Reviews – Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition

 Dark_Souls_logo

OVERVIEW: Dark Souls is the spiritual successor to Demons’ Souls by From Software and just like that game, it is brutally difficult and unforgiving. Both games are Action RPGs, where you take control of a generated character. This time around, the character is an Undead, though the game makes some distinctions between your brand of undead-ness and others such as zombies and skeletons, all of which appear in the game.

During the opening cinematic you are given the world’s background. The world used to be ruled by dragons and was pretty much a dark realm, until fire was born and within it, Dark Souls’ Gods found “The Souls of Lords” which gave them powers and they went to war against the dragons and wiped the floor with them, beginning the Age of Fire and the rule of the Gods. The prologue warns you that someday the fire will dwindle and that there are, among the living, those branded with the Darksign. Guess what? Yeah, you are one of those.

Apparently being born with the Darksign means you’ll go undead as soon as you die. Therefore, the good people of that world have built Undead Asylums, where the undead can enjoy their eternities locked up in cells. A bit harsh you might think? Well, considering that most undead go Hollow, meaning they lose their humanity and become either apathetic wretches or violent bastards, it’s just smart to lock’em up.

You start your game in the Northern Undead Asylum, where the game’s “tutorial” takes place, and by tutorial I mean you grab your starting gear and will probably experience your first death in the game, and trust me you’ll die plenty. After “clearing” the Asylum you’ll get a nice ride on a giant raven to Lordran, land of the Gods so you can begin your quest in earnest.

 firelink shrine

Firelink Shrine, your starting zone once you’ve finished the “prologue”

While the gameplay is not lineal in any way and you can pretty much go to areas where everything will “one-shot” you right from the start, the game could be considered to be split into Three Acts: Bells, Vessel and Everything else. For those who’ve already played the game, those three words/phrases will let them know what I’m talking about and for the rest it’s just vague enough not to be a spoiler.

Now that we’re done with this, let’s get to the juicy bits.

Graphics: Dark Souls’ visual style is realistic, everyone looks real, no cartoony elements here, which works wonders for a game that tries to shock, scare and horrify you as much as it wants you to stand in awe. There are plenty of jaw-droopingly-beautiful scenery and gloomy, almost claustrophobic areas, and the art direction does its job of not only placing you at the scene but putting you in the mood you need to be for each area, though by the end you’ll be scared no matter where you go, but it has nothing to do with the visuals and more with the dread of what the next monster will do.

 anor londo

Anor Londo, beautiful isn’t it? Just one of the many beautiful sights in Lordran

Sadly, as is with the rest of the aspects of the game, the zones become increasingly less interesting or inspiring the more you get into the game, especially the areas corresponding to the last act in the game, where the areas consist of dark tombs, charred ruins and lava. The Duke’s Archive and The Crystal Cave are the only two areas in the last act to still be visually stunning. The lava & charred ruins bits are either to dark or too samey for you to actually care about them.

Strangely for a PC game, even a PC port, the resolution is locked at 1024×768, though you can download a patch by a very talented modder that breaks that limit, allowing your high end machine to fully display Lordran in all its glory.

As for characters, they look, feel and respond like humans should and even the non-humans respond in ways you’d expect them to. Swing your sword and you see the character put his back, shoulders and arm into it, and if you perform follow-up attacks, you see him using the momentum from the first strike to perform the rest. Beasts claw at you and you can almost see the muscles working. Roll away from a strike and see the character stand up from a kneeling position afterwards. Every single action feels human, feels as if it was an actual effort. Use massive two-handed weapons and you’ll see each of these points in perfect detail.

Customization is there too, with each piece of gear, each armor type looking different from the rest, and the “special” equipment looking distinct enough to actually feel unique.

As for the monsters, it’s an ARPG, meaning there’s plenty of re-skinning going around, but thankfully it’s just not changing the palette on the monsters, going from white skeletons to red ones to mark them as harder. Instead the re-skin includes complex details, such as more armor, or in the case of skeletons, you have your normal zombies, in varying degrees of difficulty and in The Duke’s Archives you have Crystal Zombies, with a bunch of crystal formations growing out of their bones and their skin ice-blue, making them seem unique.

