Dark Souls released late in 2011 and is the sequel to the highly rated PS3 game Demon’s Souls. Most people will have heard of the game, although some will have avoided it due to the fabled extreme difficulty and supposed inaccessibility. The Prepare to Die Edition may sound like an even more brutal version, but in reality it is just a complete edition which simply includes the DLC that released in 2012. The game is an action RPG, developed by From Software and published by Namco Bandai.
Dark Souls begins with a superb cutcscene that explains a little about how the world of Lordran came to be. The intro has a Tolkien feel and quality to it, and explains the transition from a world shrouded in darkness and everlasting dragons to a time of fire. During the age of fire, disparity was reborn in many forms- Light-Dark, Life-Death, Heat-Cold. The ancient dead were drawn from the darkness, and the eternal souls of the once great Lords were awoken. A few of the undead used these souls to gain great power and defeated the dragons to claim the new era for their own. The setting for the game is the dying days of the age of fire, darkness is returning.
The first task is to create a character. There are around 10 different starting classes including a well armored Knight, a Mage, Cleric and Pyromancer, among others. There is even a character for the very brave player called The Deprived, who sports only a loin cloth and wooden club. Each has varying stats and equipment so this may seem like a daunting choice the first time around. In fact, daunting would be the word to explain my first few hours with Dark Souls. The game begins with the player,(a smelly zombie) incarcerated in the Undead Asylum, but a twist of fate offers a means of escape. After a few game hints have been digested and a few easy enemies beaten down, the difficulty shows itself in the form of a huge Demon Boss. It is a shock to be badly beaten so early in a game, but with a little thought and persistence it will be overcome. After the traumatic starting area, you are transported to the mainland, Lordran, for the main adventure.
The basics of the gameplay in Dark Souls are exploration, discovery, and lots of combat. There are no maps or waypoints to guide the player at any point, the game cannot be paused and the only safe areas are bonfires that are scattered around the game world. Leaving the first bonfire and wandering off into the unknown with no direction or idea of what to expect is a tense experience and the trepidation continues each and every time a new area is scouted. Souls are the currency used for both increasing level and purchasing new items, and are harvested each time an enemy is beaten in combat, but dropped upon death. Death will see you respawn at the last bonfire rested at with only one opportunity to find the souls you just dropped, at the place of your death. Die again before you get there though, and they are gone forever. Souls are best spent at the earliest opportunity as the combat is quite often fatal.
Fighting each and every enemy in Dark Souls is a duel of sorts. Even the weakest of them will put up a fight and respect, patience and caution should always be shown. It is a truly superb and simple combat engine that feels natural and rewarding. Practice will start to pay dividends after a while and you will feel like an expert duellist when you start parrying, backstabbing, and running rings around weaker enemies. The game will temper this feeling of power often though as around any corner you could meet a horrific end at the hands of a much more formidable foe. After just 2 hours of the game I pondered the obituary page in the Lordran Times. “SpongyWhale lost his life many times today and will be sadly missed. He tragically fell from a cliff, was defeated with arrows, stabbed, bludgeoned, burned, poisoned, drowned, bitten, impaled, fried with magical energy and gored by an armored pig.”
There is no Lordran Times, I made it up. Sadly, the rest is true.
Most of the game takes place in the grounds, buildings and depths of a huge walled city. The world is an amazing graphical feast for the eyes with a huge amount of variation. There are ruins, catacombs, swamps, cities, forests and much more. The amount of imagination put into the world is evident throughout and there are gorgeous views everywhere. The game oozes atmosphere because of the obvious love that was poured into the artwork on show and the amazing use of lighting. All characters and enemies have great animation, and attention to detail and the player character will equip all manner of wonderful armors and weapons which are just as expertly created, right down to the battle scars on a shield or the light glinting from the edge of a samurai sword. The visuals are simply spectacular and the music compliments them superbly. The soundtrack is designed to provide atmosphere and does a great job. As with all games that manage to nail the atmosphere, it sits quietly in the background until the tension ramps up, kicking in and coming to the fore when needed. The audio is flawless in my opinion. The huge array of weapons and beasts sound authentic and the unique voice acting feeds the air of mystery that kept me pushing forward.
So the difficulty. Well, if you have no Xbox Live connection then it will be a whole lot tougher. Players can interact within the game by leaving messages for each other that can warn of dangers, give hints or occasionally trick new players into jumping off cliffs to certain death. The separate games that players are inhabiting are connected like parallel universes. Players in human form can summon others into battle as phantoms to help with stubborn enemies, or maybe you will be invaded by an evil player and taught a real lesson. There are pvp areas in the game that are more than mere arenas, they are part of the story and cleverly integrated. The multiplayer aspects allow great interactions, but do a great job of keeping your own game personal to you, and the set boundaries make griefing all but impossible, just don’t believe every message you read.
Arguably, the biggest strength that Dark Souls boasts is the complete freedom it grants to the player. The freedom, not only to explore the world at your leisure, but to create the character of your choice. There are a vast array of weapons and armors to discover, yet none of them are really more powerful than each other. They do have differing move sets and protections, but the game can be completed by using just the starting equipment. It is all about choice and upgrading your favored items as much as possible. Dark Souls is an open world game, but not like Skyrim or Fallout. The areas may seem small at first glance, but there are hidden areas, shortcuts and secrets everywhere. All parts of the game link together like a jigsaw as you progress which is handy as the game is absolutely massive. The amount of content is staggering and the game seems to tease the player with hints of the endgame, only to repeatedly introduce new sprawling areas and objectives . You can expect the first playthrough to take 60-80 hours and if you make it that far then you will come back for more as the scope of replayability is immense.
The extra content in the Prepare to Die Edition cannot be accessed from the title screen. Did you expect it to be so easy? It is integrated into the story, fairly late in the game so you may need to start a new playthrough and look at the wiki in order to see where the devs hid the items and enemies needed in order to access it. Once you find your way into the secret DLC, you will be greeted by a guardian who will probably render you dead again. The extra content holds some of the toughest enemies in the game, many more surprises, and some Mario references for good measure. It fits in nicely and extends this already massive game by about 6-10 hours.
Dark Souls is an absolutely wonderful game. The high difficulty can be overcome with patience and experimentation. The game asks you to set out on a grand adventure yet does not hold your hand for a second. You must learn where to go, where to avoid, how to fight and how to survive. It is a beautifully crafted game of discovery expertly balanced with quality, mystery and wonder and is a true epic. I have been gaming for 25 years and in all that time, I have never played a more rewarding game, or a better adventure. Zelda: Orcania of Time has been de-throned after all this time. I can only attribute one fault to this game, the graphic engine struggles in one area, and that is there is some slowdown. That’s it.
Finding the words to explain why Dark Souls is such an incredible experience is tough. Yes, the art is fantastic, it is wonderful to play, and is soaked in atmosphere and mystery. There is something else though, something that adds the final touch of magic to a stellar piece of software. I will instead use the words of an American philosopher, spoken over 100 years ago. I think he understood the concept better than me.
“A constant struggle, a ceaseless battle to bring success from inhospitable surroundings, is the price of all great achievements.”
Orison Swett Marden