Dark Souls: The Kotaku Review

There's a moment early in Demon's Souls, immediately following the game's first major battle, in which the player must sprint from one end of a castle bridge to another. The looming Red Dragon of Boletarian Palace repeatedly strafes that cobblestone walkway with a fiery blast of breath, an attack that will easily decimate a young, inexperienced player.

Sprinting your way past the Red Dragon simply requires a basic sense of timing combined with the faith that you'll outrun the flames. There were times during my multiple interactions with that dragon when I could almost feel the flames licking at my warrior's heels, inches away from destruction.

There's an equivalent moment in Dark Souls—again after besting one of the first major demons players encounter. This time, however, they're asked to run into the flames, toward pain and suffering, not away from it. It's almost a guarantee that, this time, they'll be burned alive at the hands of Dark Souls' version of the red dragon, a demon named Hellkite, losing whatever souls they've amassed making it this far.

Consider Dark Souls somewhat kind then for letting you know what kind of game it is early: substantially more difficult and demanding than its inspiration, asking the player to risk even more for even greater rewards.

Dark Souls players (at least the ones who haven't read my advice for beginners) may learn of this game's increased difficulty earlier than that run-in with Hellkite. Near the game's opening area, a bonfire at which the kingdom of Lordran's still-human refugees gather, they'll face incredibly powerful enemies with the power to kill them instantly.

With little guidance from the game's creators, players may find themselves exploring the depths of the Catacombs or the New Londo Ruins where they'll face powerful skeletons and specters that can't be touched with normal weapons. It's an early education on the dangers of this largely unguided open world.

Later, they may curse and spit the name of developer From Software, who ask players to sometimes fight and adventure blindly, traversing precarious and invisible walkways, where death looms below, and fighting monsters they cannot see amidst a total blackness. There were moments when I cursed Dark Souls' creators, also asking out loud "Are they serious? Are they actually expecting me to do [some seemingly impossible feat] ?"

The answer is always yes. They are.

***

Dark Souls is a sequel to Demon's Souls in all but name. Both games share nearly identical combat mechanics. Players must fight enemies patiently with sword and shield and magic and ingenuity. To rush into battle blindly with a sense of haste will almost certainly mean a quick death. Approach each fight carefully, Dark Souls asks, dodging, blocking, parrying, and countering before moving onto the next.

Defeat comes frequently, with each death and rebirth a new opportunity to learn the intricacies of hand-to-hand combat. That's what the vast majority of Dark Souls is—learning, improving, overcoming. For every 10 disappointing failures, there will be an exhilarating success—and perhaps a new discovery.

Players can find and upgrade rare items—weapons, armour, shields, magic staves and artifacts. Dark Souls' arsenal and lore has expanded well beyond that of its forebear, offering a dizzying array of combinations and variations.

Dark Souls deviates from its predecessor's formulae in new and fascinating ways. Gone are the more straightforward rules of World Tendency and Character Tendency from Demon's Souls (which altered the alignment of world and player character largely based on killing demons, black phantoms or innocent NPCs). Those systems are reconsidered, if not wholly replaced, in Dark Souls with the concepts of Covenants and Humanity. These are more esoteric mechanics that govern how the player interacts with the game world and online players, rules not clearly explained by the developers in-game or in Dark Souls meager manual.

I touched on Humanity briefly in my beginners guide to Dark Souls, but like much of the opaque rules that influence how one experiences the game, it almost feels spoiler-esque to discuss it in detail. In short, Humanity is a consumable that modifies a player's status, reversing ones undead form to human and granting the power to interact with other players online in competitive and cooperative combat. Humanity also stokes the flames of bonfires, which act as checkpoints of a sort. It has other functions that are best left undiscovered in video game reviews.

Covenants are far more engrossing, more mysterious. Not quite clans, players can pledge allegiance to a Covenant giver and reap certain benefits. A Covenant run by a talking cat, for example, will grant a player safe passage through a patch of dangerous forest. The catch, however, is that the cat running that Covenant may summon the player to take part in a dangerous quest.

Some Covenants demand sacrifices, like "The Path of the Dragon," which rewards its faithful for offering collectible Dragon Scales to its god. Those scales can be acquired from enemies or, preferably, stolen from the dead corpses of other Dark Souls players who are online and in possession of a Dragon Scale.

