Punishing and rewarding in equally gargantuan measures, 2009 saw Demon’s Souls – From Software’s take on a fantasy dungeon crawler – celebrated by critics, and propelled to lofty heights of cult stardom by those who could stomach the challenge. A mere two years later, and its spiritual successor Dark Souls is preparing to land, with the frank and prophetic ‘Prepare to Die’ mantra being used to re-assure existing fans, and to set the scene for those experiencing the game afresh. As we measure up our coffins and ready ourselves to push up the daisies, read on as we see if they’ve managed to repeat the magic a second time around.
Game: Dark Souls
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Whilst an opening cinematic tells a tale of immense forces bringing an age of dragons to an end, eschewing in a new age of light and dark, any hopes to dive in battling at this grandiose a level are quashed early on. A blank canvas for you to shape with a variety of assets and attributes, your character begins in a locked cell within a prison for the undead, and even after escape, your only guidance is a vague prophecy of a pilgrimage to the north. Even post-escape your new surroundings are sparse, limited to a few stragglers offering a brief exchange of words & goods, and a variety of danger-stricken paths in a variety of directions for you to brave. Doing away with the level hub of Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls has created something both impressive and intimidating; a world so detailed, yet so open and vast that it is entirely down to the player to choose how to explore and adventure within. Do you go up to the undead city, down into the haunted lands below, or battle through the graveyard to the catacombs? The lack of direction is unusual in a game like this, yet far more engaging and engrossing than one might expect.
Medieval fantasy settings may be two-a-penny, and whilst for some parts there will be a degree of ‘seen it before’, Dark Souls still manages to impress. The slow pace the game demands is often assisted by the world itself provoking a slack-jawed pause for breath, and even within the opening hours you can expect to have your eyes drawn in by a range of gorgeous vistas, complex battlements, and dank caves. Enemies range as per the environments, with both getting steadily more diverse and unsettling as the game moves on; making your trek from the relatively tranquil starting point that bit more uncomfortable. Boss enemies are the undisputed stars of the show though, with the designers given a seemingly limitless remit within which to work, throwing a range of colossal and frankly terrifying foes at you.
Whilst the art direction is bold and uncompromising, the technical component driving the game is not quite so stunning, but still plenty competent. The scale and span of some areas does compromise the framerate somewhat, and the Havok engine contributes to some unintentionally slapstick moments as enemies occasionally attach themselves to you posthumously – and whilst unfortunate, these minor niggles are never to the game’s detriment.
With so many pieces in the game being scored so fantastically, it’s refreshing to see such well placed restraint in the audio department throughout. Foreboding ambiance stands as the most common sound throughout any number of environments, with the thuds, swings, clangs, and clashes of battle ringing out loud and clear over all else, with larger enemies pounding and stamping as they career towards you. Whilst the music is typically very grand and orchestral, it’s almost exclusively as an accompaniment for something equally groundbreaking happening on screen.
Although your self-styled hero is permanently mute, you can expect to encounter any number of NPCs on your journey through the game, and given the range of eccentricities they display it’s a relief to say this is handled solidly. Characters’ moods and attitudes are reflected vocally in a primitive but charming way, and whilst there’s no big-budget names involved, there’s no doubting that this more subtle approach to handling vocal parts is far more fitting in such an environment.
An action RPG at heart, Dark Souls has you pick a character class as you set about exploring the world. Combat is steady and simple, yet comfortingly rhythmic, where shield blocks, weapon swings, and spells cast are complimented with straightforward but tricky manoeuvres to be used when appropriate. Slower, predictable foes are easily parried if your timing is up to scratch, leading into a powerful riposte attack, whereas more careless foes can often be circled around, leading to a more powerful strike from behind. It’s important too to highlight that your character class is little other than an opening guideline. Picked a Cleric but fancy giving that new axe you just found a go? No problem; spend some time putting stats into your strength & dexterity, and you’re away. Same goes for magic; power up your attunement and intelligence and you’re sorted – there’s really no limit as to what you can do with your character, and seeing the perks of each and every tweak is one of the game’s more tangible rewards.
