Dark Souls

When developers From Software originally pitched the idea for Demon's Souls, they were careful not to emphasize how relentlessly tough the game would be. A potential marketing nightmare, the idea of publishing a game that didn't just involve flicking your wrists at a three-foot-wide tennis court may not have been welcomed. Against the odds, the merciless Demon's Souls quickly grew a reputation for its impressive difficulty but fair approach. The game punished every mistake, but rewarded inventive combat and careful progress. The adventure itself was incredibly atmospheric, and completely unique, bringing to PS3 something truly special. Despite restricted initial releases, popularity grew to such an extent that Demon's Souls was soon released in the US and later Europe, sending a clear message that gamers aren't just waiting for Modern Warfare 29b, Mario 109 and the latest wrist-waving fitness game. Thankfully, Demon's Souls has opened the eyes of the gaming world to different experiences, and although the risk remains that the series could become its own Modern Warfare, the latest release, Dark Souls, remains firmly in the unique corner of the gaming market, with a strong following of gamers who relish the opportunity to tackle such a dark masterpiece.

Dark Souls

Starting in Lordran, a world devoid of hope, you begin as an undead, much like the spirit form you swiftly find yourself in at the beginning of Demon's Souls. As a prisoner in the Undead Asylum, you must first break free, fighting the occasional fearsome enemy along the way, before uncovering your true purpose in the game. The story is not handed to you on a plate, by any means. The introductory movie hints at the the ruling lords, the war in which they defeated the mighty dragons, and the pull the world has over the undead, but the complete story is intricately woven into the characters you meet, whose explanations give glimpses of a much larger struggle that has raged for millenia. It's a brilliant method of storytelling, since it steers clear of forcing plotline down gamers' throats, and allows individual gamers to extract as much information as they wish, depending on how far they are willing to delve. For example, a brilliant element of the story involves an enemy boss, Quelaag, or more specifically her sister, known as The White Lady. One of several daughters of the Witch of Izalith, her backstory is genuinely moving, and sees her virtually sacrificing herself to save those that were essentially a slave race to her sister Quelaag. The story can only be uncovered through conversations with in-game characters that could be missed entirely in the central course of the game.

Ultimately though, it will become your character's duty to fight the biggest and baddest enemies, and to decide the fate of the world, so it's fortunate that there's plenty of scope to forge a character suited to the strategic style of the player. Dark Souls may allow you to carry any number of objects in your inventory, but there are strict weight restrictions on anything you have equipped. This means that, straight away, character builds can vary from heavy-armour-clad warriors with massive weaponry through to sorcerers and pyromancers wearing little more than a cloak and hood. There's no requirement to stay with a particular strategy, and many players will vary their tactics for the situation at hand, altering the armour worn to deal with, for example, the fast-paced swipes of the Grey Wolf Sif, or the crushing blows of Smough's massive hammer. There's also no reason to stay restricted in a single class. Starting as a magical type, for example, or a soldier, a cleric, or even the largely-unarmed barbarian, there's no reason to feel constrained to a particular path. Levelling up in the game, which once again requires the collection of souls, allows players to build particular attributes to suit their fighting techniques. Some will pile everything into strength, to wield the biggest Dragon Axes, while others might keep a lighter, more-manoeuvrable build, or focus their efforts entirely on magic. All-rounders will be able to take on all bosses quite effectively, but having strength in a particular area rarely harms your chances, since you can often adapt your tactics accordingly.

Dark Souls

While much of the core game structure is shared with Demon's Souls, a few key changes affect how gameplay unfolds. Previously, The Nexus provided a central hub for the game, a welcome safe haven, but this has been removed in favour of occasional bonfires in a completely connected world. Everywhere there are paths, elevators, and doors to unlock, linking together areas of the game in a way that rivals the incredible level design of the Metroid series. A particularly nice touch is the fact that, when playing online, bonfires provide glimpses of other players sat at their own equivalent bonfire in their own gaming world, yielding a sense of unity that helps to counter the largely solitary feeling the game deliberately instills. On escaping the asylum, there are actually a large number of paths open to the player, although the power of the enemies encountered is likely to encourage gamers in the direction of a sensible first choice. It usually won't be long before an exploration into the Undead Burg yields some success, and players begin to encounter the first major bosses of the game, including a fearsome pair of Gargoyles on the top of a Cathedral, and a majestic dragon, dominating a long stone bridge. Sprinting away from the dragon will stir fond memories for many who remember their first experience with the Red Dragon in Demon's Souls, that would torment any who tried to cross the bridges in Boletaria.

The RPG elements at the core of the game are crucial to the success of Dark Souls, and there's a perfect balance established between progress, levelling, equipment upgrade and resource management. Successfully navigating a new area will likely bring great rewards in terms of collected souls, which can be spent on level upgrades, improved equipment such as a strengthened sword, or on new items like poison cures, new armour, spells, miracles or pyromancies. A single foray will never allow you to upgrade in all these areas though, and careful choices must be made. Grinding in the game is possible, and would allow players to upgrade everything before moving forwards, which may sometimes be required before the toughest bosses, but generally it is discouraged, with the game content to keep you balanced on a knife edge, certain that every next fight could be the last, and that the arms race against increasingly tough opposition will always continue. Levelling up takes place at bonfires, a resting place that also restores health, allows you to return to human form, but also returns all non-boss enemies to their usual positions.

