Genre: Role Playing Developer: FROM Software Publisher: Namco Bandai Classification: MA15+ Release Date: 6th Oct 2011 Platforms:
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Dark Souls is the spirtual successor to Demon’s Souls, developed by From Software and published by Namco Bandai. Available on both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, Dark Souls is a brutally unforgiving Third Person Action-RPG set in a large open and dark gothic environment. And if you consider video games as a relaxing escape from the difficulties of real life, Dark Souls is probably not for you.
Those who have followed Dark Souls since it was announced will know what to expect - as will those who have played some of From Software's other games; games like Demon’s Souls on the PS3 or the King’s Field games on the original PlayStation or PC. Dark Souls’ trailers tell you what you are in for, as does www.preparetodie.com - Dark Souls official website. You are going to die in Dark Souls - many, many times.
Ideally these deaths will be entirely your fault - whether attributed to making a wrong move, not keeping aware of your surroundings or generally not being cautious enough. You need to learn from your mistakes and maintain vigilance at all times - and you will still die anyway. Until you understand the ins and outs of every enemy, the weak spots of every boss, death is your constant companion.
Three Deep Breaths...
After ten minutes figuring out the patterns of the basic enemies in your current section, you make your way from the bonfire up to a boss enemy. Dying frustratingly quickly, you slog through the grunts back to the boss creature, recovering the souls you lost on your last death and figuring out how to kill him as you die again. Third time being the charm, you trek back up to your adversary, killing him and feeling great. Continuing on and feeling good about yourself, you appreciate the bit of breathing room following such a difficult enemy. Only when you are killed by an enemy archer do you realise you’d let your guard down.
Annoyed at dying in such an ignoble fashion after such a glorious defeat - not to mention the prospect of running all the way back to your bloodstain to recover your lost souls - you take your frustration out on the game, killing the grunts in your path in swathes as you go back to get the thousands of souls you had accumulated. You take a spear through your chest after ignoring an enemy generally beneath your attention and watch your thousands of lost souls disappear down the drain. You switch off the game and swear you’ll never play it again, just like you did last time - and the time before that.
Video games - in an attempt to appeal to as large a market as possible - generally tend towards making things easier for the player. Many people do in fact play video games as a relaxing escape, instead of a test of their skill or a masochistic exercise in frustration. As far back as gaming goes though, there has been a grand tradition of games which require an overwhelming amount of skill, resulting in thrown controllers and broken televisions.
These days, games which evoke such reactions are generally multiplayer, as multiplayer games pit your skill against the skill of other players - more challenging than anything a game can throw at you thanks to human unpredictability. Dark Souls - like its predecessor Demon’s Souls - doesn’t need a human element to make you ragequit - simultaneously lowering the embarrassment (because nobody else saw you) and heightening the shame (because you lost to a computer.) But while Dark Souls is a primarily single player game, it has its multiplayer elements too - and like Demon’s Souls they are fairly unique.
Messages left by other players are back, as are blood stains where others have died. By using an Orange Soapstone - available at merchants - you can choose from a set of messages to scrawl on the ground which will be seen in other players’ games. Sometimes a message might warn of approaching danger, or tell you where treasure is located. Other times a message will have been left just to trick you into killing yourself.
Activating a blood stain shows you a ghostly apparition of another player in the moments leading up to their death - a bloodstain in front of a message at the side of a cliff saying ‘Treasure Ahead’ usually shows the poor sap jumping to their doom - making a good indicator of which messages are tips and which are tricks.
You will also spot the ghostly outlines of fellow players as you run through the game at the same time as others. Especially common near bonfires - resting areas and checkpoints - it’s surprising the morale boosting effects you as a player feel just by knowing someone else is there with you - no matter how intangibly.
If you would prefer a more tangible effect on another person’s world, Dark Souls has you covered - whether your goal is to help or to hurt. You first gain the ability to summon Blue Phantom allies fairly early on in the game - and while they can help you fight and tag along through your game, Blue Phantoms are not like your standard co-op experience. Party and private chat is not allowed in Dark Souls - and if it’s detected you are booted unceremoniously back to the Start menu. Likewise, you don’t get to choose your companions - after using your White Soapstone to invite people to join you, you will automatically get the first two people who show up - whether you know them or not.
For those who would rather be nasty than nice, you have the item required to invade the world of another player as a Black Phantom from the start of the game - although I never successfully managed it. I’m currently unsure as to whether or not it was just a matter of not finding anyone suitable for me to invade, or if I required something else before I could get going.
Which brings us to Dark Souls biggest problem - a lack of information. While the lack of hand holding is a benefit rather than a hindrance in this case, it goes beyond frustrating to find out you have to start the game again because the game neglected to tell you what was going on.
One item you get fairly early in - the Fire Keeper’s soul - gives you 5 humanity if you ‘use’ it - or can be traded for a bonus to Etrus Flasks - the items you use to regain health, which you can only carry five of to begin. The description of the item just tells you it gives you the bonus - and common sense dictates that a useable item will carry out the terms set out in the description, frittering away a valuable trade item.
Likewise, the statistics of equipment are equally obfuscated, with only the main characteristic being obvious at first glance. Greater detail can be found, but only when you know where you are looking, until then you will just have to wonder which statistic explains that you can’t wield a scimitar with your current Dexterity.
If Dark Souls had a theme other than “Dying a lot” however, it would be anonymous community - and this extends to information about the game. From Software explained that they deliberately left some things unanswered so they can be discovered by the community - and already there is a wiki devoted to Dark Souls (although it's a little light on at time of writing). It’s weird to have such a sense of camaraderie in such a dark and brutal environment - especially with the limitations set on interaction - and yet the sense of community is ever present.
If you’ve seen any of the media for Dark Souls, you will already know what I am about to say - it is an outstanding looking game. It occasionally chugs in some of the larger outdoor areas, but by and large it mixes amazing art design with excellent graphics. The atmosphere throughout the game is filled with tension and foreboding - which sometimes ebbs to a sense of unease.
So now you need to ask yourself the same question everyone has to ask - will I accept the challenge? You don’t need to be a masochist - I would personally consider myself further into the reality-escaper camp (filled with RPGs) than the skill-tester camp (which has lots of plush toys) and I accepted. I accepted, quit in fury, accepted again, quit in fury, accepted once again, quit in fury and then finished this review late after I accepted the challenge under the guise of trying to find something out for the review. Dark Souls won’t be for everyone - that is guaranteed - but if it hooks you it won’t let go. When you do stop playing - for work, school or to get some plasterboard and caulk for the brand new holes in your wall - you know it will only be a matter of time before you go back.