But be warned, great adventurer, as the monsters all come back when you rest at a bonfire.
Dark Souls features the necessary improvements of any sequel these days. The graphics are noticeably sharper, the combat mechanics have been refined and tuned, and the game is quite a bit larger than Demon’s Souls. But the greatest improvement and perhaps the single best achievement for Dark Souls is the level design. Rather than split the world up into discreet areas with a central hub, Dark Souls features a world similar to a Metroid or modern Castlevania title. Areas are linked in a maze of tunnels and passageways, with shortcuts allowing easy access around the land. This allows for the player to feel like a true adventurer, unsure of what’s around the corner, but also excited to find new treasures and challenges. It’s almost overwhelming at first. Your initial starting location leads to three distinct areas, and two of them result in almost certain death for a low-level player. But eventually you worm your way back to these areas and find how powerful you’ve become. It’s all about finding the path of least resistance, as difficult enemies are meant to detour you until you’re better equipped. This particularly nightmarish rabbit hole runs deep, and some areas are purely optional.
Dark Souls retains the nature and spirit of its forbearer’s multiplayer component. Red messages dot the ground, informing you of danger or treasure ahead (though these could all be misleading, of course). You can still summon other players to help you with a troublesome boss fight, but, once again, you must be in human form to do so. This requires humanity, a precious commodity found around the world but also acquired through helping – or hurting – other players. Humanity can also kindle a bonfire, giving you access to more life-giving Estus flasks. Gaining and losing humanity ties into the covenant system. You can align yourself with one of these factions to carry out certain tasks around the world and with other players. Some involve helping other players, while others focus on more nefarious activities. Player invasions are less frequent in Dark Souls, as they require a limited use item or a special covenant compact. The invading player cannot use flasks to recover health, so the risk associated with these dastardly deeds remains high. Unfortunately, the multiplayer seems to be suffering at this point. I’ve had trouble connecting to other players, and there just don’t seem to be a lot of souls signs around for actual summoning. Hopefully these issues will be ironed out with future patches.
The high ambition for Dark Souls results in some rather large technical problems. Attacks will occasionally pass through walls, characters can end up locked in the environment, and there’s even a real nasty glitch where you die but the game doesn’t reset you back to a bonfire. More egregious are the frame rate problems in certain areas, particularly Blighttown and Lost Izalith. These areas chug along in the single digits, making an already difficult game practically unplayable. These dips in performance hint at a game that needed a few more months in the oven before it was ready, but, alas, we live in a time of set release dates and patches.
These technical issues are annoying, but they didn’t happen often enough to tarnish my impression of the game. No, my only real issue with the game is, surprisingly, the difficulty. Demon’s Souls was difficult, but it always rewarded patience and preparedness. The developers wanted to make a game harder than Demon’s Souls, and by God they did it. The only problem is that these difficulty spikes are a result of rather cheap design. You’ll be poisoned by unseen snipers, torn apart by seemingly unstoppable skeleton demons, stun locked by aggressive bosses, thrown off cliffs, and grabbed by quick tracking attacks. These moments provided little but pure frustration without any of the elation after completion. I wasn’t happy that I survived the horror of The Tomb of Giants. I was just glad to get the hell out of there. Worse still, some areas require a little luck. One early boss features some minions that prove too much for the small environment and lock-on camera. Be prepared to die multiple times fighting the Capra Demon, and good luck trying to kill the bosses in Anor Londo on your own. There are also several puzzle-like encounters that require outside knowledge to properly complete. One even involves a freakin’ leap of faith with the game’s finicky jump maneuver. I knew exactly what I had to do, but it took me ten tries to finally pull it off. I spiked my controller five feet in the air during my two hours of battle with the final boss, and now my DualShock has a permanent rattle from the broken plastic inside. My only solace during this fight was the amazingly classy music that helped to assuage (some) of my inner rage. I was never mad at Demon’s Souls, but Dark Souls had me swearing up and down like a sailor.
Thankfully, there are far more enjoyable areas than annoying ones. The spooky Darkroot Forest provides a welcome return to nature, and the traps of Sen’s Fortress had me paranoid in the best way possible. You’ll even get to relive several awesome scenes from the Indiana Jones Trilogy, including one that had me feeling like a true man of faith (and that’s my only hint on that one). Most of the boss fights are thrilling and intense (provided you can avoid some of their obnoxious AOE attacks that can instantly kill you). These are the moments that stick out and keep you coming back for more. I thought I was done with Dark Souls after one demoralizing run, but I came back for more, and I’m glad I did.
John said that Demon’s Souls was almost impossible to score, and now I know what he was talking about. My scores and Editor’s Choice award for Dark Souls are reflective of my own experience with the game, and not a glowing endorsement for everyone. I expect Dark Souls will sell more copies than its predecessor, but I’m sure many won’t know what to make of this curious title. It harkens back to the days when our parents bought us a game and we played it all summer. We talked about it on the playground and obscure secrets came to the light and became general knowledge. Dark Souls is a window to a forgotten age with a modern spin based around connectivity and player involvement. You don’t have to visit the playground to get the information; From Software built the playground into the game. Dark Souls shouldn’t be used as a barometer for who’s hardcore. In a way, it’s a game about being human and making mistakes. What would you do if you were suddenly thrown into a nightmare world of death? You’d probably grab a weapon and shield, and then cautiously attempt to escape. Dark Souls reminds us of how fragile we are as mortal creatures. You’re not a hero; you’re just trying to survive.