[There's been a lot of confusion as to whether or not reviewers have actually beaten the game - so here goes: I completed Dark Souls at Soul Level 77, after 37 hours and 10 minutes of play - for reference, I beat Demon's Souls at Level 76, at 22 hours and 30 minutes of play. Dark Souls is a considerably longer, and harder game.]
The spiritual successor to one of the “hardest games of this generation” is finally here – ready and waiting to knock gamers’ teeth out, then rip off all your appendages and laugh. While that may seem over the top – so is Dark Souls. There are literally areas in this game where you can get killed in less than a second from enemies that ambushed you from a small alcove; cursed so you only have half your total HP every time you spawn until you find the cure vendor; then be reborn as a hollow shell of your former self.
This is the world of Dark Souls – are you ready?
Dark Souls starts innocently enough with its character creation screen, allowing you to choose from a number of classes, and this time around, from a number of “gifts”. All of the gifts outside of the Master Key (which the Thief gets automatically) are obtainable in-game, so this part is kind of insignificant, but helps add a little bit of customization to the creation of your hero. Unfortunately, the creation tool itself is still horrendously bad, so good luck creating anything that doesn’t look as if it escaped from the set of The Muppets.
Once you’re good to go, you start in a tutorial area that’s set up very close to what Demon’s Souls had, but this time around, you have to beat the [easy] end-boss. Once you’re done with him, you’re on your own – literally! The game will basically throw you into a semi-home location called Firelink Shrine, and tell you your mission is to ring the Two Bells of Awakening, then “something” will happen. Congratulations on hearing your first vague “tip” – this is about as descriptive as Dark Souls ever gets.
When I say you’re “on your own” – I mean it. There is no “Nexus” – no home base of operations to visit and regather your thoughts/items. Instead, you must seek the comfort of bonfires, scattered about the game’s areas, to level up, and fine-tune your character. Upon finding and lighting a bonfire, you can respawn at it after dying – some bonfires are very conveniently located near boss fights – some are literally five minutes away – some are completely hidden from view – essentially you’re at the mercy of wherever the game decides to put these bonfires.
Overall, I like the bonfire system, but I know a lot of people are going to miss the “Nexus” style mechanic from Demon’s Souls. Simply put – the Nexus was easy street. If you were stuck, you just went back to your safe home location, where all of the vendors conveniently located, tried 2-1, 3-1, 4-1, and 5-1 in sequential order, and eventually found the “right” way to go. In Dark Souls, the game vaguely tells you where you need to go next, and then hopes that you’re able to find it.
There’s no teleportation mechanic until basically the end of the game – so you have to go by memory, or if you’re resourceful, by consulting an online map. While apprehensive at first, I eventually warmed up to this idea and found myself randomly wandering around, enjoying the sheer diversity of some of the areas. While most of them aren’t as memorable as Demon’s Souls, they’re still really fun, and suicide runs are still a blast, given how much loot the game has.
Dark Souls basically plays to this tune the entire game. It’s as if From Software listened to people’s complaints about Demon’s Souls being too easy, and threw absurd mechanics into the game just to make it harder. But you know what? I loved them for it. No longer can you “cheese” bosses by getting into a certain area and spamming arrows/spells (you can still cheese a lot of regular enemies though – which is part of the experience). All of the bosses in Dark Souls rush you down, and force you to react; making them a joy and a challenge to fight.
It creates a thrilling experience that really isn’t replicated in games today, and as a result, I forged new memories of classic boss fights for years to come. Make no mistake, like Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls can be beaten on skill alone. If you master dodge rolling (Demon’s Souls fans take note – the rolling invincibility frame is shorter), back-stabbing, and the parry/riposte mechanic, you’ll go far. If not, you’ll have to grind for souls, and you can still beat the game, with stats making up for the skill-gap. But despite how much fun the game is, it’s littered with some pretty inexcusable technical issues that detract from the overall experience.
There are two areas in particular where the framerate drops significantly, to the point where it is utterly unplayable for a few seconds. This mostly happened when I was climbing up ladders, but it can happen when the game has to render a particularly large area. It also wasn’t just an isolated incident. Upon doing a suicide run through the Londo Ruins, the game would lock up for five full seconds on this one particular short-cut ladder I preferred to take. Each time I had to wait for the game to catch up with itself, for the framerate to return to normal. This is pretty inexcusable considering how great the visuals look at times (anything with fur on it looks incredible up close).
There are also a number of bugs that are very similar in nature to Demon’s Souls, most notably collision detection issues, auto-locking issues, and online issues that are isolated to Dark Souls. Sometimes the collision detection will feel a bit off, to the point where an enemy will get an unfair hit on you, or you’ll miss an obvious hit – this can get pretty annoying at times, but it’s also a pretty rare occurrence. Another rare bug is when the lock-on system doesn’t allow you to switch targets – I noticed that this consistently happened in a few areas, with particular enemies every time (just like the framerate drops). However, like the detection problems, I didn’t have too much of an issue with it.
What I do take major issue with is the [lack of] online infrastructure that publisher Namco Bandai has set up. There’s a very simple explanation for this massive ball-drop: Atlus used dedicated global servers for online play, and Namco Bandai opted to go with smaller P2P servers. As a result, a lot of the online components that are essential to the “Souls” experience, like checking bloodstains to see how an online player died, checking notes left by players, summoning others to help with boss fights, and fighting off PVP invaders, are scarce.
Considering Dark Souls is apparently out-selling Demon’s Souls, I was shocked when I noticed considerably less blood stains on the ground, until I found out that Namco-Bandai was behind it. Personally, I try to tackle the “Souls” games solo – with as little help as possible, so I didn’t feel the burn of the shoddy server setup. However, I do know that a lot of gamers out there strictly play these games with friends, or as a “helper” for low level players with tough boss fights. Unfortunately, those people may want to pass on this one, especially since the Demon’s Souls servers are still open.
All in all, Dark Souls is a more difficult, but less enjoyable (and less accessible) Demon’s Souls. Personally, I think From Software’s latest offering has too many technical problems for it to be enjoyed by the masses; but if you’re a glutton for punishment, you may get even more out of Dark Souls just because of the difficulty, and extended length – I know I did.