Dark Souls: Battling against the demons of the past

November 6, 2011

When the people behind what was already considered one of the most brutal games of this generation say that they plan on releasing a sequel that makes that game easy by comparison, it’s hard not to take notice. Dark Souls, the spiritual sequel to the 2009 cult hit, takes this claim and certainly validates it, though not without sacrificing some of the things that kept players exploring the original’s world.

Dark Souls is, quite literally, the ideal realization of a 3D Castlevania. Each area in the game interconnects and winds in ways that will continue to impress and surprise you. You’ll brave past a giant dragon and sneak under the bridge, only to find a staircase that opens access to an area you were in minutes before. You’ll explore the dimly-lit Tomb of the Giants, only to come upon the beautiful Ash Lake way down below. You’ll brave a poisonous swamp and find a hidden exit, only to discover a locked gate that leads back to the game’s initial area.

Examples like these show exactly how Dark Souls works: you’re free to explore any area in any order, with the only limit being how willingly you are to explore. There’s no such thing as a “wrong place to be”, as with enough skill and knowledge, everything can fall under your blade or spell. With enough awareness of the game’s shortcuts, you’re even able to skip by entire areas and bosses that you’d otherwise think were required to move on. It’s all a testament to how much From Software worked to make the world of Dark Souls feel like a truly connected world rather than segmented, branched off levels.

Dark Souls takes the often times dull combat from Demon’s Souls and kicks it up a notch, adding new melee moves like lunging attacks, kicks, back flips, jumps, jump attacks and different forms of rolling. Magic has also been revamped, with the prequel’s MP system being removed entirely for a cast number system and a much higher number of attack and utility spells. All healing items have been replaced with a catch-all Estus Flask, which carries a limited number of uses. In addition, Heavy armor is actually worth using, as a new poise stat enables heavy armor users to shrug off attacks like nothing.

The biggest change is the new Humanity mechanic. You use humanity to upgrade your standing with specific covenants, make in-game NPC alliances, kindle bonfires to give you more uses for your Estus flask and, most importantly, revert from “hollow” form. You can’t summon other players when in this form, but it does protect you from being invaded by other players. Humanity also replaces the luck stat, but is lost along with your stocked up souls if you die twice in a row.

In addition to the now-infamous bloodstains and messages that made Demon’s Souls stand out from among the crowd, From Software has expanded and introduced new elements that, in theory, further expand on its prequel’s unique online play. Little details, like how a bell rung in one player’s game will also ring in other player’s worlds, let you feel a connection to other players in ways Demon’s Souls couldn’t. The Covenant system allows for some meta-game shenanigans, like the Darkwraiths, which exist solely to invade and kill other people, and the Blade of the Darkmoon, a covenant whose purpose is to hunt down and slay other “sinful” players.

For a game as highly-anticipated as Dark Souls, you would think more time would have been spent on optimization and polish. Most areas suffer from some extreme slowdown, graphical bugs and glitches. Areas like the infamous Blighttown, already gloomy and harsh to the player, aren’t helped any when the frame rate dips into the single digits just from climbing down a ladder.

Some of the later enemies and bosses just seem to be tailored toward one specific playstyle. Poise, the mechanic which gives the player some degree of super armor, starts becoming more and more important, and people who prefer using light armor with no poise start being punished for it with bosses that are fast, relentless, will often break you from just one hit, and in some cases, you fight multiple at a time. Demon’s Souls was much better at this, with bosses that had multiple methods of being taken down.

The publisher transition from Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls wasn’t a smooth one, as it forced changes that often made online play entirely unreliable. As a result of using a peer-to-peer system rather than dedicated servers, being summoned or summoning allies for co-op play is entirely based on luck and times when you decide to play, and you can just forget about trying to have friends join your games to help, as players are sorted to random player clusters with no way to choose who you can summon. This even carries over to player invasions. Most players either go through the game without getting invaded once, or get invaded every time they reverse the hollow effect. Covenants suffer the most from this, in fact. During the 100+ hours spent doing everything in the game, not once did we ever see a summon sign for a dragon covenant player, and we can count the times we got summoned to help people in the single digits. The flawed matchmaking ends up hurting what would potentially be one of the most fun aspects of the online metagame.

One of the biggest reasons Demon’s Souls became so popular was because it wasn’t hard for the sake of being hard: it was hard by design. Demon’s Souls gave you every tool needed to succeed, but punished the player for every mistake he made. Outside of a few spots, there was no situation where the player could blame anyone but himself for every single death encountered. Dark Souls follows this mantra, but isn’t quite as good at enforcing it. You will run into incredibly-cheap enemy placement, bosses with one-shot kills, very inconsistent bonfire locations.

At some point in the game, the frustrating moments start to outnumber the fun ones. While the game has a very solid and entertaining first half, the second half feels hastily-designed. In contrast to the early area’s winding paths and hidden shortcuts, areas like Lost Izalith and the Tomb of the Giants are just one straight line leading from the entrance to the boss.

Looked at on its own, Dark Souls is still one of the best games released this year and offers an experience that’s unlikely to be matched by any other game for a long time. But as the sequel to one of the best games of this generation, it’s hard not to wonder how From Software could gloss over a lot of the things they got right the first time.

Pros: Incredibly detailed and interconnected world, addicting gameplay, beautiful vistas and sounds
Cons: Tons of design oversights, poor second half, buggy and broken online play

Score: 3/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.