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Dark Souls In-Depth Review


Knight
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I just completed Dark Souls today, and I've got a lot of thoughts about it. I'm gonna split this off into sections, with spoilers clearly marked.

What is Dark Souls?

A better question is what isn't Dark Souls? Dark Souls is an action-adventure Metroidvania-style dark fantasy RPG that also has PvP and Co-Op elements. It was made by From Software and published by Namco Bandai, a kinda-but-not-really sequel to Demon's Souls, a game that I haven't played. Due to Demon's Souls being published by Atlus, not Namco, this game technically has no connection to it narrative-wise, but gameplay is very similar and there are plenty of thematic and aesthetic elements that have carried over, or so I hear from visiting the Wiki enough times. The game is about a created character called "The Chosen Undead" who is either a zombie or a victim of extreme anorexia. The game starts with an opening cinematic that gives an intro to an unclear and vague view into history. Nothing existed before except dragons and grayness, but then suddenly a fire appeared and humans and gods popped up. They slayed the dragons, but now the fire is dying. Only a chosen undead, you (or maybe not) can the link the fire and stop the oncoming darkness and curse of undead. You explore a vast world filled with monsters, demons, undead, giants and spooky scary skeletons. There are tons of labrynth like dungeons, castles and caves to explore that are all inter-connected and guarded by dangerous enemies and bosses. There are NPCs to meet (and/or kill), items around every corner, and lots of lore to discover. Also, this game is hard, really hard. Though it gets better. It doesn't get much easier, but it does get better.

Gameplay Mechanics (great wall of text, no actual story spoilers)

Dark Souls has one of the best melee combat systems in an action adventure video game. Unlike a game like Elder Scrolls, this isn't a game where you and an opponent just bump up against each other with weapons of varying damage and attack speeds until one of you dies. Dark Souls is a game about patience, and knowing the right time and place to dodge, block and attack. The biggest thing is your stamina meter, which drains with almost any action, whether it be attacking, parrying, or rolling. When your stamina's drained, you can't do anything except pace around at regular speed. Thankfully, your stamina meter refills in a matter of seconds, but holding up a block will cause it to drain much slower, slower than you could ever hope to regain as a successfully blocked attack also lowers stamina. This is what makes combat interesting, as you have to keep an eye on your stamina meter and sometimes leave yourself open so you can recover. This prevents any ultra-aggressive or ultra-defensive playstyle, you have to be careful with how you approach, watch how enemies attack and then find their openings, that is the key to victory.

Throughout the game there are several bonfires which serve as respawn points, they also heal you and replenish your stack of healing items. Purchasable healing items are few-and-far-between, you have to rely on your Estus Flask, which is a healing potion which has 5-20 uses depending on how much you've enhanced the nearest bonfire. The game doesn't pause while you heal, so healing is another vulnerable state you put yourself in while in combat, finding those small windows of recovery time is essential. The game doesn't pause in general, preventing you from switching weapons and equipment mid-battle as well. While I understand that decision, the game could have also done well with a pause mode that doesn't allow you to change items or anything, and just disable it when players are interacting with you online. Putting down the controller for only a second can lead to death, so this could have been really helpful. On the topic of weapons and equipment, there are numerous weapon types in the game, each of them vary a lot in gameplay.

There are swords, daggers, greatswords, ultra greatswords, axes, greataxes, hammers, spears, halberds, bows, crossbows and greatbows, all of which have unique movesets for both one-handed and two-handed styles. In a free hand you can carry a shield, magic, or another weapon (though I don't recommend it). You could also make both hands magic or shields, though that'd be weird. As for armour, there are several different types that provide resistances against the different types of physical attacks, magic, fire, or lighting attacks, and they are of different weight too. The weight of equipment you carry determines whether you fast, medium or slow roll, though you can offset weight by increasing endurance and equipping certain rings. Potentially you can wear plate armour like a light robe, but don't get your hopes up. Weapons and armour can be improved at blacksmiths by gathering titanite, the all-in-one material. When a weapon reaches a certain point of advancement, you can ascend it further down the regular path, or give it elemental damage and other attributes to make it dangerous to enemies with those types of weaknesses. For the most part, however, giving a weapon elemental powers will lower or get rid of stat-scaling, meaning that any points invested in strength or dexterity may go to waste if you have no other weapon, but this is great for magic-focused characters.

