There is a game that haunts me.
It sits on the shelf calling to me… but I’m scared. Scared that I’ll spend my precious gaming time and have no reward to show for my endeavours… I’m scared that I’ll get so frustrated that I’ll throw my controller through the TV… or even worse it’ll put me off playing video games!
That game is of course, Demon’s Souls. Since I reviewed the game in July 2010 it has sat on the shelf along with a promise that I must give it another go. Just to see if I can master the most evil RPG game of all time. Without doubt I’ve played “harder” games, where the difficulty is due to an abysmal combat system, the controls or broken creature levelling but few games have given me such a sense of dread as Demon’s Souls.
So it was with equal measures of excitement and fear that I volunteered to review Dark Souls.
It can be somewhat tedious to read a review that continually references an earlier game but it should be acknowledged up front that Dark Souls is evolution not revolution. All those stories you’ve heard about Demon’s Souls are true and apply equally to Dark Souls. If you played the original you’ll know exactly what to expect from Dark Souls and you won’t be surprised. And don’t go thinking they’ve given up their core values to chase the mighty dollar. Although this game is released on both PS3 and XBOX 360 (last time it was a PS3 exclusive) it is still intentionally designed to be hard. The developers’ goal was to hark back to the days of video gaming where dying meant starting again and you battled over the same ground repeatedly as you learned the tricks and tips necessary for victory. And from this perspective they have been incredibly successful as this is exactly what you will do in Dark Souls, over and over again.
The story starts out with a wonderfully rendered & presented history of the world you are about to explore. It sets out the curse that has befallen the world and the major factions in play. You first gain control of your character as a Hollow (a generally weak and miserable undead) who is mysteriously being released from incarceration at the Undead Asylum. This chance to play as an undead hero really appeals to me and as I played around with the different player characters some of them are startlingly well modelled. Of course the goal is to regain your humanity by killing undead and so lifting the curse of the coming darkness.
The Asylum is the kindergarten level where you are shown the mechanics of movement & combat and face your first boss battle. I am proud to say I managed to kill him on the 3rd attempt! And I only died around 6 times playing through the level! So, Dark Souls is true to form in that you will die frequently. I really struggled with this when playing Demon’s Souls as it was too easy to lose all your progress in the blink of an eye and it is still a bit frustrating but overall I found my time playing Dark Souls much more enjoyable than I expected.
To be honest I can’t quite put my finger on the reason why. It may be that the inclusion of bonfires which provide check points (at a cost that all the enemies you have killed respawn) or it may simply be that the level design is more forgiving. But most likely it is that I knew exactly what I was in for. I was expecting the repetition and the frustration and I prepared myself for writing off hours of game play with no significant progress being made.
Once you are free of the asylum there is very little direction as to where you go next, with repeated death being the key indicator that you are going the wrong way. If you are as stubborn (or foolish) as me it can take almost an hour of game play just to realise I should have gone up the hill not down it… And it’s not like you can afford to just head in the other direction after you respawn because death leaves all your precious harvested souls (xp) lying in a puddle at the feet of your vanquisher. So if there is 1 piece of advice I can offer, it is lure your enemies away from their guard post so you can recover you lost souls more easily.
The character progression aspects of Dark Souls are well handled and hugely flexible. You pick a starting character type which sets you base skills but from there you can morph your character to any style of play you chose simply by spending your hard earned souls on those particular stats. Whilst I greatly enjoy this in games (because I often get bored of my character type whilst playing through a game) the combat of Dark Souls is so demanding that you can’t really afford to mess around levelling up non-essential stats. Although if you have the patience there are opportunities to do a bit of soul harvesting and with a pretty high level cap (700!) you certainly can make use of this flexibility from early on in the game.
Combat is very well handled, if slightly defensive in nature. You cannot charge headlong into the enemy and expect to succeed. The game rewards a more measured approach and tailoring your attacks to the different enemies. What works well with one opponent may see you dying repeatedly against another and again this is where the replaying of levels is such an intrinsic part of the game. Combat is essentially unchanged from Demon’s Souls, with a combination of normal & power attacks along with parry, block & dodge as a means to keep yourself alive. Combat is severely limited by Stamina and just wildly slashing around quickly sees you exhausted and then dead. The controls immediately felt comfortable but the attacks are quite ponderous and even 1 mistimed strike can see you sent back to your bonfire to respawn.
Visually the game is very good. The environment would be a pleasure to explore if you had the time to stop and smell the roses. The buildings and lighting is wonderfully atmospheric and as previously mentioned I found the character modelling and the opening video sequence to be excellent. Whilst it didn’t WOW me in the way Red Dead Redemption did with its incredibly beautiful vistas it certainly shows up the age of Fallout: New Vegas and sets a pretty high benchmark for Skyrim. I didn’t find any dodgy visual artefacts (like I did in Forza 4) and had no stability issues during my game time. So overall I was able to sit down to the game and be thoroughly immersed in the game for as long as I could stand… It did however show me that I really must invest in some decent speakers.
The online offering has been expanded so along with being able to leave messages in the game world and occasionally seeing other players ghosts it now supports online co-op multiplayer (although communication between players is restricted to a selection of in game character gestures) and the ability to invade another players game world and hunt them down… To me that appears to be angled towards people who take their gaming just a bit too seriously and with so many challenges already in the game I just can’t quite see why that was necessary. But then I didn’t actually get firsthand experience of this so maybe it isn’t quite as nasty as it sounds.
So how would I sum up Dark Souls? If I was able to tailor the difficulty to my skill level I would likely have poured dozens of hours into this game as it would still excel as a 3rd person RPG style hack & slash. However I think I’ll just plagiarise my review for Demon’s Souls as my comments are as appropriate today as back in July 2010…
Demon’s Dark Souls is a great game that has, in a way, chosen philosophical integrity over commercial success. The game will struggle to be hugely popular as it is too hard for the average gamer but the inclusion of a difficulty slider would have seen it compromised. It is that challenge that makes it the tense and engrossing experience that it is but only recommended for the hardcore gamer.