terramantis's Dark Souls (Xbox 360) review

Demon's Souls 2...er, I mean DARK SOULS!!!

Dark Souls is the spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls which was a Playstation 3 exclusive created by Japanese game developer From Software and was released in late 2009. Dark Souls is yet again developed by From Software and is HEAVILY influenced by Demon’s Souls. In a perfect world you might be able to review Dark Souls as though Demon’s Souls had never existed, but frankly we don’t live in a vacuum in which Demon’s Souls never was. In truth, Dark Souls must be held not only to the absent but associated titles of the game’s genre, but also to the game that even From Software claims to be its pedigree. And the best part, when Dark Souls is held up…it outshines almost every game in its genre.

The simple score breakdown of “Dark Souls” is like so…

Graphics/Character Performance and Animation – 10/10

Fun Factor – 10/10

Story – 6/10

Controls- 10/10

User Interfacing – 10/10

Learning Curve – Very steep

Sound – 10/10

Value - 10/10

Total – 9.4 / 10

Jump down to my “All in All” if you only want a brief summary of Dark Souls.

Demon’s Souls had some extremely unique elements that defined the Action Role-Playing Game genre with stapled standbys while it also refined the dungeon crawl experience with many of its aspects, but unique online features, moody atmosphere, and unforgiving enemies were amongst Demon’s Souls’ most important forefront features. Not to mention, but obviously I am, extremely responsive and tight controls with exact physics. All of these great features have returned to Dark Souls and From Software has found nirvana by tweaking some of these features for the better. I will talk about all of the features adjusted from one adaptation to the next, but first let’s forget about Demon’s Souls and talk about what Dark Souls is all about.

From the very beginning this game radiates one aspect…death. When you first enter the main menu screen the game is dead silent. You start it up and the cinematic story begins. Story takes a backseat in Dark Souls though. The narrative is a side note to the game’s extremely open-ended character creation and malleable play styles that each different player can execute which is complemented by a synergetic gear and stat system. Almost all of the NPC’s dialogue is badly written and nearly every character sounds like they’re five minutes away from sticking their head in an oven. Also, nearly 90% of them end their dialogue with some overly stupid chuckle or sinister laugh yet a greater percentage than 90 of what they’re saying is neither funny nor clever to induce laughter. Dialogue at times can feel authentic, but for some reason the cliché laugh at the end of nearly every conversation is over used so often that Dark Souls alone can be attributed to turning the bleak dialogue into its own cliché.

The true story comes from your character and the surroundings your hollowed soul are thrown into. This world with a gross amount of content, immaculate detail, imagination, and intertwined route sewn pathways are what truly speak volumes about the persona of this universe without ever saying a word aloud. When thinking of the new world of Dark Souls it is kind of laid out like you’re at a single ENORMOUS castle and everything that might come along with it. The environments might take you to the outer workings of the castle walls, deep into the beautifully lit sewers where grime covered stone walls reflect your light that is foreign to their walkways, the nearby surrounding forested gardens, and the shanties of Blight Town’s rickety swaying makeshift bridges or the lava spewn underdark of the lower sections. That is only to name a few of the plethora of different locations that cover this vast and interconnected open world. I have to knock the story aspect of the game down though because the fantastic environments and ambiences of the game must be attributed to level designers and concept artist, but not the writers. So, I believe the greatest character (the environments) of Dark Souls fall under the Graphics category of the game scoring. That being said though, the greatest parts of the game (when you’re talking to your friends) has nothing to do with “oh, I loved that part of the story and the dialogue was fantastic” Dark Souls is all about “this, this, and that is what happened to me, this is how I defeated so-and-so and when I finally won it was F#$*ing awesome!” THAT is Dark Souls. So, Dark Souls' storytelling shortcomings is trivial at best...the game just is not about the literal narrative.

