About a month ago, ‘Dark Souls’ was available on Xbox Live’s fantastic ‘Games with gold’ deal, and i had heard endless amounts of praise for the game, so I went ahead and downloaded it. I kind of missed the boat on it up until this point as it honestly just didn’t really interest me, but I was pretty sorely mistaken in letting it pass me by.
I am familiar with the developer, From Software (creators of the excellent ‘Otogi’ games for the original Xbox. If you get a chance, check them out), and Dark Souls is fairly standard fare for them; a harsh learning curve, beautiful graphics, and lots of strange, often scary creatures. From about the word go, the game is very difficult, but after a while, you come to realize that beating a certain section is all about learning when to take advantage of opportunities, studying enemy attack patterns, and when to go into defensive/evasive mode (being greedy with attacks, even with easier enemies, is probably one of the fastest ways to die), even if this does mean dying five times in a row before even landing a hit. It’s fair to say that the game rewards patience, even if you are close to throwing your controller out of the window.
The story of the game is quite unclear (something that put me off to begin with), but from what I can ascertain, you are an undead warrior in a world that is taking its dying breaths, and essentially, you are supposed to save it, or at least buy it some time. The rest of the story is left up to the player to discover, and while it has a rich mythology, a lot of the exposition is either delivered by the characters you meet, or actually looking at the Wiki page. The world itself is wonderfully vibrant, and quite varied, and I liked the fact that if there was an area you could see in the distance, you could probably visit it at some point.
The friendly NPCs are mostly either melancholic (two characters actually have the term ‘crestfallen’ in their name) or slightly mad, and I use the term ‘friendly’ in a fairly loose sense; they won’t attack you unless attacked first, but they are fairly indifferent to your presence (aside from maybe a select few) unless you want to trade with them. This sparse method of story telling is both a blessing and a curse, depending on your play style; at first I was going for the “run in with a massive sword, ask questions later” approach, which was fine for a while, until I realized I had no idea who this giant spider woman was, or why I was fighting her. I imagine that a lot of players have had this problem, but it is nice to play a game where the story isn’t forced in your face.
While all of the enemies present some level of threat, I never felt as though it was unbalanced towards certain player builds; my characters strongest skill was melee combat, and while I did find that some boss battles would have been easier if I had put more points into magic stats, it never felt impossible. Having said this, if you do find a certain part too hard, you can go to a different section to do some level grinding or face an easier boss and come back when you are stronger.
Level grinding in this game is encouraged, and while the leveling and upgrade system is complicated (I still feel like I am missing something in terms of weapon upgrades), it presents a huge potential for player customization, so anyone who enjoys making small tweaks in order to create a stronger overall character will enjoy this aspect. Leveling up and getting new equipment is dependent on how many souls you have, and you will find that there isn’t too big of a gap in terms of getting upgrades for your player, as the easiest way to collect souls is through killing enemies, or finding souls on corpses.
If taking a certain route and getting immediately decimated isn’t enough of a sign that you should rethink your strategy, there are messages written on the floor that have been left by other players. Some messages give helpful tips, while some are not so helpful (“Try jumping” written at the edge of a chasm of death, which I couldn’t help but laugh at the first time I fell for it) and some are just nonsensical (“Praise the sun!”).
There are also opportunities to summon “phantoms” to help you in the fight if you are having too much trouble. Said phantoms take the form of either friendly NPCs you met earlier, or other real world players that may be playing at the same time as you, which, added to the message system, presents a fairly unique interweaving of single player and multiplayer gameplay. Opening the opportunity to summon phantoms can also be dangerous to you though, as malicious phantoms can also invade at any time, and again, these take the form of computer controlled characters, or other real world players, which keeps you on your toes if regular enemies weren’t enough.
When it comes to controls and interface, this is where I have a problem, as it can be very clumsy, which seems add artificial difficulty. Examples include accidentally locking onto the wrong enemy, causing the player to spin around and fall off a bridge, or the camera getting stuck behind large bosses while retreating like a coward, resulting in you running blindly into a corner. While this can be frustrating, thankfully these instances are quite rare, and most of the mistakes (like attacking one too many times and falling off a ledge) are usually the fault of the player, and so it’s important not to try and rush through the game, even if it does mean taking a break for a few hours to calm down.
My first impression here was that the plot, and therefore, the game, wasn’t that interesting, and after playing through most of it, I have come to the conclusion that i was half right; if you want a game that is driven by an engrossing storyline, interesting characters, and lots of side quests, you should probably look elsewhere. Not to say that the backstory and lore to this game isn’t well developed; quite the opposite, in fact. However, it is up to the player to actually seek out in the information, and while knowing the details of the worlds, characters, and enemies probably adds to the experience, it isn’t imperative, as the main strength of the game lies in the challenging but addictive combat, lush and detailed environments, and the desire to simply prove a point to the game.