Friday, October 14, 2011

Dark Souls - A Brutal and Relentless Action/RPG Horror Title.

There's a game out there that is so difficult, so merciless and unforgiving of mistakes or poor planning and so punishing of failure that I'm almost afraid to play it. I am, of course, talking about Dark Souls, the action RPG that is as much an exercise in masochism as it is a hardcore gaming experience. Dark Souls is a sequel to Demon's Souls, an earlier game that I completely missed when it came out in 2009 because it was a PS3 exclusive and I draw the line at two consoles I rarely play. Dark Souls was released by Namco Bandai Games in the US on October 4th for both the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360, and the relentless blend of action and frustration provides an answer to the gamers who believe that quicksaves and infinite lives have made gamers soft. This is clearly not a game for everyone, as people who want a more casual experience to relax and unwind will no doubt be very, very frustrated with this game, because it kills you the instant you let your guard down. And then it kills you again, and again, and some more, until you wonder if the game is mocking you.

Expect your character to die several times before you even get the package open.

If you are thinking "That doesn't sound like much fun," one thing I neglected to mention is that despite the relentless, even punishing, difficulty... the game is (almost) never cheap or unfair. Every death is due to a mistake in either choice of weapon, where and when to fight an opponent, or just plain old-fashioned not being careful enough. The setting starts out without a massive amount of background information or plot to get you going, as the world is corrupted and all but lost to the demonic hordes, and your motivation is simple: destroy evil. Dark Souls, unlike its predecessor, is an open-world game, with freedom left to the player to go in whichever direction they believe they can survive, with no indication of where that might be, as death waits around every corner. Every time you die, you learn something new. Death is a strict teacher who shows you your mistakes immediately and demands perfection, and the lessons are well-learned.

The combat system rewards care, patience and selection of the correct tools for the job, whether that is a nasty two-handed weapon, heavy armor and shield for defense, or magical abilities, all are available to the player but none will suffice in every situation. You cannot gain enough magical power to run through sections of the game blowing things up at will, and you will find the predictable result of trying is, of course, another death. When you die, you lose your corporeal form and your collected souls, which are used to upgrade your character and equipment, and you respawn as undead... with half a health bar. Get back to your corpse, and you can retrieve what you've lost. Checkpoints come in the form of bonfires which can be lit to rest and make camp, but when you rest, the foes you have defeated rise again, meaning use of a checkpoint is a strategic choice.

The beacon fire. A place to rest and reflect on what lessons repeatedly dying has taught you.

On its surface, Dark Souls is a single player experience, but online play has been incorporated into the experience in several unique ways in keeping with the themes of the game world. First, it is possible to leave scrawled messages for other players in certain sections of the game, though whether you choose to heed the warnings or suspect they might have been left by a player trying to lead you to a quick death is up to you. The spirits of other players can occasionally be glimpsed moving through the same sections of gameplay as you are working your way through, seeing these damned souls in action reminds you of the consequence of failure. You can also summon spirits of other players for co-op play, but who is brought into your game world is random and communication with your spectral ally is extremely limited, a very different experience from loading a game and jumping in with people from your friends list. Also be warned that PVP players may, while you are in your living form, invade your game to assassinate you to regain their own form. In practice, you'll spend so much time as undead that this won't happen very often, but it is not optional or consensual, further adding to the danger for players who are doing well.

So much more of the game is meant to be discovered through play that I feel it would be a disservice to spoil it in a review here, but I can mention in passing a few other features. Despite being thrown into the world with only a very basic understanding of what is going on, that doesn't mean there is no lore or story going on in the game. By design, the player must earn tidbits by peeling away at the surface of this fantasy/horror world, and not telling you too much all at once helps keep the disturbing and disorienting tone of the place intact. For replay value, there is the covenant system. Without spoiling too much, I can say that covenants are the combination of faction/guild and alignment system in the game, and joining one will significantly change the play experience beyond the typical "good" or "evil" playthroughs in other RPGs. Every covenant comes with its own advantages and price to pay for membership, and some may make sections of the game easier or harder, or affect objectives.

Breathtaking environments and deadly foes are literally around every corner.

Is this a good game? The graphics are gorgeous, most reviews agree that the gameplay is incredibly tough, but in a fair sort of way barring one or two scenes that drift close to unfairness. The starting class is more like declaring a play philosophy than committing to a single set of options, as weapons, armor and abilities can be swapped out as needed to progress. If you are the sort of gamer eager to overcome challenges and believe firmly that modern games are too easy, this may just be the game for you. If dying over and over until you struggle toward the goal of hitting a beacon sounds too much like inflicting pain on yourself because it feels so good when you stop, I'd give this one a pass.

Fair Warning: I mentioned here that I planned to take a week off from posting as I get adjusted to a full-time job again, I plan to take that week from 10/15 through 10/22, so my vacation starts... now.
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edlee3tns said...

great review

Kelly said...

Wow. The graphics look great on this game. The review you gave gives me some considerable pause in wanting to give it a try on my new computer- what with all the dying and stuff for any mistakes you make. I've seen this game before in stores, but I can't remember if it has a PC form. Hmmm. Probably does. Great review. Good luck with the new job!

Biff Tanner said...

Great game, about time they make something a little harder then wack-a-mole.

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