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This review was done on Xbox 360.
With news that Dark Souls II is on the horizon for the many gamers that enjoy being abused, now is the perfect time to ask yourself if you should pick up the first one. As a player who never played From Software’s Demon’s Souls and grew up with turned based RPGs (most heavily based on Dungeons & Dragons), Dark Souls comes as a breath of fresh air, if inhaled through the blood filling your mouth from the game punching you in the face for the dozenth time.
The Short Verdict:
An excellent if challenging and sometimes frustrating single player fantasy RPG. A deep but vague story stands as a puzzle for players to assemble for themselves should they choose. The graphics are impressive and only suffer from minor problems. All in all, an excellent game offline marred only for its poorly implemented integrated online features and the occasional frame rate problem.
You are dead. This is how Dark Souls begins. You might even be able to recognize the character you built in the creation screen moments before underneath all the shrunken decay that currently makes up your face (don’t worry, you’ll be pretty again soon enough). The walking undead are banished to an asylum in the north to “await the end of the world.” Given that you still seem to have your mind intact, at least more so then the shambling legions walking into the walls outside your cell door, waiting might not seem like such a great prospect and so you make your escape. Before leaving, you’re told of the prophecy that one day an undead will leave the asylum on pilgrimage and learn the truth of the curse of the undead in the land of the gods. Guess where you’re getting whisked off to upon walking out the front door?
For a game so determined to not let its story get in the way of the game play experience, there is a surprising depth to it for those willing to dig. Dark Souls primarily practices environmental storytelling, letting players puzzle the tale out for themselves through rare voice overs, sparse and brief cinematics, and the moods infused into the environments themselves. Most characters encountered are either mad or on the verge of it, so long expository dialogue dumps are not something you have to brace for, though the corniness of a merchant’s maniacal laughter may grate after awhile. History tends to be gleaned through item descriptions, and your goals almost always begin vague only taking on more meaning as you progress.
With gorgeous landscapes, detailed armor and weapon models, well designed boss creatures, and a plethora of other pleasing sights, Dark Souls can be counted as a pretty game for this generation’s hardware. The monsters can be considered great because they actually behave in the manner their appearance implies. A giant big enough to pick your character up and toss you like a rag doll will have no qualms doing so if you come within reach. A dragon whose entire underside is made up of a gaping maw of rows of razor sharp teeth will rear up and try to grab you within that wide area, giving you far more then it’s swiping claws to worry about. The environments will also set the stage. A dank and crumbling trap laden fortress will set you on edge at every turn, whereas a remarkably well kept up city immediately following it will lure you into a false sense of security before its indifferent guardians try to cleave you in two because you strayed too close to them only to go back to passive guard duty if you flee.
The collision detection is also surprisingly accurate in most cases, though mostly to your disadvantage. Trying to use a broad swinging blade in a tight corridor will result in clanging off the walls and leaving you open to attack, making a thrusting weapon a better choice, feeding into strategic play. You can cut down swathes of enemies with those same broad weapons though in wider areas. There is some spotty clipping, particularly when using special attacks, and the hit detection can sometimes lag in PvP, but these issues are not frequent enough to hamper play. Bad frame rate drops in some of the larger areas can be a bigger problem though. The area Blighttown is cited as the largeest problem child given it’s an expansive zone with a lot of verticality and a perilous design that revels in chucking you off rickety platforms into poisonous waters.
Bang on sound design adds to the immersion well. The variations on each sound based on material are fabulous, with subtle changes depending on what materials are striking each other: metal, stone, wood, leather, decaying flesh, explosive magic, and more. The soundtrack has the occasional sweeping score moments but is mostly atmospheric and this is in no way a bad thing. The arrangement is what you’d expect from a fantasy game, but is appropriate and classic. Sadly, the frequency with which the music is played is low.
Dark Souls features live combat rather than turn based. This is where its vaunted difficulty lies. Part of the trick of survival is learning the timing and range of each weapon and enemy. Combat is surprisingly methodical, but satisfying. Death is handled as a respawn rather then a reload, and encourages players to learn. Boss battles revolve around studying tells and learning weaknesses rather then grinding levels. It makes the fights feel surprisingly fair. The few cheap shots it takes are spaced just far enough apart to keep you from feeling invulnerable and keep you paranoid.
While it is possible to build your character badly and spread your attribute points too thin while leveling, it’s actually pretty difficult. You can’t be a jack of all trades unless you’re an obsessive grinder (there is a HIGH level cap), but you are not nailed down to your starting class. Allotting enough points to do low level spells won’t hurt you at all as a fighter, but you will reach a point late game where specialization will give the most benefits. In other words, don’t split yourself between the three different types of magic, or suddenly decide as a melee fighter that you want to hit as hard with a bow as you do with that gigantic 40 strength requirement sword and be able to sprint in heavy armor. Get a feel for your preferences, then focus.
So why after all this praise is there a brutally, “meh,” score? As a single player game I’d give it a 4.5, but when taking the entirety of the game into account, Dark Souls is marred by its interestingly conceived but poorly executed online play.