Dark Souls

No amount of preparation will prevent character deaths though. Around every corner, there is undoubtedly a trap, or a new enemy type that will manage the unexpected, but that is entirely the point, and it's simply part of the learning process. Much like it never was in Demon's Souls, death is not the end, it is simply a painful return to the beginning. Several steps before your character's last, a pool of blood will remain, containing all of the souls and humanity carried at the time. With humanity a vital currency for bringing your character back to life, or increasing the power of bonfires, returning to the place where your character fell is essential, but every enemy in the way will have returned. The despair, knowing that every soul you carried could be lost if your character falls again, especially if you had marched deep into a new area, is intense, and even if you manage to return to your souls, it's likely you'll therefore be carrying even more as you progress forwards to an inevitable boss. Surviving the boss fight will undoubtedly be a tricky matter, and the number of souls lost could be significant. That said, it's this sense of relentless challenge that makes beating a final boss so incredibly satisfying. By confronting you with such stiff opposition, and by setting such clear, stringent rules, finally making it past a boss fight is always a brilliant feeling, and it sets the game apart from other RPGs and, in fact, from most other games in general.

That said, Dark Souls has made a few things a tiny bit more lenient for the player. Firstly, world tendency is no longer a factor. Where previously the world would become darker with player deaths, causing enemies to become more difficult, the game remains steady in Dark Souls. The same is true for the character's health bar, which remains the same whether alive or hollow, where previously it was reduced while in Soul form. Furthermore, the intricate web of passages, elevators and shortcuts is more ingenius than Demon's Souls, granting quicker paths back to boss fights for players willing to explore and take chances. It's fortunate that these small changes have been made, since in general the normal enemies encountered seem consistently tougher than those seen in Demon's Souls. Even when your character is wearing upgraded armour, and your vital stats have been improved, a single mistake could still mean the end against even the smallest enemies. One classic example that hampered many gamers' early attempts was the Basilisk. A group of them exist in the Depths below the Undead Burg, and each one casts a putrid cloud of gas capable of cursing unwary visitors. The curse, which cannot be broken without a rare item, sold by a vendor a considerable distance from the Basilisks, causes the current number of health points to be halved, and the effect stacks with all subsequent curses. The result, for some gamers, can be a terrifying homeward journey, running the gauntlet with almost no health protection, desperate to find the item that would lift the curse.

Dark Souls

The Basilisks are by no means the scariest things in Dark Souls though. In the lands of Lordran players will encounter an abundance of demonic creatures, ghostly beings, giants, wizards, reptiles, enormous bosses and beings of pure energy, every one more deadly than the last. The main highlights are boss fights, which occur in far greater number than in Demon's Souls, with around 25 significant boss fights and numerous other major encounters. Particular highlights include the duo Ornstein and Smough, for their deadly teamwork, Grey Wolf Sif, an incredible beast that is both punishing and noble, and Seathe the Scaleless for shear size, and the nature of his surroundings - a beautiful, but deadly, crystal cave. There's nothing on quite the same scale as the Dragon God in Demon's Souls, but it seems that scale and imagination were sometimes hinderances to tight, controlled gameplay. In Dark Souls, each boss fight keeps things very hands on, leaving little room for cheap exploits. The reduction in boss variation is perhaps a minor disappointment, but it also guarantees that no boss lends itself to simple trick tactics, ensuring that you must tackle the toughest foe head on.

The key to the game's success lies with the intricate balance between supplies, enemy difficulty, shortcuts and soul collection. Health is restored with the use of an Estus flask, which has a limited capacity. Though it can be upgraded in both strength and quantity, the flask essentially limits the total amount of damage your character can take during exploration. The result is a perfect risk-reward balance. Simply retracing your steps near a safe, familiar bonfire to collect a few souls might help a little, but to gain bigger rewards and to truly progress, bigger forays into the unknown are required. It's always as though the developers have perfectly anticipated how many mistakes you'll make and where, with each bonfire ideally placed to stretch players without causing too much torment. It ensures that gameplay is balanced on a knife edge at all times, never permitting you to become entirely comfortable, but also managing to keep a sliver of hope alive. For instance, the multi-path nature of the game means that, from the Firelink Shrine at the centre of the game, if you find the skeleton-infested remains of the catacombs too tricky, or the haunted ruins of New Londo too deadly, then maybe there are still other areas of the Darkroot Basin to explore, or perhaps Blighttown will reveal more.