As you progress, bonfires act as checkpoints, allowing you to perform a range of restorative tasks; refilling your life-restoring Estus Flask, increasing your stats, changing your spells, and so forth. The same can be said for enemies though, as each bonfire visit respawns all regular enemies – however unique enemies and boss monsters remain dead, mercifully. Slain foes surrender souls, used as currency for everything from weapon purchases to stat upgrades, and whilst death will take you only back so far as your most recent bonfire, your amassed souls require re-collecting from your point of death. Die again before reaching them, and they are lost forever. This is perhaps the most elementary of Dark Souls’ unforgiving tendencies; stray too far into the unknown, and you will pay the price.
Death will also turn you from human to hollow, and whilst a ‘humanity’ item can be used to reverse this, it’s worth understanding the risks that come with both. Whilst being hollow reduces some stats, being human means your world is subject to invasion by other players, who are just as likely to kill you for your humanity and souls as they are to help you take on your current task. This innovative take on introducing multiplayer to a typically single-player genre has been progressed considerably since it’s inception in Demon’s Souls with the inclusion of the covenant system, where finding and pledging allegiance to a particular faction grants you tasks and rewards you benefits by interacting with players in different ways. Also coming back from its predecessor are blood splatters on floor allowing you to witness the final moments leading up to another players’ demise via a spirit-based replay, and the ability to leave messages throughout the world for other players to read and rate accordingly. Whilst these are innocent enough and helpful in nature at present, it’s unquestionable that the more sadistic of players will be leaving equal amounts of misinformation in due course.
Whilst mentioning the game’s difficulty is almost obligatory, it’s more important to highlight that whilst tough, it’s rarely unfair, and always surpass-able. For new players, the first few hours will feel like a rather heavy-going exercise in masochism, but if you play with an open mind as you persist, you will find your play style adapting as you learn more about what the game expects of you. Instead of charging headfirst into enemies who have hidden allies in wait, you will find yourself drawing them to you with arrows from afar. You’ll find your shield held up in preparation at all times as you explore new areas, with all corners carefully checked by a spin of the camera before diving around like moth to the flame. Death is inevitable, but not so inevitable that you cannot at least prolong it with skill and strategy. Your language may turn a little blue in the process, but the perseverance you afford will be rewarded in spades; nothing feels quite like it when you finally overcome whatever it is that stands in your way.
It’s not long before you realise that nearly every fault you could levy at Dark Souls is less a fault, but rather a design choice by strictly considered intent. No pause function, even when changing equipment? Why should an enemy wait for you! Lost hours worth of souls due to running ahead? You shouldn’t have been so careless! Single save slots for each character? You should stand by your decisions! No voice communication or easy way to co-ordinate play with friends? Why break the atmosphere! This is game design at its most uncompromising, and it’s certainly not by luck that it manages to instill dread and isolation in a player like so few can.
Providing you make it through the early stages of the game with your controller intact, you can expect Dark Souls to last you a long time – essentially, as long as you will allow it. With every new area needing the kind of caution you’d typically reserve for tightrope-walking, you can spend hours trying to mentally map out a new area whilst achieving very little in a traditional sense. The game itself is huge too, and you can expect to rack up dozens of hours of play time with still only scratches to the surface. Those looking to see everything the game can offer can no doubt expect some ludicrously high play times, and if the tweaks to multiplayer prove as successful as we suspect then there’s every chance this could see people playing for a long time even further beyond.
Dark Souls is an incredible feat; a bold and undiluted take on a genre so often watered down, that does everything it sets out to without stumbling at any point. All at once it manages to be dark, demanding, vast and open, and nigh-on peerlessly too. Whilst the two bear any number of similarities, it’s a more than worthy successor to Demon’s Souls, and in the creation a new world with new challenges to be bested, there is no reason for fans not to come back. New players are advised to check their intentions at the door; it’s certainly not a game for everyone, but for anyone who’s interest is even vaguely piqued, it’s hard not to offer the strongest possible recommendation to put yourself at Dark Souls’ mercy, and be sucked in by its immersive and wondrous charm.