***

Being a Dragon Scale hunter is just one of the many changes to the (much lauded) online multiplayer mode introduced in Demon's Souls. Like that game, Dark Souls lets players invade each other's worlds—if they're in human form, that is—either to hurt them or help them. Players can play with others cooperatively, aiding them in difficult boss fights, or competitively, sending them to the world of an anonymous victim they aim to kill and rob of souls and Humanity.

But the thrill of invading another player's world is not just limited to stealing a stranger's life and riches. Covenants play a substantial role in who you'll play with and against in Dark Souls and what rewards you'll receive for slaying another player.

Returning from Demon's Souls are the hazy ghostlike forms of other players who are also playing Dark Souls but with whom you cannot interact. Players can scrawl pre-programmed messages, either helpful warnings or harmful disinformation (or just playful distractions), on the ground.

Those who play Dark Souls offline will have some small measure of help, though, from the phantoms of other characters. Players can enlist the help of NPC phantoms before many boss fights, making the toughest of Dark Souls battles much, much easier.

For those that do play online, however, don't expect to meet up with friends and embark on a demon-slaying adventure. From Software, for better or worse, has made it just shy of impossible to get a group of allies together from your friends list. Do not expect to play this game cooperatively with anyone you know. And based on my experience in the hundred hours I've played Dark Souls (the PlayStation 3 version), expect some amount of difficulty in reliably summoning any players online. I've had too many failed summons and dropped connections to count.

***

For all its innovation and brilliance, Dark Souls has its share of technical problems. The game's camera is just as finicky as Demon's Souls, requiring constant babysitting and thumb dexterity to survive its many narrow bridges and cliffside stairways. Targeting enemies is similarly twitchy. And the game's frame rate can dip into the single digits during some moments, particularly in the Valley of Defilement-like city of Blighttown. The aforementioned network issues can be frustrating, but based on the dozen or so times I've been invaded successfully, not every Dark Souls player is having problems with the game's online mode.

***

Artistically, however, Dark Souls is absolutely stunning. While Demon's Souls may have been dark and dingy throughout, mostly variations on medieval castle themes and underground mines, Dark Souls explores more beautiful territory. There's a lush forest filled with towering Crystal Golems and a slithering Hydra. A lava-filled area threatens to blind the player with its white hot magma, while impressing with its crumbling ancient architecture. Your first views of the expansive Anor Londo, a sun drenched marble city, will likely take your breath away—or just scare the shit out of you with its vastness and silence.

I hope you can appreciate it, this wonderful game, even as it consistently abuses you throughout. There are moments when it seems Dark Souls' developers just go too far, when its unforgiving world seems too cruelly designed for one to actually survive it. But there are also engrossing discoveries along the way. There are mysteries buried under layers which are buried under layers, encounters and treasures and moments that will be worth the pain and suffering.

Welcome to Dark Souls, Here's What I Wish I'd Known From the Start

I've played some 80 hours worth of Dark Souls on the PlayStation 3, but I still haven't come to the end of this wonderfully bleak, beautiful and brutal game. More »

Dark Souls: My First 24 Hours in Hell

I'm now 24 hours into Dark Souls, the successor to 2009's brilliant and challenging role-playing game Demon's Souls. I have, of course, died many times in my struggle to become un-undead. More »

How's Dark Souls Looking on Xbox 360?

I've spent a good 40 hours or so with Demon's Souls spiritual sequel Dark Souls over the two weeks, almost all of it on the PlayStation 3. It's been hard to tear myself away from the game as I slowly inch toward progress and gains in power.

But I did manage to rip myself away from my main character... More »


Comments

    About 10 hours in and absolutely loving it. Of course I also loved Demon's Souls - if you didn't like that one then Dark Souls definitely isn't for you. But right now this is probably on track to be my GOTY (so far) - knocking off Portal 2. The only thing left this year likely to have a chance of beating it is probably Uncharted 3, and that will have to be pretty damn good to have a chance.

    I like the game. But the ROI (the investment being time) just isn't there. I'll persist in the hope I actually amass (and get to spend) more souls, but the tutorial abjectly failed to prepare me for the pain I've encountered so far.

