Tuesday, November 8, 2011

REVIEW - Dark Souls.

You've no doubt heard, it's hard. I won't lie to you - it is hard. A better word is 'challenging,' but let's not split hairs - every time you walk ten feet deeper into the world of Dark Souls, the next thing you see will seem impossible.

You will not be able to imagine how you can survive it. More than that, you may even convince yourself that it's not possible to survive it - and that, my friend, is the first step towards the exceptional gift this game offers. Believe it can't be done - because Dark Souls will, a thousand and one times, give you the sublime sensation of overcoming the the impossible.

It begins with a legend. Ancient Lords - elemental beings, and their stories. Seath, the scaleless crystalline dragon who betrayed his kind, and stood atop a mountain of their corpses. Nito, first of the undead. The mysterious Furtive Pygmy, clutching an ember in the dark - and the evil arts that cursed mankind with the Dark Sign.

In this doomed world, those born with the Dark Sign cannot die. They become "hollow" - crazed, demented, soulless creatures that can only kill, be killed, and are damned to rise again.

You are one such cursed soul. Driven north and imprisoned in the Undead Asylum, you take your opportunity to escape and find yourself swept away to Lordran, the beautiful, magical, unforgiving kingdom of the Ancient Lords. There is a prophecy, it is said, that an undead may break the ancient curse, and return light to the world...

But that's not what's on your mind. Everything in Lordran is bent to the task of killing you - and given that you cannot permanently die, you find yourself getting killed a lot. If it's not the nearly feral zombie soldiers that stalk the nearby ruins, it's the toxic bite of the rats in its sewers. Once they are overcome, it's headless, crawling demons, swamps that poison you as you trudge through the muck, the egg of a demonic spider growing from your head, strangling, living trees, floors that crumble beneath you, lava flows, and traps... traps everywhere.

They will kill you, always, again and again, until you learn to overcome them and step that much further into the swirling dark - stomach tight and shield raised. This world is bent to the task of your doom, but the immortal dead are uniquely well-positioned to learn its dark secrets.

Eventually a hissing, cobra-headed, four-armed, blade-wielding serpent sorcerer will come for you, and you won't panic. You won't attack, but you won't back down. You'll stand your ground with your shield up, keeping him from entering the room you're in and you'll wait. You'll just wait for the boulder that will come tumbling down the path outside to crush his reptilian bones...

Because, while everything in this world kills, once you've learned its secrets, nothing in it kills better than you.

Dark Souls is as close to a masterpiece as this generation has seen, just as much by virtue of what it does as what it does not.

A brief cutscene which opens the game provides all the narration you will ever hear - the rest is veiled in the mists of time, hinted at in brief conversations and item descriptions. What happened to flood the haunted ruins beneath Firelink Shrine? How long have these towering, empty suits of savage armor guarded the pristine, abandoned streets of Anor Londo - and where did its people go?

There are far fewer answers than questions, and this lightest narrative touch sparks the imagination like no game I've played in recent memory. There is something deeply affecting and romantic about the wise, sharply-drawn and dimly-defined fantasy Dark Souls presents. It recalls not just the fantasy stories we wallowed in as children, but the intangible weight and substance they carried in our young minds. The huge, sprawling, intricate, gorgeous world of Lordran haunts me, still - and the true story that begins to form is not the game's, but the player's, and their triumph over this impossible place.

The game's melee combat is nothing less than sublime. Visceral, weighty, brutal and tactical.

Your skill with a weapon is determined entirely by your ability as a player, and you must know it as intimately as a lover. If you forget that a light attack is a horizontal swing from right to left in a cramped hallway, it may cost you your life when the blade swings wide and clangs off the stonework, leaving you open to the thrust of an enemy's spear.

Dark Souls is packed to the brim with simultaneously fantastical and authentic-feeling weaponry, and is entirely open in how you approach it. If you prefer to soften targets with ranged weaponry, it will give you the opportunity (you have got to see the Dragonslayer Greatbow in action). You can almost entirely eschew melee combat and focus on magical prowess, hurling fireballs and lightning. You can ignore shields, wield a sword two-handed and decide to master the risky, intensely rewarding system of parries and brutal ripostes - or you can have nothing but a Dark Hand, clutching the faces of your prey and draining the very humanity from their bones.

The game is a playground of death - for your enemies, and for you - and the mastery of its systems offers uniquely pure satisfaction. The grim glee of a perfect horizontal cut across a zombie's throat as you come out of a dash is merely an appetizer compared to the final blow on one of the game's terrifying, thrilling bosses.

