I never thought I’d say this about a video game but if you’re not careful, Dark Souls will take from you your will to live. It’s unforgiving, frustrating, and won’t hesitate to punish you severely for making even the smallest mistake. If you die you can lose a lot of progress, and that’s made worse by many bosses who have the remarkable ability to slay you with a single hit. Of course, some of these twisted mockeries of sanity that Dark Souls calls bosses are terrifying enough to make you want to just jump off the nearest cliff instead of facing them. Still interested in this game? Good, because it’s also one of the most beautiful, unforgettable, and rewarding experiences you’re likely to have in a video game. Let’s talk about why.
First off is the way it looks. I’m sure you could tell by its name that Dark Souls wouldn’t have you frolicking through meadows bathed in golden rays of sunshine and happiness. No, this is a brutal, depraved world that’s had all the hope and much of the life drained from it. You even start off dead, or hollow, and the only way to reclaim your humanity is by stealing it from the undead creatures that now roam this ghoulish world. If you played its predecessor, 2009’s Demon’s Souls, you should be wary of some major changes.
First off, the hub world, called the Nexus in the first game, has been removed entirely. In its place are Bonfires, which can be lit and used as checkpoints, level up your character, refill your Estus flasks (Dark Souls’ answer to medkits or first aid sprays) and later on, upgraded to give you the ability to repair equipment, upgrade your weapons, etc. I never had an issue with the Nexus, mainly since it was the only place in the game where I knew I was safe, but the best thing about the Bonfires is they make the world completely seamless.
This means there are less loading screens and from the very beginning of the game you have a half dozen different paths you can take. Dark Souls isn’t about holding your hand and guiding you through its areas, enemies, and items. It’s up to you to see what you can and can’t do, and where you can go and where you should keep your distance from, based on how quickly the enemies beat you down. If you die in 1 or 2 hits, or barely shave off a sliver of an enemy’s health after a dozen swings, you should take that as a sign that the area you’re in shouldn’t be tackled until later on.
Dark Souls reintroduces many of the best features Demon’s Souls introduced two years ago, and in many cases improves them. The environments are larger and have gameplay twists to them that I won’t spoil here. Let’s just say that for one you better have good balance and another requires a player who isn’t afraid of the dark. To fill these larger, more labyrinthine environments is a slew of more terrifying enemies, sub-bosses, and full-on, massive bosses.
The upgrading materials have also returned and they’re something you’ll need to get familiar with if you’re to survive against the more powerful bosses. The Crystal Geckos that house some of the best materials in the game have also made their sparkly return, only this time around they’re larger and move more slowly making them far easier to slay. As you collect the various materials used for upgrading your arsenal of weapons, you’ll be able to craft unique weapons that look different and have special abilities. If that sounds like a little too much work you can always scour the environments for special equipment.
Unfortunately, some issues from the first game still persist. The camera is still very wonky and can be the cause of many unwanted deaths simply because it refuses to cooperate at times, leaving you vulnerable when you really don’t want to be. The enemy AI is also pretty bad. I often found a way to exploit the AI so a monster would get stuck on an object in the environment, and sometimes, this can also extend to a few of the boss fights.
You might’ve heard that Dark Souls has four-player co-op, and it does, but there’s something you should know about it. To maintain the feeling of loneliness in a game where you can summon other players to assist you, the designers made a conscious decision to limit multiplayer. With that said, multiplayer is still one of the most unique online modes offered by any game. For the unfamiliar, the multiplayer has been integrated into the story so you use items to summon other players from their world into yours to help you out. The flip side to this is other players can join your game and try to impede your progress by killing you.
This means two things for gamers, both of which are likely to hurt how appealing this game is to those of us who enjoy playing the game with our friends. The first is you cannot be in a party while you play online. In fact, if you join a party while you’re playing the game, it’ll actually boot you out of the game, forcing you to the offline mode. The second and far more frustrating limitation is you cannot play with your friends, unless by chance you randomly join their game. So yes, there’s four-player co-op, but if you wanted a difficult game you could fight with your friends in, this is going to disappoint.
The multiplayer offers two other interesting, if not a little too limited features: blood stains and notes. The former can be touched to show you the final moments in another player’s life. Unfortunately it’s a little limited in that you can’t actually see what it is that killed them—unless they fell off a cliff—so they have limited usefulness. The notes are cryptic clues that you can scribble on the ground in your world that can be seen in other players’ worlds. More useful notes will get higher ratings and stay longer, other less useful ones like “Need head” for example, which I came across far too often, will soon vanish.
Dark Souls is a twisted, depraved, unforgiving bundle of death, hopelessness, and despair, and I mean that in the best way possible because if you can overcome the many, many obstacles it will throw at you over the 20+ hours it takes to complete, you will come away with a sense of accomplishment that few other games can match.