    (MINOR SPOILER)

    Just beat the Taurus Demon only to burned a crisp seconds later and lose all the souls I attained from the previous boss fight... 2000 souls and - more importantly - an hour lost to a cheap attack to which I had no prior warning! Frustration to the MAX.

    (END SPOILER)

      Best thing to do there would have been to go back to the last campfire as soon as you beat the Taurus demon and level up to get those souls spent ASAP. THEN you could go back and push past where the Taurus demon was without having too much at risk while exploring a new area.

      BTW, did anybody actually get anything for killing the Taurus demon? I read/heard somewhere that you're supposed to get some demon's axe or hammer or something, but he didn't drop anything when I killed him :( All I got was the souls.

        Just souls for me too.
        Also, if I'm reading the other post correctly, it wouldn't have really mattered about the boss, as long as it died. Generally when a boss dies or something changes in Dark/Demon's Souls it stays so for good - even if you die 30 seconds afterwards.

      This was my experience of Demon's souls. It is now pleasantly languishing in my pile of shame.

      I read all the reviews of the game, from the wearily frustrated to the excuberantly pumped, and after spending about 15 hours in the game, I just couldnt bear loading it up again only to get frustrated and left feeling like a butt of a cheap joke.

        I concur. I killed a half dozen or so of the boss demons but I never felt like it was an especially skillful game for all the difficulty. I lost a lot of lives to cheap deaths that couldn't be seen coming, areas where you just had to memorize where stuff was, and to glitchy fights and dodgy camera angles. I ended up going to YouTube for videos of a couple of boss fights, discovered that exploiting lousy pathing AI seemed to be rampant, and said screw it.

        The Taurus demon has a chance at dropping 'Demon's Greatax' Needs 36 strength to use and it does ~120 damage, it might have something else but I can't wield is so I couldn't tell you. (It might be nothing, but I didn't die to the Taurus demon any times on the character that it dropped for, might be nothing, but I thought it was a funny coincidence.)

          Uhh, this was a reply to Ynefel, must've clicked the wrong Reply ><

      Yep, same thing here. I actually knew it was coming, and knew how to get past it, however the first 10 or so times of trying to run to the middle of the bridge I got toasted instantly - queue impatiently reclearing the trash to get back and try again. When I finally got to the middle (dragon didn't even look like breathing fire), got the bonfire and quit.

      Hard? Yes. Laced with copious amounts of tedium? Yes.

    This game is killing me, but I can't get enough out of it!

    Just ordered this game from ozgameshop. Thought I had pre-ordered it so no wonder it didn't arrive yet; bahaha.

    I'm gonna be slamming those guides! Bahahaha - I FEEL NO SHAME TO ADMIT IT EITHER.

    I loved Demon's Souls. It is my favourite game of this gen, possibly only ranked lower than Half-Life 1 on my favourites list.

    Dark Souls is annoying the shit out of me. It's really, really hard. I didn't have a major problem with any part of Demon's Souls, but so far Dark Souls is just plain hard. I've killed the boss on the bridge and gotten a bit further ahead but that's it so far, it's driving me insane.

    Awesome fun though. But really, really hard.

    Wait... wait... I _get_ this game now.

    It's the modern version of NetHack.

    My gold trophy for finishing Demon's Souls is probably the proudest on my entire list. I aim to do it again here, but my God, they're making me work for it - exactly what I was hoping for.

    I want to play it... but I also want to finish it. Which isn't going to happen if it's anywhere near as difficult as advertised.

    Great, now I'm thinking about buying this game.

    Thanks Kotaku. Thanks a lot.

    The one thing I wasn't expecting this time round was the time needed before the game 'clicked' with me, I figured with the similarity to its predecessor it'd only take an hour or two to get back into the swing of things. Ironically it probably took longer than Demons Souls, wasn't until about the 11 hour mark I broke through that wall and relapsed into that same addiction... dear god send help, can't stop playing, can't stop dying.

    I've only recently picked up a PS3, but have always been intrigued by Demon's Souls. Any opinions on whether it's worth playing through Demon's Souls first? Or should I just jump straight into Dark Souls?

