What if you were put into a room with a giant Centipede Demon with lava surrounding you everywhere, and only this small bit of rock to stay alive on as you fought off this horrific creature? Dark Souls is a game that will help you answer this question and constantly put you between a rock and a hard place. In most games a situation like this would be simply be worked through by loading up a few saves you made before entering and you can move on your merry way, but Dark Souls is not about friendliness to you. It wants you to suffer in gripping ways where you may be stuck with a hefty pocket full of souls, only to be struck down by a giant dragon in a carpet of its flame breath. In return the game will reward you with accomplishment that feels more satisfying than any game this generation aside from Souls' predecessor Demon's Souls. So does this make a good game or a frustrating one? You be the judge.
Let's first tackle what Dark Souls is. At its heart it is an action RPG. You will level your character, find new equipment, upgrade equipment, and build yourself up to survive this games many combat scenarios and challenges. When you start of Dark Souls you'll be tasked with creating a character from scratch and have the choice of several distinct classes to pick, but much like Demon's Souls these choices are not something you are locked into. You can start off as a Pyromancer, but quickly start pumping your stats into becoming a giant axe wielding knight. This offers players a lot of wiggle room to find a play style that fits them. What you don't get a lot of wiggle room is the appearance of your actual character. You are basically going to have to pick from looking like crap or looking like shit, because the few choices to faces and hair leave you to be one extremely ugly individual. Luckily, equipment will hide your grotesque appearance soon enough, but it's a shame that FromSoftware gave players options to make their own hero, but none of them lead to what you would except from say a Dragon Age or an Elder Scrolls. Where are my beards?
Once you've created your character though you'll be plotted off into the world of Dark Souls. A short intro CG scene will fill you in on this world that is screwed due to Dark taking over what light is left, and people are slowly going Hollow, or turning into mindless zombies of sorts. You are one of these zombies in a prison off somewhere, but you haven't gone completely hollow yet as you have your wits about you. Your starting location will guide you through a sort of small tutorial area, your first boss, and eventually you'll come to the main hub of Dark Souls where your task to ring two bells for some reason is all you have to go on. Two problems immediately arise for players. One is that you are given little to no explanation of the games mechanics, and even Demon's Souls veterans will be scratching their head at some things for most, if not all, of the game. You'll be checking online resources most likely to just know what some of these things are such as kindling and what you gain from it or why I would want to be human instead of hollow. The other issue and a more important one to me is that there isn't much of a story here at all.
Lack of a story in a game can be fine when the core game itself is fun from start to finish, but here in Dark Souls something is just off. The game TRIES to tell a story and its apparent, but the attempt just falls flat on its face. From the opening CG, to the bosses you encounter, and the few NPCs along the way you can sense they are trying to fill in gaps in your mind about the overall plot going on in Dark Souls' world. While you can fill some of the blanks here and there what ultimately unravels all of this is the ending which is one of the worst in any game. If anyone recently played Rage, then it's on that level of making you ask yourself, "holy shit why did the game just stop?" The final boss before it is such an atmospheric event and perhaps that's why the terrible story telling here is excusable. Atmosphere.
The world of Dark Souls is dark and gritty. Most areas are expertly crafted to fit the theme of the boss they lead to, but more than that you start to see how all the pieces of this world just meld into creating a place filled with despair. However, technically speaking this game is by no means a pixel pusher. Low res textures are abound, and frame rate drops can occur when too much is on the screen at once, or you are just in Blight Town which drops frames without even anything around. Only a few areas lack this craftsmanship though and the ones that come to my mind are areas such as Lost Izalith and The Valley of Drakes. In Lost Izalith you basically will have an all lava area with some awful bloom effects where you run through avoiding giant almost incomplete Jurassic Park rejects until you reach a temple of sorts with what can only be described as poop monsters that shoot fire at you. If you can come up with a better depiction I'm all ears. What makes this area so unfitting is how you fight a boss that just seems like he's in the wrong area altogether, and the trek to him is not nearly as engaging as areas you visit earlier in the game. The issue with The Valley of Drakes is that it's about the size of my pinky nail and only serves as a hub to connect other areas. It seems like a wasted opportunity to let a great title like that only belong to 5 blue mini dragons who shoot lightning at you. Don't worry though as the rest of the world is tip top design and some of the most outstanding areas go to The Painted World and Anor Londo. Clearly there are some brilliant visionaries when it comes to level design over at FromSoftware's studios.