On the topic of magic, its good to get familiar with the different types of magic before deciding which one you want to pursue. Sorceries are your basic magic spells, they are long-ranged and shoot blue beams and balls of energy, though there are other types as well, they improve with the intelligence stat. Miracles are healing and defensive spells mostly, though there are a few offensive spells, some with the lighting attribute, they scale with faith and best compliment a warrior playstyle I think. Then there are Pyromancies, you don't need to invest in any stat to use pyromancies, just improve the glove needed to cast it and fire away. The cost of them being cheap, however, is that they're usually short-range (but maybe have some more AoE) and not very versatile. as you might expect, pyromancies are mostly fire spells, but there are some poison and buff spells as well. Since any one of these magic styles requires a hefty amount of investment, I recommend focusing on only one of them unless you want to do a lot of grinding.

In order to improve in Dark Souls, you need to level up and improve your equipment. As it so happens, you need souls to do both, acting as both money and exp. Souls are acquired by killing enemies, or by just finding them lying about dungeons. When you die, however, you lose all your current souls, and you have one chance to get them back at the spot that you died. This is one of the key features of Dark Souls, and I dislike it. Unlike a game like Shovel Knight, that borrows this mechanic and has you lose only money when you die, losing both money and experience upon failure is an incredibly demoralizing event, especially when it's lost forever. You can only level-up at bonfires, so if you're halfway between two bonfires in an incredibly hard area. All enemies except for bosses and mini-bosses come back when you die, so you have to endure that route again to get your shit back. You also have to get back your humanity upon death, a stat that increases by finding and consuming humanity sprites. Increasing humanity will increase the rate of items dropping from enemies, increase resistance to curse, and you can use it to make yourself not look like an ugly zombie and actually see the results of your five hours in the character creator, as well as perform various actions like improving a bonfire and doing online stuff. If you're playing offline, then there's hardly much point to reverting to human form, as its better to just hold on to the humanities for item collection rates, and human form is one thing you can't reacquire after you die, you have spend another humanity. I have to honestly say, losing everything upon death with only one-shot to get it back is not a feature I like, I wish they had lessened the blow a little. There should be a price for dying, yes, but not as devastating as the one that exists. The game's tagline is "prepare to die," but I'd like the game to meet me halfway.

Some general tips:

-Pay attention to which stat your weapon scales with, whether it's Dex or Strength

-You can choose a starting gift at the beginning of the game, pretty much all of them are useless except the Master Key. One of the items is an outright lie, it doesn't give you regenerating health

-Don't be ashamed to check the wiki, this is a game with very vague hints as to where things are. It's not impossible to complete the game without a guide, but some quality of life things like reading the page on Knight Lautrec will really help you out

-You will die, a lot. Learn from every fight, find out enemy moves and strike at the openings

-Your starting class only determines your beginning equipment and statspread. From there, you can level up and focus in whatever way you wish

-That being said, specialize, don't go for a jack-of-all-stats build. The Artorias Greatsword is a lie, no matter how attractive that stat scaling would have you believe

-Get the stats you need early, as leveling up in the late-game is hard. Most builds benefit from having good endurance and vitality.

-Resistance is pointless

-Praise the Sun!

-Seath's an asshole

This review is already a big wall of text, I'm gonna do other parts later. World and Level design tomorrow, story and lore later. I just wanted to get my thoughts down on this game, if you stuck around to read the whole thing so far, you were probably really bored and needed something unproductive to do.

Edited by Knight
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Also, this game is hard, really hard. Though it gets better. It doesn't get much easier, but it does get better.

It becomes easier when you have played through more than once. I probably have spent 600+ hours on the series and it never becomes trivial especially if you are doing something to restrict yourself, but the Souls games don't hold a candle to the difficulty of older games because it is actually quite forgiving in allowing you only to lose souls. That said, the difficulty was never really a factor in why I enjoyed the games.

