Dark Souls Review

  • First Released Oct 4, 2011
  • X360

Dark Souls is an extraordinary role-playing game that transports you to an awesome and menacing world you may never forget.

Any game can deliver a few cheap scares. It takes a special one to terrify you. Dark Souls is such a game. It's a thoughtful, atmospheric, and mysterious role-playing adventure that challenges your mind and your mettle. It takes the concepts of deadly environments and unflinching difficulty introduced by 2009's infamously tough Demon's Souls and cranks up the challenge, the fear, the frustration, and the eventual triumph. Dark Souls' enormous world is vast and dangerous, filled with terrifying fire demons and homicidal lizardmen, all with a single goal: to annihilate you. And so you die, over and over again, as you make your way through this strikingly fearsome land. But in Dark Souls, death and resurrection is a core mechanic, not a roadblock, and because the combat is so precise, you ultimately feel in control of your destiny. Dark Souls plays by its own rules, and in doing so, provides an unforgettable adventure that seeps into your being and invades your thoughts. It's a landmark game, destined to be loved and talked about by anyone who has the pleasure of unraveling its mysteries.

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Like Demon's Souls, Dark Souls is a third-person dungeon crawler with precise and responsive combat. You create a character, select a class, and enter a bleak kingdom populated by undead horrors, shrieking gargoyles, and iron-clad knights. The tutorial introduces you to the impending terrors in fine fashion. You fight a gargantuan ogre, get rolled over by a giant ball, and encounter a sad fellow who issues you a warning in his final moments. After this sinister and enthralling introduction, a giant raven flies you to the shrine that serves as your initial hub. And so begins your exploration of Lordran, where non-player characters offer a few vague notions of where you are and what you must do, but little else. NPCs muse on their undead conditions and emit disturbing giggles, but Dark Souls doesn't focus on plot, character development, or questing in the traditional sense. Rather, it provides you with a captivating world spiced with narrative details, and encourages you to craft your own tale. You might expect that such thin storytelling might lead to aimlessness, but Dark Souls is anything but aimless, in part due to the structure and design of its large, seamless world.

Demon's Souls was a collection of large levels attached to a hub area; Dark Souls is a single, massive realm, separated into distinct regions. You can't explore with impunity, however: certain areas open up to you only when you beat bosses. Watching a giant closed gate swing open after a nail-biting battle is a fantastic reward for proving your dominance: You are filled with trepidation and excitement at the prospect of investigating a mystifying new territory. That region might contain dim forests, crumbling castles, dilapidated bridges, and ominous fortresses. Each area has its own defining visual characteristics, yet feels like it belongs to the same melancholy medieval universe. A giant red dragon perches above a stone bridge and breathes fire upon you. Undead knights clad in capes charge at you. Ghostly figures descend on a murky village. Dark Souls is beautiful and terrifying all at once--yet as horrifying as it is, it draws you in. No one should ever want to reside in a land in which death lurks around each corner. Yet once you're there, Dark Souls convinces you to remain, promising new vistas to ogle and new creatures to slay. The biggest blight on this land is the inconsistent frame rate. It isn't a pervasive issue, but things get choppy in certain areas. The slowdown isn't likely to affect your exploration, but it's noticeable enough to stand out.

Spells aren't just limited to sorcerers; any class can use any weapon or spell, provided your statistics support them.
Spells aren't just limited to sorcerers; any class can use any weapon or spell, provided your statistics support them.

You eventually unlock shortcuts between regions and make good use of them, especially when trying to best Dark Souls' immense and numerous bosses. They include twin gargoyles atop a parish roof, a giant fire demon, a huge wolf with a sword in its mouth, and a deceptively beautiful butterfly that sings a soothing lullaby when it isn't trying to murder you. And there are minibosses too, such as a blue dragon guarding a narrow path and a giant diseased rat skulking in the sewers. Every boss looks gruesome, and each plays differently enough to keep you on your toes. Even standard foes are wonderfully hideous in Dark Souls and are suited to their environment. Each enemy attacks differently from others, with some taking advantage of openings to whittle away most, if not all, of your health bar. However, smooth animations and clear sound effects signal the most powerful moves, allowing you to block properly or roll out of the way. Yet each dog and demon has enough different attacks to make every encounter a surprise; it's a great mix of consistency and unpredictability. And with so much combat variety, you might find use for multiple weapons and sets of armor, each with its own attack and defense benefits (one for fending off poison, one for fire protection, and so on). One moment, you might look like a hooded wraith in your gold-trimmed cloak; the next, your gleaming armor gives you the look of a virtuous silver knight.