 

Gameplay: Before I get into the details of all the mechanics and controls, I’ll just say this: Control-wise, the port is terrible. It’s war-crime terrible. Mouse look is shaky and uncomfortable and the keyboard bindings are a mess. THIS GAME SHOULD NOT BE PLAYED ON THE PC WITHOUT A GAMEPAD, doing so will result in unnecessary frustration, which added with all natural frustrations coming from the game itself, is not healthy. Not only are the control terrible on keyboard, but all the tutorial messages during the undead asylum tell you to press buttons on a gamepad, even if you don’t have one plugged in. No one bothered to translate the tutorial to PC where the control scheme is adaptable.

Now then, on to what really matters.

When you hear ARPG, you think Diablo or Torchlight, so you might expect an isometric, aka top-down, view, but Dark Souls handles in 3rd person, over the shoulder.

The UI is quite simplistic really, health & stamina bars and humanity counter up top, equipment and items on the bottom left and soul counter on the right. This last number you’ll see drop down to 0 quite often, as YOU WILL DIE REPEATEDLY. It’s not even a matter of IF, no, YOU WILL DIE! There’s a certainty to that. There’s even an unavoidable death in there, so again, YOU WILL DIE! So get used to it!

 dark souls ui

Yep, that’s 0 on both counters!

Menus, inventory and such are quite simple with most screens just lists of stuff, obviously made for gamepad use. The one infuriating aspect of the menus is that the game doesn’t pause when you open them, so you check your inventory and change your equipment at your own peril. I’ve been killed by monsters while checking something in my inventory. It’s not nice, and I really can’t understand this design choice.

Another poor choice when it comes to UI design and which affects gameplay considerably is there is no timer or any sort of indication on the duration of buffs. With the bad stuff you have a bar that goes down counting the duration of your misery, but with the good things, such as items, spells, and anything that makes you better at what you do, nothing tells you how much you have left of it. Sure, in most cases there’s a visual effect for each of these buffs, but when you stack them up, the newest buff is the only one shown, so you’ll most likely realize the effect’s ended the hard way.

Dark Souls isn’t a game you breeze through, there’s no difficulty curve, but there is a learning one. This is a game of strategy, observation, and exploration and most important of all, PATIENCE. Every boss can be beaten, but finding the appropriate strategy that works for your character build will take some trial and whole lot of error.

That’s why I said you will see your soul counter drop to 0 quite often. As it was in Demon’s Souls, Souls are Dark Souls’ currency and experience, like Red Orbs in Devil May Cry. If, sorry, When you die, you lose all your souls, but you can get them back if you find the spot where you died and reclaim your stuff…unless you die on the way, which happened to me quite a lot, mostly by rushing, and it cost me thousands of souls a few times, enough to level up a few times and even purchase some gear.

wyvern bridge

If you’re not careful you’ll die to this beastie!

Aside from souls, your other “currency” in this game is Humanity. You are an Undead, and the only way to stop your Hollowing is to stack up on humanity. When you die, you lose all your accumulated humanity, that being the number on your humanity counter, but you can get it back along with the souls by getting to your body. Humanity is spent on bonfires to reverse your hollowing and becoming “human” again, with the visual effect of looking like a person and not a mummified corpse.

Continuing with the Death stuff, since it’s important you know, dying only takes away your accumulated humanity and souls, but it does nothing to your gear, you don’t have to run back naked to find your stuff nor do you lose anything in your inventory.

Lore-wise, Hollowing is bad, because you can end up a crazy killing machine, but it isn’t represented in gameplay. Being Hollow just means your lose out on stuff you have access to while being human, good and bad. Sometimes remaining hollowed is a fantastic idea, especially if you don’t want to deal with some of the problems with the persistent online gameplay.

Yes, Dark Souls is constantly online (something I’ve heard constant gripes and complaints for D3 but zilch for this game), and on PC it’s thanks to that ever-annoying Games for Windows Live, but only being human grants you “access” to all the “benefits” of online play. Let’s list them up.

All around you, from the start of the game to the finish you’ll come across stuff written on the ground, they look like glowing scratches, and while a couple during the start of the game are computer generated, such as “press X to perform Y”, the rest of them are player-written. You have items that allow you to write messages on the floor, and on their own “realm” players will see what you’ve written. You can also leave a Summon Sign on the floor, allowing other players to summon you to aid them in battle. Aside from “PC Summons”, there are “NPC Summons” as well, almost all of them close to the entrance to a boss. To perform and benefit from any of these features, you have to be Human, and online. Apparently there’s an offline mode, but at least on PC I haven’t found a switch for it, not unless “unplug your router” counts as a switch. Sure you can create an “offline” Games for Windows Live account, but if you’ve already started playing online, you’re pretty much screwed. Even if you don’t summon players, you can sometimes, especially at bonfires, see other players, like ghosts that fade away when you get close.

