As part of my review for this game's DLC (Artorias of the Abyss), I have decided to re-evaluate the score (using the new scoring system). My opinions about this game have changed a bit over the past couple years (in a positive way), and so I am including an updated score and several pieces of hindsight commentary to explain where my original criticisms may have been flawed or unjustified. Locations that include hindsight commentary have been notated in the Table of Contents.
If you had asked me in the middle of 2011 what my favorite games on the PS3 were, three of the games that I would have named would have been: Uncharted 2, Demon’s Souls, and Batman: Arkham Asylum. All three of these games received sequels or follow-ups in the fall of 2011, so it was a pretty exciting holiday season for me in terms of gaming. Batman: Arkham City and Uncharted 3 were both very good games, but didn’t quite live up to my (possibly unjustifiably) high expectations.
Sadly, Dark Souls ended up suffering a similar fate Dark Souls disappointed me with its initial impressions, but in the years since, has proven itself to be almost every bit as good (although not as elegant in its gameplay) as Demon's Souls.
This review of Dark Souls is (like many of my reviews) considerably late. This is due to several factors:
- I wanted to try to finish the game’s story and play through large chunks with several different character classes before coming to a final verdict.
- I wanted to see what kind of post-release support the game received.
- I wanted to have several opportunities to engage in PvP encounters.
I still haven’t beaten the game (as of the time of original publication) with any characters (hey, it’s a hard game and pretty long!), but I did play with multiple characters and get my ass kicked in enough PvP encounters that I finally feel that I can give an honest and complete appraisal of the game. Even if it is six months after release…
But hey! A PC port is likely due out soon, so maybe people considering the PC version will still find this review useful!
Table of Contents:
More of the same, and then some
Anybody who’s played Demon’s Souls should feel right at home when they boot up Dark Souls. This is both a very good thing, and a very bad thing. The underlying game engine and mechanics remain virtually identical to Demon’s Souls with a few notable changes. Gameplay and core concepts are pretty much identical. You still run around with a sword and shield and use the shoulder buttons to hack and slash at enemies. You can still parry and riposte with certain shields (although the timing for this has been changed for no apparent reason other than to confound veteran Demon’s Souls players). You still acquire souls from killing enemies and still spend them to purchase items from vendors or to level up your character.
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A few new actions have been added to the game for the player to perform, and these changes are almost universally positive.
An alternate heavy attack and a powerful plunging attack (when falling from a higher elevation) have been added. These two attacks are welcome additions that offer some new heavy damage potential for melee-build characters, and the plunging attack helps to provide a slight tactical edge to taking high ground. You can also now fight when going up or down ladders and can press the circle button to quickly slide down a ladder.
A new plunging attack lets players drop onto an enemy from higher ground for massive amounts of damage. This tactic is useful in many boss fights, and can even make for a great opening sneak attack against would-be phantom invaders!
The other major new control is the ability to do a running jump by releasing and tapping O button while running. This allows you to navigate over small gaps, but isn’t terribly useful. Don’t worry, the addition of a jump doesn’t make the game feel too arcadey. The jump can only be done while running, is very clumsy, and you cannot attack while jumping, so rest assured that FromSoftware didn’t turn this game into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game.
One annoying change to the controls is that the push-off attack has been replaced with a kick attack. The push was very useful in Demon’s Souls for getting yourself out of being trapped against a wall, in a corner, or surrounded by multiple enemies. It allowed you to push an enemy off of you to create some space and put them off balance while maintaining your own defenses. In Dark Souls, the equivalent kick attack forces you to lower your shield, which almost completely mitigates the maneuver’s usefulness when you're pinned. If you’re trapped in a corner against multiple enemies, this is an invitation for death. In essence, if you get pinned by multiple enemies, then the game is over, as there’s no technique for getting out other than having strong enough armor and poise (more on this later) to hold out against the enemy. This move is pretty much just a guard break. At least the kick is useful for pushing enemies off of ledges!
Magic has also been significantly changed. The MP bar has been removed, and now all spells simply have a limited number of uses (similar to Dungeons & Dragons). This helps to prevent players from becoming too reliant on magical ranged attacks and stops players from just easily killing enemies with magic, then waiting for MP to recharge before moving on. A new spell type called "Pyromancy" has been added that is – you guessed it – nothing but fire spells.
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More varied equipment, and armor that's actually useful
In addition to the new controls and attacks, there is a much greater variety of weapons and armor.
Each weapon class has much more of a unique feel than in Demon’s Souls, and so switching from, say, a sword to an axe comes with a little bit of a learning curve. In Demon’s Souls, only the thrusting weapons like rapiers and spears really felt any different than the other one-handed slashing or swinging melee weapons like swords, axes, and clubs. In Dark Souls, almost every class of melee weapons feels slightly different. For example, axes, clubs, and maces no longer have a backswing, and have varying swing times. Some weapons can’t be used in your off-hand at all.
At first, I didn’t like this change because switching weapons required time to get used to the new weapon. But eventually, as I started using a wider variety of weapons, this change started to grow on me. Each weapon class now has a unique feel and gameplay style that gives them value beyond just their stats, and it’s always worthwhile to test out what moveset a new weapon has when you pick it up (at least on your first playthrough).
There’s also a few new classes of weapon, the most noteworthy being whips, which have a completely unique feel all of their own. But there's only two of them, and they're hard to find.
