Dark Souls

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I have been here many times, staring at my WordPress interface, within an empty article titled “Dark Souls”. It’s a franchise I truly love, but my preference for reviews generally goes out to management games, shooters, and retro titles. A game so mechanically complex as Dark Souls would be a challenge for me to review. Yet I can’t simply sit here and be Crestfallen. It’s the very spirit of Dark Souls to challenge oneself, to return to a problem over and over until you can overcome it. With that in mind, I hope you enjoy this review.

The fire fades

The story of Dark Souls is huge, complex, and many aspects of it continue to be a mystery to this day. One can really dive down the rabbit hole, read every item description for snippets of lore, exhaust the dialogue of each and every NPC, and discuss the subtle details of the world for hours.

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For newcomers looking to ease their way into this beast, the important elements are introduced in the opening cutscene. The world was once ruled by dragons and covered in darkness until fire came to exist. From fire arose many powerful lords who waged war upon the dragons, with Gwyn, Lord of Sunlight, spearheading the conflict.  Eventually, the war was won and kingdoms were founded, most prominently Gwyn’s capital of Anar Londo. However, an undead plague fell upon the world. The dead rose from their graves and while, at first, they lived like ordinary people, those who lost a sense of purpose would “go hollow” and turn into violent, mindless creatures.

Now the fire that gave life is fading and the world is in disarray. Old heroes are dead, hollow, or otherwise mad, demons roam freely, and the undead dominate much of the land. After creating your character you start in a prison as an undead, but a gallant knight soon comes to your rescue. Eventually, this undead knight requests you go on a quest in his stead. You must travel to the land of Lordran and ring the Bells of Awakening. Once you do, the fate of the undead people will be revealed to you.

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It may seem like a lot of plot, but it’s all neatly summarized in an effective opening cutscene and gameplay really does dominate in Dark Souls. After that first exposition scene, cutscenes only serve to introduce bosses to you, and much of the plot is instead gathered from talking with the rare, few characters that aren’t out to kill you. The player is free to decide their own investment in this way. They can safely ignore characters and just play the game, only talk to those they like, or seek out every conversation and read every description to really get everything out of this game.

The plot feels ginormous as items and people allude to countries, people, and Gods unfamiliar to you and which may not get much more screen-time past these scarce few mentions. What you are allowed to discover is intriguing and usually grim. Dark Souls is clearly in the dark fantasy genre and definitely not a game to seek out if you’re feeling a little down. Especially some of the optional questlines have depressing conclusions and many of the friends you’ll make are likely to end up going hollow if you don’t do the exact, right stuff to prevent that. Other allies may betray you and many other people are just cold towards you to begin with.

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A fun character is the Crestfallen Warrior, likely the first person out of the tutorial you are going to meet. He is an Undead like you, but has long since given up on questing for the Bells of Awakening, preferring instead to sit at a shrine complaining about everything. Surprising him by bragging about having rung one of the bells is a fun thing to do, though he’ll just retort that getting to the second bell will be suicide. He’s a fun character and really fits the experience of Dark Souls, which is notoriously hard and will see many people giving up on it. Perhaps this was From Software’s cheeky little way to make fun of those who’d be salty about it.

Story score: 9/10

Find the big thing, kill the big thing

Dark Souls is a third-person hack & slash RPG in which the player creates a character by selecting from a variety of starting classes and then make their way through its world. The starting classes provide some equipment and stats, but are otherwise meaningless. As you gain souls, the game’s currency, you can invest these in stats as you please. This means you may starts as a thief, but are free to then invest points into strength and vitality instead.

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The stats largely do what you’d expect: strength makes you hit harder, vitality increases your HP, endurance improves your stamina and lets you carry more, etc. As you find equipment you’ll soon learn that these have certain requirements to be wielded at all, but also have a grade for scaling with each of the primary stats. A hammer may become even more powerful if you have high strength, whereas a bow or halberd benefits from dexterity. When you find upgrade materials you can also improve these weapons at a blacksmith and enhance them, such as imbuing them with flames or having them reforged as a divine weapon that makes the weapon scale with the faith stat instead.

Combat is a simple matter. You can lock onto enemies and perform an attack with R1 or a heavy attack with R2, depending on your controller. You can also have a weapon or shield in the left hand, in which case you do its actions with L1 and L2. B performs a dodge roll or backstep, X lets you use the currently select item, and A is for interacting with things in the world. Your first few enemies will be simple, hollow soldiers, which aren’t too bad to deal with if you use a shield and don’t rush in too much. The challenge comes from Dark Souls setting up traps and challenges for you to overcome. For example, you might still fight hollow soldiers, but you may approach one only to be fired at with a crossbow from above, while at the same time two hidden hollows join the fight too.

