Saturday, October 27, 2012

Review - Dark Souls (PS3, 2011)

Dark Souls, like its predecessor Demon's Souls, is an action RPG by From Software notorious for its unforgiving difficulty and wall of a learning curve. Both games are set in sad, desolate worlds and have a very 1980's fantasy aesthetic. In many ways, they feel like throwbacks to an earlier age, both stylistically and difficulty wise, but there's nothing dated about them; on the contrary, I feel that Dark and Demon's Souls refine action RPG combat in a way no other modern game has. A lot of the general statements in this review can be applied to both games, but I'm here to talk about Dark Souls, which I honestly feel is the best game of this console generation.

The plot of Dark Souls is minimalist, especially compared to the wordy and/or cutscene heavy RPGs that have become the norm. While there's nothing wrong with text heavy games, it's refreshing to play one that uses as little dialogue as possible and still manages to build a compelling, living world. Most of the world's details is hidden in item descriptions and in conversation with the small number of optional NPCs you encounter. The game is set in Lordran, the Land of Lords, where at some point in the past something terrible happened and The Dark consumed the world. There's not a ton of plot to speak of, and the game's ending is especially abrupt (no matter which of the two endings you choose), but its world and the people in it offer more than enough to keep players interested. Piecing together who did what and when is part of the fun, and it's not handed to you directly. The world of Lordran is essentially one giant crime scene and you're free to play detective as deeply as you wish.

This game's world is open, but in a limited sense. Certain areas can be done out of order or skipped entirely, and the order of the final four stages is entirely up to the player, but the sequence of events you play through never changes; players must ring two bells, one atop a church in a town of the dead and one in a fiery spider's lair, before opening Sen's Fortress, a trap-filled dungeon with plenty of lizardmen. From there, players travel to Anor Londo, a castle with few living souls remaining, to acquire the Lord Vessel, an item that both lets you warp between previous areas and opens up the final four zones. There are a few side plots and some optional stages, but this isn't a true open world game. Rather, it's a guided experience with a very, very strong illusion of freedom, and it's pulled off expertly.

Players begin by choosing from one of ten character classes, but all this determines is your starting equipment and early stats. As you level up, you are free to build your character however you wish, and the differences between starting classes fade pretty quickly. Starting as a pyromancer makes the early game easier since you get early access to fire magic, but for the most part, class doesn't really matter. Later on, players can choose to join one of nine Covenants. You can switch freely by talking to the proper NPCs, but you can only be part of one Covenant at a time. Some Covenants teach new spells, some make matching easier for cooperative play, and some allow you to invade the worlds of other players.

Dark Souls' online components are a major part of the game's draw for me. For the most part, you're alone in the world, but remnants of other players are everywhere; players can leave behind notes in their game that can be seen in your game, bloodstains can be touched to show how a previous player died, and nearby players in the same zone may pass you by as ghosts that you can't interact with. The notes system, first introduced in Demon's Souls, is fantastic. There are a lot of hidden items and paths in this game, and by using notes, players form a strange sort of community, helping each other find their ways, without ever saying a word to one another. They can also be used for deception; a devious player may leave a "Try jumping" note at the top of a ledge whose fall is just high enough to kill you. Players can rate these messages positively or negatively.

There are two modes of play; Hollow and Human. The player's character is undead, but by using consumable items known as Humanity, the player can revive to a human form until the next time they die. In Human form, the game's other major online component comes into play. While Human, you can summon up to two other players into your world to help you fight your way through a stage and defeat its boss. You're generally matched up by level range, though level doesn't really matter in this game as much as equipment and skill. In case there aren't any other players around, some bosses have NPC summons placed before them to help you out. Summoning helpers makes the game much easier, but there's a lot of risk/reward involved since while you're Human, you're also vulnerable to invasions by other players who will do anything it takes to seek out and kill you. Other players enter your world as phantoms, unable to communicate beyond basic (and sometimes funny) gestures, so the feeling of emptiness and isolation in the world persists even if you've got a buddy with you.

Combat, whether against other players or against monsters, is entirely action based. You use menus to set up equipment and spells, but once you're in the field, you won't be pausing the action to go into a menu to select actions. The game's world never pauses, so while you can open your equipment menu at any time, it's very easy to get killed while choosing your gear if you're not in a safe place. While it's possible to build a character around taking hits from enemies and plowing through, the game is much easier if you get good at rolling around to dodge enemy attacks. You can also parry certain attacks using your shield, setting the enemy up for big damage, but the timing on this can be trickier than just rolling away.

Players can learn three forms of magic; Miracles, largely focusing on healing and status spells, Sorcery, mostly used for direct magical damage, and Pyromancy, an almost purely offensive form of magic focused on fire. Each type of magic has its uses, and there are a great variety of spells to learn. You have to reach certain levels before being allowed to use certain Miracles and Sorceries, but Pyromancy spells can be used at any time once you obtain a Pyromancy Flame.