One change that detracts from the value of weapons in general is the reduced effects of stat scaling. In Demon’s Souls, understanding how stat scaling worked was absolutely critical to your success. Each weapon’s attack power would increase based on specific character stats (either strength, dexterity, faith, or magic) based on a letter rating going from S (highest scaling), to A, B, C, D, and E (lowest scaling). Almost all the default weapons would start out with D or E scaling and would have to be improved with upgrades in order to be more useful. In Dark Souls, however, almost every weapon starts out with its scaling being at a C level. This means that there is a much lower difference in stat scaling between high-end and basic weapons. Compare the Shortsword in Demon's Souls wiki with the Dark Souls wiki. This makes increasing the weapon’s base attack power (through upgrades or magical effects) more important than it was in Demon’s Souls. So while there’s a wider variety of combat styles with different weapons types, all the non-elite weapons feel much more vanilla than they did in Demon’s Souls.
The Poise stat and removal of the Item Burden makes heavy armor much more practical and worthwhile, and alleviates criticisms that rolling is the end-all-be-all of combat.
While weapons seem to have been more standardized, the effects of armor have been heavily enhanced and expanded upon. This is actually one of the best changes to Dark Souls' overall gameplay, as heavy armor is now actually useful. In Demon’s Souls, heavy armor was pathetically weak and often encumbered the player so much that they couldn’t effectively dodge roll, and they would have to make more frequent trips to the stockpile to drop off loot before they become overburdened. Because of this, it was almost always better to avoid taking damage altogether rather than rely on damage reduction from armor; thus, effective use of the dodge-roll was the end-all-be-all of combat in Demon’s Souls, and heavy armor was practically worthless.
Now, in Dark Souls, there is a much greater disparity between the damage reduction values of armor classes. On top of that, enemies and bosses can now often change the direction of their attacks mid-swing. This makes it much harder to reliably avoid taking damage, so having high damage reduction from heavy armor and a good shield is critical.
In addition, a completely new stat called "Poise" has been added to the game. As this stat increases, enemy attacks become less able to interrupt your own attacks. With high poise, you’ll avoid the stun from enemy attacks and still be able to follow-through on your own attack. Poise is almost exclusively granted by heavy armor.
The effects of encumbrance on the character are a little more gradual this time around. Although you still have an "equipment burden", the additional "item burden" has been removed, so that (unlike Demon’s Souls) you can carry an indefinite amount of items without any ill effects. Only the items that you have equipped will count towards your burden. And even then, only weapons and armor have weight. This means that you can carry around every item that you’ve collected at all times, meaning you can have hundreds of weapons just sitting in your pocket cluttering up your inventory. This has the obvious advantage of eliminating the need for frequent trips back to a save point to drop off items so you don't run out of room to carry more loot.
The lack of an "item burden" also makes the game as a whole feel a little more shallow and fundamentally changes the way that you can approach the game. Without an "item burden" weighing you down, you can now spend your souls (especially early on) stocking up on consumable items like firebombs, arrows, and status cures rather than leveling your character. And since the stat scaling from the majority of weapons has been scaled back, leveling your character is now less valuable than upgrading weapons' base damage or stockpiling useful offensive and defensive items. I don't really like this change, but I recognize that it's mostly a matter of personal preference, since one could argue that the removal of that restriction makes consumable items (other than Demon's Souls' healing grasses) actually useful beyond the first level or two of the game.
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An expansive, but surprisingly compact world
The lack of an item burden does seem like a necessity when you consider that Dark Souls moved away from having a centralized Nexus to featuring a seamless, "open" world. I’m not really sure if it’s fair to call Dark Souls’ world an "open world", since it’s still really just a collection of mostly linear levels that have been directly attached to one another. So don’t expect to be able to wander off in any direction and do anything like in a true "open world" game like Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim.
The game's map is pretty large and mostly seamless. If you can see it, you can probably go there.
Because of the lack of a central Nexus, the various levels have to have checkpoints spread out among them in the form of bonfires. Resting at a bonfires sets it as your respawn point when you die and recharges your health and "Estus Flask". The Estus Flask is Dark Souls’ replacement for the healing grasses of Demon’s Souls. You can no longer carry around an indefinite supply of healing grasses, instead, you have a limited amount of heals that are granted by drinking from your Flask. This puts a hard limit on the amount of healing that you can do, which can be a real problem in some of the tougher areas, but also helps to balance the game by preventing players from being able to power-through an area that they aren’t prepared for by just farming a massive stockpile of grasses in advance. It also serves to give the game an additional retro vibe (that goes beyond what even Demon’s Souls offered) by acting similar to the "extra lives" that were given to players in classic action-platformer games like Castlevania, Contra, Ninja Gaiden, and so on. The bonfire also respawns all normal enemies, so they can be useful for farming and grinding in the early areas of the game.
The game is divided into various areas, each of which is a mostly linear path that culminates in a boss fight similar to the individual levels in Demon’s Souls. Each area has multiple connections to other nearby areas, and almost all the areas have shortcuts that you can activate to make return trips easier and quicker. Despite the continuous structure, the map is surprisingly compact, and the well-planned intertwining paths and shortcuts help to maintain the hub feeling from Demon’s Souls while still offering a load-screen-free experience. But you will be required to do quite a bit of backtracking on a pretty consistent basis. This small world is also surprisingly full of content. There are several entirely optional areas complete with their own optional bosses.
