No story, tough combat, sheer learning curve – and yet, one of the best games of this generation.
So, Dark Souls, the console “classic” RPG widely considered to be one of the hardest games this generation – From Software even subtitled it “Prepare to Die”. But what is it really – stat counting numberthon, crafting and mixing build-your-own-gear toy, or 75-hour tale of woeful destruction on a grand scale which can only be prevented by you? Well, it’s none of them really, and to call it an RPG does a bit of a disservice to the genre – lacking any real RPG tropes except for some light levelling capabilities, DS is quite clearly a solid action game – not quite Dr. Hackenslash’s Crazy Weapon Funtimes, but the sword-and-spells-based polar opposite of a title such as Bulletstorm – a game of thinking, reacting, pacing yourself and learning an awful lot about your enemy. If you ever thought that too many games throw waves of disposable enemies at you, then Dark Souls will put you right.
To the uninitiated, a couple of important points – there is a story, but it’s largely irrelevant; you will be perpetually underpowered and reliant on quick reflexes; it’s so brown and grey it makes Gears look like Lollipop Chainsaw; and it’s unfair to the point that it’s considered a game rule. You’ll fall off edges (remember those days?), you’ll get killed in one go by enemy spam attacks, you’ll get next to no help with how to play the game. I only found out there was a limited lock-on function three hours in, and that was by chance. It’s the gaming equivalent of building an entire IKEA kitchen on your own with only one stubby flathead screwdriver – it’s tricky, it’s frustrating, you will cry at times, and you’ll end up drinking a lot. But, in the same sense, you’ll never get a sense of achievement quite like it when you win.
To nutshell the game, you are some undead bloke trying to prevent some great evil from blighting your land (I think). You break out of a prison cell and are whisked off to defeat lots of medieval-styled horrors in a variety of weird locations, and with no one to help you out, apart from the occasional scribbled note on the ground, or if you are very lucky, summonable help. You’ll have whatever weapons and armour you can find and buy on the way, and collect the souls of those you kill to level up, buy goods and services, and more. There’s also something called Humanity, which affects whether you can summon help or not. Both humanity and souls are lost every time you die, and although they can be reclaimed in the next life, death sends you back to the last fire/checkpoint, and resurrects everything in the region. You fight these creatures with the weapons you choose to equip, and need to learn the enemy combat patterns, and when to block and strike to stand any chance of survival. Show any lack of respect to any creature in the game, and you’ll be heavily punished. Oh, and the game rarely provides any pointers on where to go either, meaning its really easy to miss safe havens, and also stumble into an area full of overpowered enemies.
So, it’s a third person, slow, pacey combat fest, then. Well, yes, but again, this does the game a disservice – take magic for example. You can cast spells in DS – they are slow to cast and tricky to aim, and you have no idea of how effective they are until you try them. The game at no point explains where you can get more, or how to level them up – that’s for you to discover. Weapons need you to fulfil certain stats to use the effectively – equip a broadsword to your wizard, for example, and you can watch him flailing about with extreme exertion in the style of child brandishing a running chainsaw. You need to really think about what you equip, and how you use it, as weight affects your speed, and trying to be a master of all skills means you’ll end up completely screwed at your first skeleton.
It’s truly not everyones cup of tea, but if you find modern games are all a bit too short and sweet, then this is the lengthy lemon-and-pickled-fish-baguette you have been waiting for, and crucially, it’s really good too. The adrenaline rush of clearing an area to explore freely is constantly tempered by heightened nerves as you flinch at sounds and skip about like a puppy encountering a wasps nest. Beating bosses has more gravity than you remember – last time I felt such an air-punching rush was beating the final tower boss in Shadows of the Colossus, and here I got the same feeling twenty minutes into the game. Quirks and tricks are actually fairer than you think – if you can fall off a ledge, you soon realise bosses can do the same too.
And here’s the real thing – it’s horribly addictive. The levels of tension and nerves I feel every time I play means I need to take a real, physical break every time I find a safe haven – pausing the game doesn’t stop the action, and you actually need to take a moment on a regular basis to just get over what you have done. I’ve had more highs and lows in fifteen minutes of Dark Souls than I often get in a standard eight hour shooter these days, and this is despite the lack of story – I don’t know what’s going on most of the time, and frankly I don’t care.If you find modern games are all a bit too short and sweet, then this is the lengthy lemon-and-pickled-fish-footlong you have been waiting for
However, I have to add an important negative – Dark Souls is 100%, absolutely, positively a port of the console version, and not even a particularly good one. The graphics are locked at 720p, the framerate is stuttery, and the game is clearly built for a controller, as its nearly unplayable without. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel – a user patch from NEOGaf forumite Durante has done an epic job of unlocking the visual clampdown and taken away the horrid whiff of terrible conversion, making a good game even better. This review focuses on the out-of-box experience, where textures are muddy and everything feels quite dated, so I strongly urge you to apply the patch.
But the truth is that Dark Souls deserves the praise it’s getting – it’s deep and immersive, and the constant threat of death, married to a cycle of learning and adapting, means that it’s not for Half-Hour Henrys. It’s even got a sort of multiplayer, in that players can occasionally help each other out, or turn on each other in the name of nothing more than being an arse. The difficulty levels will put a lot of people off, but in truth, you get out what you put in, and the reward rush of reaching the next tiny pool of safety is pretty much unmatched in this age of gaming. There is nothing else around like it – in a time of cloned, recycled titles appeasing shareholders and balance sheets, titles like this should be praised for shaking things up. So not only is it one of the best games you’ll play this year, it’s probably the most important one too.
The Good: Deep, immersive world; challenging to the nth degree; unique in both gameplay and outcome; clever, layered combat and response, reliant on learning and reflexes; one of the ultimate gaming rushes, with no peer this generationThe Bad: Story is throwaway; challenge will put many off; no help for beginners, as it relies on learning for yourself; out of the box experience is terrible
Silver Y Award