There another facet to the persistent online thing, and it’s PVP. You can invade other people’s games or be invaded yourself and in either case you fight other players and if you kill them you get humanity from them, while they die and lose everything and have to go get it back. As someone who doesn’t give a scuttering fuck about PVP, in any game, this feature annoyed the hell out of me, so much so I spent most of the game hollowed. A problem with PVP is that the game groups players by their level, but as I’ll explain later, the game isn’t really level dependent but more gear, which means that if your gear’s shoddy, as mine was, you’ll probably die on each invasion by some twat in fantabulous gear.

Being human not only makes you a target for PVP invaders, but also to NPC invasions. There are a number of NPC Phantoms that’ll spawn at certain locations if you’re in the zone and human and haven’t killed the zone’s boss yet. Killing them usually nets you some unique item.

invader

An invader, in this case Phantom Knight Kirk, an NPC invader

Returning to Human form costs 1 of your held humanity, which is the number on your humanity counter. You can hold any number of Humanity at any given point and doing so, while a great risk considering you lose it all when you die, does have some benefits, though all seem to stop at 10 Humanity. Your “item discovery” rate is increased the higher your humanity is. Your elemental & physical defenses are also buffed as are the damage of certain types of spells and weapons.

The other thing you’ll use humanity for are Bonfires. These are your checkpoints. You use your humanity at Bonfires to become human, referred to as “Reverse Hollowing”, and to Kindle the bonfire. Kindling the bonfire gives you more Estus Flasks, your Healing Potions. You start out with 5, but kindling the bonfire gives you an extra 5. Later in the game you earn the “Rite of Kindling” which allows you to kindle bonfires more than once and so gain more flasks, to a maximum of 20.

Resting at a bonfire means if you die, you return to that bonfire, but resting at one and re-spawning there also mean EVERY SINGLE ENEMY (except bosses) RESPAWNS, which considering some of the bonfire placements in the game, can get quite annoying, frustrating and will most likely make you quit the game for a few hours. On the bright side, it means you can farm/grind certain spots quite easily.

Being an ARPG, you level up, by spending souls on your character. On your character screen, while being on a bonfire, you choose which of your many and varied attributes you increase. Each attribute increase constitutes a level. Levels as such have no meaning in the game, and enemies have no definite levels either, you realize you’ve out-leveled a zone or enemy if you can kill it with a few swipes or even stagger it easily. Staggering means the current action is canceled because of being damaged.

Your attributes will mostly determine what you can or can’t equip, as every piece of gear has a requirement, mostly Strength and Dexterity, though there are a few such as the Straightsword of Astora or The Cursed Greatsword of Artorias, that require you to have a certain amount of Faith &/or Intelligence. Each weapon also has a Scaling property, which determines how its damage scales by each of the attributes, and it encompasses all of the previous four. This is one of the few games I’ve seen where there’s not a single wasted attribute. Each point in each attribute will improve your combat effectiveness, if not by themselves, then by the equipment you carry.

I usually play Caster Types in these games, but this time, knowing what I was getting into I decided to go for a melee character, though by the end, as is usually the case with my characters, it ended up being a hybrid build. A bit of melee, a bit of ranged and enough in certain attributes to wield some magics.

Before going into details, let’s talk about Endurance. Your Endurance attribute will increase your carrying load, and that’s one of the most important things in the game. You equipment load is not determined by the amount of crap you’re carrying in your inventory but by the gear you’ve equipped, that is, armors, shields and weapons. While at 25% or below your carrying capacity, you will run fast and roll quickly. Beyond that you’re basically a heavy type character, with slower run speed and even slower, almost sluggish roll. There are a few items that boost your equipment load and others that modify your roll and movement while at low-burden.

Your Endurance also determines how much Stamina you have. Stamina is the green bar below your health. Every action you take in this game, from running, to dodging, to attacking and blocking, consumes stamina, which means you can block, roll or attack endlessly. As with equipment load, and pretty much every statistic in the game, there are items that boost your recovery rate, which is very important.

