(21/10/2011) By now, you will know that Dark Souls is hard. ‘Prepare to die!’ screams the launch trailer, and die you shall, but though the game takes every opportunity to kill you, death is not really the point. Like Demon’s Souls before it, the core of the Dark Souls experience lies in the meticulous balance between risk and reward. The odds you must overcome, which will at times feel almost unfairly stacked against you, make overcoming them something of a euphoric experience for those with the stomach to persevere.
|This will kill you.|
Dark Souls is the spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls, one of my favourite games of this console generation and, indeed, ever. Everything that made Demon’s Souls great is reprised in its pseudo-sequel. I stand by everything I said in my review of Demon’s Souls, and everything there applies equally to Dark Souls, so for a comprehensive run-through of why these games are so good, I suggest you read that.
Instead, I shall focus on how Dark Souls differs from its predecessor, and even surpasses it, for there is little question that the this is the superior game. Dark Souls is more than a spiritual sequel to Demon’s Souls; at times, it feels more like a re-imagining. Concepts and characters from the original reappear here almost untouched; the fire-breathing gargoyle boss that spawns a friend just as you think you’ve gained the upper hand, the sorcerer that clones himself to surround you, the oppressive toxic swamp level and that one bastard who promises you treasure and then kicks you into a hole. There’s much here that will be familiar to veterans of the original, and will surely raise a smile.
The real difference here is that these elements are now tied together into one great sprawling world. This massive world is truly Dark Souls’ greatest achievement, invoking a level of immersion unattained by its predecessors’ mostly linear stages. The level design in Demon’s Souls was impeccable, but here it is a taken to a new level. The surprisingly varied environments are woven together with a masterful hand, with shortcuts opening out into areas previously visited and far-off caverns promising access to unexplored lands. The greatest praise I can offer to the game’s design is that, vast and sprawling as it is, I never felt the need for a map; the twisting tunnels of Lordran are firmly etched into my memory as if it were a place I had personally explored, rather than a particular ingenious work of level design.
Dark Souls is, contrary to the title, a much brighter game than Demon’s Souls, which entertained itself almost exclusively with dark passages and oppressive abysses. These are more than present here, don’t get me wrong; Dark Souls is more than happy so send you treading through the tombs of giants in utter darkness, or venturing into a boiling netherworld. But it is also unafraid to send you through shimmering crystal caves or across the balustrades of a sun-drenched palace; these moments of beauty belie the grim fiction of the forsaken world you are swept up into.
It is also a much larger game than Demon’s Souls. I remember finishing that game in something like forty hours; this one took me more than sixty, and there are still areas I have yet to explore and bosses I have yet to fight. Every time you think you are pushing the boundaries of the game’s world, it opens up further, sending you deeper down into its hellish interiors.
It is enough to say that Dark Souls is a bigger, more open and more beautiful version of Demon’s Souls. It feels as though this is the game that From Software wanted to make in the first place; only with the budget afforded from the success of the original were they able to realise their often nightmarish but unquestionably brilliant vision.
What faults there are are largely technical. Sections of the game suffer from some seriously debilitating lag, occasionally causing me to wonder how this passed through testing. Lag such as this would be an issue in any game, but here, where the difference between life and death can rest on a split-second reaction, death through technical fault is unacceptable.
The game’s peculiar yet inspired online system suffers too from technical issues, though how much of this is down to my own broadband connection I cannot say. Several times, a player would attempt to invade me and fail, and the game would leave me locked behind fog walls while it tried to reconcile connection issues with XboxLIVE. This happened rarely, but when it did my only solution was to quit the game and reload. I lost nothing but a few seconds of playtime, but even so, this is an area that lacks the laudable polish of the rest of the experience.
There are times too, especially towards the end of the game, where it threatens to tip the fine balance of its difficulty towards frustration. Forcing you to retread trying gauntlets to re-engage with a seemingly impossible boss is Dark Souls’ bread and butter, but the triumph of this design lies in artful balancing of risk and reward, and certain late game sections begin to feel vindictive in what they ask of the player. The same could be said of parts of Demon’s Souls, but in a game so much bigger and so much broader, the thrill of the challenge occasionally – and only occasionally – threatens to become muddied by frustration.
None of this truly detracts from the triumph of design that Dark Souls represents. This is a videogame wholly unique from its contemporaries, a starkly pure vision of what a game can be. It will certainly not be to everyone’s tastes, and isn’t as immediately playable as the myriad blockbusters released this fall, but to those who can appreciate this sort of games, Dark Souls is one of the finest videogames you will likely play in a long while.