A Difficult, yet Amazing RPG That Manages to Defy Wisdom and Do What Feels Right
gameplay 99 / story 95 / graphics 90 / sound 98
When From Software released Demon’s Souls back in 2009, few expected it to be a surprise hit. Aside from its appealing aesthetics, ingenious level design, methodical combat, and numerous customization options, it boasted a brutal yet rewarding difficulty level the likes of which haven’t been seen since the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Yet never did a game feel it did so as fairly as Demon’s Souls. Now, Dark Souls, its spiritual successor, seeks to take those same positive traits and add onto it. How, you ask? By making it harder, more beautiful, deeper in its lore, and more open in terms of exploration and customization so that more people can enjoy it, that’s how. And it pulls it off splendidly. Dark Souls succeeds where Demon’s Souls fell short, and becomes the better game because of it.
The story of the Souls series has never been much to talk about on the surface, mostly since every game tell so little and bears little to no connection with one another. In Dark Souls, the setup is this: long before the Earth was formed, the Everlasting Dragons held dominion over all. Then, for reasons long since forgotten, The Lords of Fire, along with the first humans, were born. They soon went to war with the Everlasting Dragons, and that war has been raging on even to the current events of the game. You are a human who carries the Darksign, which leaves humans cursed to be undead until they restore their own humanity (more on that later). The player must break out of the Undead Asylum and embark on a pilgrimage to awaken the ancient deities and hopefully bring the war to an end.
You never know the finer details of the story as soon as its presented, though the scope of your struggle is much larger than what appears at first glance. Any more than that delves into heavy spoiler territory, and in all honesty, you’re better off just finding things out on your own. Players discover the more intimate details through exploring the war-torn region known as Lordran. And it’s in Lordran where you find yourself in the middle of a great expanse of land, beautiful and grim at once. The artistic detail strengthens the solid, yet average graphical power of the game, in which swamps and forests look gloomy and dangerous, towns and castle halls are shambled and overrun with demonic creatures, and a pale sunlight casts its dim cloud-covered glow over all the land. It helps create a world that feels lonely, mysterious, and perilous all at the same time. Talking to its lonely residents only serve to deepen the melancholy, as everyone has been affected by the devastation in some way, and helping to bring them closure can bring a small bit of peace to a dying land, even if that closure ends up in battle. The lack of music outside of boss encounters further enhances the isolation felt, as the ambient noise of wind, water running, and even your own clanking footsteps make you feel both nervous and refreshed.
And traversing these lands takes quite a bit of work as well. Gone is the level selection from Demon’s Souls, where you find yourself in a hub room from which you can choose one large area to tackle at a time. Dark Souls opts for a more open-world style of design, and yet it feels nothing like one in a sense. From wide fields to narrow corridors to winding castle walls that interconnect with each other like an intricate spider web, there’s nothing that suggests this game is anything less than well-designed. Some oversight does occur when you find less-than-obvious pathways between certain stretches of land, giving the hint that the game was designed with the landscape first before traveling it seemed reasonable. Nevertheless, the maze-like structure of the game feels like a callback to games like Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, where certain areas can be connected by the most hidden of hallways and most obscure of entrances. Figuring out the shortcuts in this game is just as much fun as fighting through it.
Oh my, the combat. I’m not sure how to talk about what makes the combat “fun” in this game. It feels the opposite at first. Even the most basic foot soldiers can turn you into a broken heap of ash on the ground if you’re not careful. Every foe in Dark Souls wants you dead, and it doesn’t ever want you to forget that fact. It’s relentless in its attempts to brutally and utterly destroy you. You only know peace through the bonfires you see throughout. Though you are safe from death while sitting at one, every enemy except for bosses gets revived after resting at a bonfire, so that you must defeat these enemies once more in order to progress. And these bonfires are where you can level up and even repair/enhance your equipment, provided you’ve obtained the appropriate items, so traveling to and from bonfires becomes vital to your success, especially when all you have in between are enemies ready to test your combat skills.
Using weapons in this game is not like most action RPGs. It’s slow and methodical, asking you to think about your next move instead of simply swinging away and hitting easy targets. Every attack, block, and dodge roll drains your stamina, so you must always be vigilant when you should swing once more while at the same time making sure you remain out of the way of those who would dare to kill you to restore your precious energy. Even after you’re left an undead husk of your former self, this game asks you to try again, weapon in hand, ready to face and (hopefully) defeat familiar enemies. The game assumes you’ve learned their patterns so that they won’t take you by surprise again. Even with a steady supply of estus flasks – your main healing item – you’ll find yourself on the brink of death with many encounters, each more devastating than the last. And while maintaining your human form does have the benefit of increased stat bonuses, this never lasts long in the face of a world constantly ready to strike you down.