Unfortunately, very few of the levels are as visually or thematically compelling as the levels of Demon’s Souls. Demon’s Souls has some of the most brilliant and surprisingly eerie level designs of any game I’ve ever played. Navigating areas like the Tower of Latria and Valley of Defilement for the first time was a nightmare-inducing experience (but in a good way). The combination of light, sound, music, tough monsters, pacing of action, and a maze-like structure all build and maintain an edge-of-your-seat sense of tension and made Latria in particular one of the most memorably scary environments that I’ve ever had the privilege of exploring in a video game. And this is coming from a hardcore fan of Silent Hill! In fact, my sister has a ringtone on her phone that sounds very similar to the bells that the Mindflayers in Latria ring as they patrol the prison. Every time my sister receives a text message within earshot of me, the sound of that ringtone makes my heart skip a beat and chills run down my spine.
None of the levels of Dark Souls manage to come close to matching Latria’s inherent creepiness. Sen's Fortress is a fun, trap-ridden dungeon, and is probably the most enjoyable part of the game. But even Sen's Fortress doesn't live up to the environments from the first game. Maybe it’s the comfort of knowing that a bonfire is always much closer than any of Demon’s Souls’ archstones. Or maybe it’s just that my experience with Demon’s Souls desensitized me.
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The World In hindsight
The world of Dark Souls is, indeed, very well designed. The individual levels don't quite match the creativity of the levels from Demon's Souls, but the world as a whole is much more interesting and cohesive. Instead of having shortcuts within the individual levels, the designers placed shortcuts between the levels, creating a complicated web of routes. Any particular area will likely have at least three or four ways in or out of it, which means that if you ever need to backtrack, you have different options on how to get back to a previously-visited location. This helps to reduce the monotony of backtracking in order to farm for items. In addition, about two-thirds of the way through the game's narrative, you'll be given the ability to warp from a bonfire to other select bonfires, making backtracking to important locations (such as covenant NPCs and central hub locations) even easier.
The way that the world is set up also helps to add a sense of grandeur to each of the end-game bosses, as they feel like they are a much bigger part of the world, and there is a steady build-up of anticipation as you go deeper into the late-game levels and approach these formidable enemies. Each late-game stage has unique sets of enemies with different sets of characteristics that keeps the late game consistently challenging, even though you can tackle the various bosses in any order. Each boss and his corresponding level have unique challenges so that defeating the one or two of them doesn't make you feel overpowered when you face off against the remaining bosses. In the event that you overlevel your character, the devs were kind enough to include NPC characters that can be summoned to help you with most major bosses, so you'll have help even if you can't find anyone to summon online. This will also help to ensure that the game remains playable even after its online community has dwindled and the servers are shut down.
Rediscovering your "Humanity"
The story of Dark Souls revolves around your character attempting to lift an undead curse that you are affected by. Instead of turning into a "soul" when you die, you become "hollowed" (zombified). Your character is no longer automatically revived when you defeat a boss. Instead, you receive "Humanity" which you can spend at bonfires in order to "reverse hollowing" and revive to human form. You can collect Humanity as either a passive stat bonus, or as a consumable inventory item that adds to your Humanity stat when it’s used. Thus, you can accumulate multiple humanity, and having a high Humanity stat has various positive effects, including increasing damage resistances, improving item drop rates, and so on. If you die, Humanity is lost, but can be recovered along with your souls if you get back to where you died and collect them.
This system has several advantages over Demon’s Souls’ system. For one, it has the advantage of giving the player control over when they revive. You don’t have to worry too much about becoming immediately vulnerable to, say, a phantom invasion immediately after you defeat a boss. It also means that if you defeat multiple bosses without dying, you maintain the stacking benefits, so you don’t have to feel like you "wasted" a revival by defeating a boss while already in human form.
The player has control over when they revive, but it must be at a bonfire, which respawns all enemies.
Humanity can be a very difficult thing to acquire later in the game though, so you need to be careful about making sure you stockpile a hefty supply of consumable Humanity while you can.
At the beginning of the game, you’re given vague hints about an "undead curse" and that it can somehow be lifted. But you have to wait until about a third of the way through the narrative before anybody finally tells you exactly what you’re supposed to be doing and why. This can make the game feel kind of pointless early on. The indirect narrative leads to questions like "Why am I here?", "Is there a point to any of this?", and "If I’m undead, then why are all these other zombie soldiers trying to kill me?". It really doesn’t make all that much sense, and even after you’re told what’s going on, it still doesn’t really make all that much sense.
Dark Souls does make up for it’s esoteric story by providing plenty of NPC characters for you to find and rescue over the course of the game. Each one comes with his own side story that unfolds as you make your way through various areas of the game, and you can even summon these NPCs as phantoms to help you defeat bosses. You might be asking yourself, "if everybody’s just undead instead of souls, then how is the summoning justified in context of the game?" Well, they do address that. Apparently (according to one of the NPCs that you meet early in the game), there a multiple dimensions. So yeah. Multiple dimensions. That works. I guess. Whatever.
I have to say that Demon’s Souls felt like it had a much more cohesive story, even though the narrative bits were sparse.
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Story In hindsight
Dark Souls does, indeed, have a very indirect story. Even moreso than Demon's Souls. By paying close attention to the things you're being told, and by reading the descriptions of items that you collect, you can piece together a very complicated web of events and relationships that are the true nature of Dark Souls' story. You're not going to get a nice, neat summary. Eventually, you realize that the character's quest to lift the undead curse isn't even the main plot of the game. Instead, the bulk of the game's narrative (and its purpose) is to gradually reveal bits of the game's lore and background.
