Published on December 11th, 2012 | by Luke Wetherall
Dark Souls – Quick, before the sequel comes out!
So, with the surprise announcement of a Dark Souls sequel at this year’s VGAs – what better way to “celebrate” this milestone than to get a random outsider to review the original game. One who bought it on the cheap from Steam recently, no less.
Dark Souls – and its spiritual prequel, Demon’s Souls, have been branded the bad asses of the swords-n’-sandals JRPG world. Unforgiving enemies, cruel sprawling environments laden with pitfalls, and a general feeling of helplessness to boot… hmm, sounds like an average weekend on the town for me; anyhow.
Created by From Software – responsible for the King’s Field, Armored Core, and – more recently – the Tenchu series – you can see that this branding is probably well deserved. It’s important to note however, the difficulty arises as a direct result of your own bitter shortcomings. Speeding along recklessly, spamming attacks in frustration (usually after your third death in just as many minutes) will ensure that this brutal game will continually break you down, and call you Dolly.
Passing the title screen, the game introduces itself with customizable character creation. Although detailed there’s nothing ground breaking here in terms of how you’re going to look (you’ll be staring at the arse end after all), but the choice of class is satisfying, if not a wee bit vague on the description front. Primary skills, stat points, and starter gear differ based on your choice. There’s also “special gift” item with the potential to drastically alter your path.
Controls are simply laid out and a doddle to get used to; 4 quick-use slots, 4 buttons for whatever is equipped in each hand ( light / heavy attacks, block and parry, etc.), an evade / run which will get some action, and a button to shift your stance – easy! However – if you do not use a control pad (PS3 Sixaxis was used here, for reference), you may have better luck trying to wrestle a shark armed with nothing but a dead badger and an empty tube of Pringles. Yes, this is a console port – and for this transgression, your mouse and keyboard must be sacrificed to a petty and vengeful god.
After getting the basics nailed, and passing through the tutorial area, the game unfurls before you with no indication of your next move, no hint as to your purpose… not even a faded map on a dirty piece of parchment – you are totally on your own from here on in, and it feels somewhat liberating. There’s no big floating location arrow or orange exclamation mark to hand it to you, everything Dark Souls is willing to concede must be earned.
Each of the starter locations reveals itself to be unique and deadly in its own right, abandoned castle grounds host a plethora of undead soldiers. Sewers introduce poisons, curses, and your common-or-garden blobs of slime, whilst a map-linking bridge – complete with closed portcullis framed by gorgeous vista – pushes you lovingly into the immediate path of massive red dragon; capable of one hit kills.
Pitfalls and “dick-moves” are staggered generously, and you soon realise that each one is avoidable somehow in its own right. You only have yourself to blame, and that’s extremely important when the gameplay is this punitive. Each enemy has its strengths, weaknesses, and surprises; and all can be defeated regardless of your chosen play style – although during my play through as a melee tank build, it did seem in some areas that ranged weapons tipped the balance in my favour significantly.
As with many of From Software’s sprawling epics, the vast playing field is cleverly interlinked by unlockable short-cuts hidden throughout. Even with the game’s fast travel system being locked initially, the fantastic map design means exploration never feels like a burden. This in turn makes for a very satisfying risk verses reward ratio as you progress – especially if you manage to find an unintentional advantage over a massive obstacle in your path.
An unintentional what now? Oh, by that I mean you find a glitch. But for some reason, it’s a very satisfying discovery. As opposed to the reaction of “You are unclean! You must bathe in the blood of a thousand Xbox Live subscribers to absolve you of your sins”, you seem to be half-heartedly congratulated by the game before being thrust right back into the swing of things. From taking longbow pot-shots beyond just out of range, to being too high off the ground for an undead drake to target you, it’s like the game wants you to abuse it and take advantage of it’s technological flaws, as a kind of sadistic “thank you” for putting up with its wicked ways.
Despite being well received on consoles, Namco Bandai were surprisingly reluctant to bring its predecessor to western territories. Subsequently Dark Souls adopted the Xbox360 – and it was now the turn of the PC gamer to have a whinge, and whinge we did – in our thousands. The result was adorned with the “Prepare to Die” moniker. Aside the obvious taunting this indicates the addition of the “Artorias of the Abyss” DLC at no extra cost; merging nicely into the original areas without being too obvious, and fleshing out the lore with some truly menacing creatures.
Predominately a single player romp, there are a few multiplayer aspects in the form of co-op and PvP invasions initiated via an inventory item. These are handled via the infamous Games for Windows Live platform, complete with attached achievements and gamerpoints – sorry Steam lovers, no bragging rights for you here. The summoned player is generally there just for the farming of souls used for level advancement, upgrades, and purchasing consumables in their own world, which is a nice mechanic to use and abuse – especially in the latter stages. Meanwhile the summoner gets a helping hand with a pesky boss or a particularly challenging area; a mutually beneficial arrangement.
PvP is an entirely more sinister affair. Initialised in a similar way to co-op, you may “invade” another player’s world, and treat them as prey. The map will be sectioned off to prevent escape, teleportation items are disabled, and normal play will only resume when either the invader – or the owner of the world – is slain for their souls. Trust me when I say that your first taste of invasion will be a harrowing experience – you’ll scrabble around trying to find a vantage point whilst the invader tracks you down, it’s only a matter of time before the tell-tale red glow comes into focus, as you’re spotted pretending to be a tree. You’ll freeze momentarily, you’ll accept the fact that you’re now targeted before raising your shield, you’ll swing your weapon – only to get that nagging feeling that you’ve hit the button way too early and…
Another interactive feature available through GFWL is the ability to leave markers for other passers-by. Using pre-made fragments, you can usually spell out what’s to be expected around the next corner – a hard to kill enemy, the promise of a save point nearby, or the instruction to “Try Jumping!” positioned next to a huge cliff edge. I think I pose no threat of spoilers when I say “The cake is a Lie” here…
After clocking up over 65 hours it’s still holding my attention in an iron grip. A praiseworthy achievement indeed. The fabled difficulty put me off purchasing initially, and I’m kicking myself. Past that veil is a well produced, challenging, yet rewarding RPG, with enough twists and turns to be replayed over and over again. My only major criticism being the lack of high-definition textures, a curious oversight from From Software. However, this being the PC some clever chap has made it his personal crusade to correct this injustice allowing the rest of us humble mortals to enjoy the full glorious detail. Dark Souls is not only a tough, pretty, enjoyable, huge, engrossing RPG that will keep you coming back for more, but a triumphant advertisement for PC gaming. Just, please, use a joypad.