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Dark Souls – Game Review

Dark Souls for the Xbox 360

Release Date: October 4, 2011
Developed by: From Software
Published by: Namco/Bandai Games
Rating: Mature
Genre: Third Person Hack-and-Slash RPG.
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360

As the spiritual sequel to Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls had big shoes to fill. Demon’s Souls was a sleeper hit of 2009, its crippling difficulty and innovative online play quickly creating ripples through the gaming community. From Software, not content with releasing more of the same, set out to create a game that built on the innovations of the original. Not only has Dark Souls filled the shoes of its older brother, it has surpassed its sibling in almost every aspect.

In the world of the game, those marked with the Dark Sign are doomed to be undead. The sign provides immortality, but one day the one marked will become Hollow and lose all humanity. Undead that are not hunted or imprisoned journey to Lordran, a land overseen by ancient lords. Gwyn: God of Sun, The Witch of Izalith, and Nito: the first of the dead worked to destroy the dragons that ruled the world and allow the proliferation of mankind. However, Lordran has fallen into despair. Gwyn himself has died and become Hollow and evil; malice has spread across the land. You play as an Undead, chosen to leave their asylum and restore Lordran.

[ad#longpost]First things first: Dark Souls is hard. Fantastically hard. It has at least doubled the difficulty of its predecessor. Every encounter is a tactical fight to the death, and the player must quickly adapt to the myriad of enemies around them, lest the player find their digital entrails strewn across the floor. Random weapon swinging will quickly lead to death, as will unfamiliarity with enemy patterns. But the sense of accomplishment that comes with clearing an area is one of the most satisfying video game experiences of recent memory. The core gameplay remains very similar to Demon’s Souls, although with a few tweaks. Players still use various spells and weapon types to fight enemies and progress in the world–however, spell uses and healing have been restricted, yet improved.

Spells have a limited number of uses per spawn, and the player is given a designated number of “Estus Flasks” to restore health. The limited spell casting prevents magic spamming, a mechanic that nearly broke the difficulty of the previous game. The Estus Flask system discourages mindless attacking and encourages tactical approaches to fights. Dark Souls, like Demon’s, sports one of the most intuitive and realistic combat systems in modern video gaming. Weapons feel like they have weight, and every shield impact makes characters recoil appropriately. In videos, this looks clunky and slow-paced, but once you actually play it, it can feel as fast-paced and responsive as God of War. In distinct contrast to Demon’s Souls, however, the game world is completely open, marked by checkpoints called bonfires. Here, the player can replenish their spells and healing items, and can use souls to level up. This eliminates the frustration of the hub world system of the previous game, and compliments the increased difficulty well. Sadly, Dark Souls suffers some serious framerate issues. In two or three areas, the game grinds down to a nearly unplayable speed, and lag makes the already tense combat harder.

The actual narrative here (just as it was in Demon’s Souls) is…shallow at best. The player is given a vague idea of where to go and what to do in NPC interaction, and most cutscenes focus on the next lumbering monstrosity running towards our hero. Instead of story, the game focuses on creating a world through lore–encouraging players to imagine the past of their character, the land of Lordran, and the people around them. The entire plot feels like an amazing Dungeons and Dragons campaign, run by a diabolical Dungeon Master.

However, the storyline (or lack thereof) seems planned out, unlike the laziness of Demon’s Souls. The lore of Lordran and its surrounding world is deep and complex, although a bit confusing at first. NPCs are colorful and diverse, and provide comfort for the bleak, depressing world around the player.

My enjoyment of Dark Souls is hard to describe. The game is so rich, so complex, so fulfilling. I could talk about it for hours. Aside from framerate issues, it is a near perfect game. Other games this year have been better made, more polished, but this feels like a true work of art.

My Advice? I want every gamer to play it, and love it the same way I did, but sadly, Dark Souls isn’t for everyone. Rent it first, and if you enjoy the game, buy it. You won’t regret the purchase anytime soon.