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Platform

Xbox 360

 

Genre

Role-Playing / Action

 

Publisher

Namco Bandai

 

Developer

From Software

 

ESRB

M (Mature)

 

Released

October 4, 2011

 

 

- The hardest of hardcore gameplay
- Terrifically terrifying enemy designs, art style
- Nearly endless amount of secrets, items, pathways, and beyond

 

 

- A little more hand-holding wouldn’t hurt
- Framerate issues during busier areas
- Black Phantom invasions could use more balance

 

 

Review: Otogi 2: Immortal Souls (XB)

Review: Red Ninja: End of Honor (XB)

Review: Muramasa: The Demon Blade (Wii)

 

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Dark Souls

Score: 9.0 / 10

 

dark souls review          dark souls review

 

If you were a gamer during the NES era, think back for a moment to your first-hand experience with each game; before strategy guides and online FAQs became the norm, budding gamers-to-be had to instinctively learn the mechanics of each game through trial-and-error, such as learning to jump on an enemy from above in Super Mario Bros. or figuring out the pattern to take down a boss in The Legend of Zelda.

But then there were also the secret strategies and pathways that were not common knowledge at the time; Most gamers did not learn about such secrets until they were relayed through word-of-mouth by peers who discovered them earlier….or

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heard it from someone else. Sometimes these passed-along rumors would result in helpful shortcuts like the Warp Zone, but other times they resulted in mere superstition or outright lies.

For many rookie gamers, these two concepts self-discovery and relayed-information helped shape their console careers, and with most mainstream games featuring clear

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and concise directions on how to go from Point A to Point B or the immediate weakness of Boss X, there has rarely been a game that featured that same “fumbling in the darkness” feeling of games from the bygone 8-bit era.

This is perhaps why Demon’s Souls captivated so many hardcore gamers back in 2009, even before it was eventually localized one year after the fact. Released by From Software with little fanfare, the Region 1-compatible PS3 game quickly gained infamy across the internet for its unflinching difficulty and limitless amount of secrets, not to mention a dark and often grotesque medieval setting that erred closer to Berserk than Final Fantasy.

Much of the difficulty stemmed from developer From Software’s insistence in providing only the bare minimum of explanations for the deep gameplay mechanics (which only revealed to be deeper as gamers eventually discovered) as well as an online messaging system where players can leave visible messages that could be seen by everyone that could either provide a helpful hint (such as a hidden path leading to treasure) or a cruel joke (jumping off a cliff that results in nothing but death).

Now, through Namco Bandai’s publishing, From has released a spiritual successor in the form of Dark Souls, though in truth the game could have easily been called Demon’s Souls 2 without missing a beat. With a larger audience ready to anticipate whatever sudden-death surprises From can muster up, can Dark Souls keep its Wiki-editing fans on their toes with new secrets and deadlier enemies?

Much like the rest of the series, the story of Dark Souls is delivered with minimal narration; after an expositional opening CG movie, the game drops your custom character into an asylum after shortly receiving the means to escape. As a human afflicted with the Darksign, your character starts off as an Undead Hollow, a rotted corpse that has somehow retained its humanity. After defeating the massive demonic jailer, the character ends up whisked away to a massive land filled with forests, dungeons, castles and caves while tasked with the prophetic goal of locating and ringing a pair of mystical bells. As for what happens when both bells are rung, well…let’s just say you’ll be dying to find out.

Indeed, the game’s tagline “Prepare to Die” isn’t just a statement…it’s a matter of fact. Don’t presume that because you start the game out as an Undead, you can’t be killed. In fact, upon reaching your first boss, you’ll be given nothing but a broken sword and the tattered clothes on your back, signifying right away the lack of hand-holding Dark Souls won’t give you; no matter how impossible the odds may seem, there’s always a way out…it’s just up to you to figure out how.

 

dark souls review          dark souls review

 

The good news is that the messaging system from Demon’s Souls makes a full return in this game, ready to help and/or hinder players regardless of what region they’re playing online. The bad news is the item required to write and rate messages is no longer included automatically to new players, and must instead be purchased from a vendor somewhere. The same goes for the item required for co-op, which potentially reduces the amount of help you would hope to receive in the game.

However, in what may be seen as From’s biggest act of mercy, Dark Souls does now include checkpoints in the form of bonfires; Rather than drop players off into a main hub every time they’re killed, activating a bonfire lets them spawn back at that checkpoint either by death, an item, or a teleportation spell. The bonfire also replenishes health and magic, as well as refill your stock of Estus Flask (the primary item used to heal injuries); While this new flask system is more limited compared to the healing herbs found in Demon’s Souls, it does ensure that you’ll never be left wanting for healing, as you can refill your flask and health as many times as you want by touching the bonfire.

The catch (of which nearly everything in this game has one) is that each time you activate the Bonfire, it respawns every enemy you defeated along the way, regardless of area or direction. And with the Bonfires spread out rather widely (with some even hidden from plain sight), it becomes a serious gamble whether or not to push forward in the hopes of discovering another Bonfire further ahead, or trekking back to the last one activated and having to deal with the same waves of enemies again. It also goes without saying that players who perish and are sent back to their last Bonfires will have to deal with the newly respawned enemies in addition to losing all their souls.

Just as in the previous game, souls act as the primary currency/experience points for everything, from purchasing, upgrading, and repairing equipment, as well as leveling up the stats on your character. Souls are typically earned from every defeated enemy, but can also be redeemed through itemized souls usually looted from treasure chests or corpses, as well as bosses (who in turn drop rare boss souls that can either be redeemed for a huge chunk of soul currency, or can be used to upgrade rare weapons and items). The more effective weapons are pricey on their own, but every time your character levels up or upgrades their weapon further, the required amount of souls increases. In this respect, the respawning feature of the Bonfires becomes useful as it allows for farming, but one wrong move (and it usually only takes one) and you can lose all your souls.