      I would like to know the answer to this, too.

      Dark Souls is more like the spiritual successor to Demons Souls. Story, lore and mythos are not similar, but gameplay is. However I would recommend playing Demons Souls first just to get a feel for the game and enjoy the original which spawned a cult following for the series. Also Dark Souls is 10x harder than Demons Souls so definitely something you should be playing with a lot of patience.

        +1.

        Demon's Souls can be extremely hard, but it'll get you ready for Dark Souls, which is harder again. The biggest change in Dark Souls is the enemies - they've been ramped up significantly. They're smarter, faster and more aggressive.

        At least if you play Demon's Souls through, you'll have some degree of preparation. Also, if you can't handle Demon's Souls, don't even think about Dark Souls. ;)

      They're very similar, so I'd suggest going for Demon's Souls first for the very simple reason that it's much cheaper than Dark Souls these days, so if you decide it's not for you then at least it didn't cost you so much. And by the time you finish it, Dark Souls will be going cheap, too :)

      Bear in mind, though, that the servers for Demon's Souls will most likely shut down well before Dark Souls. When that'll be I don't know... I think Atlus have guaranteed the US version until the end of this year, I'm not sure where the PAL version is at - probably a fair bit later since it came out here much later, so that might be the version to go for.

      You can still play it offline once the servers are gone, but the experience wouldn't be as good as it is with the connectivity.

    I actually don't find the difficulty as high as advertised, but as others have mentioned the frustration of losing everything due to the huge spacing between bonfires makes gameplay itself seem harder than it actually is.

      +1

      This is me, right here. The camera, and the lack of general information is what frustrates me more, having not played the predecessor.

    Thank you Kotaku - I was tossing up whether I wanted to buy this game or not, and you've answered my question.

    There is no way I'm going to pay money for abuse from an entertainment product. I game to relieve stress, not cause it.

    Some tips for newer players:

    1. Drake sword helps beginning players, get it by shooting off the red dragons tail. Ditch it after the bell gargoyles and start upgrading a basic weapon. Lightning and fire baby.

    2. To be invaded, you must be human, the same as the invader.

    3. Pump as much stats into vitality and endurance. They are more important than any other stat.

    4. The undead merchant in the undead burg holds a nice katana. Buy what you need off him and then murder him for the item. There will be much more and better merchants later.

    5. Pyro spells do not scale with INT like other magic spells. You have to upgrade the pyro glove to do more fire damage.

    6. Block and attack. Do this to all enemies that you can. In lower levels, attacking enemies while they are in the animation of swinging will cause you harm.

    7. Don't think that classes mean anything. A knight can easily become a mage and vice versa. Beginning classes are only for starting stats and equipment. You can level you character any way you want.

    8. There isn't a specific level for any enemy or boss. This game relies on skill more than anything else. Going up in levels will make it easier, but only in that your chances of survival are higher.

    9. You can wield any weapon at any time, though the attacks will be less effective. Two handing a weapon allows half the STR stats needed to use it.

    10. Every boss has a weakness. That weakness is its arse. Lock on and strafe, roll when you have to and always keep your shield up. When it attacks and you are safe, that is your chance to strike, but only enough to be safe.

    11. Dropping items and leaving them there will allow a special enemy to spawn in some random persons game at that spot. They are called vagrants, the longer they are left unkilled, the stronger they become.

    I'm sure there is much more tips for a starter, so people, help me out.

    I'm finding Dark souls A LOT easier than Demon's

    I think I like this game simply because I won't finish it in an evening, or over a weekend. Like a fine carving I'll whittle away at it over an extended period of time. Yes, it's a tough game, with some cheap kills, but that's what I like about it. I'm tired of games that give you a spammable 'kill-everything button'...
    When I downed the Taurus demon, I felt a real sense of accomplishment and pride, something i've not felt from a video game in a long time(FF7 I believe).
    When I reached the dragon, he swooped in and yeah, I took some damage but in this game, patience is it's own reward. Take your time exploring and ALWAYS keep your shield up. This isn't some mindless hack'n'slash, it's an immersive and ultimately rewarding experience. For those with the patience and willpower to succeed where others have failed...

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