When creating a character the options are limited to human male/female, name, body type, a dozen hair styles and colors, and a “gift”. The face is able to be altered with the traditional sliders for contours and convex for noses, cheeks, eyebrows, and whatnot you have most likely seen in many other games. Creating your character’s aesthetic appearance is absolutely mundane and nothing unique about it. This just exemplifies the fact of how unimportant your beginning appearance is. Most likely you’re going to be in armor covering your face 90% of the time regardless. The “gift” is a variety of different (mostly) consumable items to choose from at the beginning. Examples of these gifts are “master key”, a HP ring (which by the way says it gives you health regeneration slowly over time, but when you get into the game the item information says it gives a small boost to total HP), some fire bombs, or even a ring that says it is from a witch and has unknown effects. What “class” you start Dark Souls with does determine what armor and weapons you’ll be wielding at the beginning and some spells or lack thereof, but ultimately your starting class does not stop you from creating the character you want form any of the possible beginning choices. You whip-up your appearance and choose from one of the dozen-or-so archetype classes to pick from at the get-go and fire it up.

You start in an asylum where the inhabitance of this realm keeps their “hollowed” people waiting to travel to the afterlife…or something like that. This is one of the biggest differences from Demon’s Souls. In Demon’s Souls when you were not in your natural state you would be in spirit form which made you have 50% of your total HP. This has been done away with. When you’re hollowed you still retain your full amount of HP. Souls (XP and money) are now related to a new type of commodity. To turn into your non-hollowed state you have a new type of currency to accompany soul collection called “Humanity”. Humanity works just like souls do. You accumulate them over time and if you die with them you have one chance to make it back to where you died to collect your bloodstain form your most recent death. If you don’t make it back to your bloodstain without a death…they’re gone forever. You can collect Humanities in several different ways; you can simply get them from progressing without death and killing enemies, joining a game and taking down a boss with other players, invading and killing a real player in their game, and or by killing an invader that has invaded your realm. REMEMBER to loot fallen invader’s bodies as they can now drop loot and you can get several consumable items for humanities off of them. You can then use a humanity point to become non-hollow. So, the benefit to being non-hollowed is basically two things. One, you can now see other player’s soapsigns which is a sign a player lays down to be summoned into another world to offer aid. Second, you can use a humanity point to kindle a bonfire when non-hollowed and have one humanity point expelled.

Bonfires are the game’s new “checkpoint” system. When you rest at a bonfire you can do different things like; organize and select different spells to bring with you, repair gear, modify armor and weapons, throw stuff in an item box, and level up. The reason you would want to kindle a bonfire is because of the new addition of a game mechanic called Estus Flasks. If you played Demon’s Souls then you remember going and farming some herbs to have for when you were adventuring for a consumable to restore your health points. Now, the Estus Flask is your main source of healing potion because herbs have been completely done away with and you only get 5 chugs on an Estus Flask to use between now and the next time you rest at a bonfire. Did I mention that resting at a bonfire respawns all hostile enemies? Well, it does. When you kindle a bonfire at the expense of being non-hollowed and then also investing a humanity point into the bonfire you will kindle the fire which will make you receive 10 Estus Flasks whenever you rest at that specific bonfire. A worthwhile investment.

Let’s talk about the other investments you will be making at these bonfires, leveling up. So, most RPGs have a system where you go kill enemies and they give you experience points and over time you level, correct? Well, Dark Souls is similar to that, but with a spin on the whole concept. Whenever you vanquish an enemy your character will absorb their soul. These souls are then used at a bonfire to increase your level. There is a catch though. Like I mention about souls, when covering humanity points, when you die you lose your currently collected amount of souls. You have one chance to return to where you died and pick up your bloodstain on the ground and recover what you would have potentially lost. If you die before making it back to your bloodstain…that most recent death is your new objective of retrieval. Only your most recent death’s bloodstain game can be recovered. Now, I had several friends that picked Dark Souls up on launch day and one of them had never played Demon’s Souls and he basically said “I really hate the way you have to use souls to level up”. I responded with “why?” In any RPG you have to go kill enemies to get XP to level up. The only difference is in Dark Souls you have to make it through a zone or backtrack to a previous bonfire (which will respawn everything) to gain your hard earned levels. If you die while adventuring or detouring back to a previous bonfire hopefully it was a learning EXPERIENCE and you will not make the same mistake twice. Either way, death and souls are many things --they’re education, tactics builders, currency, and essentially experience points-- but one thing that is for certain is that souls AND death are a core mechanic of the game. You WILL die very often as death is a main characteristic of the game.