Black Knight Fight! Patience is the key!

Melee combat is interesting, and that’s not something I usually say. You will usually have a weapon on one hand and a shield on the other, and I say it’s interesting because this is not a game where the only things you do are block and strike, there are other ways of fighting. Sure, you can block and wait for an opening, but you have so many more options like rolling out of the way or you goad the enemy into attacking so you can go behind them and backstab them, which deals massive amounts of damage and are automatic criticals.

There’s also Dual Wielding, aka Two-Weapon Fighting for D&D veterans, which is amazingly risky, but has high damage output. Two hand wielding is an option, stowing away you shield for some extra damage but leaving yourself almost fully open against attacks. Finally there’s Parry, the riskiest of all defensive moves. Parry means you swat the attacker’s weapon aside and then push forward and attack, resulting in a cool animation where your character stabs the enemy in the gut, pushes him down, plants his foot on the enemy’s chest and pulls the weapon out. This of course deals humongous damage, but the timing’s tricky and if you fail you’ll get wacked on the face, sometimes lethally.

You wield your weapons, shields, etc. on your two hands, quite obviously. You have two action buttons for each hand. If we used fighting game terminology, one button would be light attack and the other heavy attack, and for the most part, weapons-wise that’s just how it works. When you have shield however, the light button brings up the shield to block and the heavy button does the parry-swat. You can equip two items per hand, allowing you two have two sets of weapons you can swap between. Unlike, say, Diablo 2, where swapping from one gear set to the other swapped all pieces, each hand slot in Dark Souls is independent from the other, allowing you to keep your shield and only swap your current weapon for the next.

Remember what I said about Staggering? Let’s talk about that. There are two stats you need to pay attention to with Shields and Armors, and those are Stability and Poise respectively. Stability determines just how heavy an attack the shield can take. With a low stability shield, a heavy attack will consume all your stamina and will smack the shield aside, leaving you open for an attack. Poise determines how hard it is for an enemy to stagger you. With high enough poise, you don’t need to even dodge the bosses, just stand there and whack at them until they’re dead, you can even drink a potion while being attacked, as your poise prevents the action being cancelled.

That pretty much covers melee. Ranged characters have a selection of bows and crossbows, with the Dragonslayer Greatbow being extremely powerful and waaay over the top. Having used both, I can say I like bows a lot more, they allow you to zoom in and snipe enemies out.

Then we come to magic, my weak point in this game. There are three types of Magic: Miracles, Sorceries and Pyromancies. The first work on Faith, the second on Intelligence and the third are special because they’re independent from any attribute and instead their power comes from the “flame” you’ve equipped and its upgrade level, more on that in a bit. To use any spell you need an item in your right/left hand slot, a Catalyst for Sorceries, a Talisman for Miracles and a Flame for Pyromancies. You also need to Attune spells, which of course you do at a bonfire. Your Attunement attribute determines the “spell slots” you have to attune spells.

This being an RPG, means you’ll upgrade stuff. There are several paths of upgrading for weapons, each path’s power measured by a plus (+). You’ll start upgrading from +1 to +5, then once you’ve acquired “embers” and brought them to the appropriate blacksmith, you can turn your +5 weapon into a fire, lightning, chaos, magic, etc. or you can continue on the current path to +10 and with yet another ember to +15. Some “special” paths, like lightning and such require a +10 weapon. You might ask what’s the difference? Well, elemental types work best with enemies weak to them, and in this game 99% of everything is weak to fire, even some of the fire-elemental bosses, for reasons that baffle me. Lightning is extremely useful as well. As for the others, I have very limited experience to be honest. Divine weapons are very useful against undead and chaos weapons deal more damage based on humanity. The one big difference between the regular +1 to +15 route and the special routes, which can go to +10 each, is that on the “normal” aka Masterwork upgrade path, the weapon still scales with your attributes, but on the special paths, scaling is reduced or removed completely.

To upgrade a weapon or shield you’ll need one of the many flavors of Titanite. Some variants can be purchased and others drop from certain enemies. The Pyromancy Flame is the only piece of gear you can upgrade using Souls. There’s also Dragonscale, an item used to upgrade dragon weapons, such as the Drakesword, a fantastic weapon you can get early in the game.