This game's lore is very rich with detail. The world is given a very full and detailed history that is rarely matched by other RPGs outside of maybe The Elder Scrolls series. Discovering this lore is one of the great joys of the game for those of us who like it, and this adds a lot of replayability since there is so much of the game that you are likely to miss on your first playthrough.
The story is also very dark and rather depressing. The whole world is basically falling apart at the seams, and all the player can do is slow down the decay and prolong the inevitable. And that's the good ending! This is different from Demon's Souls, in which the player is able to put the Old One back to sleep and effectively "save the world". Dark Souls lacks the sense of closure that Demon's Souls narrative possesses, but that doesn't mean that Dark Souls feels incomplete. In fact, this lack of closure only further emphasizes the themes of futility that permeate the game (and the series as a whole).
The multiple dimensions of online functionality
Ghostly player avatars fill the world, just as they did in Demon's Souls, and they congregate at bonfires.
Of course, a follow-up to Demon’s Souls wouldn’t be complete without some kind of unique online component, and Dark Souls provides a much richer and more robust online feature set than its predecessor. All the online functionality of Demon’s Souls has been retained. Players can still leave messages to one another, still leave blood stains that show their deaths to other players that view them, can still cooperatively fight against bosses, and can still invade each other’s realms in PvP. But on top of this, a number a new features have been added.
A guild-like system called "Covenants" have been added. Each covenant has unique functions and benefits. Some require you to invade other players and kill them; others require you to take vengeance against players that have invaded and killed other players; and still others give access to powerful weapons and magics.
Players can also trigger certain events that cause dangerous enemies to spawn in other players’ worlds, which can then be defeated for valuable rewards; although, I've never actually seen this happen. But in addition to screwing with other players, you can also do things that passively help other players. The various bonfires can be "kindled" which increases the amount of times that the Estus Flask can be used to heal. Whenever a player does this, it also increases the uses of the Estus Flasks of other players on the network who have recently used that same bonfire. Some magic spells can also be amplified for all players on the network whenever one player uses them.
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Online segregation and other stumbling blocks
Sadly, these robust new online features are overshadowed by a deliberately-employed segregation of players. Unlike Demon’s Souls, the Dark Souls servers are not universally shared. When you log into the game, you log into a specific server, and over the course of a given play through, you may migrate from one server to another every so often. This is all completely invisible to the player though, so you never know what server you’re on and who else is on it.
The game can get cluttered with a lot of worthless message spam, but this one deserved a rating. If you've played the game and recognize the area, then you should get the joke!
Since you can only interact with players who are on the same server, this means that it is very difficult, or sometimes impossible, to set up a co-op session with a particular player. You won’t be able to summon that player, invade their world, or even see messages that they leave unless you are on the same server. Furthermore, if you get stuck on a relatively inactive server, you might see very few (if any) messages, blood stains, or white phantoms; and may not have any opportunities to summon, invade, or be invaded. In fact, the server you’re currently logged into might not have anybody logged in who is close enough to your level or who is playing in the same area as you. In this case, the online components can be made completely moot for the duration of your time on that server.
In addition, you can no longer rate other players' performance in co-op, and you are not given any information about a potential ally when you summon them (other than username and an image of their character). You can’t even see how many online sessions they’ve participated in. Personally, I was hoping for even more detailed player statistics:
- Number of online sessions.
- Character’s current Level.
- Whether or not the summoned character has already defeated this area’s boss in his/her own world.
- Boss kill ratio (i.e. percentage of times that the summoner/host successfully defeated the area boss after summoning this player, regardless of whether the summoned player survived or not).
- Survival rate (i.e. percentage of times that the summoned player survives through the boss fight).
- Host death ratio (i.e. percentage of times that the summoner/host is killed while this player was summoned – could even be broken down by deaths from the environment, enemy, boss, or BP invasion).
- And maybe some other things.
But no. We don’t get jack.
I understand that anonymity is supposed to be an intentional part of the game’s design, but this goes a little bit too far. I also understand that there may have been technical limitations that forced FromSoftware into this implementation, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t still be disappointed with the outcome. This configuration essentially neutralizes the online matchmaking and PvP tournament communities due to the complete inability for players to reliably connect to one another. As it stands, the only way to try to connect to a specific other player is to just wait around hope you get migrated to each others’ server. And then you have to try to find them. But there’s no guarantees.
This means that there will probably be plenty of other players who you simply can never have an opportunity to meet or interact with simply because the two of you might never get logged into the same server at the same time. This radically decreases the pool of potential allies or PvP targets. This is all in addition to the fact that Dark Souls went multi-platform, so the Xbox 360 and PS3 servers are separate to begin with, and if I’m on the PS3, I’ll never be able to play with my buddy who’s on the Xbox 360.
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The hoops a PvPer must jump through in order to be a douche and break the game
Server implementation aside, FromSoftware did take major steps to try to better balance the PvP experience. As I mentioned above, the consumable (and farmable) healing grasses have been replaced with a single, limited but rechargeable Estus Flask for healing. While phantom players don’t receive the ½ health penalty that they suffered in Demon’s Souls, they are incapable of using their healing flask. This means the player being invaded is the only one who can reliably heal (assuming he hasn’t spent all his heals in combat with regular enemies). The only other items that can heal the player are the consumable Humanities, but those will leave you vulnerable to attack. So "grass-spam" has been eliminated as a PvP cheese element.
Magic is also considerably less cheesy in general, since you only have a limited number of uses of any given spell; however, there are some very powerful spells that could easily be used to one-hit-kill other players. Some spells can cause significant knockback and are used consistently by some PvP players to knock an opponent off a narrow ledge for a cheap kill, as these spells are almost impossible to avoid if you don’t have the room to run away from them. So magic has some give and take when it comes to PvP.
