Dark Souls Review

By Jeffrey Matulef - Posted Oct 10, 2011

Dark Souls may be extraordinarily difficult, but the payoff is more than worth it. Its mesmerizing landscapes, tactile combat, bevy of secrets, and anonymous online integration make Dark Souls among the most engrossing games around.

The Pros
  • Gorgeous world to explore
  • Stellar combat system
  • Many secrets to discover
  • Online integration for community generated hints, co-op, and competitive multiplayer
The Cons
  • Framerate is inconsistent
  • Persnickety lock-on

Dark Souls Review:

Dark Souls flies in the face of recent videogame conventions. Where most games these days pride themselves on accessibility, Dark Souls goes to great lengths to make its complex systems impenetrable. Gone is the obligatory lengthy tutorial intrinsic to most action/RPGs.

Rather than structured missions or waypoints dictating where to go, you're forced to feel your way through the proverbial dark with no map and only a vague goal to guide you. Instead of instigating a gentle learning curve, Dark Souls's outlandish difficulty punishes you right from the start. This is a game that wants you to fail. It's not easy to come to grips with, but those up to the challenge will find persevering through its labyrinthine designs to be among the most satisfying gaming experiences available.


"Never tell me the odds"

On paper Dark Souls may sound like a traditional open-world action/RPG. You create a character, customize their stats, level up, explore dungeons, collect loot, and forge weapons. That explains what it is, but not how it feels to play.

First off, Dark Souls is terrifying. This is mostly due to its obscene difficulty where most enemies can lop off a majority of your health with one well placed attack. Dim lighting, claustrophobic corridors and deliberate enemy placement tucked behind tight corners ensure that you're always on edge as you cautiously inch your way further into the unknown.

Much like its spiritual predecessor, Demon's Souls, the stakes are often high when you die. Leveling up is done by cashing in souls (i.e. currency) at bonfires, the game's version of checkpoints. Meet your maker and all your accumulated souls will form a "bloodstain" where you kicked the bucket, giving you one last chance to reclaim them. If you fail to make it that far, your bloodstain will be overwritten by that of your most recent death. This ensures that even respawning is stressful when you've got a lot on the line you need to recover.

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There's a neat risk vs reward system where bonfires provide relief, health and magic replenishment, and leveling opportunities, but also respawn all enemies. Deciding when you should backtrack and cash in your souls or press forward in hopes of discovering a new bonfire is never an easy choice.

Dark Souls is also confusing. For an extremely complicated game its scant instruction manual and brief tutorial are shockingly uninformative, relegated mostly to what the buttons do. After the opening level you're told you need to ring two bells, with no idea where they are or what they'll do. You're frequently given little idea what items are for and just about everything will have some sort of unforeseen consequence later on. For example, NPCs will die or wander off and you'll have no idea why. It hearkens back to the days of the original The Legend of Zelda where entire dungeons could be hidden behind arbitrary walls, and you could unwittingly explore deep into areas far above your pay grade.

Dark Souls

“I need a little help from my friends”

In an offline game, this may feel cheap and random, but that's where Dark Souls distinguishes itself. While a majority of the game is played solo, your exploits are influenced by other players' actions. Players can leave notes for each other, giving advice on boss battle strategies, secrets and traps. Sometimes they'll deceive, though, and beckon you to walk off a cliff at the promise of treasure, only for your leap of faith to prove fatal. You can only choose messages out of preordained sets of words, partially to reduce obscenities, but mostly to limit the hints to cryptic musings rather than all out spoilers.

Elsewhere, you can activate other players' bloodstains to watch ghosts of their character fall in battle. It can be difficult to decipher the cause of death from these, but they still help players spot upcoming traps and build up a sense of community by showing you're not alone.

Dark Souls

“Oh, the humanity!”

Furthermore, there is a limited form of co-op and competitive multiplayer available as well. Players exist in two states: "Hollowed" (Dark Souls's parlance for "undead") and human. Hollowed players can leave summon signs offering their help to human players before bosses. They'll hop into the human player's world, and if they defeat the boss, they'll be sent back to their world with lots of souls and a humanity point. This can be used at a bonfire to revert back to human. Once human, you can kindle bonfires -- upping the amount of healing flasks they'll replenish by five -- and you'll be on the receiving end of summon signs, so you can answer other's offers for help.

The downside to being human is your world suddenly becomes susceptible to invasion. Other players can use an item to infiltrate your world with the goal of murdering you, which will reward them with humanity and lots of souls.

There's no voice chat in either mode and you can't select who you play with. That may sound like a backwards step to some, but it helps immerse you in its stunning world since it can't be ruined by modern day chit-chat or worse. It also adds a feeling of isolation to have to play with people you don't know.

Dark Souls

Brutal Legend

Beneath these esoteric concepts is one of the best combat systems seen in the genre. Compared to most action games, the attacks in Dark Souls are slow and methodical, but they carry a real sense of weight. Lunging a longsword into an enemy's shield will throw you off balance and swinging a spear will cause you to stumble. All of your moves eat away at a stamina meter, so you can't simply mash the attack button. Knowing when to block, roll, parry, and riposte various enemy attacks is essential to success. The only issues with the combat is that the lock-on can be a little finicky as it breaks at too great a distance, and sometimes there are framerate issues, but these are minor annoyances at most.

It can feel hopeless at times, but it's worth persisting through if only to see what gorgeous sights and sounds await you. Behind its grueling challenge and obscure designs lies one of the most beautiful settings ever burnt to a disc and a place you'll literally be dying to see more of. Monumental castles, moonlit forests, and derelict sewers are just some of the many places you'll visit, and every location is awe-inspiring, imposing and detailed. The Metroidvania design and enormous scale are intimidating at first, but great care has been taken to ensure that each area ties into another with a bevy of shortcuts for the thorough explorer. Areas you explored hours ago can be spotted off in the distance from scenic vantage points across the map, and when you realize the subterranean corridors you've been wading through for ages are only a hop-skip away from the game's starting point, the relief is paramount.

Dark Souls

The creatures are every bit as gorgeous as the scenery. Every area contains its own unique enemies, and even 70 hours in you'll be discovering new things to be afraid of. Perhaps its best designs are saved for the bosses. They range from disgusting, to baroque, to majestic. It takes skill to make a giant skeleton made of skeletons not look like goofy, but there you have it.

It's a good thing the world is so lovely, because most of the story is told through it. There's precious little plot and the script is inconceivable. An odd mishmash of prose that would have felt overwrought in medieval times written in Japanese then translated into English is off kilter in a way that against all odds works. A more concise narrative and better voice acting would only serve to hinder the feeling of solitude and loss inherent in every fiber of Dark Souls's being. The whole game feels slightly alien, and this lack of a tangible plot or character development makes traversing these foreign lands even more unsettling.

Dark Souls

Soul Survivor

Dark Souls isn't for everyone, but those with the patience to uncover its many mysteries will find something new to appreciate at every turn. The game took me over 80 hours to complete and I still would have missed two entire areas had I not consulted a wiki before taking on the final boss (you can't continue exploring afterwards, but are rather booted straight into the even more difficult new game+). By not spoon-feeding players information on what to do, it makes every discovery that much more rewarding. Dark Souls may be foreboding, unrelenting, and downright sadistic, but those who prevail through its arcane world will find that victory has seldom tasted so sweet.