Upgrading weapons is where some of my problems with this game come into play. There are four Blacksmiths in this game, three of them in “close” proximity to a bonfire and one waaaay the hell away from one. You’ll probably always use the first blacksmith, Andre, who’s the only one who can “ascend” your weapons from +5 to +6 and +10 to +11, even considering all other blacksmiths require such ascended weapons to do their work. It’s good to have a blacksmiths that specialize in some special types of upgrades, but it’s extremely annoying that only one of them knows “the basics”. I came to the sad point of having to backtrack all the way to Andre to upgrade a weapon from +5 to +6 only to return to the blacksmith I was originally at to upgrade the new +10 to another type of element. Once a weapon has been ascended, +5 to +6 or +10 to +11 on the “Masterwork” path or from +10 to Lightning, you can continue upgrading it till its next “breakpoint” at any blacksmith or directly from the bonfire if you have the necessary items.

Armors don’t ascend. You can upgrade any armor to +10, though there are some armors, like my favorite, Havel’s Set, that can’t be upgraded.

havel's set

Havel’s Set, my favourite!

This is an ARPG, a loot-fest, but unlike most, and just another way Dark Souls just doesn’t exactly fit the mold or your expectations, the loot is quite tame, almost realistic. There aren’t adjectives or descriptors to weapons, there’s no Furious Blazing Erective Sword of Chaos, there’s Shortsword, Longsword, Bow, Longbow, Axe, etc. It feels less like Diablo and more D&D equipment list. Sure, there are named weapons, but they’re almost exclusively dropped from bosses or found on chests. Those that aren’t, are upgrades. The Giant Blacksmith takes a +10 weapon of a particular type and the soul of a boss (some bosses drop their Soul as an item, you can consume them for a bunch of souls or use them to craft) to make a named weapon. I mentioned the Cursed Greatsword of Artorias, you make that one using a +10 straight sword except the “broken sword” or “sword hilt” and the Soul of Sif (and giant, greatsword wielding Wolf). It’s a really cool weapon. There’s also my favorite weapon of all, Queelag’s Furysword, made with a +10 curved sword and Queelag’s Soul. Anyone who’s planning on playing the game should make that sword, it’ll be amazingly helpful and it scales wonderfully with dexterity.

On the topic of Exploration and game advancement, you get no aid and not much of a clue as to where to go first or even later, it’s all about finding your own way. There’re games that take you by the hand, and others that offer some guidance, even a map. Dark Souls isn’t one of them. There’s no map, you’re on your own like a baby thrown in a trashcan in a dirty alley. Like everything else, you’ll learn the hard way, by dying repeatedly until you find the place where the enemies don’t swat you in one hit. This game rewards exploration and there are plenty of hidden nooks and crannies where you can find hidden gear or Soul/Humanity Items (Soul items you spend to instantly get X amount of souls, and Humanity items give you 1 humanity and restore your health), just be careful not to run into a Black Knight on the way there. Those guys will probably kill you there first few hundred times you fight them, until you learn HOW TO FIGHT, and once you learn how to parry effectively, you’ll kill them quickly.

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Black Knights are Badass!

The good and bad thing about the constant stream of obituaries you’ll collect is that you’ll know each map like the back of your hand, and you’ll know where each shortcut or bonfire is, you’ll even memorize enemy placement.

Coming back to exploration, each new zone has “fog walls” that serve as “checkpoints” for the game and there’s usually a boss behind each of them, so you’ll come to dread those things, even if there’s nothing at the other end. Thankfully on boss fog walls, they close behind you, stopping enemies left behind to follow you into the boss, though they can still hit you through the wall.

Bonfire placement is questionable at best. In some areas you have a bonfire at the start, middle and just before the boss, while in others you only have one near the boss or at the beginning. Then there’s New Londo, an area without a single freaking bonfire, since it’s supposed to be cleared in one go. Sadly the area is filled with annoying enemies, such as the intangible ghosts you can only hit with cursed weapons or by using an item that “curses” you so you can hit them, and the Darkwraiths, members of a particular Covenant, which are a fantastic pain in the ass.

 fourkings

One of the Four Kings, they all look the same. They’re the New Londo boss!

Covenants are the Dark Souls version of a Guild. Each NPC you meet will most likely be part of a covenant, and joining one has some PVE benefits and of course PVP benefits, and improving your rank in each, by completing assignments, turning in badges or giving them humanity, nets you some nice perks. If you break your covenant, mostly by killing the leaders of that covenant, you are marked as a Sinner, and as a result, at any point in which you are online and human, you’ll be constantly invaded by members of that Covenant (other players) or members from other covenants until you repent at an NPC in the middle of fucking nowhere.

