Dark Souls – Review
Dark Souls Review
By David ‘Transient Nova’ Timms
Don’t ever stop praising that sun.
Let me talk to you about my first journey through Lordran.
The game opened as I expected. I was given an opportunity to create my character and adopt a rough class template that would impact how I’d play the earlier parts of my adventure. Being the masochist that I am, I willingly chose to make the opening hours harder on myself by choosing the dark fantasy equivalent of a hobo. What he lacked in protective armour and weaponry that could even scratch the skin, he made up for in vigour and can-do spirit. That’s what I told myself anyway.
A scene-setting CG cutscene later, I find myself as an undead prisoner left to rot in what is best described as a truly god-forsaken asylum, one who soon escapes from his cell via a key suspiciously planted on a corpse thrown in by a nameless knight. Immediately the tone is set. The atmosphere is dark, dank. Other undead souls writhe in a demented, tortured agony. There is a noticable lack of handholding as you progress, with the closest thing to a tutorial being a few messages strewn about on the floor. There is no joy here. There is only despair and adversity. The demon guarding the only exit of the asylum is terrifying and genuinely dangerous, brutally slaying me more than once. Eventually though, he is overcome and I feel… elated. The first boss. Beaten. The first boss. And I earned it.
Welcome to Dark Souls.
Not long after, I’m whisked away to a place called Firelink Shrine, greeted with a warm bonfire and a grand vista. You come to revere these bonfires, standing as they do as the closest things you get to beacons of safety. You see shades of other players sitting next to them, collecting their bearings and preparing for their next venture towards some deadly unknown. There are a few peculiar individuals nearby who haven’t completely their marbles, but they still seem somewhat despondent. Their voice acting is eccentric and occasionally amateurish, but it also feels very… deliberate, with each word emphasised to accentuate a certain kind of madness, certain aspects of the world and its lore. After a trip downwards towards a graveyard ends in a swift beat-down by a bunch of skeletons, I decide to change my mind about where I want to go and head upwards towards what looked like a nearby aqueduct, and it’s at this point where I really started to learn how to fight.
I can say without question that I have never experienced a more satisfying combat system in an action-RPG. It’s a timing-based affair that’s incredibly intelligent, very involved and more varied than you would expect, with a huge array of weapons and armour to use and numerous, important statistics to think about. How you build up your character will have a huge effect on both your style of play and your approach the game’s many monsters and bosses. You quickly learn to treat every encounter with caution and respect, doubly so for unfamiliar ones, with each opponent having a unique form of behaviour alongside distinct tells, strengths and weaknesses. They will pose different levels of threats to different kinds of players, but even taking that into account each one has the capability to punish a complacent player. There is just so much to battle here, so much to discover, so much to experiment with. So much to learn. All you need to do is accumulate souls by slaying your enemies; using them to get stronger, level up, buy weapons and items etc. Keeping a firm hold on them is another matter though.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Just beyond the waterway lays the Undead Burg, a suburban area that must have been in neglect for a while if the rickety wooden walkways and dilapidated buildings are anything to go by. The battle through the area was devious and fierce; undead soldiers would stab me, cheeky firebomb throwers would make me die a toasty death on an already precarious bridge, a rolling barrel trap would knock me off a staircase into oblivion and I would regret needlessly provoking the wrath of a Black Knight that I was clearly no match for. Death was frequent, but it was nothing compared to the repeated mauling I received from the Taurus Demon at the other end. Looking for answers, I start reading the messages other players have left lying around. One in particular stood out outside the boss area, saying as it did ‘Weakness: Lightning’. Trying that out, I managed to successfully defeat him by tainting my sword with some gold pine resin I found in one of the residential houses, imbuing it with the power of lightning. I was thankful to the nameless stranger who left that message and felt ecstatic once again, though that feeling disappeared about five minutes later when a fire-breathing dragon roasted me alive on the bridge I was trying to cross. Twice. I would never get those well-earned souls back. C’est la vie.
So yes, you will die many times. As you’ve gathered by now, Dark Souls is a challenging game with tricks, traps and monsters that make a mockery of the skills you thought you mastered at every turn. You’ll typically drop your stockpile of souls and humanity upon death, with only one chance to recover it all afterwards. Die again before you do so and it will all be forever lost to you. A brilliant tension arises from this; a system that’s frequently demanding and keeps you on your toes, but at the same time one that can never be considered unfair. Every death can be a learning experience, something to spring off from and use as a means to prevent additional mistakes and progress a little further than you did last time. It plays with graceful ideas of risk and reward, always with desire to see what’s next: new environments to see and gasp at, new weapons and spells to wield, new secrets to find, all behind some new enemies to battle, new bosses to get trounced by, and on the occasions when you get a little downhearted with your lack of progress, you start seeing the ghosts of other players sitting around the same bonfire you’re nestled at and think to yourself that, yeah, there are others going through the same thing you’re going through, getting beaten down as much as you are. And that’s strangely comforting.
