Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: “M” for Mature
Review by: Nick Cohen
Dark Souls is infamous for one thing; its difficulty. Indeed, Dark Souls certainly lives up to its infamous reputation by being the hardest game ever made (the only game that can even give it a run for its money in this regard is Dark Souls‘ PS3-exclusive predecessor, Demon’s Souls). Yet, there’s more–a lot more–that deserves to be said about this wonderfully rewarding action/RPG.
Dark Souls doesn’t place much of an emphasis on story; it’s there, but mostly tucked away in item descriptions and NPC dialogue. A very The Lord of the Rings-esque opening cinematic lays the basic scenario down–in the world of Lordran, a battle pitting various powerful beings led by Lord Gwyn against an army of dragons saw the dragons defeated and the world plunged into darkness. Your character has recently been killed and had his/her undead soul thrown into the Undead Asylum. It’s your goal to break free of your prison, reclaim your humanity, and restore balance to the world of Lordran.
Again, Dark Souls isn’t going to win you over for its plot. Instead, it’s the gameplay that makes Dark Souls shine. You start the game by creating a character–choosing a class; deciding between many different physical attributes such as face, skin tone, and gender; doling out a limited number of stat points in areas such as strength, dexterity, and endurance; and choosing a starting gift. Dark Souls doesn’t do a great job of describing what the stats do or why you should choose a particular starting gift. In fact, it’s very easy to start the game with a character that isn’t ideal for your play style and be forced to start the game all over again as a result.
The opening hours of Dark Souls are extremely rough on new players. The tutorial only teaches the very basics of combat and ends with a fairly tough boss fight that you must win to proceed. Many systems aren’t explained very well–I never did figure out how to use magic, for example–and it’s brutally tough right from the beginning. Many enemies can kill the player in one or two hits, managing both health and stamina are of vital importance, and the open world nature of the game means that you will inevitably start the game with almost no idea of where to go. Many players will give up on Dark Souls within the first hour, and many more won’t last much longer.
Yet, stick with it and you’ll be greatly rewarded. Dark Souls has the absolute best combat of any game I’ve ever played–not just of any RPG, but of any game in any genre. There’s a sense of weight to it that makes the art of slashing a sword or–I presume–casting a spell feel great. Enemies are tough and require expert strategy and execution at all times to overcome. Learning when to attack and when to either block, parry an attack, or dodge is of the utmost importance. The player can’t just spam health items–you start the game being able to carry five Estus Flasks (Dark Souls‘ version of health potions) that take a noticeable amount of time to drink and can only be replenished at bonfires (basically, checkpoints) placed sparingly around Lordran. Every encounter in Dark Souls is a test of patience and skill unlike anything seen in gaming before. Miss just one opportunity to deal damage or make one tiny defensive mistake and it’s back to the bonfire for you. Any souls–the game’s currency–that you accrued are lost and need to be recovered at the place of your death. You only get one shot at this, though; fail to recover the souls on your next run and they’re all gone forever. You need those souls to level up your character, purchase and repair items and equipment, buy new spells, and for other things. Losing a large amount of souls because you walked off a cliff or forgot to block an attack is absolutely devastating.
The rewarding part of Dark Souls comes from defeating a tough enemy–especially a boss– and reaping the satisfaction that can only come from overcoming a tough challenge. Since so many other modern games hold the player’s hand too much and don’t provide much of a challenge, players’ sense of satisfaction from beating them is lessened. In Dark Souls, everything you do is tough and so the rewards are much greater.
Dark Souls is primarily a game for solo adventurers, but it does feature some innovative multiplayer aspects, as well. Players can leave messages to each other–some of which will be helpful, whereas others…not so much) and team up to tackle a tough boss fight together. However, the game’s most interesting multiplayer feature is its competitive element–dark phantoms can invade others’ worlds and kill them to regain lost humanity. However, the invading phantom will need to use a rare item to do so and–like co-operative play–only living players can be invaded. Plus, there’s no way to play with a certain person–you are randomly placed into another player’s world based on proximity and behind-the-scenes matchmaking algorithms.
Dark Souls looks great–boss designs are as unique and varied as the environments the player will find him/herself exploring–but the framerate does chug quite a bit in particular areas. It’s never enough to ruin the game, but it is the sole objective (as opposed to subjective) criticism that can be leveled at the game. Other “negatives” are subjective; it doesn’t do a good job of explaining itself and it’s extraordinarily tough.
Dark Souls is a game made for a very particular audience, one that doesn’t mind putting up with an intense learning curve, little direction, and challenging combat. Many players will try out Dark Souls and give up on it quickly and that’s fine. The key is that you at least give Dark Souls a shot; no matter what you’ve heard about the difficulty–and Dark Souls has certainly earned its infamous reputation–the rewards that inevitably come from mastering the game are well worth the many hours of pain and agony.
Sound: The music in the opening cutscene is great, but there isn’t much else of it. Voice acting is sparse and not the game’s best attribute.
Story: Years after a massive battle between an army of dragons and various powerful beings that plunged the world into darkness, your undead character awakes in an asylum with the goal of regaining his/her humanity and restoring balance to the world. All of this is explained in a stunning opening cutscene; it’s not particularly deep and the rest of it is told mostly through item descriptions and NPC dialogue.
Gameplay: As tough as it is rewarding, Dark Souls‘ gameplay is the primary reason for playing the game. Be prepared for lots of incredibly tough fights against creative enemies that can be won or lost upon even the slightest mistake by the player. Walkthroughs and advice from other players come highly recommended.
Graphics: Dark Souls‘ enemy and environment designs are some of the best seen in gaming. Bosses are particularly stunning and creative. However, slowdown is a fairly constant companion in some areas.
Overall Fun Factor/Replay Value: Dark Souls is a ton of fun for the right player–the right player being a hardcore gamer who isn’t afraid to die over and over again and reaps immense satisfaction from overcoming a tough challenge. The game took me 99 hours spread over two years’ time to beat, so there’s plenty of value for gamers’ money contained within. An even tougher new game plus opens up if the player can beat the game.
Final Score: 9.5/10 (insanely tough and rewarding in equal measures; the best the action/RPG genre has to offer)
*Editor’s note: For more on Dark Souls, please see my two journal entries from closer to the game’s release here and here. Dark Souls is an incredibly tough challenge–hence the late review–and these journal entries will give you a taste of what it’s like to actually play Dark Souls.