[LEFT] consumable Cracked Red Eye Orbs allow invasions. But there are only 4 of them available for more than half of the game.
[RIGHT] Red Eye Orb is a re-useable invasion item. But it is only obtainable through a covenant that is only available if you meet certain criteria.
The biggest problem with PvP is that the invasion mechanic has been considerably changed. Instead of being given a single, re-useable invasion item (as in the previous game), you get consumable invasion items. And I think there are only four of those in the entire game! The only way to get the re-useable invasion stone is to join a particular covenant which is only unlocked near the end of the game. This has the effect of reducing the overall number of people who have the ability to invade (especially at low level), and causes the players who want to engage in PvP to have to jump through some hoops to do so.
This ends up being a huge unbalancing factor, as invaders have to go out of their way to enable practical invasions and end up being the most elite players. As such, they tend to have overwhelmingly strong weapons, armor, and magic, since they’ve usually focused their entire character around being an effective PvP character. In addition, they tend to have insurmountably more practical experience at PvP combat. And what’s worse, this is a problem right at the start of the game. You can take a newly-created level 1 or level 6 character with only the base class equipment into the very first level of the game (the Undead Burg), restore your humanity, and immediately be invaded by someone with a leveled-up Lightning Spear, a Dark Hand, and Havel’s Armor. A quick visit to any online forum for the game should give you plenty of stories from people who power through the game at low-level, picking up all the rare and valuable weapons and armor, so they can camp and cheese-kill noobs.
And these people are proud of it. They think they’re doing these low-level players a favor by showing them "tough love", but really, they’re just being douchebags and get a sick kick out of murdering defenseless and unprepared passerbys and stealing these young players’ hard-earned Humanity.
This exacerbates another returning problem from Demon’s Souls’ online: there is still no limit on how often a single player can invade your world. Another player can just camp out in a spot and invade the same player(s) over and over again. This was a major problem in Demon’s Souls, especially when you were in human form trying to summon someone to help you fight a boss. Again, the server segregation may or may not exacerbates this issue. With fewer people on a server, it’s even more likely for an opponent to get stuck having to invade you repeatedly (or vice versa) since there’s simply a smaller pool of potential targets. But if the invader gets shifted to another server, then you won’t have to worry about him for a while. At least Dark Souls doesn’t have a "dark world tendency" that will screw you over even further after you’ve been repeatedly killed by overpowered invaders.
These douchebag PvPers have also managed to completely break the co-op system. It is nearly impossible to be in human form long enough to summon two allies and make it to the boss area without being invaded and killed by someone who you can’t even do damage to. And even having two summoned allies usually won’t be enough to stop an invader from killing you, since they are that strong!
Seriously, I had one instance in which I was playing as a level 10 Wanderer, and was trying to summon an ally or two to help me with the Bell Gargoyles. I got invaded by someone who managed to kill both my previously-summoned allies (who were pretty strong characters), forcing me to run around summoning more phantoms to help me. The invader killed every white phantom that I summoned, going through about five of them over the course of five or ten minutes before finally killing me. So much for balance!
There’s supposed to be a dedicated Black Phantom-hunting covenant, but I don’t think there’s very many people who participate in that. Probably because everybody knows that it’s too hard to create a character that’s strong enough to reliably hunt down and kill a dedicated invader. As such, undermatched invaders have complete free reign over the douchebag-haven that is Dark Souls’ online game world, and they come very close to rendering the game completely unplayable.
For experienced players, the PvP experience in Dark Souls may be considerably more enjoyable than in Demon’s Souls (because it’s so much easier to get easy kills on noobs). For new and inexperienced players, the whole system can be confusing, and opponents can tend to seem irritatingly unstoppable and only serve to leech away your precious Humanity.
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Even messaging was made inconvenient
Leaving messages is much less convenient in Dark Souls. Demon's Souls only required you to press the SELECT button to go straight to leaving a message, but Dark Souls requires you to go into your inventory and use a particular item.
The server segregation and annoying PvP aren't the only problems with online. There’s other, subtle issues too.
One issue is with the message system. You can’t open the message menu with the SELECT button anymore. Instead, you have to go into your inventory and activate an item. This may not seem like much, but it’s actually incredibly inconvenient. Especially when you consider that the SELECT button is now used to activate multiplayer gestures. This is something that used to be mapped to holding down the X button, and it should have stayed there. In fact, holding the X button and then performing a motion with the controller does still activate gestures. So gestures (something that’s practically useless) has been mapped to TWO DIFFERENT CONTROLS, but leaving and rating messages (which is infinitely more useful) requires the player to dig through two menus. I bet this is something they had to do to accommodate Xbox users, since the 360 controller doesn’t have motion-sensing functionality.
They did add a convenient new widget that lets you view all the messages you’ve left, see their ratings (both positive and negative ratings can be given to messages now), and delete your messages.
The slight added inconvenience of going into the inventory to leave and rate messages has manifested itself within the game in the form of fewer people going to the trouble of actually rating messages. The server segregation only exacerbates this issue since there’s fewer people on any given server who are able to see and rate your messages. And since having your messages rated is a source of all-important Humanity, the lack of message ratings is very disheartening.
Also, your messages are not visually distinct from other player’s messages, which is annoying.
So, in a nutshell, Dark Souls' online components are complete garbage, and invasions come damn-near close to completely breaking the game.