The game's exceptional challenge is amplified by the consequences of failure. Souls are the currency of Lordran - dropped by foes, discovered in hidden caches - and are spent to level up your character. Should you die, your current store of souls will be dropped by your corpse, available to reclaim.

Should you die on the way back to retrieve them, a new deposit will be created at your latest bloodstain, and the last one is gone forever. So long, souls.

This makes death very, very important - and this, combined with how uniquely challenging the title is, has the effect of heightening one's senses. When was the last time you actually felt anything when you were defeated in an action game? When was the last time you felt truly invested in your success?

Dark Souls may have a relatively languid pace when compared with most action games, but nearly all time spent in Lordran is accompanied by a slow burn of adrenaline which spikes to heart-thrashing levels during your final, thrilling domination of an area's overlord.

No other game - save its spiritual prequel, Demon's Souls - can compare to the sense of grim pride and satisfaction Dark Souls offers.

Dark Souls' boasts the thickest, most impressive atmosphere in years. Dark and dreary here, saturated by beams of trembling sunlight there.

The game is uniformly gorgeous throughout its gigantic world, in terms of art direction and overall presentation. I have climbed the highest towers to gaze out over a marble metropolis and I have descended so deep into the bowels of the earth I emerged from a colossal tree trunk on the shores of a sandy beach. The tree I'd navigated seemed to stretch up to infinity - but I know that somewhere up there is the poisoned swamp beneath Blight Town, the domain of Quelaag the demon witch - and beyond that, the ancient city of demons.

Voice work (all done with European actors to match the fantasy setting) is excellent - creepy, depressing and moving in turn. The game's orchestral score - mostly coming into play during boss encounters - perfectly matches the grandeur of its action, but an eerie silence follows you through most of your travels. Only the ambient sound of the world, the breathing of a nearby dragon, the clank of your heavy armor as you pound down its shadowy halls...

The game is beautiful - exceptionally beautiful, in fact - but not technologically impressive. It capably handles nearly all of what's required of it, but one of the game's area taxes the engine to such a degree that the framerate is significantly hobbled.

That single caveat aside, Dark Souls is everything we've forgotten to ask of our games. It paints a lush, huge, mysterious and romantic world begging for exploration. Its uniquely challenging and rewarding gameplay demands mastery, and offers the most intensely rewarding experience in years.

This game is pure inspiring fantasy, adventure and thrills. More than that, its finely-tuned design, presentation and mechanics do a better job of absorbing the player in its reality than any title in recent memory, and practically defines what a "role-playing" game can truly be. It offers an exceptional experience, and infinitely crueler than its myriad murderers would be the disservice you do yourself, should you overlook it.

Dark Souls is nothing less than a modern masterpiece.

  • weighty, visceral, thrilling, perfectly balanced melee combat
  • a somewhat ridiculous assortment of magical spells
  • you are entirely open in how you develop your character. Roll a cloth-wearing cleric and in ten levels you can be wearing plate mail, rocking a zweihander.
  • excellent sound design and music. You feel every clash of steel and breath of fire.
  • gorgeous art direction
  • incredible atmosphere; the most immersive, absorbing game in years
  • spectacular boss encounters
  • a massive, memorable, beautiful game world, completely without filler and demanding exploration
  • my single playthrough took me over ninety hours, I've really only scratched the surface of character development, and the game extends into New Game+++++++
  • its uniquely high challenge pays exceptionally high dividends in satisfaction
  • minimal narrative sparks the imagination
  • very unique multiplayer
  • this is a game you 'crush on' - constantly thinking about it when you're away from the console

  • the game's merely capable engine is not up to handling one particular area, resulting in significant slowdown

Dark Souls is a masterpiece.


  1. Wonderful review of a wonderful game. I loved the hell out of the first bunch of hours, fought against impossible odds (or what felt impossible, especially since I never played Demon's Souls), emerged victorious against towering bosses, and only stopped when I reached Sen's Fortress because I haven't had time to really dig in and take on the trap-laden castle. What class did you play, Chance?

  2. I rolled a Thief, simply because I wanted two 'gift' items - so I got the Master Key and something else. In short order I'd tossed the thief's meager arms for something more substantial, but I'm still using cloth armor - my shield and sword are very heavy, and I need to be able to sprint and roll with my playstyle.

    In the end, my character is a straight-up sword-and-board melee character, with a light dusting of archery and Holy spells for healing and transportation. Homeward is a great asset.

  3. You know that old joke about the ship captain telling his first mate to bring him his brown pants when they see a dozen enemy ships on the horizon?

    That's how I feel each time I pick up and play.