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When Demon’s Souls first arrived back in 2009, few expected it to be such a surprise hit. Aside from its appealing aesthetics, ingenious level design, methodical combat, and numerous customization options, it boasted a brutal yet rewarding difficulty level the likes of which haven’t been seen since the days of the NES, and never did a game feel it did so as fairly as Demon’s Souls. Now, Dark Souls, its spiritual successor, seeks to take those same positive traits and add onto it substantially. How, you ask? By making it harder, more beautiful, deeper in its lore, and more open in terms of exploration and customization so that more people can enjoy it, that’s how. And it pulls it off splendidly. Dark Souls succeeds where Demon’s Souls fell short, and ultimately becomes the better game because of it.
The story of the Souls series has never been much to talk about, mostly since every game tell so little and bears little to no connection with one another. In Dark Souls, the setup is this: long before the Earth was formed, there existed the Everlasting Dragons who held dominion over all. Then, for reasons long since forgotten, The Lords of Fire, along with the first humans, came into existence. They soon went to war with the Everlasting Dragons, and that war has been raging on even to the current events of the game. You play as a human who carries the Darksign, which leaves humans cursed to be undead until their humanity is restored (more on that later). The player must break out of the Undead Asylum and embark on a pilgrimage to awaken the ancient deities and hopefully bring the war to an end.
The details of the story are not immediately placed before you. The small bits here and there must be found through exploring the war-torn region known as Lordran. And it’s in Lordran where you find yourself in the middle of a great expanse of land, beautiful and grim at once. The artistic detail strengthens the solid, yet average graphical power of the game, in which swamps and forests look gloomy and dangerous, towns and castle halls are shambled and overrun with demonic creatures, and a pale sunlight casts its dim glow over all the land. It helps create a world that feels lonely, mysterious, and perilous all at the same time. Talking to its lonely residents only serve to deepen the melancholy, as everyone has been affected by the devastation in some way, and helping to bring them closure can bring a small bit of peace to a dying land, even if that closure ends up in battle. The lack of music outside of boss encounters also enhances the isolation felt, as the ambient noise of wind, water running, and even rocks crumbling make you feel both nervous and refreshed.
And traversing these lands takes quite a bit of work as well. Gone is the level selection from Demon’s Souls, where you find yourself in a hub room from which you can choose one large area to tackle at a time. Dark Souls opts for a more open-world style of design, and yet it feels nothing like one in a sense. From wide fields to narrow corridors that interconnect with each other like an intricate spider web, there’s nothing that suggests this game is anything less than well-designed. Some oversight does occur when you find less-than-obvious pathways between certain stretches of land, giving the hint that the game was designed with the landscape first before traveling it seemed reasonable. Nevertheless, the mazelike structure of the game feels like a callback to games like Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, where certain areas can be connected by the most hidden of hallways and most obscure of entrances. Figuring out the shortcuts in this game is just as much fun as fighting through it.
Oh my, the combat. I’m not sure how to talk about what makes the combat “fun” in this game. (my lovely girlfriend would say it’s the challenge) It feels the opposite at first. Even the most basic foot soldiers can leave you a broken heap on the ground if you’re not careful enough. Every foe in Dark Souls wants you dead, and doesn’t ever want you to forget that fact. It’s relentless in its attempt to destroy you, only knowing peace through the bonfires you see throughout. Though they keep you from getting slain, every enemy except for bosses gets revived after resting at a bonfire, so that you must defeat these enemies once more in order to progress. And these bonfires are where you can level up and even repair/enhance your equipment, provided you’ve obtained the appropriate items, so traveling to and from bonfires becomes vital to your success, especially when all you have in between are enemies ready to test your combat skills.
Using weapons in this game is not like most action RPGs. It’s slow and methodical, asking you to think about your next move instead of simply swinging. Every attack, block, and dodge roll drains your stamina, so you must always be vigilant of when you should swing once more while at the same time making sure you remain out of the way of those who would dare to kill you. Even after you’re left an undead husk of your former self, this game asks you to try again, sword in hand, ready to face and (hopefully) defeat familiar enemies, hoping you’ve learned their patterns so that they cannot take you by surprise again. Even with a steady supply of estus flasks (your main healing item), you’ll find yourself on the brink of death with many encounters, each more devastating than the last. And while maintaining your human form does have the benefit of increased stat benefits, this never lasts long in the face of a world ready to strike you down.