And now, for the bosses. Bosses are the high points of the game, as each requires observation and a great deal of adaptability. It’s the bosses that teach you the hard lessons and it’s them that let you know that maybe switching tactics or even builds is not a bad thing. In my case, it was Ornstein and Smough, a boss fight that told me I should go and upgrade my weapons further and get an elemental one and use heavier armor for that fight.

 gaping dragon

The Gaping Dragon! An annoying beastie!

The bosses on the first two acts are vastly superior to those found on the last act, which is the game’s weakest portion. The demon ruins features a stupid boss that dies if you out-run it, a re-skinned asylum boss and a huge centipede, and they’re all red and charred, nothing important there. The Bed of Chaos boss is “meh” as are Seath and Nito, and even the last boss leaves something to be desired.

Lastly let’s talk about the subject of Dark Souls’ difficulty. As I’ve stated, you’ll die, and some of the times it’ll be your fault, but plenty of times it’ll be because the game is unfair as hell, because the rules don’t apply the same for everyone. As far as the system goes, you always get the shaft. For example, for players, backstabbing means correctly positioning yourself behind the enemy and hitting the button, but for monsters, it means that as soon as you give your back to them, they’ll backstab you, no questions asked.

Attack in tight enough corridors and your sword will hit the wall, but monsters’ attacks clip the walls and hit you, so be careful if you ever fight a large monster like a Titanite Demon.

If you run up and into an enemy it won’t budge from where it stands, but more often than not, their mere closeness pushes you aside and sometimes over the edge of a cliff.

More frustrating are some of the damage mechanics in the game. For example, there’s an enemy called Sentinel, a big living knight statue. One of his attacks is he slams his shield into the floor, if you’re close, it’ll squash you, but you also get damage from the shield if you get close to it, even if it’s already stationary on the floor. Same goes for rolling stones, at one point, in Sen’s Fortress, there’s a big stone rolling down a flight of stairs, the rock will damage and push you back if you touch it, EVEN IF IT’S MOVING AWAY FROM YOU.

And of course, there’s the usual stuff like unlimited enemy range, or aggroing ranged enemies so far away you’d need the damn Sword of Omens to see them.

There’s that famous saying “Everything in life is location, location, location”, and that’s perfect to describe some of the unfair disadvantages Dark Souls puts you in. Let’s take the 2nd boss in the game, The Minotaur Demon. He’s a big ass monster with humongous reach, and you fight him on the battlements between two towers, and that’s basically Aragorn fighting a Balrog on a fucking LEDGE. You’re at a clear disadvantage there, and you’ll realize it when you meet more Minotaur demons. On a wide open space, they’re bitches. Same with the Capra Demons, the first one you fight is a boss in close enough spaces it feels intimate.

Remember what I said about an unavoidable death? Well, when it happens, you still lose all your accumulated souls and humanity. That, my friends, is bullshit. If it’s a story thing, if you need to die at that point for X reason, then you shouldn’t be penalized. Especially when you’ll re-spawn in a cell in another part of the zone and getting back to where you died isn’t easy as it’s pretty much on the other end of the zone.

Like I said before, there’s no difficulty curve, and that because the difficulty doesn’t ramp up with your level or skill even, it’s set in stone for each area. Sure, if you get careless, you will die even in a low “level” area, but go into a low zone when you’re far into the game and you’ll breeze through. For example, I used a guide by the Dark Souls wiki a few times to know what zone to go next, and if you follow that path, when you finally get to the Darkroot Garden, Basin, The Catacombs and The Tomb of the Freaking Giants, you’ll breeze through and the enemies will either die in one hit or in two. If you follow that route, the Pinwheel boss dies faster than Sean Bean in any of his roles.

Strangely though, the last boss is disappointingly easy. By the time you reach him you expect a real damn challenge, even more so than what you’ve gotten so far, and even more from an area that has only Black Knights for enemies. But then, you kill him and end up like “that’s it?”

 

STORY/NARRATIVE: Being a storyteller myself, this is usually the most important for me in games. And it’s where a lot of my hatred for Skyrim comes from, well, that and the atrocious character models and voice acting.

