Curiosity is a Serial Killer
HIGH Exploration has never been so satisfying.
LOW Plays too safe with other aspects of the Demon's Souls formula.
WTF Why is Blighttown such a stutter-fest?
Dark Souls is the spiritual sequel to developer From Software's 2009 sensation Demon's Souls. Although one threadbare plot does not carry into another, the grounded ethos sincerely does. Dark Souls is technically a third-person RPG, but in reality it is survival horror—the horror coming when the player fails to survive. Minutes, maybe even hours of the meticulous soul-collecting required for progress can be lost in the blink of an eye, and although Dark Souls is never unfair with dishing out its hundreds upon hundreds of deaths it is (more often than not) heartbreakingly mean.
This is what makes Dark Souls so famously difficult; that overarching threat of progress being nullified by any enemy, or worse, by a cruel trick like fragile flooring, a cannonball rolling down a staircase, or a giant scythe ready to knock me off a narrow platform. On top of this, the world of Dark Souls is so subjugating and bleak that it only amplifies the dread. The flooded ruins of New Londo have a sinister black sky hanging over a grim version of Atlantis, the temples there lorded over by ghosts. The former citizens, now undead, reside on the raised outskirts. Before daring to brace the ruins, I have to run by these castaways, watching as they angrily beat the ground, desperately praying to absent gods, and weeping over the remains of lost loved ones. It almost seems like dying is the right thing to do. The world of Dark Souls is like a vampire's love-bite; a twisted dominatrix's kiss laced with an essence that mixes Poe with Zelda.
However, the extraordinary difficulty level of Dark Souls and its deliberately oppressive world are merely the bright, garish dress the game cloaks itself in to shock and grab attention. In fact, the difficulty subtly, genuinely accentuates the more stirring aspects beneath. The difficulty should not be dismissed because without it the impact would not be there, but as with Demon's Souls, the difficulty is not even close to what excites me about Dark Souls—what excites me is the introduction of the open world.
At first the open world seems false. Firelink Shrine acts like the first game's central hub, and the shortcuts which let me bypass segments I've completed seem to engender a similarly linear experience. Ringing the first bell (which takes me from the shrine through the undead burg and parish before returning me to the shrine via one of these shortcuts) feels akin to completing the first World of Demon's Souls. Then, there's an incredible moment after returning when I take a hidden elevator inside the parish and back to the shrine, and I realize how intricately interconnected the world is. Realization dawned that I'd spent so many hours fighting off legions of skeletons, undead knights, and colossal gargoyles just to push through a town, a bridge, and a parish, ring a bell, and then return to where I started.
Because of the difficulty, this small journey comes across as overwhelmingly huge, but there is a curious verticality to Dark Souls that we just don't get in other games, even in vertical open worlds like Crackdown and inFamous. The verticality in this case is full, and the stretch across all three dimensional axes is true and generous. Also, because the world is so oppressively dark, it practically blinds me in terms of orientation. Every new connection is unexpected and truly staggering. Purely from a design standpoint, the open world of Dark Souls is like no other.
What's magnificent, though, is how this bleeds into the experience. The introduction of checkpoint-like bonfires across this compact vertical world serve to amplify what should always drive a top-notch open world experience: exploration. If Demon's Souls was about risk and reward in the pursuit of survival as a means to an end, then Dark Souls is purer in terms of surviving to satiate curiosity.
In Demon's, discovering a secret path might take me to a useful item, but the risk was so great that I was often actually scared of the path and likely to leave it—and I love that dynamic for what it is. In Dark Souls, the risk is still there, but it's manageable. Moreover, that path might take me anywhere and to anything. Indeed, what lies beyond is usually as unnerving as it is incredible; there are new worlds with their own lethal bosses, perilous pitfalls, and valuable rewards. Also, because of the compact verticality of the Dark Souls world, the hidden path represents another line I'm drawing between dots, and slowly but surely I discern the overall shape of the landscape.
The net result of all this is a game that allows me to both enjoy and rather fear its "whoa" moments. Dark Souls gives me the freedom to get lost. It lets me to discover a huge water-gushing hydra when I really shouldn't, it lets me fall down a bottomless pit and somehow unexpectedly survive, and even some thirty hours in, it lets me discover something so wonderfully secret about the very first area of the game I had no clue about. In his Demon's Souls review, Brad Gallaway was keen to legitimize the use of the word "immersive", and I can only echo his thoughts with Dark Souls. For all the incredibly detailed visuals of other modern games, few have drawn me in like the rough etchings of Dark Souls have.
As such, it is a shame that after celebrating a deserving game I have to duly note my disappointment that From Software was unwilling to chance more risky changes to the formula beyond the open world. For example, it comes off as arrogant to not incorporate obvious improvements like the ability to use multiple soul items at once, or to see how many souls are required to level up. There's a fine line between intentionally frustrating design and unintentionally daft design.
What's most disappointing is the lack of imagination displayed in some of the opening areas. The developers might argue that these areas are callbacks, but the classic grey medieval ruins of the Undead Burg and the swamp and wooden scaffolding of Blighttown are visually (and logistically) twins of areas in the first Souls game—a mistake, especially in the context of a game whose blueprints are so very familiar. It also doesn't help that Blighttown is plagued by horribly stuttering slowdown. This happens occasionally throughout the game, but in Blighttown it reaches borderline-unplayable levels, and sometimes even freezes; as if trying to slowly negotiate a swamp filled with poison-spraying bugs and club-swinging ogres isn't hard enough.
As with Demon's Souls, to enjoy Dark Souls I have to accept it for what it is, warts and all. This is not to say the criticisms are invalid, but that to get past them and to play by the game's rules is to enjoy something special. After the first ten hours I was prepared to re-experience Demon's Souls, but the new open world makes the experience different enough to distinguish itself from being simply another Demon's. The tension and horror that made the first game so impacting carry through untainted, but in the open world of Dark Souls they blossom alongside a curiosity nagging at players to delve deeper into a world which they know wants to kill them over and over again. Yes, Dark Souls is its own beautiful beast; a sick and twisted beast, but a beautiful one all the same.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 70 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no standalone multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, violence and some mild sexual content. It's unlikely that your littlest ones will be interested in playing this PEGI 16/M-rated game, but be aware that there's a high level of gruesome and brutal fantasy fare violence on display. It's also a very, very difficult game, and even if you feel your child is ready for the content, it might be worth considering if they're really going to stick with a game that's designed to frustrate.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: While all the game's dialogue is subtitled, sound plays a huge role in terms of cues for enemies attacking or being in the vicinity. For example, in one boss fight the way the enemy attacks is determined by the pitch of the growl he makes seconds before, and I would think that trying to defeat him without the cues would be almost impossible. The game is already difficult enough. Hearing impaired gamers should be prepared for a stiff challenge.