And so why must you push on? Well, aside from discovery, you must obtain souls in this game. Souls are your experience points and currency all in one. In the experience category, your souls allow you to boost your stats such as strength, dexterity, intelligence, etc. Much like its predecessor, these boosts are there to enhance your ability to equip and wield certain weapons and armor. The mightiest greataxes and greatswords require inhumane levels of strength, while the strongest of magical catalysts need a certain level of faith and intelligence in order to be used properly. Using souls for armor usage allows you to move faster with the heavier ones without feeling like you’re dragging the weight of the world behind you.
Even though there are starting classes in this game when you begin, they only serve to give you a base for your stat boosts so that one becomes easier to increase than the other, allowing for the use of better weapons that suit your play style early on. However, whatever souls you carry with you when you die are lost. Regaining them is as simple as going back to the spot you perished from, but another such death results in the permanent loss of those souls, so that the cycle repeats with possibly fewer souls in between bonfire runs.
In the currency category, you can use souls to buy items that merchants sell, enhance your equipment through enchantments, smithing, and even repairing what has been damaged by combat. Merchants are not clear in the open, however. Most of them have to be found either through secret passages or by unlocking certain doors in order for their services to become available. Items such as elemental boosts, certain one-time use weapons, and other such items are available for purchase, and often become useful for some of the later areas. You can also make your equipment stronger by enhancing them through smithing. Finding the item Titantite allows you to increase the strength and durability of a weapon or piece of armor of your choosing. This helps for especially longer stretches of land between bonfires, where weapons can easily break if your foes give you a hard time.
However, you don’t have to go for it alone, as there is online co-op to allow other players to assist each other as “phantoms” whenever one player feels that they alone cannot endure the struggle. Any player can leave a summoning sign on the ground, but only a player with restored humanity can summon others for aid. Up to three other players can join one server, and are able to assist in any capacity. As a phantom, you cannot use healing items, and so you must depend on the host player to keep you healthy if they so choose to. However, every enemy defeated gives the appropriate amount of souls for everyone in the party, provided you do not die before the boss encounter. Only after defeating the boss of the area can you return to your domain with all of the souls you’ve acquired. It makes you feel at ease knowing that there are players ready and willing to assist you, even if you don’t know who exactly it is that is giving you such wonderful aid.
But not every player is going to feel cooperative. To keep things interesting, players can invade others as “invaders,” seeking to challenge the host to a duel. These invaders always appear with a warning, but never let you know where exactly they appear in any particular area. This means you must always stay on your toes the moment the words appear that signal an incoming invader. When you do engage with an invader, every skill you learned throughout your adventure becomes the key to survival. Whether you survive or fall depends on either player’s skill level and/or whether or not regular phantoms are assisting the victim. As an invader, should you defeat your victim, you are rewarded with all of the souls they are carrying. But should the invader be defeated, the victor gets a portion of the souls the invader had on them. While it might seem unfair to include this, you can only invade another player that is at least ten levels below or however many levels above you.
As impressively balanced and challenging as Dark Souls is, a number of issues do keep the game from being perfect, though it strives for every possible definition. And these are aside from its intimidating difficulty. For instance, there are covenants in the game that you can join, which allow certain perks to be obtained throughout your playthrough as long as you remain with that covenant. The systems and rules that you have to abide by in each covenant are never explicitly presented to the player, resulting in a well-done, but confusing system that no player will understand the first time through. Also, certain areas of the game tend to have rather jarring framerate drops. While the game does occasionally have a drop whenever things get intense, certain areas, like the infamous Blighttown, run significantly slower than the rest of the game, no matter what version of the game you play on. This, combined with the already difficult and ruthless foes, makes for a more frustrating challenge rather than a fair one.
For all this talk of how difficult the game is, every death that occurs to the player can only be blamed on the player. They made a mistake in judgment, forgot an enemy pattern for a second, or they stood too close to a ledge when a staggering blow was struck. And yet there is a beauty to this philosophy of difficulty. Life isn’t just handed to us. We struggle to succeed, we constantly fall short of our goal, and yet we push ourselves through the swamp of failure, even if the end of the road meets us with yet another set of challenges. And through a helping community, this hardship is made that much easier. This is everything Dark Souls teaches you from the beginning of its journey onward. It teaches through its methodical and well-thought out mechanics. It intrigues through its mysterious plot and flawed characters. It pushes with its insistence of death at every corner. It binds through fellowship with others striving towards the same goal. The few annoyances it contains cannot hinder its ultimate message of perseverance in the face of defeat. This is the hidden beauty in the decayed and cynical face of Dark Souls, and the reason it is a work of art in the world of gaming.
Rating: 10/10 (framerate drops, covenants lacking depth, minor design quirks)