Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai
"You might make it boy, but by the skin of your teeth."
Rarely has a lyric in a trailer ever described a game so perfectly. That line from The Silent Comedy's "Bartholomew" arguably sums up the Dark Souls experience more aptly (and certainly more succinctly) than the visuals it accompanied: visuals of giant wolves, axe-tailed gargoyles, colossal stone knights and numerous other imposing beasts. They all serve to paint a picture of darkness, death and despair, but that lyric still says it best: you can make it through this game, but you're going to have to fight tooth and nail (and sword and shield) every step of the way.
Of course, this is nothing new for PS3 owners, who have had this game's superb predecessor Demon's Souls for over two years now. Indeed, a veteran of Demon's Souls will feel instantly at home here in the Dark: an identical control scheme, familiar combat and even many of the same voice actors welcome you into the experience like an old friend. Well, maybe not an old friend, maybe an older brother. An older brother who used to beat you up. For those unfamiliar with the Souls games, I should explain: Demon's Souls was an action RPG known primarily for its extremely high difficulty level and the equally high level of satisfaction it offered to players who could conquer it. Dark Souls takes the formula that its older sibling established and runs with it.
The back story of Dark Souls, such as it is, begins with a war between a group of supremely powerful humans and a race of ancient dragons - dragons which somewhat confusingly apparently existed before fire, but we'll overlook that. Betrayed by one of their own, the dragons fell, leading to the age of fire and the oncoming darkness. You might think this sounds like fairly standard fantasy fare, and you'd be right, not to mention charming and handsome. In truth, the story here is not a particularly important part of the package - it's there and it's fine, but it's just the necessary frame to provide you with a vague motivation ("Go and ring a couple of bells," an early NPC tells you, "and something will happen") to spend 60 or more hours in Dark Souls' world.
...And what a world it is, at times decrepit and decaying, at others intimidating and even on occasion oddly beautiful. One of the biggest departures from Demon's Souls is the way the world is structured: gone are the individual levels and welcoming safe zone of old, replaced by a single, massive area filled with adventure, treasure and many, many things that want to wear your skin as a cape. Your travels will take you through crumbling castles, moonlit forests, poisonous swamps and into the depths of hell itself, with precious little respite from the horrors which surround you save for a few sparsely placed bonfires. These bonfires act as checkpoints, allowing you to level up, repair your equipment and refill your Estus Flasks, the game's version of health potions. However, bonfires are not quite the godsends they may appear, as resting at one will cause all of the enemies you've killed to come back to life. In Dark Souls, nothing stays dead for long - including you.
You see, in Dark Souls while death is definitely something to be feared, it's also a crucial part of the experience. When you die - and you will die, a lot - you lose all of the souls you're carrying, which is A Bad Thing because souls act as both currency and experience. Without them, you can't buy items, repair your equipment or level up your character, and so losing them - especially when you're carrying a large number - can be a soul-destroying experience (no pun intended). Death also causes you to lose your humanity, a newly added extra type of currency which allows you to reclaim your human form and kindle bonfires to get extra Estus flasks.
There is hope, though: if you can make it back to the spot where you died, you can reclaim all the souls and humanity you dropped, so off you trot from the most recent bonfire - only this time, you're more cautious, more aware of your surroundings and paying more attention to your enemy's attack patterns. In other words, you're doing what so few games nowadays ask of you: you're learning to play better.
Like its predecessor, Dark Souls explores multiplayer in unusual but nonetheless compelling ways. At the simplest level, players can leave notes on the ground which appear in others' games, warning of impending danger or pointing towards hidden areas and powerful loot. Of course, players can elect to leave false messages - no there isn't a secret door at the end of that long, narrow plank of wood extending precariously over that fatal fall, thank you very much - but an up/down-vote system allows players to essentially moderate the tips, highlighting those which they've found helpful and those which have led them face-first into traps.
In terms of actual player interaction, there are two possibilities. Firstly, you can choose to volunteer your services as a helpful soul, entering another player's game to aid them in defeating a nearby boss. This can be invaluable in vanquishing some of the tougher foes in the game, turning a nearly impossible challenge into a merely very difficult one. There's no way to choose who gets to summon you though, so you can't elect to play only with your friends, and instead every time you volunteer - or recruit a volunteer - you'll be teamed up with a complete stranger.
The other method is far more devious: you can invade another player's world and ruthlessly hunt them down. Kill them, and you gain humanity, but there's a penalty - the Book of the Guilty, a list of all those who have killed their fellow wanderers, and which can be used as an checklist for brave or vengeful players who want to assassinate with a somewhat clean conscience. Having your world invaded sounds on paper like it should be frustrating, but in practice it leads to some of the most tense and thrilling moments the game has to offer. When the sign comes up to let you know you're being invaded by xxX_trollulol_Xxx, prepare for a rush of adrenaline that few games can match.
The crucial factor that makes the entire game work is that, for the most part, Dark Souls remains fair. Even when facing the hardest challenges the game has to offer, attacks can be dodged and openings exploited, so even the lowest level character can, in theory, beat the hardest boss, provided the player has sufficient concentration, determination and patience to complete the task.
Unfortunately, in its quest to further build upon the reputation generated by Demon's Souls rock-hard difficulty, there are a few times where Dark Souls goes a bit too far and strays away from the "tough but fair" attitude which it usually embodies so perfectly. One area in particular stands out, a ruined city filled with ghosts who can see and attack you through walls, ceilings and floors, and so can literally appear out of nowhere to stab you in the back. I spent a good couple of hours and dozens of deaths in this area, resulting in a shameful amount of shouting and an eventual rage quit. Not a lot of fun.
Compounding this issue are controls which can be unresponsive, with commands occasionally playing out a few whole seconds after you've pressed the button, or sometimes not triggering at all. It doesn't happen often, but when it causes you to roll off a cliff face or lower your shield just as an enemy swings his giant club at your fleshy bits, you'll discover a previously unknown talent for creatively combining swear words as well as a strong desire to use the disc as a frisbee.
Moments like this are few and far between, however, and aren't enough to detract significantly from the overall experience. It's impossible to recommend Dark Souls to everyone, as some will find the difficulty level to be an insurmountable barrier to enjoyment. For those who aren't afraid of a challenge, however, Dark Souls represents a breath of fresh air in a market increasingly saturated with games that are afraid to make the player work in order to progress.
- A genuine sense of achievement which few other games can match
- Gorgeous and varied open world
- A vast amount of game time - at least 60 hours
- Sometimes tips the odds a little too far against you
- Controls are occasionally unresponsive
- Offers only a few significant improvements over its predecessor
The Short Version: Demon's Souls fans will find more of the experience they loved, with a few new game mechanics to keep things fresh, while new players will be immersed in a beautiful world and one of the best representations of sword-based combat that gaming has to offer. Prepare to die.