So I mentioned earlier you are tasked with ringing two bells. One is at the top of a church, and the other is at the bottom of what is basically hell. Getting to each is a long and arduous task. Which brings us to the best part of Dark Souls; the combat. Fighting in Dark Souls is constantly going to keep you on your toes. Everything wants to kill you and most creatures can do it in 1-3 good hits. This makes the urgency of each battle heightened and once again helps to amp up this games atmosphere. Players are given one tool across all types of play styles to come out on top: your mind. See a Skeleton holding up a shield with a spear in his hand? Well if you are a dagger user you can try rolling behind him for a quick stab to his back, but what if you are a shield and spear user yourself? You can try poking and baiting out an attack yourself to promptly counter after he whiffs, or you can be brave and try to riposte his attack by landing a well timed button press to severely wound him. Even magic users can do plenty to open up enemies to light them on fire or shoot them with magic missiles. With patience, pattern reading, positioning, and more you can make just as quick work of foes as they can you, but just know that around that corner can be something bigger and meaner ready to thwart you. Oh and thwart you at some point they shall, and that's when players may have their souls crushed.
Everything in Dark Souls requires souls as a currency. Want to buy arrows from a vendor you found? Souls. Want to level up? Souls. Upgrade equipment? Yup, souls. This makes pressing forward a risk, because if you die you will lose all your precious souls. You are then given one chance to go from your last bonfire you touched, which are checkpoint rest stops scattered around the world, and go back to where you died and touch your blood stain to retrieve your precious souls. Of course upon death or touching a bonfire though all of the enemies in the world are restored to where they once were, and so you can expect some frustration if you come up short on your way back. The great thing about Dark Souls is that it rarely kills you through cheap means and deaths are usually due to your own doing. Of the 30-40 or so deaths I faced in my 60 hour play through I would wager 10ish were complete bull shit, and most of those came from one area in particular where you are on a thin and narrow edge with two archers shooting giant stone arrows at you that take off more than 50% health a hit. The trick is to rush up to one of the archers as fast as you can and try to engage in a fight with him using his sword and pray he pushes himself off or you can kill him. What becomes the issue is that the ledge is so small that even if you do make it without falling to this enemy then you may get shot in the back by the other archer, you may fall off due to the small ledge, you can get killed by his attacks, and more. It's a frustrating section where the sad truth is you need some luck succeed which only stands out so much since most of Dark Souls requires not luck, but player skill to come out on top.
As you progress your way through Dark Souls and make it from bonfire to bonfire you'll run across various stellar audio. Whether its the clanging of swords on your shield or the lunatic ramblings of an undead merchant you can expect your ears to be pleased.What's even more surprising is how well done the few pieces of music are in the game. Boss themes especially make the whole fight seem grander and larger than life which is just how a boss SHOULD feel in a game. My only complaint is that there isn't enough of it. With such a brilliant composer on board I would have liked to see more areas get their own musical themes similar to how Firelink Shrine gets its own eerie track.