When spending these souls you’re going to be choosing from several different attribute distributions to level your character and tune them to your desired gameplay frequency. The main HUD meters of the game consist of only two bars now; Health and Stamina. Mana has been completely done away with due to the fact that castable abilities now work the same as Estus Flasks do and have “X” amount of charges to use in between bonfire visits. Also, don’t worry spell casting people out there…the system allows you to be a pure caster class if so desired. The attributes for customizing your character are; Vitality (HP), Attunement (amount of different spells/miracle/pyromancies types you can carry at once), Endurance (stamina, equipment load) Strength (Melee Damage), Dexterity (Arrow and Melee Damage) Resistance (Boosts defense and poison resistance) Intelligence (needed for sorceries), Faith (needed for miracles) and finally Humanity (resistance to curses and enhances item discovery rate). With this attribute system you create the character that YOU want to make. You want to be a paladin? Go Strength, Faith, and Vitality and wear plate armor. Want to be a sorcerer? Then go Intelligence, attunement, and wear cloth. Want to be some strange hybrid? Then wield a long sword in your right hand for fast, quick attacks and a gigantic two-handed sword in your left for devastating blows after staggering them with your fast weapon, but don’t forget to stack dexterity and strength while also grabbing some intellect because you want to cast magic enhancements on that long sword for extra pain. Anything you can think of with the abilities allotted you can do here as long as you spend the time and effort gathering those souls to spend on attributes and gear.

The tactics and strategies you must learn and incorporate into gathering these souls are quite astonishing. Learning how to tactically take out simple hollowed soldier with a sword and shield can be completely different than trying to defeat an enemy with a shield and spear or shield and rapier. Or the way enemies are thrown at you can completely change the experience from encounter to encounter like when fighting a simple deprived hollow. When fighting a solo deprived hollow you might simply strike them once or twice and they’re dead, but when a pack of them try to swarm you the situation can become very dire very quickly. The bosses have a huge variety in their mechanics and design and are a sight to behold in and of themselves. In combination with the different character customizations you can apply to creating your combatant mixed with the different strategies needed to overcome foes, the combat and enemy encounters never get stale.

At times taking down these great obstacles can feel daunting and you feel as though the situation is impossible. Well then it is time to get some humanity and become non-hollow and get some people into your game to help you. Although, multi-player is currently one of my biggest gripes with the game. I may sit in an area trying repeatedly to summon players into my game only to constantly receive “summon failed” notices over and over. At first, I thought it was a launch problem that From Software would be patching soon or something. Then after reading about a TON of other people’s problems with the multi-player situation I discovered that Namco Bandi had released an official statement that listed the stipulations of summoning players into your game. Most of these stipulations I already knew from playing Demon’s Souls like; the host must be non-hollow to see other player’s signs for summoning and the host must not have killed the boss of that area to be able to find signs. I knew that, but one part I did not know that Bandi mention in the multi-player notice was that the host must be within 10% of the level of the person being summoned. For example, if I am the host and I am level 30 I can only summon a player to a maximum level of 33 to come aid me. So, after reading that I was like “oh” my friend I was trying to summon I knew was 6 levels higher than me and well above 10% of my level. Then after creating new guys, being in ventrillo, being the exact same level, him having the boss killed and myself having yet to kill the area boss, AND finding his sign on the ground I tried to summon him and still got a “summon failed” message. Plain and simple, multi-player is broken at the moment and its consistency in operating properly is awful even when following Namco’s instructions and stipulations to the letter. Though when it is working it is a blast and there are some really unique aspects of the multi-player. One of my favorite examples is when you’re trying to get to the top of a tower to ring a bell and whenever you’re online and anybody defeats the bosses and gets up to the bell tower to ring the bell anyone can hear the chime whether you’re in their game or not. It is pretty cool when you get summoned into someone’s world and help them vanquish an enemy and after you’re removed from their game to hear them ring the bell only seconds later knowing that you just helped them kick some monster’s teeth in is pretty satisfying.