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It becomes easier when you have played through more than once. I probably have spent 600+ hours on the series and it never becomes trivial especially if you are doing something to restrict yourself, but the Souls games don't hold a candle to the difficulty of older games because it is actually quite forgiving in allowing you only to lose souls. That said, the difficulty was never really a factor in why I enjoyed the games.

It does become easier in the late-game, and pure experience with the game makes things a lot easier, I agree.

Should I read this review before playing to be informed, or afterwards to avoid spoilers? Also, where's the number rating?

So far I have not given any plot spoilers, and when I do they'll be marked as such. I've only talked about the gameplay mechanics in this initial post, with level and map design next, and then story and lore. After that's all done, I'll give a conclusion and a rating. I haven't decided if I'll give an actual number rating yet though. If you consider me talking about controls, combat and game mechanics spoilers, then don't read, otherwise have at it.

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I read your review; it wasn't that long. Have you considered posting a review on GameFAQs and the like?

Not until you've just mentioned it. Maybe I'll try it some day, but I'm really not too familiar with communities outside SF.

Anyway, in the last part I forgot to mention a couple of things about combat. There are heavy and light attacks, these are pretty self-explanatory. There exists a parry system in the game, it works with an equipped shield or weapon in the left hand, and when done successfully, you stagger your opponent for a second and then you can do a critical hit. You can also critical hit against many enemies in the game by circling around them and stabbing them in the back, though the window is small. You are also capable of a kick which can knock away a shield or push an enemy, though it does no damage. All of these mechanics together make Dark Souls a game with a lot of depth in the combat, given all the options available to you. The enemies and bosses are all varied in how they defend against your attacks, and the strategies used to beat them, though many of them are solved by circling around and stabbing them in the butt. The game knows that you will use this strategy, however, and will force you into narrow corridors to fight them in, so you'll have to lure them out to try this strategy on them. Luring and baiting is an important to strategy to learn in Dark Souls, since you usually don't want to fight enemies in groups or in tight spaces. If you think you're going against the way the game was designed, you'd probably be wrong, any strategy that may feel like cheating is likely the intended strategy.

Map, level and enemy design (spoilers for some areas and bosses)

I'll start off by saying that the cleverness of the map design in Dark Souls is astonishing. Dark Souls is not an open-world game, it is much more akin to a game like Metroid Prime. The world is split up into areas, each of them interconnected with passages between them, and most of them link back with the game's hub, Firelink Shrine. Many of the areas in the game can be viewed just by looking off into the distance from Firelink, in fact, there's nothing you can see that you can't visit. Every castle or ruin off in the distance is a place you'll likely visit and explore. While the game does provide a wide range of areas to visit, a lot of them can be placed under the categories of castles and caves (or both). Not that they aren't varied or interesting though, every castle and cave is distinct in look and feel. Each area is a maze filled with enemies. Some corridors might be filled with an enemy that might seem too hard for you, but know that there isn't a single enemy that bleeds that you can't kill. The game is non-linear, though there is a kind of recommended path, you can go beyond what's expected of you for your low level and earn a ton of souls and items early-on. In Firelink, there's a cemetery nearby filled with tons of tough enemies, but running as fast as you can in and out may net you a cool sword. On your way to ringing the first bell of awakening, you'll find a passage that leads off into a giant area called Darkroot, where there are tons of items, secrets and a couple bosses to find just on a simple detour. The game is filled with optional and mandatory objectives, but very few of them have to be done in any sort of sequence.