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While attacking you must be mindful of your stamina, which is needed to perform attacks or roll away when things get hairy. Low stamina will also make it easier for enemies to deflect your shield with their attacks, so making sure you give it time to regenerate is essential to staying alive. You also gain estus flasks, which are refilled at bonfires (read: checkpoints) and act as a healing beverage. You only get five of these by default, however, and the journey between bonfires may be long and perilous, or the next bonfire may even be hidden.

The controls don’t take too much getting used to, but can still be kind of a bother. Jumping, for example, requires an awkward button input that makes it way too easy to mess up and requires too much thinking. Your character is also unreliable around edges, which often cause you to fall off when they look perfectly traversable. Another annoyance is item usage, which always happens one at a time. When you have 16 souls in your inventory you want to absorb, this means doing so one after the other and having to watch an animation for it play out every, single time. There are some other things I’d like to grumble about, but these three issues are really the worst of what the controls have to offer.

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Death in Dark Souls is punishing, as you respawn at your last bonfire and lose all your souls and humanity. Souls are both your experience, but also your currency for shops, and humanity gives a variety of benefits, as well as allowing you to look Human rather than undead. Being Human also allows you to summon other players and friendly characters for boss-fights, though it also lets people invade your game in an attempt to kill you. To get these back, you must journey to where you died without dying again, then pick them up from the floor. If you die a second time, all those souls and humanities are lost. It’s a novel way to handle death and I have certainly felt myself sweating up as I tried making it through a hard area again, knowing a lot of souls were on the line that could be lost forever.

And while those first few enemies may be easy with a little care, eventually Dark Souls is going to throw trickier enemies in your way and ever-more difficult situations in which you must face them. This is what I love about it: having the freedom to invest souls as I want, gear up my character in any way I please, and then attempt to break through the game’s devilish challenges. The pinnacle of these are, of course, the boss-fights. When you find a thick layer of fog, chances are high that once you pass through, you’ll be in the domain of a powerful boss creature. All of these are highly memorable and challenge you in different ways, from the Gaping Dragon with its high HP total and powerful, wide-area attacks to the dreadful challenge of dealing with the warriors Ornstein and Smough as they both attack you at the same time with wildly different movesets.

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Like with the story, there are layers upon layers of complexity to Dark Souls. Players find all manner of items, new and interesting weapons to use, as well as upgrade materials that allow them to take these weapons in new directions. All the stats, weapon scalings, and items may be baffling at first, but finding out how you can make the complexity of Dark Souls work in your favor is thrilling. Finally finding something that clicks for you is a great feeling, discovering new movesets and tricks to use adds to the fun, and there is a lot of replay value as you go back into the game and experiment with alternate ideas. I played through the game this time as a cleric using a divine weapon and miracles, whereas before I was a mage, and before that I used a halberd and heavy armor.

The game is also open-ended to a degree and, even when there is only really one way to go, you can generally find a lot of secrets and alternate paths within it. The areas are great to explore, though I have to say the game takes a bit of a nosedive towards the end. Particularly the areas of Lost Izalith, The Crystal Cave, and the Tomb of the Giant are a major bother to work through, due to unreasonably poor visibility and lame mechanics.

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There are also a number of other shortcomings, which I feel future installments handled better. Playing a cleric or mage for example, while interesting playstyles, kind of sucks early on due to the lack of options. Melee characters pick up all sorts of interesting tools, but the cleric trainer doesn’t have many useful miracles available and you don’t unlock a mage trainer until way into the first half of the game. And while Dark Souls is a game all about experimentation, there is no way to refund invested stat points and trying something new. Sure, you can grind your eyeballs off by killing enemies and resting at the bonfire to reset them, but prices for stat upgrades rise exponentially. If you want to try a different play-style partway through the game, you really are better off just restarting the whole thing.

Perhaps my greatest grievance lies in the run-up to bosses, however. While I like the death mechanic when making my way through a stage, it becomes a bit of a problem when faced against a boss I am certain to die on a number of times. In that case you, again, respawn at a bonfire and need to redo part of the stage to have a second go. But to get back to a boss arena you often have to go to absurd lengths and it really takes me out of the mood I need to deal with a tough boss monster.

