Game Review: Dark Souls

Gitting gud wasn’t easy.

Developer: FromSoftware
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed), Playstation 3, Xbox 360
Available on: Steam

I’m not sure how to approach this review. What hasn’t already been said about this game? What new insights can I even provide to anybody reading this? Has anybody who would even remotely be interested in playing this game not already done so? And if not,  what could I say to convince them that playing Dark Souls is a worthwhile investment?

The best thing I can probably do is start with the first time I tried to play this game. I bought the PS3 version (limited edition no less) fairly soon after the game came out. Back in 2011, I wasn’t as much of a PC gamer as I am nowadays. When I first played this game, I didn’t know what to expect beyond the fact that it was advertised as a fairly difficult game compared to your usual AAA games. I fought my way through the tutorial section up to the first boss and got my ass handed to me so many times that I quit the game out of sheer frustration. There was nothing in there to give me any reason to continue, since there was no narrative hook and simply banging my head against a wall wasn’t what I wanted at the time. So, I let it sit for a few years.

Sometime later I purchased the PC version during one during a Steam sale. I played a couple of hours of the game once again and even managed to ring the first bell of awakening. But after I fought my way through that castle I didn’t know where to go next. The only two obvious routes when I arrived back at the main hub of the game was a graveyard filled with skeletons I couldn’t get passed and an underground city populated by ghosts, which I couldn’t hurt.

So I quit the game once again after around 10 hours. I had certainly gotten a feel for the combat that time around, which is probably one of the biggest challenges of the game. Attacking mindlessly does not work, you can’t tank enough damage and you’ll never get passed enemies that have the ability to block if you don’t also pay attention to their tells and exploit them during their recovery phases. Combat in Dark Souls is more of a defensive aspect your first time through. You try to get a feel for the enemies and their behaviors, which is completely different from most other action games that want to empower the player and provide you with ample opportunities to use those flashy combos your character gets loaded with.

I finally loaded up the game for a third time a few months ago. I didn’t have a lot of time to actually play the game, so I took me around two and half months to get through the game, but I was determined to finally make my way through to the end. I can’t say that it was a fun experience though. The thing is, we gamers tend to focus on the concept of “fun” a lot, even when it doesn’t apply. Dark Souls is not traditionally fun, but it’s engaging as all hell. The world of Dark Souls and the characters and enemies that inhabit it feel daunting and dangerous. It’s a scary game to play, it requires you to constantly be awake, look at your surroundings and interpret information it gives you. It can create an immense feeling of dread for the player, especially if you can’t handle the death penalty of this game.

So my biggest advice for people who fee like they’re getting nowhere because they’re dying over and over again is: Don’t take deaths too seriously. It’s a game designed to kill you until you learn its intricacies. Yes, it sucks to lose a bunch of souls as well as a ton of progress after getting sent back to the last bonfire and having to fight through the same enemies time and time again. But don’t think of this game as a modern game that provides you with 30-40 hours of gameplay with a constant progression. Think of it more like an old 8- or 16-bit game that you can beat in an hour or two if you know what you’re doing, but until you get good enough at Contra or Castlevania in order to do so, you have to learn the patterns, which can take you weeks or even months. Because even though the world of Dark Souls seems so crushingly huge, if you simply look at the actual distances you travel in these levels and how few enemies are to be found in them, you realize that it’s far less than it seems. I could probably tell you the locations of more than half the enemies in the entire game. The same is true for combat. Large stretches of the game don’t contain any combat. And once it does, it’s usually over in a manner of seconds – with the exception of boss fights – but those seconds feel like minutes. It’s a game that never lets up. You can upgrade your weapons and your stats all you want, you will never be in a safe position to say “I’ve got this” and get through its challenges without paying attention. You will pay the price of every mistake you make, right up until the final boss.

This makes Dark Souls unique and why I can certainly recommend the game to everyone. But I also want to use this opportunity to voice some criticisms. Dark Souls’ praises have been sung for years by now and the choir of fans doesn’t need my voice to make their hymn sound more epic. But I want to still bring forth a few thoughts that have bothered me over the last couple of weeks.

For one, I maintain that the game could easily have implemented an easy mode. Sure, the difficulty of this game is something a lot of people crave. But Dark Souls is more than just difficulty. It has an interesting way of telling its story through its environment. Finding an item in a specific place can tell you a lot about both the place and maybe the person it belonged to. The ambiguous nature of Dark Souls’ story lends itself to speculation. And you don’t need the combat for that. So if this sentiment angers you, dear Dark Souls fan, think of this: Do you believe that introducing an easy mode takes away from your achievement of beating the game at its regular difficulty? Does the fact that someone who hasn’t overcome the same challenges you have somehow make the game less fun for you? Then you are the problem. I have beaten the game, same as you. But I don’t think that that fact makes me special in some way. The same way it doesn’t make anybody special for beating any game on the hardest difficulty. But there are also less esoteric ways I want to criticize the game.

Some areas feel rather unfinished. This is especially true for the Demon Ruins and Lost Izalith. They’re not all that interesting and they suffer from a lot of copy-pasted enemies from earlier in the game. The last boss of that area is also a radical shift away from how you typical engage all the bosses. Instead of fighting it head-on, it’s a puzzle boss that has to be solved in a very specific way in order to succeed.

The fact that you necessarily have to die once in this game without any way of avoiding it is a complete dick move. The game and its rules are set up in a way that ensures that you always have a chance to fight and survive every situation, if you’re simply good enough at the game. But there is one instance where you have to die and it runs completely counter to the core ideas of Dark Souls.

After acquiring the Lordvessel, three of the four areas you have to visit feel rather gimmicky and they started to test my patience with the game. The Duke’s Archives are very interesting to play through – the aforementioned mandatory death notwithstanding – but the Catacombs/Tomb of the Giants feel like From Software just want to fuck with the player by having constantly respawning enemies in the former and nearly complete darkness hiding almost all the really hard-hitting enemies in the latter. The Demon Ruins/Lost Izalith feel unfinished and as such not that interesting as said before and the New Londo Ruins feel like just another gimmick, with the ghosts you can only hit by either being cursed, simulating a curse through an item or using a cursed weapon. This makes the latter half of the game feel substantially less interesting to play through. Coupled with the fact that most of the bosses actually get way easier as the game progresses – and in fact also way easier than some of the regular combat encounters – also feels weird. It’s strange to die six or seven times to an early boss but kill a late-game boss on your first attempt, as I did with 12 bosses.

A ton of stuff is left unexplained. How covenants or weapon upgrades work is never explained. You can go through the entire game leveling intelligence and faith but still never get to equip more than one spell, because the game never tells you that attunement slots are used for that. Similarly, you could end up putting points into resistance which does fuck all.

In the end, Dark Souls is still very much worth playing. But its far from a perfect game and you need to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate the way it presents combat and tells its story. If you can do that, you’ll be in for a hell of a ride.

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