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Review: Dark Souls

Dark Souls character

In writing this review I can finally slink out of the Dark Souls coma I’ve been in for the last three weeks, thankfully putting this game behind me after almost a hundred hours of gruelling combat.

And yet I regret nothing.

Dark Souls is an edgy game with a reputation most gamers would recognise. Long heralded as the answer to casual gaming, it’s a complex and teeth-grindingly difficult RPG which takes true skill and patience to master. It’s almost become a real-life achievement of sorts for gamers, where one can measure if one is a “true gamer” by completing it – so of course I had to attempt the challenge sooner or later.

Never have I been so unprepared.

I originally bought Dark Souls over a year ago, thinking to add it to a stack of games I was playing at the time and work it into the rotation to play casually. I remember sticking it in the disc tray and playing for around 15 minutes before coming up against a boss I couldn’t defeat. I tried for another half hour or so, then ended up changing to another game when I grew frustrated.

I didn’t pick up Dark Souls again until about a month ago.

I was on holiday at the time, and had a lot of free time bouncing about with only a few things to fill it. So, understanding the level of commitment this game would require properly this time, I reinstalled Dark Souls and began from the beginning again. And died for hours on end before taking down the same boss I originally had trouble with all that time ago.

You see Dark Souls follows a pattern. As you clear an area from bonfire to bonfire, you encounter enemies alone or in pairs (unless you rush ahead and pull more). While these enemies aren’t too difficult, they are numerous, and thanks to the heavy focus on blocking and movement during combat it can be easy to be tripped up or stuck between two enemies attacking you. To make things even more difficult, if you die you will lose all of your experience (or Souls), until you can make it back to the spot where you died – while fighting through all of the respawned enemies. If you don’t make it back to your body you lose your experience.

Eventually if you have killed enough enemies (and not lost your way in the twists and turns of Dark Souls often-claustrophobic environment) you will reach a curtain of fog and pass through it to battle a boss. Then you will inevitably die dozens of times figuring out the exact strategy to take the boss down, all the while needing to clear the entire previous area of enemies while running back to take on the boss once more.

It’s a gruelling and time consuming process which has an unexpected effect. It triggers intense satisfaction when you are eventually victorious.

The difficulty here is actually one of Dark Souls biggest strengths. You commit more and more time to taking down increasingly difficult enemies and bosses from area to area, and because of that time commitment you get extreme satisfaction when you actually manage to proceed through whatever skillblock is currently occupying your time.

It’s a subtle strategy to maintain interest which actually works very well in Dark Souls, both expanding the necessary number of hours to complete it (I finished in around 80 or so) and requiring increasingly large skill jumps from the person playing it. It’s a trial by fire of sorts, and one which has impressed gamers and critics the world over with its unique brand of tough love.

So what keeps people playing through all the tear-inducing frustration? Well there are a number of ways that Dark Souls manages to maintain interest. First and foremost is the combat style, which takes “easy to learn, difficult to master” to ridiculous new lengths. On top of this is the depth of the gameplay, like any RPG there are many roads to success and the “build-your-own” class system is almost similar to Skyrim’s “skill up based on what you do” approach – although it requires a fair amount of research to build appropriately for some playstyles, like spell casting.

But far and away the best motivator for me was the design of the game itself. It starts off dark and dingy, and takes quite awhile to transition from this, but eventually the rendering of the game starts to feel rewarding in the complexity of the enemies you are facing – and the stark beauty of some of the areas of the game. You’ll transition from mountains of lava to deep swamps, from crystal lined caves to castles and fortresses and the places you visit stand out as unique and memorable – something a lot of RPGs try and fail to achieve.

On top of this, the boss design is excellent. There are a wide variety of boss types and abilities, as well as the physical size of the bosses, and the often-complex strategies to take them down are hard won for the player. While the approach to story is minimal, the bosses are as unique and memorable as the places they inhabit – and the dark art style complements the difficulty of the gameplay perfectly in the way these enemies and actualised.

All up, Dark Souls is a brutal game with a heavy skill curve, and any victories are bound to be hard won with hours of blood, sweat and tears. And it’s because of this that the game is so great, because without the high skill level it could easily be lost in a sea of Japanese-influenced RPGs - even if they couldn’t match the level of depth and subtle sophistication it hides underneath the surface.

*Please Note: This review is for the single-player or PVE portion of Dark Souls only, my scores don’t take into account or reflect on the multiplayer aspects of the game.

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