Very few games offered up an experience like Demon's Souls. The punishing difficulty, extreme death penalties, and ultra-satisfying gameplay combined to create an obscurity that, for the few who could stomach the challenge, provided a sense of achievement rarely found in games. Two years later, developer From Software brings us Dark Souls, which while not a sequel to their 2009 sleeper hit, delivers the same deep and immensely gratifying mechanics of Demon's Souls, even improving where the previous game faltered.
It's hard to talk about the story in Dark Souls, simply because it rarely factors in to your character's actions. This is not necessarily a detriment. The opening cinematic sets the backstory, with the rise of the undead and their terrifying reign. However, this mainly serves as an introduction to the world itself, after which the player is free to follow their own path. Yes, there is more going on behind the scenes, and a certain reason why you are fighting these horrifying creatures (and they truly are horrifying), but the narrative never takes a front seat.
No one would have played Demon's Souls, even for the challenge, if not for the arguably best combat system on the market. Dark Souls preserves the essentials with several improvements and tweaks made here and there.
Swordplay is largely the same, requiring a combination of strategy, patience, and skill. You will spend 75% of the time in combat holding down the block button because even the weakest foes will kill you in a single hit if you drop your guard. Mastering the system takes time, especially since the game abandons success and failure to the player. Beyond teaching the basic swing and block moves, the game leaves your death-filled future entirely in your hands.
These flaming corpses have a good chance of murdering you despite their charred state.
Magic has been retooled too, so it is now far less of a crutch to lean on. From Software wanted to make a game that, eventually, would require the player to get their hands dirty. This is because, unlike most titles where you possess a replenishing magic meter, Dark Souls ensures players can only cast a certain spell a limited number of times. Stronger spells only have fewer uses. Maybe you can make it through most of an area solely relying on magic, but there is almost no chance of taking down one of the bosses without your sword meeting flesh.
Like in Demon's Souls, Dark Souls is about leveling up with souls you collect. Souls gained by killing enemies can be spent on upgrading the character, their weapons, or even buying better equipment, and players must often decide between ranking up or improving their arsenal. If you die, you lose all unused souls and go back to your last campfire (more on that in a second). You can run back to where you died to reclaim them, but all the enemies you slayed will have respawned, and if you die again, the souls disappear forever.
New to the game is another mechanic known as humanity. In Demon's Souls, players spent most of their time in soul form, which meant their health was halved and enemies were tougher. Human form could only be regained by killing bosses, and usually you would end up back in soul form shortly after. In Dark Souls, defeating bosses gives you a single humanity point. This can restore you to human form or upgrade your bonfires, not both. Like souls, it's a tough choice, adding even more to the game's crushing difficulty.
And I do mean crushing. Dark Souls is hard. Really hard. And it really doesn't care that you aren't having fun. You will die over and over again, and all you can do is give up, or get up and retry that last hour-long section one more time. There is almost no grinding in Dark Souls because no matter what you do, the only surefire way to make yourself stronger is to tackle one of the extremely difficult bosses. But if you can overcome the defeat, you are in for the high-water mark of gameplay design. It's savage, but it's damn fun.
I didn't sign up for giant wolves wielding claymores!
The biggest change from Demon's Souls is Dark Souls' enormous, fully-realized open world. Whereas Demon's Souls featured a hub world from which you ventured into the other levels (which were themselves fairly linear), Dark Souls lets you loose into a land of death and despair. While there is a suggested path to follow, how the protagonist approaches the vast panorama of castles and dungeons ultimately falls to you. Be weary though, as it is very easy to enter an area you are not yet equipped for, and you will get your ass kicked more so than usual.
The variety of areas to explore is fantastic, and each location feels unique, fitting perfectly into the overall landscape: a massive castle guarded by a fierce dragon; a death-swamp filled with vengeful souls; and a dark dungeon teeming with skeletal warriors just to name a few. The excitement of beating each boss comes with the knowledge that you are now be powerful enough to explore some of the game's other areas. Halfway through the game, you may even put your life on the line to see what else From Software has pieced into this world.
Because they can no longer send you back to the beginning of an individual level when you die, From Software has incorporated a new checkpoint system in the form of bonfires. These can be found throughout the world, and act similar to the Nexus in Demon's Souls. Activating a bonfire saves progress, heals the player, refills their magic, and allows you to level up your character. You can also spend a humanity point to kindle a bonfire, making them stronger. Doing so increases the rewards given by activating one (more health potions in your pack for example). However, using a bonfire will revive all non-boss enemies in a region, so players will, as with everything else in Dark Souls, need to decide between two equally difficult alternatives.
I also just want to sound off real quickly on the enemy design. Imaginative. Original. Terrifying.
You're going to need a bigger sword.
I couldn't write a review for this game without mentioning the online component. Beyond the punishing combat, this is where Dark Souls really sets itself apart. There are no lobbies, voice chat, or sending friends an invite. Instead, if you are having trouble, you can invite someone into your world to help you out. What is so amazing about the system's ingenuity is that you will have no idea who they are, nor they you. Communication is limited to hand motions and simple messages, and yet somehow, it works perfectly. It has to, because there is almost no way of beating the entire game without someone there to help you out.
There are also cross-game interactions, such as leaving messages on the ground to warn other players of a trap, lead them towards a hidden treasure, or if you're the devious type, lead them into a trap. But the best sequences are the little world events that occur when certain actions are performed. I don't want to say too much for fear of spoiling the revelation, but just know that occasionally, when you do something significant in your realm, other players in the same area of their world will know, or hear, about it. It's profound.
As in Demon's Souls, people can also invade your world in an attempt to assassinate you and steal your souls. However, the penalties for doing so are significantly higher this time around. The multiplayer is clearly geared towards helping, not hurting.
Soak in the scenery because you'll be visiting all this image has to offer.
In terms of visuals, the development team can pat themselves on the back. From Software has crafted a world almost beautiful in its incredible despair. The dungeons and catacombs exude a very Fallout-esque feel, as playing too long left me feeling a little depressed at the disparity around me. When you see the sun peek through the clouds after defeating the first boss, though, or enter a chapel filled with bright light, it makes the fight to get there all the more worthwhile.
This could be considered one of the best open worlds ever constructed based on the fear, anxiety, and desperation that the environments invoke alone. Dark Souls is a beautiful game, but the locales appear a little short on color. I did notice some stuttering when the action got intense, and some textures look blurry up close. However the lighting is absolutely perfect, enhancing the dark world imagery From Software has created.
The sound is really where this package shines. The so-so script and voice acting are easily outdone by the absolutely spot-on audio design. Between the slow plodding of the undead as they creep out of the darkness, the scraping as a demon knight drags his sword behind him, and the high-pitched screech of a massive dragon, everything coalesces wonderfully into an excellent soundtrack that builds and fades in perfect rhythm with the danger.
Dark Souls has thrown its hat in for the overall Game of the Year discussion. Thanks to the rewarding combat, brutal difficulty curve, evocative architecture, and memorable soundtrack, Dark Souls sits near the top of my list, but once I've played other winter releases and reflected on my experience, it may come out as the best.
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Developer: From Software
Release Date: October 4, 2011
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign) 2-4 (Cooperative)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3