“You will die” This is the tagline worn like a badge of honour by From Software’s, Dark Souls. Eager to cement its place as the spiritual successor to the hard as nails but utterly fantastic, Demon’s Souls, From Software have been talking up the game’s much vaunted difficulty for months. With the original so rightly celebrated on its release back in 2009 for its tight gameplay and truly unforgiving difficulty, fans will be happy to hear that its sequel, Dark Souls, while certainly retaining its predecessors challenge, hasn’t done so at the expense of quality, or more importantly fairness.
You see, like Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls is a game that revels in taking your life and plonking you right back at square one. Thing is, it never does so in an unfair way. You die (and as the tagline suggests, you will die…..a lot), but you never feel like you’ve been cheated. If you lose your life and the hundreds of collected souls you had been carefully harvesting, you’ll be fully aware that it was down to your own inadequacies and lack of knowledge rather than an unfair technical hitch or some ludicrous off screen attack…..*cough*….we’re looking at you Ninja Gaiden II….*cough*.
As fair as it may be though, you have to understand that Dark Souls can be an extremely soul destroying experience. Ploughing your way through 30 minutes of gameplay only to have the most minor of errors send you straight back from where you came with absolutely nothing to show for your efforts is often hard to take and is the kind of experience only a certain type of gamer can enjoy. Brought up on the handholding of modern gaming, many will struggle to live with Dark Souls’ oh so harsh realities. If, however, you are the kind of gamer who grew up with the wholly unforgiving likes of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts or Contra, this kind of challenge might well prove right up your alley. This is a throwback to the gaming days of yore when mistakes were cruelly punished and death really meant something. It’s a game with many a ruthless lesson and it’s all the better for it.
If you think you are up to the challenge though, an absolutely fantastic, utterly unforgettable experience awaits. It inevitably lacks the wow factor that served the out-of-nowhere original so well thanks to a degree of inevitable familiarity, but that doesn’t dilute the overriding quality of Dark Souls in any way. Dark Souls may play a very similar game to its predecessor, but this is the more polished, well designed product and a worthy sequel to a fantastic original.
While the core combat, collection of souls and slow grind gameplay all return largely unchanged, the move to an infinitely more open world gives this game a genuinely unique feel. Moving away from the somewhat antiquated hub system employed by its predecessor, Dark Souls open world supplies the game with a much more natural sense of progression as you desperately search out campfires dotted around the world for your next available safe haven.
At these camp sites, you can rest up and use the souls you might have collected to upgrade weapons or buy new items from the vendors or blacksmiths that you will have hopefully rescued along your time on the road. Although a simple enough system, the upgrade of your character, who can be created from a selection of archetypal designs at the start of the game, is just as important to progression in Dark Souls as the learning of attack patterns and locations of great danger. Using Titanite Shards found on the bodies of vanquished enemies, you can raise your weapon or armour efficiency from +1 to +5 with an additional opportunity to ‘Ascend’ said weapon onto an even higher level via rare, boss battle obtained components.
To get to the kind of levels needed for serious progression though, a lot of grinding will be needed. Doors and paths will appear throughout Dark Souls on an extremely regular basis, but the promise of further exploration is often halted by an enemy that you currently have no chance of besting. While other routes are often available, there are times in which going back to previously visited areas for some old fashioned grinding is the only way forward. It’s one of those examples of when Japanese eccentricities shine through amidst the game’s primarily Western design. This may look and play like a Western RPG but there are certainly moments when its Japanese development roots really come to the fore. It’s one of the many reasons that Dark Souls is such a fantastic and unique game and stands as the best coming together of Eastern and Western philosophies since the release of Vanquish last year.
With death proving as inevitable as the rising sun, you’ll be glad to hear that, like the original, you can go on after death as a spirit, leading off from the previous checkpoint with a chance to fight your way back to your lifeless body in an attempt to win back any of the souls you may have collected before you were once again enveloped by death’s warm embrace. It’s a fine example of the game’s underlying fairness, but yet another example of how it can so easily steal away hours of your life with little to no progression made. ‘Humanity’ drops do give you a second chance at actual life, but to be honest, you’ll be better served to save these for trips to the camp fire thanks to their ability to re-charge your health replenishing Estus Flask beyond the usual five helpings to a much more useful ten.
Online play is once again a major part of the Dark Souls experience, with the original’s unique take on co-op play making a welcome return. With the game hooked up to the net, you will find your game world strewn with helpful messages left by other players who have already taken on the upcoming challenges. With tips and warnings aplenty, the help of the online community is often the difference between progression and yet another brick wall. Sadly, like so much of Dark Souls, with the sweet, must come the sour. As helpful as the online messages may be, leaving your game running with an online connection also means the possibility of invading players rocking up and killing you for your valuable soul collection. Being killed by the game’s unbelievably brutal collection of enemies is one thing, but some higher level player rocking up and dumping on your cabbage patch can potentially lead to controller breaking fits of rage. Sure, you can go after your assailant but if they are of a significantly higher level, chances are they’ll just off you again. Your only option is to go and bully some other poor schmo on a lower lever than yourself. Under normal conditions, I certainly wouldn’t encourage the act of bullying, but Dark Souls isn’t a world in which you can afford to be a kind hearted soul…..this is survival of the fittest in its purest form.
As much time as you will inevitably spend trawling through the same areas in an attempt to inch a little further into the game’s vast virtual world, doing so is made infinitely more entertaining thanks to Dark Souls’ fantastic visuals and hugely immersive audio. Be it the first time or the fifteenth, revisiting Dark Souls’ beautifully realised locations never feels like a chore. The feeling of impending doom, combined with the ever consistent threat of yet another insta-death, will keep you on your toes at all times while the game’s magnificent sense of isolation is matched only by that of Shadow of the Colossus. Other than the notes left by the fallen, this is a game that excels at making you feel utterly alone. It’s you against the world with only your wits and skill to see you through to the end………good luck getting to the end by the way.
It may not be a huge leap over the excellent original, but Dark Souls is the more organic, polished and well rounded experience. It’s a fantastic return to the kind of unforgiving skill-based gameplay that is rarely found outside of XBLA and a must for those looking for a serious gaming challenge. Its ruthless world certainly won’t be for everyone, but for those who can live with the idea of death, Dark Souls beautifully realised world awaits with open arms and a carefully concealed blade.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox 360 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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