Review: Dark Souls

In my review of The Witcher 2, I talked about how challenging the game is relative to most other single player games on the market. However, the difficulty of From Software’s Dark Souls makes The Witcher 2 look like child’s play in comparison. You can spend a couple of hours trying to beat one section of one level, and at times the game is so trying it will almost break your will. But if you persevere, it will all pay off with the euphoria of victory. If you’re the type of gamer who’s easily frustrated and despises a challenge, you will hate Dark Souls, I can assure you. But if you thrive on being pushed to your limit, you will have a blast playing what’s best described as Battletoads for a new generation.

Dark Souls is the hardest game you'll play this year.

How difficult is the game? Well, after I finished the tutorial, it took me 3 or 4 hours to get to and beat the first real boss fight. And as you progress further, the levels get progressively more difficult. Before you know it, you’re crossing a bridge that’s barely as wide as your character’s shoulders, while at the same time there are blades swinging across the path. Or there’s another part where 5-6 enemies are shooting toxic poison darts which can quickly kill you.

But the best way to explain how punishing the game can be is to talk about curses. In the sewer portion of the game, there are frog-like creatures which leave up clouds of magical poison. If you stay in the poison for more than a second or so, you instantly die. When you respawn, you are now cursed. When cursed, you have 50% of your total overall health. The curse can stack up to three times, which means you’d be at an eighth of your total health. The only way to cure a curse is with an item that is a rare drop, or is in limited stock on certain vendors. If that sounds really hard and not fun, then this game is probably not for you.

While I would categorize Dark Souls as an Action RPG, unlike other role-playing games there is a very minimal story. A brief cut scene at the start describes the setting. You’re a “hollow” undead, and must journey back to the normal world. As you progress through the game, characters you speak to give you tidbits about what’s happening and your basic goals. But other than a vague sense of direction, you really aren’t getting much of a narrative.

You can leave notes for other players to read.

But I like that this lack of direction in Dark Souls translates to a lack of hand-holding. There’s no quest log, no map, and certainly no minimap. Characters will usually tell you when you need to go to a particular area, but you’re left to your own devices when it’s time to figure out how to get there. Something that somewhat mitigates this is the unique built-in community hint system. The way it works is something like this. When you first start the game, it connects you to a master server. This server facilitates exchanging of data between players in the same area of the game. For example, as you’re running around you’ll see ghostly phantoms of other players who fought and died nearby.

But the other thing you’ll see is orange glowing notes on the ground. These notes have been left by other players, and can be read to get some sense of what needs to be done. Oftentimes, helpful players will leave you a message to let you know when there’s danger ahead. Of course, evil players might be trying to trick you, and that did happen to me occasionally. But for the most part, the note system functions as a sort of in-game hint system. Thankfully, you don’t have to worry about profanity-laced or useless spam, because the phrases you can use are all pre-written. You can pick a phrase with a fill-in-the-blank noun, and there are 50 or so nouns you can pick from a list.

The notes aren’t going to tell you about every little secret in the game, though. For example, every NPC in the entire game can be killed, even if they’re an important vendor. If you kill them, they aren’t coming back. But if you loot their corpse, they may have a unique item that you can’t get in any other way. For example, there’s a specific (and awesome) ring I got on my character that only drops from one NPC. I probably wouldn’t have known about it if someone else hadn’t told me, but I think that can add to the fun. Other secrets include special weapons which can be crafted for you, and several other neat little hidden gems which add to the fun factor.

Your class simply determines your starting stats and items.

Where Dark Souls really shines, however, is in its core mechanics. The combat itself is very fulfilling, and has mechanics like blocking, parries, basic combos, rolls, and so on. In my journey through the game, I started as a thief but then chose to play essentially as a ninja (I had a katana, ninja armor, and a ring that allowed me to do backflips). But the game supports quite a few different styles. You can choose to be a pyromancer, a knight with a sword and a shield, a shaman, and pretty much anything you can think of. The character system is just that flexible.

Characters have roughly 10 primary stats. These stats range from obvious ones such as vitality (which increases your health), to more bizarre ones such as attunement (which determines how many spell slots you have). When you first create your character, like in many other RPGs you pick a class. However, all the class really determines is your initial stat point allocation and what equipment you start out with. It’s quite possible to start as a warrior, but then later on increase your magic by a large amount. Though given the level of difficulty of the game, that’s probably not the best decision you could make.

Whenever you kill an enemy, you gain souls. The bigger the enemy, the more souls you get. Once you’ve collected enough souls, you have a decision to make. You can either use the souls to level up, or you can use them to purchase items from vendors. Unlike games which have separate gold and experience, in Dark Souls the gold is the experience. This provides an interesting dynamic because you’re constantly deciding whether you want to save up your souls for an item, or if you want to level up.

Bonfires serve as your checkpoints, among other things.

The decision isn’t one to be taken lightly because of one little wrinkle in the plan. You see, whenever you die, you drop all your souls. You then respawn at your last save point, and have one chance to return to where you died and pick up those souls. If you die on the way back, tough luck. Your souls will disappear into the ether and you’ll never get them back. So you never want to be running around in a new area with a lot of souls, because you have a good chance of losing them.

Unlike many modern games, Dark Souls doesn’t have “save anywhere” and there are no automatic checkpoints. The way you save your progress is by visiting a bonfire somewhere in the game world. However, when you access a bonfire, all non-boss enemies in the game world respawn. So you can’t kill one enemy, save, and repeat until you’ve cleared an area. You have to be able to complete the segment until the next bonfire in one fell swoop. The bonfire also serves a few other functions. You level up, equip spells, and access your storage, among other things, from your bonfire.

Learn how to parry and riposte. It's useful.

The bonfire also allows you to use a “humanity” consumable to become human again. When you’re in human form, you can leave a summoning mark on the ground. Any nearby undead player (meeting level criteria) can then see this mark, and if they click on it they’ll join in your game. When playing as a phantom in another player’s game, you don’t get any souls. However, if you help them successfully defeat a boss, you get humanity (which is also an occasional rare drop from regular enemies). The downside of being in human form is that other undead players can also choose to invade your game as a black phantom. If they kill you, they then get all the souls you currently have. Once you die in human form, you become undead once more.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to really test the phantom feature that much, because of server issues. A mistake From Software made is that there are several master servers, and you are randomly assigned to one when you start up the game. So it can be very hard to summon the phantom of your friend, because there’s no way to guarantee you’re on the same master server. Furthermore, it may be a function of my NAT being moderate, but I could only successfully connect to other players roughly half the time. This was a bit disappointing.

But other than the server quirkiness, my only other real complaint is the input queuing when doing a combo. The input for your next attack in the combo is locked in while the previous attacks are being executed. So for instance, if you press the attack button three times in rapid succession, you will do a three hit combo. But suppose during the second hit you decide you instead want to roll away instead of doing the third hit. Chances are, you won’t be able to override the input and may end up doing a third attack which gets you killed. This may be a side effect of the framerate, which definitely has some hitches here or there, or maybe it was intended. In any event, I ended up training myself to not mash the button, and instead wait until the previous attack is going before I press the input for my next attack.

But my problems with the game are fairly minor in the grand scheme of things. Throughout the 60+ hours it took me to complete the game, I had a great time. Dark Souls is an extreme test of your gaming cred. And just like differential equations, passing is an accomplishment in and of itself.

VERDICT: SINGING CANARY

Dark Souls is available now on Xbox 360 and PS3. Review was conducted on Xbox 360. Reviews generally appear every Friday on Game Canary. This was a Thanksgiving catch-up review. The Game Canary review system is detailed here.

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