I can’t stop thinking about Dark Souls. When I’m not playing From Software’s action-RPG I’m yearning for it, yet when I am playing it I’m like a lost soul wishing there was someone I could turn to for help in this lonely, unforgiving place. I knew it would be hard – Demon’s Souls set us all up for that – but I still feel unprepared, like a man sent out into the wild with nothing but a dagger and his wits.
Eight hours in and I’d only beaten the first boss. The Taurus Demon proved to be my nemesis, but even just getting to him was tough enough as I fought off legions of fire-bomb throwing, spear-wielding undead desperately trying to reach the safe haven of a warm, inviting bonfire. After dozens of deaths, holding my head in my hands in despair, and finally conceding defeat by switching the T.V. off at 3am in the morning totally exhausted, I was bitter but determined to be back. That night it took me forever to get to sleep, burdened by the weight of a battle that I knew I would have to face again.
The next day…a breakthrough! I take down the Demon and I reach the next bonfire knowing that I never have to meet this hulking great beast again – I hope. I feel elated and incredibly satisfied. The fog and heavy atmosphere that runs through the veins of Dark Souls lifts temporarily as I bathe in the light of victory. From an early stage, Dark Souls consumes you. It’s a game of extremes, taking you through every emotion imaginable, sucking the soul out of you before building you up to make you feel like you’re impenetrable. That doesn’t last though. Soon enough you’re back again working harder than you’ve ever done before in your life to kill every single enemy you encounter.
I think I owe it to the readers of PSU to let you know that I cheated. Well, I got myself some help. With the lack of community prior to release to turn to for advice, I asked Namco Bandai for tips on how to beat some of the bosses. They kindly helped me out, sending across an extract from the beautifully illustrated and highly informative Dark Souls Official Guide by Future Press. In this relatively short period of time before launch, I needed help so I could experience as much as possible before I wrote the review. Even now, I’ve only just scratched the surface.
I’d describe myself as a hardcore gamer (talented at hack ‘n slash games and shooters) yet I’ve struggled intensely with Dark Souls. Of course, this isn’t a hack ‘n slash game. In Dark Souls you do spend a lot of time fighting a wonderful array of creatures, from zombies and undead soldiers, to Black Nights and Prowling Demons. And you also have an abundance of familiar weapons, from crossbows and long swords to axes and spears. However, you don’t just run through levels God Of War style slicing your way through enemies like butter. This is a game that requires thought, patience and understanding. From Software sums up the tactics needed to succeed in Dark Souls very nicely when it says that winning boils down to three things: observation, strategy and choice.
It’s meant to be tough, of course, and fans of Demon’s Souls will revel in the challenge, while those unaware of what they’re about to face will rush into their initial encounters only to be brutally killed by even the weakest of enemies. In truth, no enemies are weak in Dark Souls. Every last one of them has the potential to kill you if you don’t apply those three rules outlined by the developer. Success in combat is about watching enemies’ behavioural patterns, exploiting their weaknesses, equipping the right weapons and using the right spells. It’s about running like hell when you really don’t have to fight and having the balls to try again and learn from your mistakes when you inevitably die. It’s about hundred-and-one different things that you can only possibly learn by death.
Combat in Dark Souls is extremely in-depth, yet the control system is simple to use. Back-steps, rolls, light and heavy attacks are just a small part of a cat-and-mouse game of attack and defence. Beyond the basic stances you have to learn how to plunge dive, parry and block with shields and execute two handed attacks. You need to choose the right moments to cast spells and know when to take a swig of health-recovering Est. You have to equip the right weapons and armour for the job in hand and know your enemy inside out. You won’t always know – in fact most the time you won’t have a clue – what tactic to use which is why death is so important. Without it you’re just a clueless, gibbering wreck lost in a world of pain and misery.
But help is here for those willing to step up to the enormous challenge. Weapons, armour and spells can be equipped via the inventory system and mapped to the d-pad allowing you to switch very quickly between them. Each weapon has a set of different parameters and every combat choice you make has a consequence; the weight of your weapon and armour which might affect your dexterity for example, or the speed in which you can stab and impale your enemy. You’ll soon learn that consequences of being hit just once from a certain enemy type may always lead to them executing a triple attack that breaks down your defences. In this case the tactic is, don’t get hit.
Combat is undoubtedly the highlight of this dark fantasy adventure and enemy variety plays a huge part in its appeal. Gargoyles, Dragons, mushroom-shaped beast and cleaver-wielding butchers are just a mere taster of the vast bestiary. Around every corner and behind every locked door you tread with intrepidation. These creatures are intimidating, frightening and more powerful that you can ever imagine. Big boss battles are magnificent as you try and try again to work out attacking patterns and exploit weaknesses.
But Dark Souls isn’t only about these intense skirmishes. Running through its heart are a number of game mechanics that make it stand out from anything you’ve ever played before. The concept of humanity, which also ties in with the storyline, affects a multitude of things, from the frequency you receive item drops to an increase in the efficiency of your bonfire – thus giving you access to more precious health-restoring Est. Gained through humans, special items and killing enemies, Humanity can be lost completely when you die and it can affect the efficiency of your weapon and much more besides. It even ties in with the game’s online component.
Dark Souls takes place in a persistent online world. As you’re going about your business so are thousands of others. Human players can invade your world and you can invade theirs, choosing to steal their humanity. In theory, this sounds like an amazing concept, but unfortunately – due to the fact that I’ve been playing the game before its official release – I haven’t experienced it or witnessed how smoothly it works. What I have seen though is other ways that you can affect other people’s worlds, and vice versa.
Messages scrawled on the ground by other players give you tips, while some lead you on wild goose chases. One message reads “Watch out for the plunging attack,” just before a knight charged at me, while another reads “Look Up,” highlighting a broken ladder that can’t actually be climbed – not yet anyhow. Another simply reads: "I can’t take this." White Phantoms, ghosts of other players within the world, occasionally spring up out of nowhere, while activating a Bloodstain replays the last few seconds of another player’s death. Though I’ve yet to see it in action, players can also light beacons and leave behind recovery items to help out others. It’s this online world and the community that will frequent it that will make Dark Souls such an incredible place to spend time within.
In spite of the fact that I may have got slightly carried away writing this review, there are a couple of areas where Dark Souls has irritated me. I’ve seen some clipping issues and odd behaviour from A.I. that serves to remind you that it isn’t always technically perfect. Nonetheless, graphical highlights come from the varied bestiary, and level design is incredibly varied, with environments full of tricks, traps and hidden secrets. It can be annoying wrestling with the camera during a fight only to fall off the side of a bridge or over a cliff following a backwards roll, but it’s all part of the challenge that you come to expect from Dark Souls from a very early stage.
The biggest irritant is an odd menu design decision which has proven to cause me a few deaths. When you exit the inventory, a small bar still remains in the top right hand corner of the screen and unless you press exit again you can’t attack or defend. You can, however, still walk around, but because you have a big chunk of screen space, it’s easy to forget that you need to press exit again. You do get used to it, but there are still odd occasions even now where I get caught out and get killed because I can’t react to an attack.
In the grand scheme of things, however, these are minor issues. When all is said and done, Dark Souls is an incredibly addictive game and those who embrace it will most certainly end up living it. There’s so much more to tell you about, so many surprises that await you, and so much for me and you to learn. From Software’s action-RPG isn’t going to be everyone’s taste, but hardcore gamers can rejoice. Finally the successor to Demon’s Souls has arrived and it’s absolutely brilliant.