A lot of words come to mind when thinking of Demon’s Souls. Hard. Rewarding. Gorgeous. Clever. Classic. Unique. Rude. 2009’s most nut-bustingly tough RPG made a statement about the easy, hand holding nature of many games today, throwing it all aside for old school punishment. The game gained a cult following after word spread about the extreme difficulty and hardcore appeal. The build up to sort of sequel, Dark Souls, was understandably tense. Could they really improve on such a unique game without becoming the very thing From Software threw aside – a modern game?
Yes. Dark Souls delivers on all the hype, offering one of the most challenging and rewarding RPGs of the last decade. No game can match the thrill of bringing down the massive gargoyle, demon, or other Lovecraftian horror that’s been using your bones as toothpicks for the last hour or the terrifying sense of lonliness as you explore ancient open air ruins filled with undead, not knowing where the next safe spot will be. It punishes reckless actions, slapping your hero into oblivion for missteps and rewarding careful aggression. More than anything, Dark Souls demands patience, and an understanding that you can always get up and try again later when you lose that massive pile of experience (which happens every time you die unless you invest it into stats), in a way that Demon’s Souls could only dream about.
But let’s talk about Demon’s Souls for a minute, the spiritual predecessor to Dark Souls. Anyone familiar with the previous game will feel instantly familiar with new one. In fact, maybe a bit too familiar. The controls handle almost exactly same, with equipment still divided between hands, fast and strong attacks differing in animations and usefulness for all weapons, and even identical dodging techniques. The environments, while much more detailed and nonlinear in Dark Souls, seem recycled. For example, cliffside ruins filled with acrobatic skeleton swordsmen and a church complex overrun with zombie soldiers hark back to the Island of the Storm King and Boletaria Castle from Demon’s Souls. So at times, this game feels more like an upgraded version of the first one than a real sequel.
But what an upgrade! Players have numerous chances to look out across beautiful vistas of dark, misty chasms and sunlit mountain crags. The numerous paths and corrodors are complex, branching and doubling back over themselves to glorious excess, all filled with dirt, rocks, bones, and all sort of signs that you’re in a bad place. The environments feel truly eerie in a way that hasn’t happened since the early days of Silent Hill. Adding to all that beautiful horror is the fact that you feel truly alone and desperate in a hostile environment.
Dark Souls features nonlinear gameplay where players can “go anywhere they can see at any time,” as the developers loved touting so much. Well, you can’t, but not because of invisible walls or not having the right ability, but because the difficulty literally goes with the territory. Every part of the game is tremendously difficult, but you can wander into much higher level areas quite easily, with your constant deaths the only indication that you shouldn’t be there…yet. This adds to the replay value by enabling areas that require players to quest through the game at least once before they have enough skill and levels built up to handle the toughest areas. Plus, since the game has been expertly balanced, any playstyle you can think of is probably viable and the liberated level up system allows you to change your mind and work on new attributes at the drop of a hat to build exactly the hero you want.
Online features return to enable cooperation or competition, sometimes without your consent. Players can drop marks on the ground for other nearby players of similar level to see and summon them into their game for co-op demon hunting. But, other less scrupulous people can invade other’s games and duel them instead. Dark Souls encourages both styles of play, even allowing special covenants (in game clans that offer various benefits) dedicated to giving reported players a tough time or to infecting other people’s games with world altering curses.
Though, the gameplay isn’t perfect. Melee is heavily favored by the combat system in which spells have a strict number of casts and are replenished by resting at campfires (which heal you and respawn all your enemies, of course). Plus, having to scavenge and forge much of your equipment means a decent sword is simple, but finding someone to teach you new spells can take ages. The frame rate also suffers in some areas and when playing with multiple people online, sometimes enough to make playing a challenge. And a few graphical glitches mean that a zombie solider might warp to the top of a staircase and slash you a few times. Overall, however, these are minor annoyances that only minorly detract from the game.
The Good: Letting players play exactly how they want in a game where when you lose, it feels like it was because you did something dumb rather than something cheap happened.
The Bad: The difficulty and sense of exploration can make Dark Souls not only daunting, but downright exhausting. A typical playthrough is about 65 hours, and multiple playthroughs are required to really see everything.
And the rest: With a brutal difficulty that will keep many players from finishing, and others from even starting, no other game dishes out this kind of modern take on classic principles…except for Demon’s Souls. Mixing tons of fun, mountains of replayability, and endless lessons in patience, Dark Souls is a must have for any serious action/adventure or RPG fan.
Not quite convinced? Want a second opinion?
Second Opinion by Elht:
As a newcomer to the Dark Souls universe, I went into From Software’s Dark Souls with the following statements that I’ve heard since Demon’s Souls: I’m going to die a lot, this game is incredibly hard, and it’s one of the most rewarding games I’ll ever play. All of these points hold true as this seamless RPG stands and delivers in just about every category. I actually enjoyed how punishing it is. Enemies are intelligent and hit mercilessly hard, boss fights are gregarious and unrelenting, and the combat mechanics are top-notch, making death (your new best friend), a well-deserved punishment for brash behavior. The environment poses a threat as well. While you tend to hit invisible walls and such on cliff edges in just about any other game, in Dark Souls, one wrong step, and you’ll plummet into oblivion. Forced to restart (with full re-spawns!) back at the beginning, losing all of your gained experience as penalty at the point of your death, where it’ll remain at the particular spot until you get it back. Be warned, however, for if you die again before reclaiming your “essence”, you lose everything, having to restart with zero souls from the beginning.
Despite the misery you’re forced to endure in Dark Souls, you are always more than compensated for you’re efforts. With impressive loot that not only looks and feels powerful, it hits like a truck. Ragdolling those damn ghouls who had recently made mince-meat of you 20 minutes ago, you never feel cheated with loot, as you deserve every piece of shiny new armor. However with my exposure to the game as a sorcerer, I found it hard to find any particular magic-orientated items, leaving me to sword and board though significant chunks of gameplay before I was able to utilize my spells.
My only complaint with Dark Souls were some noticeable frame rate drops that occurred sporadically, as well as some ludicrously cheap deaths. (Dragon breathing fire on the bridge every two seconds, seriously?) Or some low-res particle effects, particularly with fire (played on 360). However just about every other aspect is flawless. I instantly fell in love with the game, it definitely puts some hair on your chest, but still lets you squeal like a girl after getting that massive demon battleaxe. Dark Souls is definitely not for the faint of heart, so those traditionally accustomed to more lighthearted RPG’s, should do best to stray away. But those looking to really get down and dirty with a mean RPG, Dark Souls is definitely for you.