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For the battle with Sif, for example, players need to either cross a forest filled with powerful enemies or take a long, boring route with several ladders and 0 enemies. Other bosses require you to redo almost entire zones, some of which require you to switch rings or use consumable items, which can run out and require fiddling with the menu each time you need to retry. Worst of all was a bug where one bonfire wouldn’t work for me. Instead of respawning me at the bonfire right outside the boss room, each death would reset me back to the main bonfire of Anar Londo. I had to give up on this (fortunately optional) boss because it was a perilous, 15-minute backtrack each time I tried and, due in part to my build, the boss could kill me in seconds if I made a mistake.

While sometimes it pulls something lame, as a whole the gameplay of Dark Souls is thrilling, positively complex, and offers a lot of challenge. It requires the player to overcome some initial hardships, only to then open up for them. It’s notoriously hard, but most of that comes from genuinely interesting enemies, challenges, and bosses you are asked to fight. These challenge you to become a better player or inspire you to get creative with how you deal with them. It may not be a game you’ll beat on your first try, but when you do there is still so much to return to and try.

Gameplay score: 8.5/10

Castles and graves

Owing to its dark fantasy setting, much of the architecture in Dark Souls consists of castles, cities, catacombs and other such places. You’ll visit forests and lost cities, demon-infested hell-holes and poisonous swamps. While the visual style is a little drab for my taste, preferring “realistic” looks over color, what really sells it is the design. Everything in Dark Souls feels huge and interconnected, with enormous churches and castles looming over you, taunting, as you approach them.

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The world is really impressive in how it all ties together, which brings a lot of satisfaction with it. Making your way through a zone, looking around and seeing other places you have been to and had to cross to get there, that really gives an epic feeling, like you have overcome so much. At the same time you are constantly unlocking alternate routes and shortcuts that allow you to navigate the world with increasing ease; at first you may feel disappointed when you find yourself back where you came from, but the next time you need to get to a blacksmith on the other side of the world, you’ll be happy to have this network of elevators, ladders, and side-passages available to you.

While it’s not an art-style I enjoy, the monsters and weapons you end up getting are good-looking indeed. I love me some medieval armaments and seeing stuff like flamberges and big ol’ halberds in here was a joy. Especially when I got to point those sharp weapons at a variety of giant demons and other, powerful monsters. The armors, too, are really fancy and have led to a playstyle known as fashion souls. Especially invaders seem to take a liking to dressing up in clothes that look cool, rather than what affords the best protection.

Still, all that splendor has to come at some cost, and I think it particularly hit the characters hard. All the people you meet either wear face-obscuring helmets or just stare emptily at you, lips unmoving, as the actors recite their lines. The game also chugs along unreliably at 30 FPS, with graphics that are murky or otherwise hard to make out. The other extreme is Lost Izalith, which is filled with lava that vomits bloom on your screen so bright it’s actually painful to look at.

Presentation score: 6/10

Optional religion

The core appeal of Dark Souls, and what keeps me coming back to it over and over again, is that it’s so open to experimentation. I love trying out new builds and see how effectively I can take down monsters with it, or try out new routes that pit me against bosses in a different order than I am used from. There is also the fantastic DLC pack, which takes you to a whole new zone with many challenging bosses to overcome and an intriguing story to follow. It’s amazing to visit due to its connection to the lore of the main game and adds an extra few hours of playtime to your run. The difficulty is also much higher than anything from the main game, even though there are optional secrets to find if you tackle it early.

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A downside to Dark Souls, however, is its covenant system. In theory, it’s something I really like: players meet a number of factions and are permitted to join these and gain rewards by completing tasks related to it. However, all these factions are meant for online play, which has limited appeal this late in the game’s lifecycle. In fact, there is only one covenant that has singleplayer as its focus. You could maybe argue this was a mechanic limited to when the game was new, but now that people have moved on, it makes several rewards impossible to get. This includes two miracles that would have been tremendous assets to my character, both of which were locked behind covenant rewards I had no way to get.

Extras score: 7/10

Verdict

While its sequels would add much to the Dark Souls experience with refined gameplay and stronger presentation, the original game remains something I can return to over and over again. Each replay does make me resent its shortcomings more and more, but still I am in love with the game’s wondrous world, its great bosses, the characters you meet on your journey, and the freedom you have to try out different play-styles and character builds. If you are daring enough to accept the challenge of the Souls games, then be sure to start with this one.

79/100

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