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Dark Souls
Score: 82%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: NAMCO BANDAI Games America
Developer: From Software
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ RPG

Graphics & Sound:
Few games leave me as torn as Dark Souls. The game is incredibly hard - almost to the point where it is soul crushing. At the same time, there's a fun sense of achievement weaving throughout the entire game. Every death is a painful chance to learn something new about the game's mechanics. But, this sense of achievement is fleeting at best, often times leaving me wondering if its worth the countless deaths and frustration.

Dark Souls is an amazing looking game. While it does leave something to be desired on a technical level, the world is richly detailed and something you want to explore. Levels are massive and convey a sense of scope usually reserved for games like Oblivion. It's not the "if you see it, you can visit it," type of scope, but there's always something new to find during your repeated runs through the same section of a particular level.

As you build up your character's arsenal, the fruits of your exploits show up on your character. Every bit of armor and every weapon you collect shows up on your character, creating one of the game's few outward signs of progress. You'll see the same pieces of level and enemy formations multiple times, causing you to sigh in discontent, yet a new shield or sword is usually of some comfort.

As good as Dark Souls looks, it grapples with a number of technical issues. The game framerate routinely drops into the sub-double digit range, sometimes coming to a dead stop. I can handle slowdown, but when everything stops, it is a problem. At times, the dead stops are sometimes enough to lead to your character's dead stop, creating the sense that everything about the game is against you.

Collision detection is also a problem at times. Shields usually do their part flawlessly; ensuring combat doesn't fall on its face. Yet, arrows and swords will sometimes pass right through solid objects. It doesn't happen enough to break the game, though it did lead to a death or two.


Gameplay:
Dark Souls earns the unique distinction of being an RPG where story doesn't just take a back seat, it is dragging from the back fender by a leash. There are a few attempts to build the backstory via a lengthy intro cinematic, though all your really need to know is you're undead. In the world of Dark Souls, Lordran, you're either human or hollow. The latter of the two are branded with a sign and sent to live out their days in a far away asylum. You begin the game in your cell only to be let out by a mysterious savior.

Once free, you're saddled with the task of traveling Lordran and re-igniting the mystical flame keeping the darkness at bay. Your quest involves traveling through labyrinthine levels and fighting numerous enemies intent on killing you. It should go without saying that your quest is not an easy one. Dark Souls is a merciless challenge. There's very little handholding; it's just you, your gear and your wits. Levels are huge and built around exploration. Part of the challenging is finding the "right" way through an area, forcing you to experiment and discover things for yourself.

I'm a big fan of this sort of exploration-style gameplay, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed Dark Souls. You're never forced down an arbitrary path. Instead, you're shown 2 - 3 paths that eventually grow into a web of crisscrossing paths. Seeing the numerous paths is one of the game's best aspects, particularly when your exploration leads to an enemy ambush or another undiscovered treasure.

At the same time, the scale of levels eventually leads to a lot of exasperating backtracking. Bonfires, a little slice of safe haven, are scattered throughout each area. These are the only places you can level up your character and serve as checkpoints. Bonfire placement isn't the best. It is possible to travel long distances and never see a Bonfire, meaning you'll have a long trek ahead if you fall to an enemy. On the plus side, thorough exploration can yield a few shortcuts, cutting down on travel time, but you'll still need to fight your way through throngs of enemies.

The constant play-replay through areas is one of my main issues with Dark Souls. As much as I enjoy the challenge, part of me wishes there was some sort of indicator I was actually making progress, such as a reduction of enemies in a "cleared" area. It doesn't need to be a huge shift, but just something to create the feeling that some progress is being made. At the very least, a few more Bonfires would mean a lot.

Similar to Demon's Souls, Dark Souls includes a minor bit of multiplayer. Though you can't co-op through areas with a friend, you can call phantoms into battle to help you take down bosses. Other players can also enter your world as shadowy assassins and cause additional problems in their world. But, others can enter your world as well.

You'll also come across glowing messages etched into parts of the world, offering advice on how to tackle certain enemies - usually bosses - or warning you of ambushes. Once you purchase an item, you can leave your own messages. You'll also notice phantoms of other players in areas, adding an additional bit of warning of upcoming dangers.


Difficulty:
Here we have the crux of the entire experience - difficulty. If you haven't picked up on the message by now, understand Dark Souls is an incredibly hard experience reserved for only the most elite of players. As arrogant as that last statement may seem, Dark Souls isn't something for everyone. The game is built to push your limits, punishing you to constantly rethink situations. Every battle, even those involving low-level undead, has the potential to knock you out of commission. You can't approach a battle with wild swings; you need to be on guard and attack when you have openings.

Enemy A.I. is incredibly aggressive, sometimes to a fault. They'll often charge at you, ignoring everything in between. Sometimes this works to your advantage, giving you a clear chance to prep an attack. Other times, it means a few cheap licks from behind while you're dealing with a nearby threat. Enemies will also chase you through the level, taking away the sometimes incredibly smart tactic of running away. There's a stopping point, but it's a wide berth.


Game Mechanics:
The constant, high-level of challenge is enough for some players to hold it up as a gold standard for "How games used to be." Though Dark Souls hits a lot of the high points currently missing in a majority of games, it is far from perfect mechanically.

Much of Dark Souls is built around players figuring out how things work for themselves, leading to a lot of trial-and-error gameplay and confusion. When you start, you're offered a choice of character classes. These starting classes mainly act as a jumping off point since, once you enter the game, you can build your character however you want.

This is cool in concept, yet many of the game's underlying mechanics are incredibly vague. Short explanations are offered in-game, though you're mostly left on your own. Without a lot of support from the Internet or a strategy guide, it is unlikely you'll manage to figure out how some stats impact your character. With some classes, you can piece together important stats, but with others - like magic wielders - you'll have a hard time figuring out what does what.

Much of Dark Souls is built around gathering and spending souls. You'll gain souls every time you kill an enemy or by using certain soul-granting items. These allow you to improve your character's stats, as well as purchase new equipment or buy in-game tips from NPCs. They mean everything, adding more pressure to your already punishing quest. There's no way to "bank" souls; instead you're always carrying them. If you die in battle, you can reclaim your lost load, though only if you can work your way back to where you fell. If you die along the way, any souls in your original pile are lost.

It's a hellish death penalty, but I actually enjoyed it. My only issue with it is the aforementioned lack of Bonfires. Combat creates a few problems as well. Wielding weapons is a fluid experience, though I'm still not happy with the button layout. Strikes and blocks are mapped to the shoulder buttons. You'll eventually learn to deftly jump from one button to another, though I also ended up hitting the wrong button, instinctively choosing to hit a face button to hit.

Cycling through inventory slots also adds a few problems. Flipping through slots is a one-way trip, so if you accidently pass up something, you have to hit it on the second time through.

I enjoyed Dark Souls, though I'm not sure if it's a game I'll ever finish. As many times as I want to jump into the game, I always leave with the need to do something to calm my nerves - which isn't my idea of a fun time. Though it accomplishes what it sets out to do, it sometimes confuses "challenge" with "cheap." Though the actual line between those two concepts is up for argument, just know death isn't always due to a lack of skill.

Dark Souls is a good game, but only if you're the type of player willing to take on a big challenge and possess a high threshold for frustration.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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