But back to Dark Souls.

Dark Souls Intro

The Story is almost nonexistent. Aside from a cool prologue intro, you don’t really get much lore in the game, and that’s something I have trouble dealing with in an RPG. Your only “motivation” comes from a guy that springs you from your cell at the undead asylum and as he’s hollowing he tells you of a legend that runs down his family that says something like “you, undead stuck in the asylum, go to Lordran, ring a couple of bells and your destiny will be revealed” and he finishes that with “well, there you go”, as if he’s saying “you needed an excuse to go do the rest of the game, so there you are!”

You get information on everything from the NPCs, if you pay enough attention to them. Most NPCs have storylines, even quest lines, but you’re never given any indication whatsoever that’s the case. You just meet them at point A then you might meet them at point B if you manage to find them, and then at point C comes the resolution of the particular quest, which more often than not means you’ll kill them because they’ve gone hollow. But you never have a sense that you give a damn about them, they don’t have enough lines or give compelling enough arguments for you to care about them. Don’t get me wrong, there are chatty NPCs, but not many, and for most you have to complete or advance their quest lines in order to get more from them, and without a single clue as to how to advance them or where they’ll be at next time, it’s hard to get stuff out of them or even get to care about their fates.

 solaire of astora

Solaire of Astora, one of those NPCs you’ll meet on several occasions but won’t ever give a damn about

The same goes for the plot, you’re only given vague explanations, and none of them manage to instill the importance of your task. There’s one NPC, Kaathe, who’ll give you straight-ish answers, but you only get to talk to him if you avoided doing a bunch of stuff you’ll probably do because they seemed the logical course of action.

Having humanity on you will cause some NPCs to spit out a few bits more of conversation, but in general they don’t really give you that much. The only NPCs to tell you something useful is the one you meet right after your Raven flight at the beginning of the game, because he tells you where the bells you have to ring are. The rest only ask you questions that if you answer correctly they’ll give you stuff, or ask you to join their Covenant, or else they become hostile.

The story itself, what’s there, is actually good, simple and straightforward but good. The game just doesn’t do enough of a good job telling it. Apparently the director’s intent was to make the story something you get from interacting with the world, reading item descriptions (the source of 99% of the lore you find), without someone explaining anything, without exposition. It’s a good idea, but there’s always the risk you don’t transmit enough of the story. Sure, most players won’t play because of the story and will just go into it for the challenge, but for those who do want to get invested in the story and immerse themselves in this new world, they might end up disappointed.

Also, if you follow Frampt’s path, some things just don’t make sense. SPOILER ALERT!!! Kingseeker Frampt tells you to find the Lord Souls and put them into the Lordvessel, all so you can take Gwynn’s place. You need to get the Lord Souls from Nito, The 4 Kings, The Witch of Izalith and Seath. Two out of four, the witch and the kings are dead and insane or have become something else and very evil, but the last two are actually Gynn’s allies and you are given no reason why they can’t just give you those Lord Souls, especially when it’s said the gods FOUND them, and Gynn GAVE one to Seath. If you’re working on the gods’ side, then why do you have to fight these guys? It makes no sense and neither Nito nor Seath have any lines or dialog to explain why you actually have to fight them. If you follow Kaathe’s path, sure, you’re going against the gods so you have to fight all of them, but if you’re on their side, there’s no reason for you to fight them, and that’s one of the places the story falls apart.

gravelord nito

Gravelord Nito

I sincerely hope Dark Souls II makes more of an effort to tell the story. I absolutely love getting lore from Items, or from offhand comments from NPCs, but when NPCs like Frampt or Kaathe are explaining the plot, have them go a just a bit further, get them to give me more about the plot, even if it’s their own musings or even if they include a few lies here and there. Cryptic is good!

I almost forgot to mention the DLC content. The Prepare to Die Edition includes the Artorias of the Abyss DLC, which sends you to the past of the world and you get to see more of Artorias, which just from the number of items bearing his name, you’d guess he’s freaking important. You hear and read his name all over the game, and in this expansion you get to find and fight him. There a few NPCs, a couple of them being quite chatty and giving you a lot more insight into what’s going on in the past and giving you hints of the plot and even the final boss.

Sound: This part is divided into two parts: Music & Voice acting, because to be honest, the sound effects are perfect, roars are roar-y, clangs are clang-y, etc.

