Before I begin this review, I would like to save some people time. If you are a casual gamer who thinks Angry Birds is the most difficult thing since Bejeweled, then Dark Souls is not for you. This game is a very difficult one that is a nostalgic trip, designed for people who grew up with a controller in their hand. It’s unfortunate, but I will promise you right now that this game is not for everyone.
I had a very deep respect for Demon’s Souls when it came out. It was a game which sat alone amongst pansy games that held your hand every step of the way. In fact, if a comparison were to be held with Demon’s Souls and other games, a lot of other games would be a well-remembered father who was always there, holding his son’s hand through thick and thin.
Using the same comparison, Demon’s Souls wouldn’t be too dissimilar to the father mentioned in A Boy Named Sue. It’s a brutal game that beats you senseless and then laughs at you for getting back up and trying again. Much like the Super Star Wars series, it was a masochist’s dream.
Although I was very fond of Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls had me sitting skeptically. Not only were they making the sequel more accessible by releasing it for both Xbox 360 and PS3, but it seemed like the sequel was going to remove the difficulty factor that made Demon’s Souls so amazing. Forty hours of game time later, I discovered this was not true.
In my time spent playing Dark Souls thus far, I’ve broken down and cried three times, screamed at the TV when a frog turned me to stone half a dozen times, cursed at a random boss more times than I can count, and died more often than any serious gamer would care to admit. To be honest, if this was any other game in the universe, I would probably have given up hours ago, but I haven’t, and I won’t.
You see, this is the magic of the Souls Universe (I’ve just coined that term by the way). It’s hard. It also doesn’t reward you for doing well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve beaten a boss and gotten enough experience points to level up, only to have a massive red dragon burn my face off, effectively killing me. This causes you to lose all your experience, unless you backtrack from a save point and recover your dead body. However, after I had picked myself out of the mud and accepted the fact that Daddy Dark Souls won’t be there to see my big peewee football game, I broke away from it and become a man who stood on his own two feet.
This is where Dark Souls shines. We’ve become spoiled by modern games. How many games have we played recently where even walking in the right direction was rewarded with a cut-scene? How many games give us shiny new toys simply for walking in the right spot and talking to the right person? These things are filler, implemented to reward even the most oxygen-starved moron for not eating their controller. Do you know why these things exist? Too much space and not enough filler.
In olden times, games were small. Most Nintendo Entertainment System games were less than one hundred kilobytes large. Think about that; you have less than a hundred kilobytes to create a visual game that will sell. Because of this, all of those games were compact and made with the most bare essentials. Hell, Castlevania is a great example of this, simply because they made every bit count.
Now, let’s fast-forward twenty-five years. Suddenly, you can easily fill a game with as much memory as you want. You can make entire computer games exist as one hundred gigabyte files because data storage is cheap and easy to transport. We’re no longer constricted by space and people are allowed to make a giant texture-packed game out of boredom. This is the problem. We’re no longer challenged to make difficult games that work with our limited capacities. Because of this, we have games like Oblivion, which is filled with hours of nothing but scenery, and Final Fantasy XIII, which is one angst-filled cutscene after another. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but they aren’t what makes up Dark Souls.
Dark Souls takes a stand. It says “Hey, I don’t need really beautiful landscapes (which it has), an open world (which it has to an extent), amazing music, awesome graphics (which it more or less has), or any of those other fillers that make a 2 gig shooter a 12 gig shooter. All I need is solid controls and good gameplay”. You know what? It produces that. The game does exactly what it needs to, and doesn’t do anything else. That is something which I can easily respect.
Dark Souls is not a casual gamer’s game. It will not be found in a frat boy’s library right next to the Call of Duty series and Halo. In fact, most people who weren’t raised on consoles older than the Nintendo 64 will find this game bothersome. It’s meant for a niche audience, and that’s fine. It’s a beautiful ball of pain and hard work, which is meant for people who want to play a game and not have a trophy handed to them every time they complete a tutorial.
Players progress through a fully online world in Dark Souls, where an interesting communication aspect is utilized. In Demon’s Souls, it was a bit black and white. You either left messages for players to read, saw their ghosts, helped them for a brief period of time in a quest, or killed them for laughs. Dark Souls is a bit different. Sure you can still do all of this, but a new system alters the way you interact with other people.
The political side (known as covenants) determines who you play with, based on your allegiance. Some covenants will let players duel other members of the covenant for approval from their dragon lord. Other covenants have players running around, assassinating people who are all around dirt-bags. There’s even a covenant where a player sits around in a forest, waiting to kill people for the heck of it. It’s a nice shake on an old idea and I couldn’t approve of it more.
Perhaps, the only downside to Dark Souls is Demon’s Souls‘ biggest strength: Its bosses. In Demon’s Souls, players would spend hours trying to get to a boss battle just so that they could have a small shot at bringing the beast to the ground. Now, a sub-boss is thrown at you almost every time you turn your head around.
At one moment, you’ll be wandering around after killing a monarch butterfly (this was supposed to be a big boss in the area), and the next you’ll be looking at a mini-boss which happens to be a three hundred foot tall hydra. It’s a good concept, but they seem to forget that sub-bosses should in no way be harder to fight than the main boss. Perhaps a little more planning would have made these bosses something more than an odd creature you add in at a certain spot because there was no more room for it elsewhere.
I said this before I even began my review: Dark Souls isn’t meant for everyone, but it’s the perfect game for people who need it. You can trust me when I say that there are people who need a game like Dark Souls. It, much like Demon’s Souls, sits on a mountain above other games. A die-hard reminder of how games used to play, and a damned good game.
Dark Souls was released on October 4, 2011. This review is based on a copy of the game which we received for review purposes.