Eerie tracks aren't the only terrifying things in Dark Souls and it's unfortunate that this game is plagued with plenty of issues. A lot of these come in the form of the online functionality within Dark Souls. Players can summon or invade each others worlds, but often you will see a summoning failed. As if players joining to help you failing isn't bad it's even worse if they do invade your world to try and kill you due to the poor balancing of certain spells and items within the game. It's far too easy to just abuse a little bit of lag and get behind someone to 1 hit kill them with a stab, or simply abuse a Ring of Fog and a parrying dagger to make yourself more or less invincible. Issues with Dark Souls persist though even without the online elements in the form of some control issues and bad design choices. My main control issue is a constant bug that myself and other players have encountered where during a battle of you having your shield up and then hitting attack or perhaps heal, you do not see the animation occur. What you are left with then is the ability to still move around, but the second you touch your shield you will go back into that canned animation for your attack or heal. In a game where one folly like that can cost you your life it can make players quite upset to be cheated into death for something they weren't responsible for. Another control issue comes in the form of the lock on mechanic which too often fails to lock onto an enemy even if they are point black in front of your character as you face them. As for the design choices they simply come down to things like bonfire placement. There are several areas in the game where 3 bonfires can literally be within 15 seconds of each other, and yet in other areas you have to trek through a gauntlet of shit without a checkpoint and still be faced with a boss at the end. Demon's Souls didn't fall prey to this issue since each world was created with a halfway point check point, and so you knew if you could reach that area, then you wouldn't have to worry about the first half again. It's a shame then Dark Souls didn't still keep this idea in mind to give reasonable bonfire positions consistently, and some are even placed in areas that will make something too easy like a bonfire right before a boss, so this isn't just me complaining about difficulty, but the overall position of them in the world can be quite puzzling sometimes.
There is one other design issue that I am heated over and it's up for debate, but it is the difficulty of the bosses. No they aren't too hard, but they are far too easy when I compare them to my fights in Demon's Souls. Simply too many bosses in this game can be beaten by getting as close as possible while circle strafing until an enemy whiffs something so you can unload on them. In fact one boss in particular is repeated 3 times with just a name swap and color change that requires this very strategy. His last incarnation is known as Fire Sage, but he's literally the first boss you fight in the game at the tutorial area and you can face him 2 more times after that, and while he gets some new moves they won't matter at all since the strategy to win is still the same. A few of the bosses are indeed challenging, and fortunately the final boss lives up to some difficulty unlike Demon's Souls where you can't lose, but a game built up on the slogan, "Prepare to die," should have more bosses that challenge players to try to use different tactics to win. Bosses that stood out for me were Priscilla and the battle with the Spear and Hammer users. The first fight was great because you had to watch the snow for her foot prints as she was invisible and while you were circle strafing you had to get in a few whacks, then get away, because you wouldn't see when she would hop to change her angle to be able to hit you and kill you. The battle with the two bosses at once was also fantastic because you had to try and kill one as you also evade the other, and depending on who you killed first would result in which one would go into a powerful giant version thereafter. Instead you have fights like the Four Kings which are just run, get behind, go crazy, move onto next, or a Gaping Dragon which had me back off, watch him run into a wall, get behind and go crazy, etc. Maybe my memory is a bit fuzzy, but didn't Demon's Souls have a lot of varying strategies needed to be known to win? A spider that shot fire down a hall way required you to run away at the right times, as well as avoiding its sticky webs, then you had bosses like a giant fire demon that needed the right equipment and a lot of evading to get any hits in due to his speed and power. In fact I'd go so far to say that the only thing harder about Dark Souls over Demon's Souls is only in the enemies within the game world, and designing levels to have more narrow ledges. Toss in some bad camera angles at times, and you get your challenge alright, but when you can complete a boss without taking a hit on your first attempt like I did, then you can tell that FromSoftware dropped the ball in making Dark Souls a step up from Demon's Souls.
So with all that said, does Dark Souls deliver on an engaging experience worth undertaking? Absolutely, but a few slips keep it from reaching the heights and praise its predecessor did with me. Demon's Souls was an organic and super refined game that came as a breath of fresh air, but Dark Souls only manages to stay toe to toe in most areas with Demon's Souls and makes some follies that Demon's Souls did not. I still strongly urge anyone up for an original, at times challenging, and perfectly atmosphere driven game to go out and pick this one up. With new game+ replays, and 60 hours of content even before that you'll get your hard earned dollars worth, because simply put aside from Demon's Souls this is the only game that will have you raising your fist in triumph for finally completing a boss. That feeling of accomplishment is alone worth the $60.00 price tag, and it's why Dark Souls gets an 8/10.