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Online In hindsight
"Dark Souls' online components are complete garbage, and invasions come damn-near close to completely breaking the game" was a bit of an overreaction. The online components were problematic (especially at release), but did stabilize over time.
Fortunately, Dark Souls ended up being popular enough that there were plenty of players online, so the platform segregation and division into multiple servers didn't hurt the game nearly as much as I had initially feared. Co-op is still fun and easy to perform, and the inclusion of numerous optional bosses and NPC enemies means that it's more rewarding to do co-op for an entire level rather than just camping at the area boss' fog gate.
Invasions are still unbalanced, since the limitation of invasion items means that only players with characters specialized in PvP ever invade. Every now and then, an evenly-matched invasion will happen. And when that does occur, it is a genuine treat! I really hope that Dark Souls II fixes this issue by making invasions more accessible and providing a worthwhile incentive so that more players (with a wider range of skill levels) will perform invasions, instead of just the elitist gankers.
The biggest problem that I have with Dark Souls is that (as I said at the top of the review) the underlying game engine is virtually unchanged from Demon’s Souls. While this ensured that the compelling sword-and-shield, demon-slaying action of the first game was successfully carried over, it also brought with it significant problems and bugs.
For one thing, the game’s visuals don’t look all that much better. Textures and lighting are improved a bit, and the game runs in 1080p. But character models and environments look pretty much the same as the 3-year-old Demon’s Souls looks. Some areas of the game even use sprite-based decorations for trees, railings, and so forth. At a distance, the game looks pretty, but when you look real close, it’s actually pretty ugly.
FromSoftware did make one very significant improvement to the game’s engine. Certain enemy item-drops will now be automatically given to the player instead of requiring that the player pick the item up off the enemy’s corpse. This doesn’t apply to all enemies, but it applies to bosses, lizards, and certain NPCs. So now, you don’t have to worry about a defeated boss or lizard falling into an abyss and preventing you from picking up their valuable loot. Although, even in Demon's Souls, this wasn't that bad of a problem, since you could usually reload the game to cause the unclaimed loot to reappear at the enemy's spawn point. But this is a welcome little tweak!
There’s also now an on-screen status ailment counter that shows how close you are to becoming poisoned, etc, and gives you an idea of how long the poison will last once you are afflicted.
Unfortunately, the rest of the game engine is plagued with the same-old problems.
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Some problems are mostly superficial
We still can’t make left-handed characters, even though the controls are pretty much symmetrical. Although we do have options for varying a character’s body size and muscle tone. You can equip a shield in the character’s right hand, and a sword in the other, but the shield will only be able to be used as a striking weapon if you do this and the sword will be treated as an off-hand weapon (with a different set of moves). It’s not a big deal, but I can’t imagine that allowing left-handed characters would have been all that difficult to implement. In fact, the controls aren’t even customizable at all.
And while we’re on the topic of character-creation, there are also several of the starting "gift" items that you can chose which have incorrect descriptions. The most noticeable being a ring that claims to provide a passive HP regeneration, but in reality, it’s only a 15% or so boost to total HP. Big difference there!
[TOP LEFT]: ragdoll physic can be completely superficial sometimes. [TOP RIGHT]: sometimes it's pretty funny. [BOTTOM]: but sometimes it really hinders gameplay when it obscures your view or gets in the way.
Once you’re in-game, you’ll find that rag doll bodies are still in full-effect. If it was just a matter of “looking bad”, I wouldn’t mind, but they can get in the way, especially in very tight spaces like the tunnels of The Depths. Some objects in the environment can also get in the way of the camera if you move your character in a position where an obstacle is between the character and the camera. I’ve played plenty of games in the past in which semi-transparency is applied to an object when this happens. Some of those games might even have been as old as the PlayStation 1 era. So it’s not exactly top-secret SkyNet technology.
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Other problems are a major hinderance to combat
The camera can be a big problem in combat in other ways too. When you back up against a wall, the camera has an irritating habit of zooming right in on the character’s back, so that all you can see is your own ass.
Characters do a better job of adjusting their attack angles to compensate for changes in elevation, but they aren’t as consistent as I would like. They don’t always swing up or down based on the altitude of the enemy (even when locked on). This leads to you swinging right over the heads of small enemies or right under the ass of flying enemies, even when they are well within the reach of your weapon. This is particularly troubling with the poison mosquitos in Blighttown.
And speaking of the lock-on, its range is still ridiculously short, and there’s still no warning or indication that you are about to move out of lock-on range. This is a problem because moving out of lock-on range while backing away from an enemy will cause your character to turn in the direction you’re moving (away from the enemy), potentially leaving you open to being hit in the back. The least they could do is make the target reticle change colors at the edge of range or something (at least as long as the roll distance).
Item pick-up messages, invasion warnings, and even the area name display can sometimes get in the way and clutter up your screen during combat. Making it hard to see what's going on.
Clipping and collision are also still a significant problem. Arrows often can’t be shot through small gaps (such as between the railings of a staircase or through holes or windows in a wall). They can also embed themselves in midair. This can make it very frustrating to find a decent sniping position because even though you think you might have a clear shot, you actually don’t. Much like Demon’s Souls, ranged weapons are practically useless!
