Dark Souls (XBOX 360)
As a reviewer it is always nice when a company takes that little bit of effort with their release to separate it from other titles. It could be something like Capcom's inclusion of a Zombrex pen with Dead Rising or the PR company working for RIFT who last week sent us half a cake and party items celebrating the games 1/2 birthday.
Therefore we were pleased to see a nice presentation box from Namco Bandai with the latest game to arrive.
At first we thought our press pack was a nice gift from Namco Bandai however after a few hours playing the sequel to Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, the bundle was clearly an advanced apology from them for the countless hours of mental torture we were about to endure at the hands of the game...
Gameplay (Single Player)
Available for PS3 and Xbox 360 Dark Souls is an action orientated RPG with elements of looting and dungeon crawling, though it is set in a large open world environment. We take the role of an undead character (various classes available) who early on in the game takes on a mission set by a dying NPC. Essentially we are carrying out their last wish and as part of this realise we may be playing a part in a much wider prophecy.
Starting with an escape from a prison where we find ourselves at the beginning of the game this section is, as with most games, an early tutorial in the gameplay mechanic and overall the title is easy to pick up and play. We move with left stick, look with right and can defend with the left shoulder buttons, attack with the right. X uses items in our inventory and A generally interacts. Our inventory is accessed through a menu and quick items are assigned to the d-pad. So far so simple but that is where Dark Souls stops being kind to us.
Escaping from the prison might seem like a simple task to begin with and in most games it would be, not Dark Souls though because in this game there is only one difficulty level and it can only be classed as Hardcore, Insane, Veteran... whatever is the highest from your favourite game... and that is the key premise behind this title. Build a game which offers a huge challenge to anyone playing through it; a bold decision by the developers (From Software).
To aid us in our quest there are a few key game mechanics present. Firstly combat is aided by a lock which allows us to press the right stick and focus our attack on an enemy, maximising the damage caused by our blows. Then we have bonfires. Dotted throughout the levels are these bonfires which act as save/restart points and a place where we can perform tasks such as refilling our Estus Flasks (health regeneration) levelling up (increase skill points). The presence of restart points and the ability to refill our flasks might sound ideal but this isn't necessarily the case as every time we use a bonfire (whether it is because we died, or chose to visit) the enemies we have previously killed re-spawn, forcing us to change our gameplay style from the norm.
As an example in most games we might clear an area, reach the boss and die. At that point we might play though again, clear everything and decide to go back and grab as much health as possible before taking on the boss again. In Dark Souls that will result in everything we had just killed re-spawning again, forcing us to clear the entire area once more. In this game we must learn to maximise our skill in fights and minimise the damage taken to have any hope of progressing. Walk into a room with 3 or more foes and the chances are we won't walk out alive (undead?).
Our progress will be hindered further by the fact that bosses, right from the start of the game, are massive and the odds stacked firmly in their favour.
Be prepared to die, A LOT.
While Dark Souls is primarily a single player experience From Software have managed to include community aspects in the gameplay. For those signed up to Xbox Live (or PSN) the game drops segments of other player's experiences into our game. These can range from blood splatters across the levels which replay the dying moments of other players to notifications that someone has defeated a boss. Through doing this the developer gives more clues on how to proceed, or not fail, than the basic tips found in the early tutorial.
Some may find these useful, others invaluable... and for the insane they are un-needed as the player presses on, alone through a very cruel game.
In addition to this we can also move into, or have someone join, a game in progress. Assisting in a challenging area... or to kill another player should the circumstance arise. To be fair though, the balance is very much in favour of assisting others rather than hindering them... on many occasions because everyone playing will realise that helps the only way that they will progress as well.
Graphics and Audio
There is no doubt that aspects of Dark Souls are hugely impressive on the graphics front. It is incredibly impressive for example to work our way up to the top of Undead Burgh, early on in the game, just before we meet a boss and then look down over the city, or out into the sunshine. The game engine is more than capable of awe inspiring moments such as these. Additionally the animations from the main character and NPC's are smooth and well realised. That said there are a few issues, glistening walls for example don't look quite as good as the rest of the game. The camera angle can be troublesome and a little too often the developers push the visuals too far which results in some very noticeable slowdown.
Audio is generally good, the hacks and slashes realised well and the ambient noises and score is decent. In truth though the game is very engrossing and the audio is a minor aspect, there in the background until we notice that our character sounds like he is enjoying being hit a little too much.
In case it hasn't been clear up to this point let us reiterate again that Dark Souls is incredibly challenging, in fact at times it verges on feeling like some sections are impossible. This is a game which has been responsible for more expletives than any other that we can remember and with more frequency than any other.
Having said that, there is something hugely rewarding offered when playing through the game. A real sense of achievement when after 30 or so attempts at completing a section of gameplay we finally scrape past a boss with a fraction of our health and items remaining.
It is a fine balance that From Software have tried to find, how hard is too hard? How infuriating is too infuriating? Should games be all about enjoyment?
Putting those questions aside, it has to be said that while the main mechanic of the game works well there are a few issues which need to be noted. The inventory for example is a little clunky with functions not working intuitively. We might for example think an item should be open to "use" but clicking this option won't work. Instead we need to delve down deeper to find an appropriate option to select. Looting and crawling also lack a little balance as the ratio of items to barrels, urns, vases is too far off. We can go through levels, breaking open everything as we go (hundreds of breakages) and only once or twice will we receive anything. Additionally corpse looting is too random. We cannot for example pick up weapons from our foes, though it occasionally happens, offering us a useful item that wasn't available the first 20 times we killed that foe.
The graphics often suffer from slowdown, enemies can get caught on each other remaining stuck and running on the spot and the battle lock on occasion picks the least obvious foe which has an impact on how likely we are to die when multiple undead attack us.
Overall though Dark Souls has just about found the right balance in terms of difficulty. It won't be for everyone but those looking for a real challenge will be impressed by a dark, impressively realised world which is nothing like other games of this era.
||Torture but it was always intended to be. This is an RPG that challenges more than any other.
||Very impressive in areas, suffers from significant slowdown though.
||Decent audio with sounds that work well for this style of game.
||Dark Souls isn't a game which can be played though in a few hours. It is a much bigger undertaking and in a market where games are often criticised for their short length that should be rewarded.
(Not an Average)
||A dark, challenging, frustrating but compelling RPG which is like nothing else available at the moment.