Dark Souls Review (PS3)

When the spiritual successor to From Software’s Demon’s Souls was announced, I may have drooled a little.  Well, maybe more than a little. You see, Demon’s Souls (2009/2010) is quite easily one of my favourite games of all time. Its lurid siren song called to me at a time when I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the level of difficulty games offered us patrons. I wanted a challenge and a chance to truly test my skills and so Demon’s Souls was a breath of fresh air in the staling RPG genre. It was a game that oozed atmosphere and polish, combining hauntingly dark and epic environments with superb combat systems that made every battle a joy to behold.

It was also a brutal and challenging experience that polarised gamers – you could either accept the fact that you would die innumerable times whenever you logged in, or fling your controller in frustration across the couch. Demon’s Souls wanted to kill you, without mercy. The unprepared player was not at home here: enemies would ambush you, knock you off walls, backstab you, kick you down holes (how I hated you Patches!) and that was before you encountered any type of  boss! And just when you did, to change things up, you died.  And then you died on your way back to your body. Then you fell off a wall trying to rush back, and, you get the idea. If RPGs were girlscouts, other games would sooner hold your hand and help you cross the road, while Demon’s Souls would sooner push you under a bus and then steal your wallet.

Dark Souls doesn’t just want your wallet, but the very clothes off your back.  Prepare to set foot into a world beset by demons and undead, who would like nothing more than to plunge their sword, claw, or slimey face firmly into your mid-section. Why? Well why not. While there’s a lovely opening cinematic and some interesting story tid-bits offered to the player, for the most part you are on your own. In any other RPG this distinct lack of narrative would be a critical failure that would cause me to wail and gnash my teeth, but not here. From the get-go you know that this is not a story-driven game at all – it’s a completely open world, non-linear slaughter house of epic proportions. Better sharpen your axe Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore.

For the unfamiliar, it’s worth starting with character creation, which essentially amounts to choosing a class archetype. It’s far less restrictive than what traditional RPG fans might be used to, insofar as characters are never restricted in what they can and cannot do. If you pick a Sorcerer, for example, you are not then restricted from picking up that massive giant axe of FACE CRUSHING, as long as you meet the stat requirements. While it’s an open system that allows for interesting character customisation (spell flinging knights, for example) it is not a forgiving one: stats cannot be reallocated once spent, forcing you to think carefully about each allotment.

Levels, while they exist, are again quite different to what someone would expect. Each level amounts to the raising of a single character attribute that costs a particular number of souls to raise. The soul cost for levels also quickly become quite extreme, forcing you to plan ahead accordingly – the last thing you want to do is be caught facing a boss or monster-type that is especially weak to ranged combat, for example, when you haven’t invested any points in dexterity to allow use of ranged weapons! This is an extreme example that can be at least partially mitigated by the use of the multiplayer summoning system, which I will discuss shortly. Souls are earned through killing enemies (or consuming particular items), but it is not simply a matter of amassing this commodity and spending it when you would like. Souls are lost on death, but they can be regained if a player reaches a glowing pool of blood located at or near the location of said death. But the trip back is not as easy as it might sound, given that any slain monster will return on your death. If you do manage to make it back and pick up your lost souls, you are able to spend them on levelling up at any bonfire, scattered across the world. These act as hubs from which players can respawn (and later warp between), but do not be fooled into thinking they are a respite from the brutal world. Resting at a bonfire, while binding you to that location, also brings back all enemies in the same manner as your death would.

But before you decide to spend your precious souls on levelling up, consider that souls are also the currency for buying, repairing and levelling/enhancing weapons and armour. So you’ll be collecting quite a few of them. Thie grinding of these souls, for lack of a better term, is not as tedious as it might sound. The incredibly fun combat system ensures that slaying those skeletons (though I was more partial to trees and golems) over and over, is hardly a monotonous task. Weapons strike with a regular or hard attack, which can then be modified by other player actions – such as jumping or rolling. Shields can be used to bash or parry enemy attacks, which, when timed correctly, present an opportunity for a special high-damaging attack. Ranged warfare, either with bows or magic, is less involved but just as enjoyable and works well as a compliment to melee fighting, but due to the limited number of castings per spell (which reset at each bonfire) you will be hard pressed to rely solely on it early on.  And you will need everything at your disposal when you encounter a boss demon.

Bosses in Dark Souls are nightmarishly over the top and truly incredible: Fire-breathing dragons, half-woman-half-spider flame wielding monstrosities, armour clad warriors that wouldn’t look out of place on a Jenny Craig commercial, floating kingly apparitions, and a giant wolf that wants to show you how agile it is with a giant sword in its mouth. These are but a few of the encounters you will be forced to clash steel or spell with. While each boss is challenging, there are enough tactics and options available to the player to ensure they aren’t left too frustrated.

There is no traditional multiplayer element to Dark Souls per se, but that does not mean that you are left standing alone against the darkness. Throughout your journey you will encounter glowing messages left by other players, some offering helpful advice, some aiming to trick you, and others that allow you to summon the player who left it into your world as a phantom. You can summon up to two other phantoms to assist you, but by doing so you are prevented from resting at any additional bonfire you come across (for the duration of their stay). This can often mean you may have to trek back through most of an area, if you happened to summon the phantom fairly early on. Phantoms do, however, make some of the boss fights (and general exploration) much easier and are worth the trade-off. Likewise, you can leave your own note to allow other players to summon you into their game, the benefit of which is humanity (another form of currency) and souls – upon the successful defeat of the area’s boss.

The phantom and summoning is great, in theory. Unlike Demon’s Souls, however, players do not play on a single server dedicated to a world region. Instead, a large number of servers host all players (presumably differentiated by their gaming console of choice also) resulting in the possibility that when you connect, you end up on a server that has few players on it. I certainly had a few gaming sessions where I found very few notes or summoning opportunities, which made some areas increasingly frustrating. It also means that, unlike Demon’s Souls, coordinated play with friends is all but impossible. This is quite a significant change that tarnishes what is a unique and dynamic multiplayer experience.

This is a fantastic water cooler game where you are genuinely interested in hearing how other players are faring against particular areas and demons. Dark Souls is certainly not for everyone, but I can’t help but feel that those who pass this game up are missing out on a truly amazing and unique RPG experience that will be difficult to top.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★½

About the Author

I'm an archaeologist who games far too much! I was introduced to a Commodore 64 when I was a lad and have never looked back. Lover of retro gaming, supporting indie developers, RPGs and RTSs.