Fortunately, the combat is weighty and exact, which is why Dark Souls feels fair and rarely cheap. In all but a few instances, the collision detection is flawless. When your blade makes contact with a shield, it glances off; when it meets flesh, it sinks into it. If you hit a wall rather than the flaming minotaur rising above you, he will take advantage of your error. These might seem like small details, but without such accuracy, Dark Souls wouldn't be such a triumph. Combat isn't perfect: a drake might clip into a mountain and get stuck, or you could perish due to mistakes caused by the finicky lock-on mechanic. But such issues are easily overlooked, and more apparent than they might otherwise have been, because the action is usually ultraprecise.

Not every player message offers sound advice.
Not every player message offers sound advice.

Thank goodness for such precision. Without it, you could never survive in this wild world. On your travels, you cross narrow beams and avoid deadly swinging blades. Evil shrubs spring to life and pierce you with their branches, and the bones of skeletons you just defeated reassemble themselves before your very eyes. And so you die. Often. Afterward, you resurrect at the most recent bonfire you rested at. These bonfires are scattered around the world, though they are far enough apart that you don't feel totally secure in your travels. Resting at one saves your game, replenishes your health and your supply of health flasks, and restores the number of times you can cast a particular spell. (There is no mana bar in Dark Souls.) The catch: every enemy, apart from bosses, respawns when you rest.

Death also means losing the souls you have in your possession. Souls are the game's currency and are used to level up, buy equipment, improve your weapons and armor, purchase new spells, and more. If you want to retrieve those lost souls, you must return to the bloodstain that marks the ground where you expired. And so you must ask yourself while exploring: Is it worth the risk to press onward, and accumulate more souls, or should you spend them now? It's a more difficult decision than you might think. With so many beautiful and terrifying possibilities waiting out there, you will feel yourself drawn to continue, even knowing you might sacrifice your very lifeblood.

Like Demon's Souls, Dark Souls possesses a number of incredible online features that make you feel like one node on a giant web of identical worlds. You see the ghosts of other players on your travels, and they are less transparent the closer you are to a bonfire. These players don't exist in your world, but are more like echoes from a parallel kingdom that resonate with your own. You also encounter bloodstains that mark the deaths of other players; by activating one, you watch the player's ghost reenact the final seconds before death. These aren't just neat features that impart a sense of community, though they certainly do that. They also let players serve as silent, inadvertent guides to each other. By both living and dying, you might be another's quiet savior. It makes Dark Souls an unusual and wonderful contradiction: you feel remarkably alone in this frightening place, yet simultaneously part of a large multiverse where simply playing the game makes you part of a chorus of silent voices urging each other forward.

You can offer more direct assistance by creating helpful messages from a series of canned words and phrases and leaving them for other players to read, and you can heed advice others leave for you. And if you need extra help, you can summon a stranger to your world, or be summoned to another. Tackling a boss with one or three other players is a lot of fun, though there are other ways of assisting your fellow travelers. One way is to drop an item; left long enough, it will transform into a phantom and wander into someone else's game. Such phantoms leave behind precious items, though they must be vanquished before you can reap your reward. Of course, you might prefer antagonizing other players rather than assisting them. In that case, you can invade them as a black phantom. Just like in Demon's Souls, being invaded exponentially increases your tension level, because you have to worry not only about standard creatures, but also about another player hunting you down.

