oni's Dark Souls (PlayStation 3) review

Are you prepared to die?

Things are grim in Dark Souls. The undead roam the world, looking for warm bodies to tear asunder, and here you are, just trying to figure out why everything wants to kill you so badly. It does not take long for you to stop wondering about the why's and wherefores, because survival instinct has kicked in. Staying alive is all you're worried about anymore, and to do that you'll need to kill almost everything and everyone in your path. No easy task.

Of course, the difficulty of Dark Souls and Demon's Souls, its predecessor, is well established at this point. It takes complete concentration to not die to the merciless attacks of even the lowliest of adversaries. Sword and shield in hand you press forward, always ready for an attack, always waiting for the opportunity to strike to present itself. This is not a game for the short-tempered, but rather for the patient and prudent. Die once and all your collected souls, which serve as money and experience points, are left behind where you left them. Die again, and those souls are gone, replaced by whatever you had on your person at the time of your latest grisly demise. Resting at bonfires allows you to spend your souls to level up and refill your estus flasks, limited health items, as well as providing a checkpoint where you'll respawn upon death. Resting also respawns all enemies except bosses and mini-bosses, however, so it's not entirely free of risk.

Locales are varied and interesting, sometimes beautiful, often eerie.

Dark Souls is a game of great risk and great reward. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the moment-to-moment clash of combat. Every missed attack leaves you open to a counterattack, but likewise for most enemies. Goad them into attacking you and missing, or taking the hit with your shield, and you're given the opportunity to counterattack. Circling around to the backs of humanoid opponents will reward you with a vicious backstab, doing critical damage. Parry an incoming blow and you can, more often than not, instantly kill your foe, but missing the timing is costly indeed. The real trick to combat is to take on enemies in single combat as often as possible, rather than fighting a two- or three-way battle. Luring enemies away from their allies with an arrow is often the best course of action.

Every enemy is an obstacle and a very real threat, and every kill is a gratifying victory. Every swing of the weapon has a real sense of weight to it, especially if you decide to use heavy greatswords or big axes. The general rule of thumb is the bigger the weapon, the bigger the damage you'll inflict, but the slower your attacks will be, and thus the costlier a miss. Risk versus reward. However, these same rules apply to most enemies. Being fast and light can have as many advantages as wearing bulky armor and wielding a giant weapon. Ultimately, the choice is up to you. Regardless of your starting class, which impart some statistical bias and starting equipment, you can develop your character in any direction you wish. If you decide you want to be a magic user, you can do that, provided you spend your points in the required stats every time you level up. Feeling like you're getting knocked around too much? Pump some points into endurance so you can wear heavier armor.

Dark Souls rewards every play style in its own way, even that of a jack-of-all trades, as all but the heaviest weapons and most powerful spells have relatively low stat requirements. Statistical scaling on weapons has taken a backseat to upgrading your weapons to do extra elemental damage regardless of stats, so you won't feel forced to put the majority of your points into any single direction to do effective damage. And any weapon can be upgraded, so you never feel forced to use something you don't like because it's better.

The bosses of Dark Souls gate your progression, but don't feel as brutal as Demon's Souls', by and large. This guy's a doozy, though.

There is an amazing array of weaponry in the game. Dark Souls is a dream come true for any medieval combat enthusiast. Swords and axes in all sizes; spears and halberds; bows and crossbows; small shields and giant bulwarks, even Wolverine-style claws on your hands, it's all there. Almost every weapon has its own unique set of moves and properties. By the end of the game, you'll have a giant list of weapons and armor to scroll through, even if you keep only one of each in your inventory.

The world of Dark Souls is just as huge as its list of weapons. Doing away with Demon's Souls' hub world and disparate levels, Dark Souls takes place across a sprawling world that's entirely interconnected. As you progress to new areas you'll unlock shortcuts which allow you to severely cut back on travel time between sections of the world. For the first thirty or so hours of the game, it feels like there is just no end to it. You'll go deeper and deeper, and every time you think you've brushed against the game's ceiling, it opens up and reveals yet more. It wasn't until the timer was somewhere in the mid-forties that I felt like I'd just about seen the game's outer limits. An average first playthrough of Dark Souls will probably take between 50 and 60 hours quite easily.

Blacksmiths are some of the few friendly NPC's who will upgrade your weapons, at a cost of course.

There are a few chinks in Dark Souls' armor, however. It is equally punishing to the hardware that powers it as it is to the impatient player. While the game's myriad environments and bloodthirsty denizens generally look great, it can all prove to be a bit too much for the consoles. In some areas, the framerate will be consistently low, and not low as in "not great" but low as in "I am watching a slide show". In one area in particular this is very frustrating, as you have to navigate a series of narrow constructions and a slight input delay can result in a meeting with the abyss below. For a game as reliant on timing and precision as Dark Souls, it is nigh unforgivable that the framerate tanks as often and as badly as it does.

The brilliant online play also suffers from technical issues. Like Demon's Souls, Dark Souls has a unique multiplayer component in that it is on at all times as long as you're connected to the internet. As an undead, you can let yourself be summoned to another player's world to help him defeat the area boss. This nets you some Humanity, which you can then in turn use to resurrect your body, allowing you to summon people to help you. Resurrecting, however, also lets less benevolent players join your game as invaders, with the sole purpose of killing you (there's that 'risk versus reward' concept again). For Demon's Souls, this worked great because it ran on dedicated servers. Dark Souls instead uses peer-to-peer hosting, putting players in much smaller lobbies. This means that it can take a very long time indeed to be summoned to another world, either as an invader or as a helper. Even worse, the items that enable the invading of other worlds are single-use, and once used they are spent, regardless of whether a succesful connection was established. You'll also see fewer ghosts (apparations of other people playing the game) and bloodstains (the last moments before a player's death).

Player-versus-player combat is exhilarating when the connection works well.

It's unfortunate, because Dark Souls is the ultimate community game. The game's difficulty and sheer depth feels designed to foster a sense of community as much as a sense of accomplishment. Through the in-game hint system that enables players to leave notes on the ground for others to read and rate and through message boards, players of Dark Souls come together to help each other play the game and make sense of its world and its inhabitants. Rather than feeling intentionally obtuse for the sake of it, as Dark Souls doesn't explain many of its systems very well, it feels like From Software encourages players to talk to eachother to share experiences, strategies and facts.

Yes, the game is obscure at times. Yes, there is some memorization required. Yes, sometimes it feels quite literally soul-crushing. But it seldom feels unfair. From the game's sprawling world to its deep combat system, Dark Souls is a meticulously designed game that demands equally meticulous play. If you're prepared to unlearn some gaming habits taught by the last fifteen yeears of game design, then you're prepared to enter a world with unparalleled depth and satisfaction. You are, then, prepared to die.

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