Monday, October 10, 2011

Review: Dark Souls (PS3/ Xbox 360)

Dark Souls is the game of the year. It’s an utterly brilliant RPG with a finely tuned difficulty curve, a massive, organic world and visceral combat.

It’s the unofficial sequel to Demon’s Souls, inself a brilliant RPG that gained infamy for its old-school difficulty. That was a game that would punish players for taking one wrong step, or failing to quickly figure out an boss demon’s weaknesses. Dark Souls continues in that tradition, though it is a far more accessible game this time around.

The secret is in the campfires. With Demon’s Souls, to rest and recover you’d need to teleport your avatar to the “Nexus,” a centralised hub which linked to the various hostile game environments. This was a system that worked, but has been replaced with a far less abstract system this time. With Dark Souls, players are plonked in the middle of an open world (after a short tutorial dungeon), and left to explore for themselves. Salvation and safety can be found in the camp fires dotted about the place, where players can recover health, repair weapons and level up.

Now, the challenge comes not so much from the substantial distance between those camp fires (they’re actually fairly close together) as what’s between those camp fires. Often you’ll fight a boss, and then have to navigate some nasty traps and monsters to reach the next campfire. A normal game would have a save point immediately before or after the boss.

For anyone who has played Demon’s Souls, though, this will be a far more accessible game. The traps are much the same in Dark Souls, the enemies fall to roughly the same strategies, and with enemies often placed closely to these campfires, it’s relatively easy to grind up a few levels if you feel the need for a power boost.

For new players, however, Dark Souls will occasionally feel cruel. If you were hit by the old “heavy object down the stairs,” trap in Demon’s Souls, you’ll find it easy to avoid this time with a bit of caution. It’ll hit you by surprise if you haven’t played the predecessor. But not to fear, death in Dark Souls has meaning, but it’s a mistake that players can recover for.

When you character dies, he respawns at the last camp fire he/ she rested at, minus all the souls (gathered from killing enemies, and which acts as the currency for levelling up, buying items and repairing damaged equipment). On the plus side, he/ she leaves behind a bloodstain with a glowing blue mist that represents those lost souls. Getting back to the same point and touching the mist recovers all the lost ghostly loot to you. Of course, depending where you were killed, reaching that blue mist is a challenge in itself, and if you die again, the souls are gone for good.

And yet, whether you’ve played Demon’s Souls beforehand, or jumped into this fresh, Dark Souls is a game where a bit of grinding, a bit of patience, and the capacity to improve your skills and awareness the longer you play can play dividends. As tough as the bosses are, this is still ‘easier’ than a Monster Hunter game. And, for long time From Software players (those who have enjoyed the unofficial series from its genesis as King’s Field all the way through six titles to Dark Souls), this is the easiest game to date.

It’s still fun, thanks in part to the spectacular level design. It never quite reaches the heights of King’s Field IV, but wandering around the catacombs, castles and secret passages of Dark Souls’ world is immensely fulfilling. Uncovering long forgotten treasure from hidden vaults hearkens back to the classic Dungeons and Dragons dungeon crawl, and inching around a corner for fear of running into something you’re not prepared for is an experience few games can match, let alone beat.

Then there’s the sheer variety and menace in the monsters you’ll face. From the pinpoint glowing red eyes of the regular zombies, to the nimble skeletons and the great rotting hulks of demons, and then right through to the savage beauty of the dragon, the creatures of Dark Souls have been lovingly crafted to be both ugly, and yet a joy to fight. The combat is visceral, too, with the game engine allowing a startling variety of combat styles, from the heavily armoured, classic knight, replete with sword and shield through to the nimble rogue, and lightly armoured barbarian that hits stuff hard with double handed weapons. It’s possible to cycle through weapons on the fly, too, so you can change your equipment setup based on what you’re facing in front of you.

The game does preference martial might, but there’s room for the mages too. The magic system does impose strict limits on how many times you can cast the powerful spells though, so being clever about when to use them is important.

On the aesthetics, Dark Souls is a beautiful game, with lush environments populated with high-detail monsters and backdrops. That there’s a great draw distance is important, as the flicker of light way off in the distance is often a clue to a valuable treasure, the only problem then is figuring out how to get there. Music and story are both sparse, and when they’re used, they’re used with real impact and stellar production values.

Brought together, they form a game that is beautiful, and yet, not nearly as dark as previous games in this ‘series’ of From Software’s. As I mentioned in an opinion piece over at Digitally Downloaded, light plays a central role in this game. Symbolically it gives players a sense of hope through the gloom that Demon’s Souls and King’s Field didn’t offer. And for that it’s somewhat of a less intense experience. Indeed there was points where the experience bordered on becoming a generic RPG for me.

But not quite. Dark Souls is, realistically, the furthest From Software can take this series. Artistically and in terms of gameplay, it strikes the best possible balance between accessibility and staying true to the same vision that powered Demon Soul’s and King’s Field. I remain concerned that the next game in this series will take one step too far and push a little too hard to be accessible enough to sell the kind of copies that the budget will demand.

But that’s a concern for another time. Dark Souls itself is as close to art as any other game out there, and is, simply, a must have game.

As a post script, the online multiplayer is a component of both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls that is celebrated by many gamers, though there are plenty of reports out there that Dark Souls has an inferior online experience. I wouldn’t know. One of the things that attracts me to From Software’s game series is a throwback to the strictly single-play King’s Field games and that is the sense of isolation. Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls drip atmosphere when played alone. While the online component is restrictive enough that you won’t have the experience disrupted by 12 year old children questioning your sexuality, it’s still a break from the fantasy that I prefer to draw out of these games, and as such I’m assessing this game as a solo player experience only.

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