Dark Souls

Much like Demon's Souls, repeat playthroughs are encouraged, and required if you wish to attain the platinum, but the number of replays is less daunting this time. Only two complete playthroughs are required, plus a little tidying, in order to collect the required rare items, sample each ending, and join each covenant. The latter are groups within the game that hold particular beliefs, which you can share and fight for. As an example, any player can be summoned to assist another player by placing their soul sign on the floor, but the Sunlight Covenant, comprised of warriors of faith, with miracles blessed by the sun, are each summoned using a special summon sign, and appear in other worlds as golden phantoms. Another covenant intent on justice is the Darkmoon covenant, famous for the collection of Souvenirs of Reprisal, but there are plenty of dastardly covenants too, like the humanity-collecting Dark Wraiths and the Gravelord servants who use Eyes of Death to make things difficult for other players. The Souls games were already famous for innovative online play, with ghostly glimpses of other players, messages written on the floor, helpful summoning, invading and bloodstains recording the final moments of other players fighting. Dark Souls adds to the formula though, and the Eyes of Death are just one example. By playing an Eye of Death in a hidden location, the symbol appears in the world of several other online players. Should any of those players subsequently die, their souls will pass to the one who used the Eye of Death. However, the affected players can also invade the world of the Eye holder, if they successfully track down the hidden Eye. It's a risk-reward balance once again, and another inventive addition to the game's online capabilities.

Online intervention might be required in varying amounts for different playthroughs too. Since the New Game+, the term used for a first repeat playthrough with tougher enemies and more souls, features a significant difficulty spike, the two main playthroughs feel quite different, and online interaction may become essential. For example, the boss fights with Ornstein and Smough or The Four Kings may give some people difficulties on New Game+, and a phantom player helping out would be of great benefit. There are some in-game phantoms that can be called on, but assistance from another human player can be invaluable, and there's a great sense of team spirit amongst cooperative phantoms. Sampling each covenant and coping with the increased aggression from enemies both help to keep things fresh and ensure that the hundred or so hours it may take to platinum the game are enjoyable and genuinely surprising throughout.

Dark Souls

With perhaps a little more budget to apply to this Souls game, From Software have done wonders with the environments. Arriving in Anor Londo may be a genuine shock to most Souls players, for its architectural beauty, and areas like the Crystal caves, the Darkroot Basin and the uppermost ramparts of the Undead Burg are utterly beautiful to behold. Much like the original Star Wars, there's a kind of gritty, used charm to everything, that gives the world of Dark Souls a far more believeable, immersive feel. The characters are similarly impressive, and a step up from Demon's Souls. Facial models, armour sets and movement animations are all improved and, in turn, combat feels even more fluid. The improvements to lighting are most impressive though, with some incredible skies and views to look out on. Everything feels quite inventive too, as though the development team were truly allowed to unleash their creative potential. The inclusion of the Duke's Archives, a massive library with sets of rotating stairs, and places like the Painted World of Ariamis, a snowy world trapped inside an enormous painting, are ideal examples of the innovation shown. Meanwhile, the layered structure of the world allows some creative inter-connecting areas. For example, the Undead Burg sits atop the Depths, over Blighttown, above a massive hollow, which grows over Ash Lake. The descent to Ash Lake is truly epic and the change in scenery carefully balances imaginative flare with believeable transitions. The game might not manage the polished, particle-filled amazingness of an Uncharted game, but it features an immersive, beautiful and deadly world to explore.

The various sound effects have also been improved for the game, with crisp, clear sounds and some impressive effects used especially in boss battles. For instance, while battling Seathe the Scaleless, crystal shards stab through the floor, while the dragon itself thrashes its tail and exhales plumes of deadly magic breath. The sound is seamless, and entirely convincing, and never threatens to shatter any illusion of reality. Many familiar effects remain, which is a nice touch, upgraded slightly for this sequel. The familiar sound of a summoned phantom arriving, the menu chimes, item usage and many other effects grant a sense of familiarity and a further, welcome connection to Demon's Souls. Meanwhile, the voicework is solid enough, with a few highlights from certain vendors that you see on your travels, and numerous interesting conversations with other warriors trying to survive in the deadly world of Lordran. Musically, there's a consistent style throughout, with the boss themes the main highlight. The use of themes for boss fights in particular serves to highlight the ferocity of such battles, while adding to the feeling of loneliness throughout much of the rest of the game where the only accompaniment is often the sound of footsteps or the wind rushing past.

Dark Souls

A vast amount more praise could be lavished on Dark Souls for the incredible gameplay and the superb sense of achievement that results from every successful boss encounter. The developers have truly paid attention to fans of Demon's Souls and have done everything they can to keep the elements gamers love most, to improve everything else, and to try to do something new with the formula too. To take one of the best games on Playstation 3 and somehow improve on perfection is an amazingly tough task, but From Software have shown themselves to be up to the challenge. It's unclear if there will be another Souls game, but after a masterpiece like Dark Souls, it's certain that gamers everywhere will be looking out for the next dark adventure.

Game details

Game logo

Publisher:

Namco Bandai

Developer:

From Software

Players:

1

Online:

1-4

Release:

2011-10-07

Trophies:

41

Review summary

Gameplay:

Punishing and absolutely polished to perfection.

Graphics:

A massive, beautiful world filled with deadly creatures.

Sound:

An atmospheric score, with good sound effects.

Lastability:

A big adventure with signficant replay value.

10.0

Meteoric

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