Review: Dark Souls

Dark Souls is the kind of gaming experience that you love to hate, or hate to love. Its gaming Marmite in its purest possible form and so reviewing it is really difficult.

Personally I love Marmite. Its sticky gooey texture and bitter taste just makes me feel all warm inside despite its unattractive black glossiness.  For me, this is a real valid comparison to Dark Souls.  But enough of the Marmite stuff; you are here to read about the game, if you were after Marmite reviews then other sites can fulfil that very specific niche.

So, for those of you who are uninitiated with the teams first title, Demon’s Souls, let’s start at the beginning.  The game is a third person action game at heart, with elements of strategy, role-playing and (wait for it) Forza!  I’ll explain this later, but bear that in mind…

Essentially the game opens with a story sequence (which is largely forgettable and really unimportant) that sets the scene of the world and outlines some very basic “long term” objectives.  You then get into your traditional character creation screen.  Now, with most “normal” RPGs it doesn’t really matter what class you pick to start off with, and to a certain extent the same can be said about Dark Souls however there are DEFINITELY initial classes that are easier for beginners than others. This you will learn (as you learn with everything in Dark Souls) by dying a lot.  The character class you start with is really just a template for you to grow in whichever direction you see fit, you could start with a sorcerer and turn him or her into a formidable warrior, the choice really is yours but there is a definite “path of least resistance” that can be followed to make the initial few levels in the game only bearably frustrating.

Once you have passed through the character creation process you are brought into the game and follow a brief tutorial. I say tutorial but really it’s a little linear portion of the game that introduces the very basic “key concepts” to you.  Effectively you equip your weapon(s) and hit one button to do a “normal” attack, another to do a “hard” attack and another to defend.  You have a button to dodge/dive/sprint and a button to use items. That’s really it, and writing it down makes the whole game seem really simple, but the real brilliance of the game shines through its strategic use of these buttons to defeat the various enemies through a combination of clever tactics and patience.  This isn’t a game where you are going to wade through a level continuously tapping the attack button, it’s a game where you are going to slowly wander through a level with your shield raised expecting to die at any moment and being delighted when you evade that death and instead deal it to your opponent.

This is a game involving and nurturing a level of skill that few games provide let alone require.  As you progress through the various levels you gather souls of the enemies you defeat.  These souls are used to level up or purchase new items but here’s the kicker, if you die you drop all your collected souls at the point you died (or very nearby) and all the enemies you killed to get to that point re-spawn (other than the big bosses) so you need to fight your way methodically back to your souls to collect them.  If you die again en route they are lost forever. That can be soul destroying (pun not intended). REALLY soul destroying.  You soon come to realise that you can gather the same quantity of souls again by slow, methodical play back to the point where you were at when you died but nevertheless it does force you to play the game in such a way that every enemy is a real potential threat and some of the bosses are genuinely terrifying to come up against, which is REALLY refreshing as in most games bosses are just another hurdle to get around to get to the next section of the game and can usually be beaten on the second or third attempt, then quickly forgotten.  Not so here. You WILL come up against bosses that seem impossible to defeat, that constantly kill you with one hit, or seem invulnerable.  The REAL joy/pleasure you get from Dark Souls is right here. Defeating a boss gives you a rush like no other game. It’s a REAL achievement and does make you feel like you have done something special and I guess this is Dark Souls “hook”, that constant feeling of earned progression.

This is where the likeness to something like Forza comes in. It’s like constantly driving a lap of a track whilst trying to perfect it and be the fastest, you make one slip up (even a minor one) and the game punishes you by making your time insignificant and a long way away from the best, and it’s SO easy to lose concentration for a split second and all the hard work and effort made to that point is lost.  This is the same in Dark Souls, a slip in concentration could cost you hours of time spent getting to that point!

Big lad isn't he?

There are various other elements that I haven’t mentioned yet, such as the esoterical multiplayer / coop system whereby you can occasionally see other players “ghosts” moving around the world which can sometimes give you a bit of an idea as to what is coming up and you can leave messages (subject to owning the particular item) for other players to either warn them of impending doom, lull them into a false sense of security or basically give an instruction which involves them committing suicide in a variety of comedy ways.  There are also ways you can play coop with other players but this isn’t coop in the traditional sense – you can’t really select who you play with, it seems pretty random.  In addition to the coop there are groups you can be a part of which require you to act in a certain way when in other players worlds – these range from mildly weird to head stingingly confusing but all add to the variety of the game.  The game DOES contain checkpoints (a stark difference to Demon’s Souls) which refill your health potions/flask thing, however each time you use the checkpoint to refill your health bar, the enemies re-spawn again!  The checkpoints are a VERY welcome addition to the game when compared to Demon’s Souls despite their sweet and sour benefits.

Having just re-read the review above it comes over as a very negative one, but I couldn’t like this game any more if I tried. Maybe I’m slightly psychotic and enjoy wasting my valuable gaming time on a game where you can play for 2 hours straight and not actually get any further into it, but there is something about the way it plays, the feel of the game and its inherent difficulty that just makes me want more, and to play more, and get better and beat it. Its gaming adrenaline in its purest form – that need for progression in spite of the game itself is so addictive.  I for one can’t wait to get back into it, to experience more of the warped developers traps and frustration inducing battles whilst simultaneously eating a Marmite sandwich – now THERE’S a metaphor wrapped in a metaphorical bun for you!

If you like this sort of thing, then it’s a…

But if not, then knock off a few marks and take this…

Reviewed on Xbox 360

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