Review: Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition

Developer: From Software | Year: 2011 | List Price: $19.99 | Buy from Amazon

Dark SoulsIf you’ve read some of my other videogame reviews, you’ll know I have a tendency to play games on hardware that really shouldn’t be allowed to play games. I reached a new level when a couple of weeks ago, I bought Dark Souls on the recommendation of a friend. My Sony VAIO running Windows XP didn’t even meet the minimum requirements this time! But after some lowering of resolutions and disabling of textures using DSFix I was able to run the game at a solid 15 FPS most of the time (except in Blighttown!). And last Friday, after 25 days and 62 gametime hours, I finally beat the game! Now beating Dark Souls is not like beating any other game. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I’ve beaten a video game that did not want me to beat it. Dark Souls is known for its notoriously hard gameplay, and playing it offline solo, I can certainly validate that sentiment. Dark Souls is the kind of game you don’t feel bad looking up guidance for, because it’s so darn hard even when you know exactly what to do!

But what exactly is the game like? Well, I’ve heard it said that if Shigeru Miyamoto had access to modern hardware in 1986, The Legend of Zelda might look an awful lot like Dark Souls. Much of what makes Dark Souls unique isn’t immediately apparent. Under the western-gothic aesthetic is a game that’s Japanese through-and-through, with all the stubborn, obtuse quirk you’d expect from a game out of the Land of the Rising Sun. And though Dark Souls is open-world, don’t expect Skyrim’s freedom. Dark Souls’ openness is more akin to the 2D Metroidvania games of the late 1990s and early 2000s, translated to 3D, of course. The world of Lordran really isn’t as big as it first seems, but that actually works in Dark Souls’ favour.

Because if there’s a word that describes Dark Souls, it’s tight. The world is designed to give you as much challenge-per-square-foot as possible, something which you notice only once you stop dying every thirty seconds. Dark Souls does a really good job of tricking you into thinking the world is huge when in fact everything isn’t as far apart as it seems. If you know where to go and what parts are optional, the game isn’t really that long at all. In fact, I’ve seen the game beaten in 51 minutes, no glitches! This is by design, and you’ll get that classic Metroidvania rush of satisfaction when you find a clever shortcut that takes you back to a checkpoint you found half an hour earlier.

The overall premise of Dark Souls is tight as well. If you’re looking for lots of clever dialogue and tons of exposition, you’d better look elsewhere. Apart from a short scene describing antecedent action a la Lord of the Rings, you’re left to figure out Dark Souls’ story on your own. There also aren’t plenty of NPCs to interact with (I saw maybe 20 or so in the entire game). That’s not to say there isn’t lore to Dark Souls’ universe though. A lot of the storytelling is done through item descriptions and the vague dialogue you share with other characters adds to the overall mystery of the world. Understanding of the story is mostly optional, which I found refreshing, since it left me to appreciate what’s really best about Dark Souls: the gameplay.

Dark Souls may look like a hack-and-slash action RPG, and on a surface level, it kind of is. But Dark Souls veterans often take offence to that descriptor, because hacking and slashing will get you nowhere in Dark Souls. Because attacks are slow and cost lots of stamina (think Monster Hunter), mashing the attack button will lead to an empty stamina bar, which’ll lead to an empty health bar and a friendly ‘You Died’ notification. Unlike hack-and-slash games, your shield is vital to your survival, as is the dodge button. Also, you won’t want to take more than one enemy on at a time. You certainly can, and will have to at some points, but Dark Souls’ combat is meant to be slow and methodical, where every move is a risk-reward calculation and any misstep could cost you your life.

Death means death in Dark Souls. You can’t reload a save point, but you’re sent back to the last checkpoint, or bonfire, that you rested at. You’ll be given your health back, but you’ll lose all your souls (the game’s equivalent of both experience and money), and all enemies will respawn. But as the game taketh away, it also giveth you a chance to redeem yourself: If you can get back to the place you died without dying again, you’ll be able to recover your lost souls. This gives the very act of exploring a risk-and-reward nature as well, for though you can return to a bonfire to rest up and cash in souls, enemies will respawn and you’ll have to do everything over again. But if you press onwards towards the next bonfire, you may die too far away to recover your souls the next time. It’s all very stressful, very demanding, and very satisfying.

If you’ve read other commentary regarding Dark Souls on the internet, most people tend to say that, although Dark Souls is very difficult, it’s also very fair, and when you die, it’s your fault. I’m not going to agree wholeheartedly with this opinion. I have had too many camera-related deaths to be able to say that it was always my fault when I died. But generally, dying in Dark Souls tends to be part of the learning experience, and there’s a wonderful thought of ‘If only I did that one part differently, I’d’ve succeeded!’ when you die. Even the hardest parts of Dark Souls always feel remotely possible, and the game motivates you to get better. In other words, the real character progression is taking place in your mind and not the game.

