Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Developer: From Software
Genre: Action RPG
ESRB rating: Mature
Release date: Available now
I’ll be the first to admit I have a problem when it comes to games: I’m a gaming masochist. The first thing I always do is crank up the difficulty. But I wasn’t prepared for Dark Souls, the spiritual successor to Namco Bandai and From Software’s Demon’s Souls. The sequel takes everything you thought you knew about fairness in games and crushes it under hordes of undead and massive dragons.
The world of Dark Souls is a bleak one. Once a vast ashen waste ruled by immortal dragons, it is now ruled by the “lesser” races who discovered fire in eons past and used it to overthrow the dragons. The Age of Fire they created is waning now, and the once-great Anor Londo, City of Lords, is now a crumbling ruin filled with the cursed undead. Dark Souls places you in the role of one of them, a human marked by the Dark Sign. Though you’ll never truly die, you pay for this immortality with your sanity, as all undead eventually go Hollow. These sad souls are herded into a great asylum and locked away to rot until the end of the world. Old half-forgotten legends, however, speak of a chosen undead who will journey to Anor Londo, rekindle the Flame of Lords and begin the Age of Fire anew.
Dark Souls has been marketed using one key phrase: Prepare to Die. It lives up to all of its promise. Death is the central mechanic in a punishing risk-vs.-reward system. On the surface, Dark Souls is an action RPG with an easy-to-grasp combat system, but there’s so much more to it than it appears. Enemies killed reward you with a quantity of souls. Souls are your everything: your experience for leveling and your currency for buying and upgrading. You rarely have enough to do both at the same time. If you die, then every soul you haven’t spent is dropped. Of course, you can go get them if you can get back to where you died in once piece. Enemies hit hard, though, and no matter what level you are, it’s always possible to be maimed even by the weakest of enemies. Another important resource is Humanity. These little black consumable sprites play a number of roles and are nearly as precious a resource as souls, and far more scarce. Humanity count influences your item drop rate and overall defenses. It can be spent to reverse your hollowing, kindle your bonfire checkpoints and allow you to engage in the multiplayer aspects of the game. Even that has its risks, however. Humanity spent is lost forever, and not only is your humanity count dropped with your souls upon death, but also your human state reverts to undead. Being “human” allows you to summon other players to fight at your side against bosses, but it also opens your world to invasion by black phantoms seeking to slay you for souls and humanity. Everything you do is a risk, the benefits of which you must weigh against your potential downfall.
Dark Souls is a punishing, punishing game. The difficulty is unforgiving, and not once does it hold your hand or guide you through anything. NPC interactions are sparse and dialogue is short. Bonfire checkpoints, your only safe havens, are few and far between, and sometimes hidden. This game will beat you savagely into the ground for the slightest misstep, but no matter how hard it hits you, you always come back for more. The risk-vs.-reward system makes your eventual victory incredibly sweet and grants a feeling of true achievement rarely found in games. Deserving high praise in particular are the online features. Perpetually connected to the PSN, players in Dark Souls catch echoes of others around them and in the light of the bonfires; they can even see each other clearly for a few brief seconds. It’s a surreal but effective way to ease the game’s otherwise suffocating sense of isolation. Those glimpses of other worlds and other people fighting the same fights lend a sense of community with no words needed. Even when summoning allies for a boss fight, there’s no way to chat, only a series of motions.
There’s very little negative to say about Dark Souls. It’s not for the casual gamer. Those who can take the heat, however, will find an amazingly deep game, filled with strategic combat and interesting characters. I can argue that the graphics aren’t the best I’ve ever seen. I can nitpick that it doesn’t give you much direction, or that messages players leave can be misleading. All of that, however, is honestly minor. There’s nothing big enough to truly take away from the sense of pride in victory, the exhilarating combat that keeps you on your toes at all times, and the grand, epic landscape of Anor Londo.
Dark Souls is difficult to describe without waxing poetic in the length of a small novel. There are so many small, intricate details to praise. These little things add up to a game that is truly epic in scope and offers a feeling of accomplishment found nowhere else.