There is no question that this game is challenging, but in spite of its incredibly steep learning curve, it's almost never unfair. There are a few spots where you can get killed by poor camera placement or dodgy frame rates, but for the most part, as long as you take it slow and don't rush into situations you can't handle you'll make it through. Even the most basic enemies are a threat at first and can take you down if you're not careful, so players must constantly be aware of every part of their environment at all times. This can be overwhelming, and because of it, the game's certainly not for everyone. It's a tense, unforgiving experience, but also immensely satisfying and rewarding. I feel more of a thrill from completing tasks in this game than I do any other RPG I've played, because I know that if I made one misstep, I'd have failed.

As you defeat enemies you earn Souls which can be used both as currency and for leveling up. If you die, you lose all Souls you're currently carrying, but they remain in the spot where you died in case you want to try getting them back. It's frustrating to lose a large number of Souls, but you quickly learn how much is safe to carry and when you're better off turning around and heading back to a Bonfire to rest and strengthen your character. The question of, "Do I keep going, or turn back for now?" is one that's constantly in the player's mind, as every little bit of progress has its own risk/reward factor. There's nothing else quite like it, and I applaud From for designing a game in which death is a constant, unrelenting threat while not doing so in a cheap way and not setting you back too far if you die.

The art and music of Dark Souls are both great. Most of the world is silent outside of combat noises, which adds a great deal to the game's tension, but in the instances where music is played the sound of it is haunting, pretty, and welcome. The art style is very nontraditional while still feeling familiar; it's an alien landscape full of things you recognize. From does a perfect job blending Japanese and Western style art design in a way that feels entirely organic. The creatures of this world are often hideous, but the world itself is often beautiful, even when it's relentlessly oppressive. My only real complaint, art wise, is that the fiery underworld you visit late in the game uses so much bloom lighting that it's hard to tell where you're going or what anything is. It's ugly and blinding, and while I understand that that's partly intentional, it's still not fun. Also, for some reason, that zone of the game is inhabited by giant disembodied dinosaur butts on legs. Nothing else in the game is quite that weird.

While the game's world is very well made, not all stages are equally crafted. The aforementioned fiery underworld of Lost Izalith is probably the worst area in the game, both for exploration and strategy, but all of the final four zones feel a little weaker than the game's earlier stages. About 2/3rds of the game's stages feel perfect, but there's a third that feels notably weaker, but is by no means bad. There is also an underground city, Blighttown, with the choppiest, most unstable frame rate I've seen in a game of this quality. Most of my deaths here came from not being able to tell what was going on. Thankfully it's the only part of the game that's that technically poor.

I absolutely love Dark Souls, but I know it's not a game for everyone, and that's fine. From didn't set out to please all audiences, and instead created a game that hits its marks perfectly for the audience it does aim for. If you don't like action-heavy RPGs, you're not going to have a good time here, likewise if you don't like punishing, difficult games. Every roll, every sword swing has so much weight to it that there's really no margin of error if you screw up, but because of this the combat also feels more solid and realistically weighty than any other game's, even when what you're doing is completely unreal. That's not everyone's taste; sometimes, it's definitely more fun to play an action game with an extremely low margin of error where you're free to just go nuts, or on the other end of the spectrum, to play a story-driven game with no action. These are all things I enjoy, but nothing in a modern game has really captivated me the way Dark Souls did. Demon's Souls came very close, but Dark takes what was good about its predecessor and refines it perfectly.

For players new to these games with an interest in trying them out, I recommend not reading in-depth guides on how to play. The game teaches you the basics, and you learn more quickly, but knowing from the start how to min/max your character takes some of the adventure out of it, and certainly some of the surprise. I do think it's important to give just a few pointers, though, so here we go:

Bob Surlaw's Words of Mouth Dark Souls Beginners Primer
  • Pyromcancer is the easiest starting class, but class isn't very important after the first few areas. Having early access to fire magic is a great help early on.
  • The Master Key is by far the most valuable starting treasure.
  • Don't kill friendly NPCs. Once they're gone, they're gone, and since the game autosaves constantly, there's no undoing it. NPCs can be killed for items, but to first time players, this isn't always worth it.
  • If you meet a trapped NPC, free them by rolling into them. It should be obvious, but smashing someone with a sword to free them can be a bad idea.
  • Don't consume Boss Souls or Firekeeper Souls. The former can be used to forge new weapons, and the latter to level up your healing flask.
  • Buy a Repair Box as soon as you can. Having a weapon break on you can ruin you quickly.
  • Pay attention to how well an item scales with your stats. Elemental weapons are strong but don't scale up, so pumping points into Strength and Dexterity won't matter if you're using a Fire Sword.
  • Poise determines how hard it is for enemies to interrupt your attacks. With high poise, you can heal/cast/attack right through a lot of enemy attacks.
  • Always keep your Equip Weight below 50% if you want to be able to dodge attacks easily. It's even easier when it's below 25%, but that limits your equipment options severely.
  • Don't bother leveling up Resistance. It's never worth it compared to other stats.
  • Your basic Defense stats level up regardless of which stats you put points into, but having good equipment matters more. 
Hopefully that's enough for new players to get a start! If not, there are a couple of different ridiculously in depth wikis out there, including this one, which touches on everything you could ever need to know about Dark Souls. I really do recommend playing mostly blind, though. A big part of what made Dark Souls so special to me was never knowing where danger was going to come from next. Turns out, the answer is "everywhere."

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