Let’s skip ahead a little. After a horrifying ordeal through the deathtrap that is Sen’s Fortress, I’m treated to the stunning beauty of Anor Londo, an ancient and regal city that’s not at all easy to navigate. I leave few messages to advise other players where the out-of-the-way pathways are and how I dealt with two of the most hateful archers in any videogame ever. I’m here because a bizarre serpent told me that I was the chosen one (as you do) and that I needed a powerful artifact from this place. Progress would have remained relatively smooth (in the grand scheme of things anyway) were it not for two powerful foes blocking my way. One agile, slender and lightning fast, the other slow, bulky and extremely powerful, they worked in tandem to ensure I could get little more than a small nick on either one. In a game consisting almost entirely of tough battles, this was the first time I had actually found myself running up against a wall. I needed help, and I knew it would be in my best interest to help others with these two as well. Staying undead for the majority of the time up until this point, I now had delve into my valuable reserves of humanity, reverting to a human state and searching for the now visible summon signs of phantoms keen to help me out. Of course, doing so bought with it its fair share of invaders out claim my humanity as their own as well…
Humanity is the basis of everything that can be considered good and dear to you in Dark Souls. It lets you actively interact with other players, kindle bonfires to increase their healing potency and provides a number of other more subtle boons. You eventually come covet your humanity, and you’ll desperately strive to get as much of it as possible on your initial playthrough. You’ll hoard your humanity items obsessively in case of an emergency. You play cautiously while you have a high stock currently active, for fear of losing it all in one fell, potentially unrecoverable swoop. You place down summon signs of your own, nobly helping other players through difficult areas and slay difficult bosses in order gain further humanity. You desperately invade another player’s world, killing him without remorse and taking his humanity away from him, maybe even putting him in a risky recovery position in the process. It’s the one thing that truly helps you keep going in this damned, forsaken world. It’s poignancy though design.
We’ll jump ahead to a later part of the game now: the Tomb of the Giants. What an uncomfortable place. Filled to the brim with large skeletons brandishing even larger swords and bows, giant skeleton dogs that would tear your head off in a second given the chance, and a number of Pinwheel necromancers that I had previously encountered once already as a damn boss fight. All that, and it was pitch black as well! Effectively navigating the place required that you bring your own light source (or in my case fumble around in the dark until I stumble across a lantern. In a pit. Filled with monsters. That a thief tricked me into falling in. Dark Souls likes to remind you of just what game you’re playing). To make matters worse there was at least one Gravelord operating in my area on a frequent basis, a player who would try to lure me into their world by sending more powerful ‘black phantom’ variants of those skeleton dogs into mine. I’m ultimately quite thankful that a few players who hung with the Warriors of Sunlight kept dropping their golden summon signs near the bonfires. It ultimately meant that I didn’t have to hunt that damn Gravelord. Didn’t have to worry so much about those invading Darkwraiths either. Except for that one who charged past my sun-praising allies to promptly kick me off a cliff.
As you explore the world you’ll be able to join up with one of a number of covenants, many of which hide in secret off the beaten path. Each one caters to a different kind of play style and provides a number of different perks to complement it. Like helping others through tough bosses? Join up with the Warriors of Sunlight and acquire medals to exchange for special lightning spells. Despise the more unsavoury invaders out there? Become a Blade of the Darkmoon and hunt down those who have been marked as sinners in the Book of the Guilty. Enjoy dueling in a controlled, familiar environment? Enroll with the Forest Hunters and defend a part of the Darkroot Garden from unsuspecting travelers. It honestly feels like true role-playing, with players choosing their path and ultimately how they engage with each other.
Compared to the bland, sprawling expanse of Skyrim, the world of Dark Souls is a place that’s both vivid and densely-packed, with extravagant architecture and captivating weapon, armour and monster designs throughout. It’s intricate to the point where you can start spotting subtle connections in the environment as the game progresses. This is the kind of videogame storytelling I get engrossed in and subsequently adore; a narrative developed through discovery and subtle, maybe even obscure design where atmosphere, art and restraint are used to flesh out the backstory and world lore, providing rhyme and reason for your presence in it.
The game’s faults are minor and infrequent, but are still there regardless. In true From Software fashion, Dark Souls is a game that prioritises art direction over tech, with the framerate dropping significantly in parts of the game and the default camera occasionally being more of a hindrance than a help (though that can be adjusted to the options menu). I struggle to think of anything else I take issue with apart from that, though it has to be said that you’ll be missing a significant part of the experience if you decide to, or are forced to, play it offline.
Over time, I came to believe that Dark Souls stands one of the most important and influential games we will see this generation. Why do I believe this? The difficulty the game is renowned for merely stands as a pillar that props up its greater achievements. It’s a perfect fusion of fantastic singleplayer adventuring with an omnipresent multiplayer ethos, a masterwork in subtle community development and meaningful role-playing, a game of exceptional art and audio direction, of a rare and assured design that actually trusts the player. It’s the prime example of a narrative that plays to the strengths of games, not scripts. It’s both an exceptional action game and a tense horror game on its own terms. Indeed, it’s a game that will influence developers over the coming years more than any other in recent times, with Zombi U adapting a similar risk-reward ideology and Resident Evil 6 providing a means for players to invade and influence each others’ games. Even Cliff Bleszinski has gone on record to state how he believes Dark Souls will influence singleplayer and multiplayer gaming going ahead.
All this and I’ve ignored the fact that I’ve went and experienced the game numerous times over well beyond that first playthrough throughout the following year, still discovering, still fighting, still influencing people’s games and having them influence mine, still marveling at the brilliance of it all, still marveling at the sheer wonder of it all. It wasn’t the last journey I took into Lordran.
It definitely wasn’t the last.
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Players: 1-4 (online only)
Release: 7th October, 2011