Thou shall embrace death. That is a mentality that one should be in when playing Dark Souls for the first time. You are going to die, and there is nothing you can do about it so why fear it? The game is challenging and doesn’t hold your hand because it knows you’re smarter than you give yourself credit. Once you get past the high learning curve, Dark Souls becomes a rich world of exploration with a highly tactical combat system, creating a true sense of accomplishment from each vanquished foe.
Players start as a blank slate with appearance customization and class acquisition, however the class you choose doesn’t have to be constant for the entire game. There is plenty of time to level your character to suite your needs. I wasn’t completely happy with the appearance customization because most of the facial features either looked weird or appeared strongly feminine. In the end, it didn’t matter all that much since your character’s face will be hidden under head gear of some sort.
As is the game’s reputation, it can be very hard, but I found most of its difficulty and misconceptions comes from a player’s natural tendency in video game combat to button mash. This is not a button masher; if you button mash, you will die. Each action you perform: sprinting, rolling, blocking, and attacking, drains stamina. If your stamina bar is depleted, you will not be able to perform any of those actions until your stamina recharges to some degree. Stamina doesn’t take long to charge at all, so it’s not a tedious process. Tying combat so heavily into your stamina gauge opens up a level of strategy that cannot be overlooked. Every move you make can mean life or death, and you must manage you movement well. Each fight turns into a chess match making each kill feel like you have earned it.
Dark Souls focuses on quality combat rather than quantity. If at any time you encounter quantity, something went terribly wrong. Fighting waves and waves of enemies in most games loses any meaning and can get boring. When faced with a crowd of enemies in Dark Souls, the possibility of dying is high. In fact, any two-on-one encounter with a respectable enemy (and there are many enemies to respect) tests your ability as a fighter. I must say, the combat system in Dark Souls is exactly what I want to see in a game; it keeps you on your toes and rarely becomes boring because each victory is meaningful. And then there are the bosses…
Boss battles in Dark Souls are as epically fearsome as anything you will ever encounter in video games. A boss is supposed to be a formidable adversary, and the colossal bosses in Dark Souls look and feel impossible to beat… or so they appear. Every boss encounter requires some sort of strategy in order to conquer, and some may require out-of-the-box thinking. These battles subtly shape you into a competent player whether you realize it or not. There was one boss – or rather I should say two bosses since you fight two at one time, in particular early in the game that became a sort of “boot camp” that shaped the way I played for the rest of the game. I struggled over an over to fight these twin gargoyles, and it felt like they would never be defeated. That was until I decided to switch to lighter armor allowing faster movement of my character. Once I made the switch, it was an entirely different, more obtainable battle. It still wasn’t easy, but soon after, I was able to single-handedly slay both beasts with much jubilation. From that point on, the combat and the game seemed to click.
A game as brutal as Dark Souls doesn’t use coins as its currency. No. Souls of your slain enemies act as the games formal currency. Humanity is an expendable yet valuable item that you can use to regain your human form among its many other uses. Upon dying you will lose any souls and humanity you acquired, and you will respawn at a bonfire, a type of checkpoint that revives all basic enemies, you rested last. All of your souls and humanity level will remain at the spot where you last died. If you can make it to that spot and retrieve the stash before dying again, you regain everything that was lost. If you happen to die before retrieval, then all the souls and held humanity is lost forever. At first I hated the idea of losing all of the “money” I earned, but I soon found that there are plenty of opportunities to build a new stockpile of souls. In the end it wasn’t that big of a deal most of the time. Once you understand the game, dying rarely feels cheap. If I died, I realized that it was mostly my fault because I got careless or did something stupid. Holding me accountable for my mistakes made losing souls easier to accept.
It’s also important to note that the game saves constantly. Basically anytime you do anything the game saves, so you never lose any real game progress. This can be both good and bad so be warned; all of your decisions are final. Items used are used for good, and NPC characters you kill are dead for the rest of the game.
The story to Dark Souls is a little difficult to assess. At first glance there appears to be next to no story at all, but that’s not true. Much of the game’s lore is hidden away in item descriptions and subtle environment and game designs. One instance that initially went way over my head was with the knight that helps you escape from your cell at the very beginning of the game. Originally I thought he disappeared, and I would hear more from him later in the game. Turns out he was the dying knight who gave you your Estus Flask. When closely observed, the boss that attacks you in the tutorial stage can be seen on the roof of the Undead Asylum. The knight who aides you was also on the roof. When you find the dying knight, he is lying on a pile of rubble with a hole in a wall at an upward angle. Instances like that occur often, and the game implies a lot to allow the players to interpret the story their own way. I’ve seen some great YouTube videos with fan theories about backstories that I completely overlooked. On one hand I wish there were more obvious story elements, but on the other hand piecing together clues extends the life of the game while creating a passionate fanbase.
The clues left in the game are just one example of Dark Souls’ exceptional level design. Initially the game appears to be fairly linear, but the more you explore the more open the world becomes. Sections that seem to be miles away in actuality were right next to an area you discovered near the beginning of the game many hours ago. Shortcuts exist in areas you walked by a hundred times. Most importantly the load times and draw distances between areas are non existent, being cleverly hidden in the environment. It is astonishing knowing just about any breathtaking area you see in the distance is an area you will be visiting at some point. Any current and future developer should take note on Dark Soul’s level design because it really is masterfully executed.
Without question the most unique aspect to Dark Souls is how it integrates co-op mode into the main game. Every player that plays Dark Souls exist in parallel worlds. As you roam you may find spirits of other players playing in their game at the same time. Meanwhile, any death leaves behind a bloodstain that can be accessed by other players. When activated, you can vaguely view how another player died. This can be helpful to warn of a nearby trap. Messages can be left by you and other players to warn, trick, or provide useful tips. A predetermined set of messages can be selected, often leading to cryptic meanings on what’s to come.
Players can also summon other players or be summoned for aid in boss battles. Players can also invade other player’s games as hostile phantoms. Invading and being invaded adds a whole new element to the game. I’ve experienced several intense duals with invading players that were exhilarating. Unfortunately, at this stage of the game’s life, most of the players still playing the game are seasoned veterans, many from Japan, who know the game inside and out. Needless to say I did not last long most of the time. You can play the game in offline mode to avoid invasion, but you miss out on helpful hints and friendly phantoms. An alternative is playing the game in undead form. Using humanity can restore you to human form, and you can only be summoned or invaded while in human form.
Environments can be beautiful in one area and nightmarish in another. Every area and character feels and looks unique while also feeling like they belong in the same world. The scale of enemies and environments are stunning. Occasionally I encountered frame rate issues, particularly in Blighttown.
Music is used sparingly, and added to accentuate moments. Voice acting for each NPC character is top notch. Everyone has their own personality highlighted with various emotional tones expressed in their voice.
There’s so much to explore, and so many secrets hidden in the game. Once you become accustomed to the game, combat is rarely boring and extremely deep. If you are someone who is not turned-off to the implied story elements, piecing together the stories will keep you fascinated for years.
There are so many things that can be missed in one play-through that multiple sessions can feel like a new experience. The New Game+ allows you to play the game from the start with all of your equipment. You can easily log several hundred hours of gameplay.
- Tons of areas and secrets to explore
- Highly strategic combat
- Epic boss battles
- Dynamic co-op
- Slow frame rate in some areas
- Tutorial of the game can scare off a lot of people
Style – Single-player/Co-op, Action RPG
Developer – From Software
Publisher – Namco Bandai Games
Release – October 2011
5.0 – Gameplay
4.0 – Graphics
4.5 – Sound
5.0 – Entertainment
5.0 – Replay Value