The game starts you in a tutorial area called the Undead Asylum, where there are some basic, easy enemies and a boss called the Asylum Demon. This place serves as a warm-up area, no, for real. The first enemies are easy enough for you to familiarize yourself with the controls, but when you reach the first boss, you'll be expected to show your work. New players might find the first boss incredibly hard, but anyone who's made it at least halfway through the game will find him as easy as pie. (It doesn't help that this boss is reused thrice) Then you move onto Firelink and get the vague hint of what you must to, Ring the two bells of Awakening. The first one is up in Undead Parish, the second one is down below in Blighttown. Undead Berg and Undead Parish are the first two areas, each are very similar, Berg is the town, Parish is the castle/cathedral. I like to think that these first two areas are meant to refine your basic combat skills, as all the zombies around here aren't very complex, you'll get used to the shield, dodge and blocking mechanics, or if you're a mage you'll get used to the casting time and distancing yourself from enemies. Many of these guys are in the sword-and-shield type of enemies, and they get harder as they go along, but by the end you'll have mastered their attack patterns. The bosses here are the Taurus Demon and the Bell Gargoyle(s), the former teaches that not every boss has a straight-forward solution, the latter uses a straight-forward solution, only there are two of them. Afterwords you'll go to the depths, though not before fighting the Capra Demon, a difficult boss in an enclosed space. From here the game gives you enemies with more unorthodox behaviours and attacks. You'll reach Blighttown, a very cool level that suffers from framerate issues, and the annoyance that is toxic poison. The area's a suspended town over a poisonous swamp below, which you'll move slowly in unless you somehow figure out that the rusted iron ring you've collected makes you faster in water. Then you'll fight a topless spider lady and ring the second bell. From here you must venture through the trap-filled Sen's Fortress, balance yourself over Anor Londo's beautiful gothic architecture (and ultimately fail at that part) and then you'll fight Ornstien and Smough, the hardest bosses in the game in my opinion. Afterwords you'll get the Lordvessal and you'll be able to fast travel between certain bonfires, though this is the part the game truly opens up. (sorta)

You've probably guessed that some of those characters in the intro cutscene are bosses in the game, and you'd be right. Now you have to hunt some of them down in their respective domains. You've probably entered many of these areas before earlier on, but turned back because of the hard enemies. Now it's time to venture further and fulfill your destiny. Now it's time for me to comment on my mixed feelings of this part of the game. You can pursue any one of these bosses in any order you want, but the areas these bosses themselves hide in feel kind of linear. They don't connect with other areas as much as the early game ones, rather the game avoids doing that by just adding teleporting bonfires at the end of each one that'll lead you back home. They still retain the good enemy design and placement as the early game, but there's no more shortcuts to take in-between, which is something I really like in my Metroidvania. Also, the last boss and area are very disappointing. I expected to have the hardest time and prepared myself accordingly, only to find out that the fight is pathetic. This kind of dampens the whole accomplishment, the game could have took a few cues from Zelda, having the biggest, baddest dungeon at the very end with the biggest baddest boss, but the end of the game is only a handful of enemies you've fought before and the super easy final boss.

Actually, there are a few more things from Zelda or Metroid that I'd wished the game had done. Those games have the tendency of concealing items in clever spots, often behind puzzles that you may need an item for. You can go back to the same area several times and still find an E-Tank or Heart-Piece with the items you've acquired. Dark Souls does conceal items, but many of its efforts to conceal and being "put a hard enemy in front of it" or using an illusory wall. To explain an illusory wall, do you know how in Zelda 1 there were caves hidden throughout Hyrule that required an arbitrary guess to find? That's what an illusory wall is. Because of just the way Dark Souls is, it does not really open itself up to many item-based puzzles, but that doesn't mean they couldn't have been more clever with the placement of goods. There are some smart placements of items and collectibles, but they are few and far-between. I will say that this game does know how to disorientate you enough to make items still hard to find, if that can be a compliment.

I would like to praise a few things though. The design of areas is great, all of them have a very ruined feeling, and some areas can still feel colourful despite that. Armour and weapon designs are all really good and interesting. I have to compliment the decision to not have any loading screens while travelling on-foot, and also the fact that you can't seperate areas into "the fire one, the lighting one, the water one, the forest one," there's more to the areas than that. It's also great that this game provides such a huge range of mandatory and optional boss fights. Few games nowadays seem to remember the greatness of boss fights, a lot of them seem lazy in modern games if they show up at all, and finding hidden, optional bosses is very delightful. That being said, fuck Seath. I also like that there isn't really much grinding required. If you're good at the game, you'll never need to grind at all, but you aren't going to be good at the game on your first try. Grinding is more of a punishment for your lack of skill rather than a mandatory thing. Really, I think the game design is great, all the series needs in future installments is refinement.

Next time I'll talk about the story and lore, which I dunno when I'll write that, but look out for it. I'll also give my conclusion at the same time.

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