But just like in Demon’s Souls, there’s a chance to get back the lost souls by reaching the point where you last died and touching your glowing bloodstain. Should you perish before reaching the bloodstain, however, the souls accumulated from it are gone for good, and a new bloodstain that collects your current (and often meager in comparison) soul count is left instead. While your character still retains all other items and upgrades, the penalty for losing souls is often a harsh one, and those who lose patience and try to reach their bloodstain in a hasty fashion is likely going to experience more deaths as a result.

Make no mistake, Dark Souls is as legitimately difficult as a game can get, but many of the deaths (and there will be many) can also be attributed to the players themselves; at their core, each enemy has a simplistic pattern that can easily be read as well as specific weaknesses. The big problem stems from having to fight these enemies repeatedly again and again, as well as the fact that no matter how leveled up you are or what kind of expensive piece of armor you’re wearing, even the most basic of opponents can cause significant damage if you aren’t always on your toes or playing to the fullest extent of your ability. Choosing a fighting style and weapon that suits your needs is the best strategy, as well as learning the stat requirements for each ability; wearing a heavy suit of armor offers more protection, but can also slow down movement due to increased Encumbrance; Wielding a shield while using a long-ranged spear can keep most enemies at a distance, but low Endurance can cause staggering, leaving you wide-opened for attacks; Several magic spells can heal injuries as well as deliver devastating damage, but low Faith and Intelligence limits the number of slots needed to equip each spell.

Knowing how stats work is just one of many mechanics in Dark Souls that the game never outright explains. Another strategic element is using Humanity to restore your Undead status (and the potential bonuses for doing so) or to Kindle a Bonfire (which offers an increased number of flasks). The more Humanity you accumulate, the bigger the chance of acquiring rarer items, but again, this bonus comes with a price; Players who are in a revived human state can be invaded by Black Phantoms, online players tasked with eliminating you for Humanity as a reward (or just “for the lulz”); while players are matched up by similar levels, the sheer dedication and farming that many hardcore gamers go through(particularly the Japanese, who can invade American players and vice-versa) may result in all sorts of ridiculously powerful equipment and abilities you didn’t even know existed. As frustrating as this can be, revived human characters can also aid one another by being summoned for co-operative monster slaying; defeating a boss in a group benefits everyone involved, with summoned players earning Humanity while the main player gets to progress further and reap the same rewards as if they were playing solo.

From the lowliest grunt to the massive, multi-storied bosses, Dark Souls features a very large variety of enemies to kill and be killed by, and all of them are as dangerous as they are ugly…and boy are they ugly. Players with a fear of insects and vermin should especially be forewarned…every monster animates with grotesque detail and features their own methods of attacking, and are usually more cunning than you may imagine. Even enemies that you spend hours fighting over and over again may come up with something new that you haven’t seen before. Many aren’t afraid to fight in a group either and can chase you for miles, so don’t always presume that running is the best option. The terrain is every bit as treacherous, with low visibility in dark areas (such as dark forests or deep caves) and many pitfalls that can lead to instant death (or hidden treasure…if you’re willing to trust the player messages), along with terrain that actually changes depending on the order you visit them. There are also numerous NPC characters who may offer their services (for a price) such as spells, items, and equipment repair, as well as those who may invite you to join their Covenant, offering exclusive spells and items but also a set of strict (and naturally cryptic) rules to follow. And should you disobey said rules….well, you don’t really want the game punishing you any further, do you?

In case you haven’t gotten the message by now, Dark Souls is an incredibly difficult game, and certainly not for everyone…but it can also be an incredibly rewarding one. Discovering locations and strategies and using that knowledge to assist other players through messages, obtaining powerful weapons and spells from fallen enemies, or taking down that massive multi-toothed boss after the thirtieth attempt can lead to many exhilarating moments in addition to frustrating ones. The fear of the unknown also plays an incredibly vital part in the experience, with players constantly looking in all directions for a sudden sneak attack, booby-trap, or even holes in the ground…this constant unnerving tension coupled with the nasty monster designs makes Dark Souls a premiere candidate for Most Frightening Game of the Year.

That said, there are a few factors where the game could have eased up a little; When players are plopped down into the first starting area, they are given several branching paths they can take. While this technically creates an illusion of open-endedness, it soon becomes painfully clear that there’s only one area within your beginning levels, and all others will quickly chew you up and spit you out for intruding. Characters no longer have a weight limit to the number of items they collect, but there is still no real advantage to hoarding all those repeating pieces of equipment (a new drop box allows permanent storage, but still serves little purpose beyond dropping all of the useless items anyway). Even the translation inadvertently feeds you false information; in the beginning, you are given a choice to add an extra weapon to your starting character, one of the choices being a ring that “regenerates lost HP”; Upon starting the game, however, the item’s description changes to merely “raising max HP”. While the game features many deceiving moments, this was most likely not one of them.

To sum it up, Dark Souls and its predecessor may be the most definitive example of what makes a videogame “Hardcore.” There will be many deaths and many flaring tempers that may require a day or two of meditation to attempt jumping back in, but like an abusive lover, Dark Souls wins you back every time just before it delivers another bitch-slap to your face…and you just may learn to love it.

 

- Jorge Fernandez

(October 24, 2011)

 

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