In fact, experience points aren’t really the driving force behind character progression at all. If you have a choice between spending souls on upgrading equipment or levelling up, it’s almost always a better idea to upgrade your equipment, especially earlier on. Something I really appreciated about the equipment system is how nearly every piece of equipment is viable. It’s not like Skyrim in which steel armour is clearly better than iron armour, and daedric clearly better than steel. You can use almost any piece of equipment into the endgame. You simply have to put the effort into upgrading it. And some items that aren’t the best at first are actually superior later on due to how the equipment scales with your stats.

I can’t speak too much for the online system, since I was forced to play offline due to poor framerate. If you play online, you can summon friends to help you with difficult sections or tough bosses. However, you can also be invaded if you’re in human form. This means you people can come into your game, kill you, and just up and take your souls. I can’t decide whether Dark Souls sounds harder or easier when played online. All I know is that it isn’t absolutely vital, and I enjoyed the game immensely even not having played a single minute of it with another player.

So far, everything seems pretty rosy. But Dark Souls isn’t perfect, contrary to the opinion of many fanboys you’ll hear. For one, the game does a really bad job of explaining to you its systems, so much so that unless you had some verbal guidance from someone in the know (in my case, my friend, though the internet is helpful too), the difficulty can be artificially inflated simply because the game is tricking you into making the game harder. For example, nowhere in the game did it explicitly tell me I could summon NPCs to help me with some boss fights, and if my friend had never told me how to do this, I’d probably still be in Blighttown suffering from poison darts and low framerate instead of recounting my tale of victory!

Also, the PC port of the game seems to be a mess, and this isn’t just because my laptop is an old potato. There are many reports online that the framerate really does chug for everyone in some places and other events are downright glitched (one NPC’s sidequest was permanently closed off for me because of some weird bug). There are third-party mods for almost any problem at this point, but there really is no excuse nowadays for full-price PC ports to be this unoptimised. And finally, dialogue is pretty darn horrible. It’s written in ‘ye olde Englishe’, but the translators didn’t go to the trouble to make sure things are actually conjugated and declined properly (hint: adding ‘-eth’ to every verb doesn’t automatically make everything grammatical, and ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ aren’t interchangeable). Voice acting is campy at its best and cheesy at its worst.

In a time when games have strayed away from their primary purpose to compete with films, Dark Souls is a refreshing instance of gameplay taking precedent over all else. Don’t buy it expecting a cinematic narrative to last the ages. Instead, expect a well-designed, well-thought-out gaming experience that’ll please you as much as it’ll frustrate you.

Design: 9/10 Dark Souls stinks of deliberation in every aspect of its design. The eerie, gothic-inspired world is carefully crafted to kill you in devious ways, and there are tons of nooks and crannies to explore. The story is interesting, but largely takes a backseat to gameplay, which is a good thing.

Visuals: 9/10 I played the game down-res’d to 480p, but even then there were some stunning-looking moments to the scenery and environments. And from what I’ve seen of Dark Souls on the PS3, it is by no means an ugly game.

Sound: 8/10 Unlike some games’ soundtracks, there aren’t any standout themes to mention (with the possible exception of the final boss fight music). In fact, many areas don’t have any music at all! But this is all part of the overall unsettling vibe the game exudes and the sound is generally quite well done where it is present. Voice acting is pretty cheesy though.

Gameplay: 10/10 From Software’s ‘Souls’ games exist in a space all of their own, and you won’t find any other games that feel quite like them. The frustratingly difficult gameplay is complemented by a wholly rewarding progression system that encourages the player to learn rather than rely on stats and brute force. There’s never a dull moment in Dark Souls, and I’ve memorised Dark Souls’ environments more than I have any other game’s in recent memory, more out of necessity than anything. Dark Souls, from a pure gameplay perspective, is a sublime experience that you won’t find anywhere else.

Value: 10/10 Dark Souls isn’t expensive nowadays (roughly $20 most places), and you’re getting an adventure whose main quest will last you 50 hours at the very least, and upwards of 100 if you attempt to do everything (which I certainly didn’t). That’s not even including the New Game Plus mode which has you playing the game again with all your old equipment and levels but also with harder enemies. Dark Souls gives you plenty of bang for your buck, and best of all, it never feels padded.

Total: 46/50 (A)

List Price: $19.99 | Buy from Amazon

Have you played/beaten Dark Souls? How did you like it? Tell us in the comments!

I’m really excited to play Dark Souls II and Bloodborne. I’ve actually already bought a PS4, though I’m not allowed to play it until exams are over in late June. For now, I’m just messing around with games on Vita again. I just started Broken Age, and have developed an interesting addiction to Hotshots Golf! Who knows what I’ll review next!

Until next time, make sure you check out the rest of our videogame-related reviews, articles, and tutorials!

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