October 3, 2011
The story of Dark Souls is a very slight affair. At the start of the game you're given a brief synopsis about what has transpired before your time and after that, you wake in a jail cell. Oh, and you're undead.
In many games, not least the Action RPG genre, having a story that's so sparse would be a bit of a turn-off, but the story of Dark Souls isn't so much in the narrative. Instead, it's about your journey through the various obstacles you face. Without wanting to sound too cliche, the story of Dark Souls is all about your own trials and tribulations. Yes, there are tasks you need to complete as you progress through the game, but you won't be experiencing any grand cutscenes or lengthy dialogue sequences. Instead, you will be exploring new areas and learning how to deal with certain situations - it's a very different sort of story.
Despite there being almost nothing to the story, the world of Dark Souls is what will suck you in. There's so much to explore, from the stereotypical castle to the dank Blighttown and maniacal trap-fest that is Sen's Fortress. There will be at least one area that appeals to you in a big way and the areas are so expansive too. But this does highlight one of Dark Souls' frailties. Since the experience is now an open world one, it can be a little frustrating to get from A to B.
The world does have a lot of connectivity, but some areas aren't that accessible through shortcuts you can open up. And it does get a little bit tedious to have to go through long passages of play to get to back to the "hub" of the world. For example, if you're in the depths of Blighttown and you want to get back to the Firelink Shrine. Not only do you have to go through Blighttown, but you'll have to go through the Sewers, and then you'll still have a bit of a trek through the Undead Burg before you make your way back to the Shrine.
It makes things a little bit tricky, as NPCs aren't all in one convenient place any more like the Nexus. If you want to visit the Blacksmith called Andrei, you will have to actually go and visit him. There are pros and cons to this - it does make you venture out more and it does give the world a bit more personality. But if you're in a bind, far away, you may have to stretch those legs and find your way back.
From Software did counteract some of these problems through the purchasing of kits. Now you can repair items at Bonfires and even upgrade your armour or weapons too. Bonfires do serve more purposes than simple upgrades though, as they act as the game's checkpoint system. With Dark Souls being an open world experience, having checkpoints is a very crucial piece of the game's design. When you die, and you will die, you will now respawn at the last Bonfire you touched. When you touch a Bonfire you will also restore your health and replenish your Estus Flask (used for healing). The cost of this, is that all enemies in the area will respawn - except bosses and mini-bosses.
One other downside is that sometimes very few clues are given about what you're supposed to do to progress. Sometimes you might receive a cutscene, or the path is quite clearly laid out, but others you'll just receive a key with no real indication about what it unlocks. And because it's now an open world game, you can receive a short, sharp smack from enemies that you shouldn't be facing just yet.
The main way that Dark Souls can be compared to Demon's Souls is with its gameplay. There are a few amendments to this aspect of the game, but at its core, it's almost identical. Everything is governed by a stamina meter and almost everything you do will use this in some shape or form. Running, evading, striking or blocking - these actions will all use stamina. And if you run out of stamina, you leave yourself in a sticky situation.
It's all very strategic and you'll find that with almost every encounter in the game, whether it be against worthless peons or huge bosses, you will have to employ some sort of strategy. Even the weakest of enemies are capable of doing damage and when they're deployed in packs, you can find yourself on the end of a frustrating death.
Planning, patience and concise execution - these three things will be the difference between success and failure throughout your experience. Often at times you will encounter something that at first glance will seem impossible. Perhaps you've stumbled upon an optional boss who kills you in one hit, or there's a pack of enemies that you just can't navigate past. If you take some time to think about the situation, learn your enemy's attacks and don't rush, you'll find that things aren't quite as difficult as they first seemed.
Dark Souls is a game that's difficult and you might even think it's harder than Demon's Souls. In some ways you'd be right, but looks can be deceiving. Dark Souls hits you hard when you first start, perhaps to weed out the weak, but if you stick with it, your opinion may well change.
Quite a lot of the experience is a psychological one and how you proceed through the game will depend on the type of person you are. It feels as though each boss is designed to target a specific psychological weakness, as well as your skill level. Perhaps you don't like fighting in confined spaces - there's a boss for that. Or perhaps you don't like being chased - there's a boss for that too. It's how you overcome these challenges that will define your experience, but there are bound to be people who just give up because they can't take it any more.
It's advised that you don't do that though, because if you do, you will miss out on what's a beautifully crafted game. From Software has taken careful consideration to reward budding adventurers even more this time around, as secrets are just waiting to be discovered. Some of them are quite marvellous in their design, while others will test your ability. For example, it's now possible to obtain special weapons by beating bosses or mini-bosses in specific ways. And who doesn't want to run around with a massive boar helmet on their head?
It's a shame that some of the beauty is taken away by the game's technical frailties. There's a much nicer colour palette on display now, but there are still frame rate issues to be experienced in the more intense areas. Blighttown in particular loses its sheen when the frame rate drops to an unacceptable level and it's quite disappointing that this couldn't be fixed - Demon's Souls also had similar problems. Having said that, the game's animations are much smoother now and the design of the various armour/items is much cleaner. But it's too bad that the character you create still looks like a complete idiot. And not just that, an undead idiot too.
This can be rectified through exploring the game's Humanity system, which allows you to experience three different forms: undead, hollowed and human. Each has its advantages and disadvantages so it's worth employing each different one as and when you need it. For example, you can only be summoned co-operatively if you're hollowed, but using Humanity while undead will increase your resistance to Curse (a horrible, horrible status effect) and will improve your drop rate on items.
You'll find that Dark Souls offers enough of an experience with just one play-through, but if you want to explore every nook and cranny, you may well need quite a few more. Needless to say, like Demon's Souls, Dark Souls is a game that will give you value for money. It's a game that could probably tide you over until the new year if you wanted to try and accomplish everything it has to offer.
Dark Souls is a beautifully crafted game that's both challenging and rewarding at the same time. As you progress, you will find yourself fighting personal battles all the time as you try to overcome the game's obstacles, but at no point does it ever feel like it's too difficult or too punishing - you just need to persevere. The new open word mechanic does present some problems, but it makes the world seem much more real at the same time. And even though there are still a few technical niggles in the product, Dark Souls is one of this year's stand-out titles. Just make sure you heed the game's tagline, because it will happen a lot.
Dark Souls was reviewed on the PS3. You can read more about GamingUnion.net's scoring policy here.