Parent Talk: Dark Souls is rated M thanks to blood and gore. The game’s somber mood, dank castles, and disgusting enemies reinforce the rating. Still, a general lack of profanity and sexual content make it suitable for teenagers. A “T” rating might have been applicable.
Plays Like: Demon’s Souls. Western RPGs like Oblivion.
Review Basis: Played 25+ hours. Died countless times.
Prepare to Die.
The tagline says it all. Dark Souls is the spiritual sequel to Demon’s Souls, a 2009 critically-acclaimed PS3 dungeon-crawler game. Demon’s Souls won over critics and gamers because of its no-nonsense approach to the RPG (check out our review here). The insane difficulty, dark environments and mood, challenging enemies, and tense atmosphere made it an instant hit for the PS3. Dark Souls ups the ante for the next round. Even if you’re a seasoned gamer, Dark Souls pulls no punches and will readily chew you up. However, for those dedicated enough to stick it out (and endure countless deaths), From Software’s latest creation offers a rich, rewarding experience.
Difficult dungeons. Dark Souls outdoes what Demon’s Souls first set out to accomplish—immerse you in a tense world. There are many environments, each bringing a different atmosphere and level of tension. Skeletons rise up from graves in a foggy cemetery; rats and slime reside in the murky, dank sewers of the Depths. It’s not all disheveled castles or dreaded catacombs; you face oppressive forests in the Darkroot Garden and eerie Ash Lake. Every location is expertly designed. The visual detail has improved since Demon’s Souls, and subtle weather and visceral sound effects coalesce to make a morbid atmosphere (not counting the ultra-precise, tough-as-nails combat mechanics!). Is an enemy lurking around the corner? Does a giant enemy lie sleeping beyond the next room? Dark Souls is a successful, borderline horror game. Do you have the courage to move forward?
+ Connectivity. Demon’s Souls’ areas were distinct and separate, leading back to a central hub world. Dark Souls alternatively subscribes to the “MetroidVania” design. Every area is connected, but you can only explore new locales by satisfying prerequisites (i.e. defeating a boss and acquiring a key). Yet there are many routes and some are expertly hidden. Nothing impedes exploring the world, not even loading. The seamless connection among the environments is one of the game’s best assets. It makes the game feel like one, living, breathing world and promotes exploration. The world is also significantly larger, increasing the foreboding nature. Just deciding where to go is difficult…and that’s a good thing.
+ Fine-tuned combat. Dark Souls offers visceral, tense combat. Each weapon is weighted, so every swing has a different feeling. Enemies can drop you in a heartbeat though, so never become overconfident. You must to rely on agility, your shield and wits. They key is to choose when to block an incoming attack and prepare to counter or pressure an enemy, parry a strike and deliver a fatal blow when his guard lowers. If you hate hack-n-slash RPGs, this is a vastly different experience. You can’t just grind, be tough and tackle all comers. You need wit and wisdom to survive.
+ Re-balanced difficulty and ideas. Dark Souls is difficult, but From Software recognized some past design choices were just unfair. There’s no Soul Form (extra health loss), and bonfires make exploration much less tedious, replenish your health, and restore healing items (Estus Flasks). They also allow you to return to human form and use collected souls to level up. Finally, you can warp between bonfires, so journeying is less of a chore. From Software realized that adventure and tension can be retained without sacrificing fun.
+ Excellent enemy designs. The standard ghouls and zombies are back for more punishment, but there are more enemies than that to defeat. Hell hounds, goblins, rats, slimes, basilisks, ents/living trees, drakes, demons and more await you. There are several variations of various foes. Bosses are also bigger and badder. Enemies range from oppressively huge to plain nasty. The Gaping Dragon is a terrifying monstrosity bound to surprise many (just wait when it first emerges from the water). Its gigantic mouth practically covers its body, filled to the brim with rows of razor-sharp teeth—it’s an abominable sight.
+ Interesting classes and abilities. Dark Souls doesn’t restrict you to static setups. There’s a variety of pre-set class types to choose from, including the standard Warrior and Knight, and also Pyromancer, Cleric, or Deprived. Each is balanced differently, with distinct statistic allocations.
+ Covenants. Though the game emphasizes conquering dungeons as a lone wolf, there are other characters to interact with. To make online and offline interactions more complex and interesting, From Software implemented a “covenant” system. Each covenant represents a morality alignment: Lawful Good, True Neutral, Chaotic Evil, etc. Joining a covenant provides distinct perks. For example, the Way of White (Lawful Good) is related to Gwyn and his followers, and makes Miracle Resonance easier to perform… even blocking antagonizing covenants from harassing the network (and reduce how many invaders bother you). You can even betray a covenant.
+ Online elements. Dark Souls is single-player, but technically not. Other players influence your world in a number of ways: leaving messages all over (helpful hints about what may lie ahead); being summoned to help you; invading your game to kill you for kicks. To try to prevent this, Dark Souls offers a rather witty solution: The Book of the Guilty. If a player commits such an offense, you can indict him or her in the book (after buying it from Oswald of Carim). Players registered in the Book of the Guilty must face the “Blades of the Darkmoon.” Think about that before going on a killing spree.
+ Excellent, moody music. The soundtrack does not try to hype battle, but instead sets the proper mood and highlights the visual cues that the developers tried hard to integrate. The music is generally haunting and somber, reinforcing tension and unease, or awe and wonder. Sometimes it’s a mix of it all.
+ Improved visuals. Environments are more detailed and varied, with richer depth and wonder. The colors are more distinct too. Most areas are dark and dank, but From Software was definitely more ambitious this time.
-The (lack of) narrative. This isn’t good or bad per se, but it may be a dividing point. It’s clearly emphasized that this is a dark fantasy adventure in an oppressive, haunting world. Dark Souls fosters exploration and a sense of questing, without any strict prodding by lengthy cutscenes or dialog outside of the impressive opening cinematic scene. You’re immersed in the landscape. There are NPCs to help piece together elements of the setting and world, but there’s no definite narrative to push you ahead. If you prefer to have a heavy story, Dark Souls may not be for you.
– Insane difficulty. If you’re not down with repeating sections over and over, backtracking to recover your battered corpse, and staring down ridiculously huge bosses half a dozen times sounds boring to you, then Dark Souls isn’t for you.
– Little in-game help. Dark Souls doesn’t hold your hand, which isn’t always good. Some aspects aren’t explained well by the game, requiring you to read an online walkthrough. Granted, players are encouraged to help each other and exchange tips for enemy strategies, but it would’ve been nice for instance to learn how to use Miracles.
– Odd technical issues. Sword swings occasionally clip through walls, other times they appropriately meet with a loud clang. This usually works in favor of the enemy. Monsters have little trouble attacking in confined space, sometimes clipping through the walls, while you don’t have the same luxury.
Dark Souls is a highly technical, immersive, dark fantasy epic. It’s an adventure to be remembered. The danger is great and the price is high, but those willing to brace themselves for the troubles will be rewarded with an excellent quest.