Melee weapons have clipping issues too. They can sometimes go completely through walls without interference. Some enemies also have enormously oversized hitboxes whose reach seems to exceed the actual physical length of their weapons. One example is some ghosts in an underground area that have a grabbing attack that can often hit the player from well outside the length of their weapons (even after the weapons themselves visibly extend). Oh, this is also usually a one-hit kill, and they can see you and attack you through walls (you know, cuz they’re ghosts). This sort of thing is inexcusable in a modern game. When a game is designed to be brutally challenging, the player needs to rely on being able to take cover behind a wall and being able to take advantage of a seemingly effective sniping position. But neither of these things can be done reliably.
Collision issues aren’t limited to weapons either. Sometimes, you’re character’s feet can get stuck on the ground, making it impossible to move your character until you wiggle him free of whatever invisible object is holding him in place. This can happen when going up and down stairs, when navigating areas that are cluttered (like the cemetery next to Firelink Shrine), or in areas that have oddly-shaped rock walls. Dead enemies can also sometimes fall right through the floor, which sucks if they take a valuable item drop with them.
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The AI has been improved, but actually causes performance issues
In addition to collision and hitbox problems, other issues with the underlying engine have been carried over from Demon’s Souls.
Enemy AI and pathfinding are atrocious. Enemies will still routinely become trapped against walls or barriers or in corners and doorways. Some enemies will even walk right off of ledges and fall to their death when the player moves to certain places in the environment or the player goes up or down a ladder. What’s worse, is that even though this AI doesn’t seem to improve pathfinding at all, it still is so resource-intensive that it causes framerate slowdown in the game, particularly in Blighttown (which is made up of a lot of platforms and ladders) and Darkroot Gardens (which has a lot of trees in the way). So the AI lowers the performance of the game, without actually increasing the performance of the enemies!
I do have to give FromSoftware credit for fixing one of my key AI complaints with Demon’s Souls: they improved the intelligence of archer/sniper enemies. Most archer/sniper enemies now have an auxiliary melee weapon that they will draw when the player closes in to melee distance. Those ranged enemies that don’t have a melee weapon will instead back away from you as you try to approach, and can often lead the player into a horde of other enemies. In Demon’s Souls, as you approach a crossbowman and get within melee range, they would just stand there and let you beat on them because they can’t melee attack with their crossbow. In Dark Souls, similar enemies will now draw a dagger or shortsword when you come near and proceed to pursue you in melee. On top of that, ranged units are also much quicker at reloading and firing, so it’s not quite as easy to get close to them to begin with, especially when they’re in a group. When they are in a group, they’ll also often stagger their shots so that your window of opportunity for approaching is as minimal as possible.
Snipers and mages are no longer defenseless sword-fodder like they were in Demon's Souls (pictured). They will actually draw a sword or dagger to defend themselves if you get to melee range.
Similarly, when you attacked a unit at range in Demon’s Souls, they would just turn and stare at you as if they had no idea what just happened. You could just keep shooting them over and over again, and they would never react appropriately. In Dark Souls, however, most enemies in a similar situation will now raise their shield and try to find you and pursue you if you attack them at range. And enemies in Dark Souls will pursue you considerably longer and more aggressively than they used to in Demon’s Souls. Although, you can still often position yourself somewhere where the enemy can’t get to you. When you do this, they’ll just run against a wall trying to get to you.
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Controls and interface also have performance issues
Sadly, the technical issues that were carried over from Demon’s Souls aren’t the only technical issues in the game. I already mentioned framerate problems associated to enemy pathfinding, but another issue that I noticed early in my time with Dark Souls was that the controls seemed generally laggy and unresponsive. Sometimes, there would be a significant delay between a button input and the actual action happening on-screen. This could be a late attack, or even a late use of the healing flask. Sometimes, the command didn’t seem to happen at all. This can be particularly frustrating when I was on my last leg and was trying to heal before the enemy catches up to me. Sometimes, I would die due to the heal button not responding.
I also had a lot of problems with using the right stick to lock onto different enemies. It was horribly unresponsive, and would often only work if the enemies were grouped together, which is of absolutely no help if the player is surrounded on all sides.
Being hit with an arrow can sometimes cause your character to slide backwards, regardless of the direction from which you are hit. It's particuarly painful on this ledge, where you will fall to your death if you aren't facing away from the wall when you're hit.
Fortunately, these problems seem to have been addressed by the developers, and the first few patches seemed to reduce or mostly eliminate this problem. I still have problems occasionally with buttons not seeming to respond, but I’m willing to admit that it might be user-error on my part.
Other, minor control and interface issues also return from Demon’s Souls, such as the player staggering backwards when hit with an arrow, even if the arrow did not come from directly in front of him; the lack of a "Repair All" command for the weapon and armor repair screen; the lack of a "Use All" command for consumable items like Humanity; and so on.
A few new issues have also been introduced. You now have to go to different screens in order to perform certain weapon or armor upgrades. Weapons and armor are all listed one at a time in your inventory screen. Since you don’t have an item burden, and will likely end up carrying around duplicates of a single piece of equipment, this makes the inventory much more of a burden to navigate through than it needs to be. I can understand if they want to separate the equipment that has different durabilities, but everything with all the same stats and durability should just be grouped together, i.e. "Shortsword 4x". Also, items that are reuseable still show the "1x" next to their picture, so you don’t immediately know if the item is consumable or reuseable. Like, for example, the "Dark Sign": does it disappear after I use it? Or can I use it multiple times? It’s not immediately obvious unless you try it out. And if you try using such an item, the game immediately auto-saves, so you lose it and can’t even reload to before you used it so you can keep it for a more critical situation.
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Does it live up to Demon's Souls' brutal difficulty?