Dark Souls shares many attributes with Demon's Souls, yet possesses enough distinct facets to feel fresh and exciting even to veterans of the older game. One of those distinctions is an uncommon currency called humanity. Your basic form is that of a hollowed soul--that is, undead. In this state, you can't summon others to your side or invade their worlds. Doing so requires you to possess humanity. Humanity has benefits beyond allowing you to summon and, like souls, can be retrieved after death if you return to your bloodstain. It can also be sacrificed at bonfires to increase the number of health flasks you receive when resting, which can be a real boon. But being human makes you vulnerable, because it opens you to invasions. Other players don't steal into your world just for the fun of it; they want your valuable humanity. The good news is that if you defeat your pesky invader, you receive his humanity for your troubles.

Careful when prowling around Blighttown: that's a long way to fall.
Careful when prowling around Blighttown: that's a long way to fall.

Covenants are another element unique to Dark Souls. These are like factions, and joining one offers distinct benefits, not just for you, but possibly for other players. Finding covenant leaders isn't always straightforward. One is a cat lounging in a window, and it's easy to miss as you rush past, trying to lose the soldier dogging you. Another is a demonic monstrosity lurking behind a hidden wall you might have walked past a dozen times or more. Joining that cat's ranks has a great benefit: you can walk peacefully among the wolves and ghostly figures of the forest. That hidden demon has powerful pyromancy spells to grant you, among other choice offerings. Furthermore, players in the same covenant share certain benefits. For instance, comrades might enjoy the effects of a miracle you cast. Which covenant you find most appealing depends on what you want to get out of the experience; some benefit player-versus-player fanatics, while others are more appealing to sorcerers than to thieves. The game isn't always clear about the risks and rewards various covenants offer, but unraveling these secrets is one of Dark Souls' cerebral delights. Not sure what donating humanity to your faction leader might accomplish? Do it and find out for yourself. But be careful, because betraying a faction has consequences, and forgiveness isn't something you can pray for: it must be bought, and it doesn't come cheap.

Covenants aren't Dark Souls' only source of mystery. You experience events that you couldn't have seen coming but that still make a kind of demented sense when they occur. Touching a glowing ring after defeating yet another skyscraping boss initiates a memorable voyage. A creature appears where none was before, eager to exchange unused equipment for a few souls in return. You also encounter strange characters locked in cells and trapped in golems. Should you rescue those imprisoned individuals, they may appear later in Firelink Shrine with words of advice, gestures to teach you, and new spells to purchase. Others may not be what they seem, and if you have reason not to trust them, you can drive a sword into their flesh. Doing so may grant you a helpful ring or piece of armor, but you might lose certain benefits by denying yourself future access to these folk.

Vendors appear in the unlikeliest of places.
Vendors appear in the unlikeliest of places.

Not all unexpected circumstances are pleasant ones, however. Falling victim to a curse halves your health bar, and curing it requires purchasing a special stone--or sprinting through haunted ruins, where a special healer offers his services. Idle long enough near a disgusting, larvae-filled foe, and it might infest you, turning your head into a giant egg that eats half of the souls you earn. Finding the right cure for your head tumor is a quest of its own, though it isn't one granted by an NPC, but one born of circumstance. Such occurrences might seem harsh, but they're actually a sly method of making the adventure feel like one of your own making, rather than one governed by a structured quest log.

Dark Souls requires intense focus. This isn't a lighthearted romp in a bright and colorful fantasy world; it's a methodical journey into the frightening unknown. And that's what makes it so riveting. Some games try to scare you with bump-in-the-night shocks and far-off howls, but Dark Souls doesn't require such predictable methods of terror. Its terrors emanate from its very core, each step bringing you closer to another inevitable death. How amazing that such a terrible place could be so inviting. The game's world is so memorable, and its action so thrilling, that it might invade your thoughts even when you aren't playing, silently urging you to escape the real world and return to this far more treacherous one. Dark Souls doesn't just surpass other dungeon crawlers; it skewers them with a razor-sharp halberd and leaves behind their soulless corpses.

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The Good

  • A gorgeous and frightening world you won't want to leave
  • Abundant, amazing bosses test your skill and determination
  • Superb combat in which every attack feels powerful and precise
  • Fantastic online aspect lets players both cooperate and compete
  • Covenant system and other features lead to constant surprises

The Bad

  • Frame rate gets choppy in certain areas
  • Finicky target lock

About the Author

Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play bass in Rock Band.