I'm Here for SOULS...know anyone?

The player vs. player aspect of the game has been dumbed down for sure. You now get a consumable item to invade another’s game and they are rare to say the least. Although, there are more and different ways of going about PvP than before with the new addition of covenants.

Covenants are like factions or a society. You join them and you can get benefits which include different appearances, items, abilities, spells, etc. Most of these covenants require you to follow some type of code though and if you break them some are impossible to rejoin. One of my favorite is one in a locked enchanted forest. You join by talking to this evil-looking Cheshire cat. If you put on his cat’s ring it will allow you to be summoned whenever anyone (real players) who isn’t part of this faction enters the forest to vanquish the invader from your domain. There are many other examples of things like this but mostly covenants are a means to the end of getting gear or really powerful spells.

I could go on and on about how fantastic this game is with its surreal yet grounded environments and perfect mixture of Japanese and medieval inspirations while it somehow still has the game mechanics through character customization and nearly flawless technical aspects of physics and contact information between character tokens, but I quite frankly want to quit writing this review and start playing the game again. So, I am going to do a pros and cons list and my “all in all”.

Cons:

Inaccessible learning curve to new comers

Multi-player has summoning issues

Defeated enemies get tangled and flipped around by your feet

Story is shallow

Frame rate dips

Pros:

Immersive beautiful environments

Fantastic character animations and combat sensitivity

Plethora of different character builds with items and gear to match

Difficult and great sense of achievement

Many astonishing “WOW” moments

Hidden treasure troves and a twisting turning open-world to explore

Multi-player is extraordinarily fun when operating properly

Easily 60+ hours of gameplay

Great incentive for multiple play throughs

===================ALL IN ALL====================

All in all, Dark Souls is a worthy successor to Demon’s Souls. Dark Souls applies a beautifully crafted dark medieval fantasy open explorable world in which one route may be locked or inaccessible until further exploration or simply due to the fact that one route might have enemies that are far too powerful for you at that particular moment in time. You need to explore, reap souls, find more powerful equipment, and discover a combat style that suits your methods of engagement. These methods of engagement have great variations due to the game’s fantastic character customizations through attributes, gear, and arcane abilities. Be forewarned that Dark Souls is EXTREMELY difficult, although I believe it is actually a bit easier than Demon’s Souls, it is not a game for the casual gamer. Dark Souls is about repetition and learning from your triumphs and or your many mistakes. From Software has truly made a game that will not coddle or hand-hold with the player. Dark Souls downright slaps the player’s hand away and says…"figure it out for yourself."

If you didn’t like Demon’s Souls I would say…don’t buy Dark Souls. Dark Souls is basically the same game with some modifications to different aspects of some of the features and then thrown into a new world. You should buy Dark Souls if you can put up with an extremely challenging and at times hair ripping experience that is also unmatched in sense of achievement. Dark Souls’ flaws like frame rate dips and flimsy entangled dead bodies at your feet are really only noticeable because the rest of the game is so immaculately crafted. If you’re looking for a challenge through sophisticated and precise combat mechanics that is thrust into an unforgiving treacherous environment then look no further than Dark Souls. This is the new standard by which all following games of the genre must strive to apex. Dark Souls is the greatest dungeon crawling experience to date in which no other game can truly say it has struck so many of its players with a fear to peek their head around a corner for fear of losing it. This is the game that the fan of the dungeon crawl has been waiting for.

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