The game automatically launches in online mode, and there is no visible option to turn it off or toggle it. You need to either not be connected to your account or to the internet. Oddly, being in party chat also bars you from online mode (which by all accounts was foolishly purposeful and not a glitch), though I cannot attest to this also being the case on Playstation 3.
Each player has their own instance of the world to play in, but can choose to try and “invade” other players for competitive combat. While level caps were added in an attempt to stop trolling, a serious glitch destroyed this aspect of the game for vulnerable low level players. There are no restrictions on what armor you can wear in the game, the only thing holding you back being if you’ve progressed far enough to discover the better gear. Likewise, there are no level caps on weapons though there are stat requirements. It is possible through a glitch to duplicate all of one’s fully upgraded end game armor and weapons from one character onto a brand new one. Thus the newest players are the most likely to have to deal with impervious trolls looking only to be a pain in your backside. This glitch was eventually patched, but characters already created with it are not removed, and its existence in the first build means that a character could still be made offline with the game un-patched then brought online later.
Covenants are an interesting idea, adding a depth to the multiplayer by giving a motivation, but also suffer from poor implementation. For example, the “Forest Hunters” are set to protect a zone and any player not of the covenant can be invaded by these players when they trespass on that area. The problem arises when you take into account that passage is necessary for completion of the game, and should you log on during a busy time of day you’ll have two to three invaders dumped on you within a few step every time. Even the helpful “Warriors of Sunlight” break the game, a covenant dedicated to helping other players by encouraging you to summon them as co-op “phantoms.” The world doesn’t scale to the number of players though and the most challenging and rewarding fights can become piffling matters, sometimes even more so with a Warrior of Sunlight due to their covenant bonus being the allowance of a wider level gap between themselves and the hosting player. The last thing you want is for the last battle of the entire game to be over in less then a minute after five sword swings and be left wondering at how anticlimactic the whole experience was.
There’s also no way to separate the co-operative and competitive play. You must be “Human” (fully fleshed, and receiving bonuses for going through the effort to maintain that state) as opposed to “Hollow” (fully undead and lacking bonuses) in order to participate in both co-op and PvP. No one can invade you while you are Hollow, but you won’t be able to summon your friends. In addition, the same penalties for dying at the hands on a creature apply for dying at the hands of an Invader and can actually be worse depending on their covenant. Everything from rare dragon scales to other things like your hard fought humanity bonus can be stolen, whereas the instigating player actually suffers surprisingly few consequences. Couple this with the trolling of low level players and the fact that some people out and out detest PvP in all games, and you have a recipe to drive new players away from the game entirely at worst.
Speaking of summoning your friends, best of luck doing so. There is no party system, no ability to join a session in progress, no way to send an invitation, or target a particular player at all. Players are summoned by placing a “sign” that then shows up in the game worlds of the others on a whole server. If someone needs help, they activate the sign and summon the player. If you want to play with a friend, you’ll have to pre-arrange a location for one of you to inscribe your sign and then proceed to spam it until the other can see it: not too fast though or you may pull it away before it has even had a chance to fully load into their world, but not too slow or you’ll be wasting all your time with it potentially sitting on a different server and lying out where another well meaning player may call you for help and interrupt your plans. Some days I was able to find my preferred co-op partner near instantaneously, others we wasted 45 minutes on our attempts until one of us had to give up and go to work.
The issue I must judge most harshly for however is the fact that online mode has the potential to wipe out all your progress. We are all familiar with the, “Do not turn off your console during an auto save, or you may lose some progress,” messages, but I suffered a glitch in which some ended up meaning all. A power outage occurred just as I was being invaded by another player. I expected I’d be reset to my last autosave, lose a bit of accrued experience, and maybe be missing a piece of gear I’d recently picked up. I was not expecting my save file to be corrupted to the point where even trying to view its details from the menu would cause my Xbox to crash and require me to delete it from the console system menu. The plus side is that Dark Souls is such a learning experience that redoing any portion of it is much easier once you know what’s what, but it still stung to lose 22 hours of gameplay, even if I made it up in 8 (with a liberal application of cooperative assistance). This issue is supposedly rare, though a friend’s save file suffered the same fate about two weeks later due to accepting a party chat invite and not realizing it would unceremoniously boot him from the game with force.
Any other complaints are piffling next to those. Like many games these days, it flirts occasionally with the idea of platforming and fails to do it well. The upgrade system has no integrated walkthrough, but experimentation is not too costly. “Parameter bonuses” are not explained, so some players don’t understand how to get the most out of their gear and skill point distribution. It’s not a game in which there is any shame in consulting a wiki.
Dark Souls stands as an entertaining hack and slash for those willing to pace themselves and not button mash. Its abusive nature and high degree of challenge make it a game I would not recommend to an easily frustrated friend, but would pass on to anyone looking for a sense of accomplishment in overcoming its trials. The journey may be important, but that sweet sense of victory is a pretty nice destination to enjoy.
High. “New Game Plus” features are included, with progressively increasing difficulty and experience rewards as well as a high level cap accessible no matter how many play throughs you are in to the game. Just don’t let the ending get you down.