Put simply: yes. Sort of...
Despite some of the mechanics being more forgiving (such as the removal of item encumbrance, easier summoning rules, and the lack of character and world tendency), Dark Souls is just as challenging as Demon’s Souls. And then some.
The "And then some" is kind of a problem though. One of the things that made Demon’s Souls so enjoyable (once you got used to it) was that despite the difficulty, the challenge almost always felt fair. The player and the enemies seemed to be on equal footing in terms of the damage they could do and the punishment they can take. The real challenge came from being outnumbered in most situations, but not obscenely so. The game required a degree of technical precision that you don’t need in run-and-gun shooters like Call of Duty or Uncharted or modern Resident Evil.
Demon’s Souls taught the player how to play through trial-and-error. It taught the player to be patient, deliberate, and thoughtful in everything he did. It reinforced the idea that you simply couldn’t get away with being sloppy. Other games let you run into a room guns-a-blazin, get shot in the face a few times, and duck behind a waist-high box for a few seconds and be all better. You couldn’t do that in Demon’s Souls. If you went in swords-a-blazing, you got dead! And you wouldn’t respawn right around the corner. You’d go all the way back to the beginning of the level with your valuable soul stock (experience/currency) reset to zero.
You had to accept that you were going to die. A lot. But you also soon realized that you didn’t need to rely on trial-and-error to proceed. Once a sense of patience and deliberance are instilled on the player, it was very possible to clear an entire level (or at least enough of the level to unlock the significant shortcuts) without dying - on the first try. I know, because I was eventually able to do it. You just had to take things slow and careful and be constantly aware of your surroundings. As tough as the enemies were, and as debilitating as traps could be, you could always see them coming if you just exercised a little bit of caution.
Critics of Demon's Souls would argue that it was completely reliant on trial-and-error like antiquated games like Ninja Gaiden. But really, it was more like Mega Man in that it taught you to play the game early on through trial-and-error, but that later on, you would have the skills in place to no longer rely on trial-and-error. Similar to Mega Man, the modular, hub structure of the Nexus gave the player the ability to develop at their own pace and returning to a previously-explored environment with better abilities, equipment, and an understanding of the game mechanics that make you feel like your character had improved. You could go through the whole game getting killed by enemies and memorizing where they were and how to kill them, but you could also learn the tendencies of enemies and general game rules and use that to clear a level in a single try.
Is it just me, or does it look like these paintings are actually concept art from the game? If so, placing these as artwork inside the game is a clever and neat way of allowing the player to "unlock" concept art, without having a silly menu full of unlockable bonus content.
It seems that with Dark Souls, FromSoftware saw that people had embraced the brutal – but believable and fair – difficulty of Demon’s Souls, and thought that this gave them a free license to do whatever sadistic things they wanted. Dark Souls, therefore, seems to be considerably more treacherous, but also less fair than its predecessor. There seems to be a much greater proportion of hidden traps, environmental obstacles, one-hit kills, fights along precarious ledges, and combinations of the above. There are just way more situations that are too complicated and require more precision than the game’s controls and mechanics can effectively handle.
So while Dark Souls may be a technically superior game than Demon’s Souls (which is starting to show its age), Dark Souls just doesn’t seem to have the same elegance and thoughtfulness of design. Whereas every feature and mechanic of Demon’s Souls seemed to supplement and enhance each other and work better as a cohesive package, Dark Souls seems almost like a collection of "wouldn’t it be cool if…" ideas that just don’t work together as well as they should.
Dark Souls is a perfectly worthwhile sequel "spiritual successor", but I’m going to say that Demon’s Souls was a much better overall game for the time that it was released. It’s just too bad that the Demon’s Souls servers are probably going to shut down this year. If only From could patch the game to support direct IP/TCP connections or the use of proxy servers so that the community could keep the online component alive - hint, hint, ;) ;)
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Difficulty In hindsight
In the long run, I did feel that Dark Souls is a bit easier than Demon's Souls in the first playthrough. Enemies in general don't seem to be as durable or hit as hard in the late game. This is partly due to the proximity of bonfires and the ability to upgrade armor as well as weapons. Poise also plays a big part, as does the lack of a "world tendency". But late-game enemies in Demon's Souls could generally take a few hits before going down; whereas, in Dark Souls, I was one-hit killing most enemies with my +4 Chaos Greataxe. Since weapon upgrades are finite, and the scaling isn't as dramatic as in Demon's Souls, New Game + and ++ will likely be much harder, since all my weapons and equipment are already maxed out (or very close to being maxed out), so enemies are only going to become tougher, and my character won't get substantially stronger through simple leveling.
I am still annoyed that FROM decided to include as many tightrope and platform sections, as the game's camera and controls are poorly suited to such mechanics, and they lead to a lot of cheap deaths. But even though Dark Souls feels less brutal than Demon's Souls, it still stays very consistently balanced in context of itself. The challenge if fairly consistent, and the difficulty curve seems to be almost perfect with only a few annoying spikes in difficulty (the Capra Demon and those two Black Knight archers on the Anor Londo ramparts, to name a few).
This game does seem to have more features than are necessary, though, and seems to have a lot of excess baggage, and so it lacks some the elegance and simplicity of its predecessor's design. It's still an exceptional game though, and the world design, story, and atmosphere are unparalleled in this console generation (even surpassing Demon's Souls). I have to look all the way back to Portal to find a game that pulled me in as thoroughly as Dark Souls does. If it weren't so inundated with technical missteps, this would be a near-perfect game.