The music is fantastic; you have your sweet melodies, your gloomy tracks and your epics, and each match their respective zones helping the already great art direction do its job of immersing you in the world. The last boss’ music is still my favorite, a melancholic piano piece, unexpected for a final boss battle, but fitting it perfectly one you know who it is and why he’s there. The only problem with the music is that it will get on your nerves when you’ve heard it a thousand times because you’ve constantly died in each area.

Last Boss Song

Voice acting is good, not fantastic. There are a few cases where the voice acting is “meh”, but mostly because it’s a bit too over the top or too much of a monotone. In fact my only complaint with voice acting is there’s not enough. Only a couple of bosses in this game actually say anything, and they’re both optional bosses. Most bosses have intro sequences and they could have dropped a line or two in there. There are cases like Ornstein and Smough, who are guarding Gwynevere, that don’t say anything, so you’re fighting them “because”. If they told you off before kicking your ass it would’ve been awesome, I’d even settle for a “You shall not pass!”

If there had been more boss characterization, especially from those story-relevant bosses, those that aren’t simple beasts, then there wouldn’t be such a problem with the story, as the bosses could give you that little bit more plot to keep you interested, without going into full exposition.

 

HIGH POINTS:

  • Beating Ornstein and Smough after changing my strategy completely.
  • Going through the last area and parrying every single attack.
  • Getting the Drakesword and admiring the smart decisions about enemy “Tails”
  • Beating The Four Kings without breaking a sweat and on the first try with my heavy armored strategy

LOW POINTS:

  • The Minotaur Demon in its entirety
  • The cheap deaths due to Curse buildup
  • The Curse and Toxic statuses
  • Entrances to boss zones featuring drops that damage you.
  • Dying on the way to reclaiming my body, over and over again.
  • Being invaded and killed while surrounded by enemies.
  • Blighttown in its entirety as well as New Londo

 

FINAL THOUGHTS: Dark Souls is an addictive game, in a masochistic kind of way. You’ll die, repeatedly, sometimes frustratingly, especially when it’s cheap or unfair, but you’ll come back. Not everyone will, but I see this game as the Mark of a Gamer. A Gamer will refuse to let the game win.

If you’ve read my “Nature of a Classic” piece, you’ll see this game is well on its way of becoming a classic, and it deserves it. It’s frustrating enough.

There are both smart design choices and some really dumb ones. The Bonfire placement is questionable, as having to go through the entire zone again to get to the boss, especially considering this is a game of trial and error, seems a bit dumb. Then again, we did this crap with Ninja Gaiden on the NES.

The decision making in the game is perfect. This is a game where every decision with an NPC is final. You can attack and kill almost any NPC, but doing so will give you souls and maybe an item but will cause a Covenant to attack you, or leave you Blacksmith-less for example. Anor Londo is a perfect example of this. If you kill a certain NPC, the city of perpetual twilight will go dark, all enemies will disappear and you’ll be constantly targeted by members of a certain Covenant.

Speaking of Anor Londo, while some areas, such as that one are beautiful, extraordinarily beautiful, they’re empty, vacant and dead. Sure, there are enemies everywhere, but the world seems to be populated only by enemies, there aren’t enough people to make it seem “alive”. Of course, this could be intentional, as this is the land of the gods and most of them have left the building, in which case I salute them, because they accomplished making you feel like you’re in a dead land. If it wasn’t intentional however, then it’s a big drop for a ball.

Before writing this, I asked myself these two questions:

  • Is Dark Souls a good game?
  • Is Dark Souls a fun game?

To the first one, yes, it is, it’s a terrific game, a very strong game, well worth the money spent on it. And though I have uninstalled it, I will probably go back to it at some point and carry through the many New Game pluses. Last bit of complaint: Going into new game plus lets you keep your gear and levels but all story-items, including the rite of kindling, are taken from you. I get taking some items important for progression, but not the rite of kindling.

The second one, however, after finishing it and taking all the frustration, the anger and the masochism into account, made me answer this: No, it’s not a fun game. Any game capable of giving you an ulcer can be a fantastic game but never a fun one. Sometimes challenge equals fun, sometimes challenge goes hand in hand with fun, but in Dark Souls, challenge is all there is, the fun part falls off at some point.

VERDICT: BUY THE DAMN GAME!!!

3 responses to “Reviews – Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition

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