And so why must you push on? Well, aside from discovery in both a geographical and narrative sense, you must obtain souls in this game. Souls are your experience points and currency all in one. In the experience category, your souls allow you to boost your stats such as strength, dexterity, intelligence, etc. Much like its predecessor, these boosts are there to enhance your ability to equip and wield certain weapons and armor, as well as allowing the use of magical spells. The mightiest greataxes and greatswords require inhuman levels of strength, while the strongest of magical catalysts need a certain level of faith and intelligence in order for you to use properly. Using souls for armor usage allows you to move faster with the heavier ones without feeling like you’re dragging the weight of the world behind you.
Even though there are starting classes in this game when you begin, they only serve to give you a base for your stat boosts so that some become initially easier to increase than others, allowing for the use of better weapons and equipment that suit your play style early on, especially items that scale to your current skill level a bit better than your beginner sets. However, you lose whatever souls you carry with you when you die. Regaining them is as simple as you going back to the same spot you perished from, but another death on the way there results in you permanently losing those souls, so that the cycle repeats with possibly fewer to no souls in between bonfire runs, depending on how skilled you are and how lucky you can be.
In the currency category, you can use souls to buy items that merchants sell, enhance your equipment through enchantments, smithing, and even repairing what has been damaged by combat. Merchants are not clear in the open, however. You find them either through secret passages or by unlocking certain doors in order for their services to become available. Items such as elemental boosts, certain one-time use weapons, and other such items are available for purchase, and often become useful for some of the later areas. You can also make your equipment stronger by enhancing them through smithing. Finding the item Titantite, for example, allows you to increase the strength and durability of a weapon or piece of armor of your choosing. This helps for especially longer stretches of land between bonfires, where weapons can easily break if your foes give you a hard time.
However, you don’t have to go for it alone, as there is online co-op to allow other players to assist each other as “phantoms” whenever one player feels that they alone cannot endure the struggle. Any player can leave a summoning sign on the ground, but only a player with their humanity restored can summon others for aid. Up to three other players can join on your server, and are able to assist in any capacity. As a phantom, you cannot use healing items, and so you must depend on the host player to keep you healthy if they so choose to (and they inevitably will). However, every enemy defeated gives the same amount of souls for everyone in the party, provided you do not die before the boss encounter. Only after defeating the boss of the area can you return to your domain with all of the souls you’ve acquired. It makes you feel at ease knowing that there are players ready and willing to assist you, even if you don’t know who exactly it is that’s giving you such wonderful and welcome aid.
But not every player is going to feel cooperative. To keep things interesting, players can join others as “invaders,” seeking to challenge the host to a duel to the death. These invaders always appear with a warning, but that warning will never let you know where exactly they appear in any particular area. This means you must always stay on your toes the moment the words appear that signal an incoming invader. When you do engage with an invader, every skill you learned throughout your adventure – every block, parry, knife throw, and whatever else you have – becomes the key to survival. Whether you survive or fall depends on either player’s skill level and/or whether or not regular phantoms are assisting the victim. As an invader, should you defeat your victim, the victory rewards you with all of the souls they are carrying. But should you as the invader fall, the victor gets a portion of the souls from said invader. While it might seem unfair to include this, you can only invade another player that is at least ten levels below or however many levels above you, and only if you’re playing online.
As impressively balanced and challenging as Dark Souls is, a number of issues do keep the game from being perfect, though it strives for every possible definition. And these are aside from its intimidating difficulty. For instance, there are covenants in the game that you can join, which allow you to obtain certain perks throughout your play through as long as you remain with that covenant. The systems and rules that you have to abide by in each covenant are never explicitly presented, resulting in a well-done, but confusing system that no player will understand the first time through. Also, certain areas of the game tend to have rather jarring frame rate drops. While the game does occasionally drop the framerate whenever things get intense, certain areas, like the infamous Blighttown, run significantly slower than the rest of the game, no matter which version of the game you play on. This, combined with the already difficult and ruthless foes, makes for a more frustrating challenge rather than a fair one.
For all this talk of how difficult the game is, every death that occurs to the player can only be blamed on the player for not remembering enemy patterns, traps, or the hostile environment. They made a mistake in judgment, forgot an enemy pattern for a second, or they stood too close to a ledge when struck by a staggering blow. And yet there is a beauty to this philosophy of difficulty. We don’t choose to live; we are born into life. Every one of us struggles to succeed, we constantly fall short of our goal, and yet we push ourselves through the swamp of failure, even if the end of the road meets us with yet another set of challenges. And through a helping community, this hardship is made that much easier. This is everything Dark Souls teaches you from the beginning of its journey onward. The controls teach through its methodical and well-thought out mechanics. Its narrative intrigues through its mysterious plot and flawed characters. It pushes with its insistence of death at every corner. It binds through fellowship with others striving towards the same goal. The few annoyances it contains cannot hinder its ultimate message of perseverance in the face of defeat. This is the hidden beauty in the decayed and cynical face of Dark Souls, and the reason it is a work of art in the world of gaming.
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