Sunday, August 9, 2015

Game Review - Dark Souls (Xbox 360, 2011)

Dark Souls has the reputation of being soul-crushingly hard and deservedly so.  It is, however, one of the best games I have ever played.

An action RPG that punishes you for every mistake, it's brutal, but it's not impossible, even if it occasionally gets unreasonably frustrating (more on that a bit later).

Combat of Champions
At its core, Dark Souls boasts a surprisingly complex combat system, which is more reminiscent of quality hack and slash games than other RPGs.  It revolves around about a dozen broad weapon categories, each coming with a distinct move set, encompassing everything from the quick jabs of a dagger to the slow, crushing strikes of a greatsword that is as long as you are tall.

The real beauty of this system is that all of these weapon types are equally powerful, assuming you are sufficiently comfortable with their corresponding move sets.  Your choice of weapon is therefore almost always an issue of your preferred playstyle rather than a comparison of different weapons' stats.  Of course, occasionally stats will matter, especially when looking for specific elemental upgrades or the like, but for the most part, the weapon system allows a great deal of customization.

Once you've settled on a move set, you'll have to practice it to perfection.  Enemies hit really hard, so there's very little margin for error.  In a sense, just about every monster you encounter is a mini boss because they will murder you if you underestimate them.  To really stand apart, the bosses are epic.  They're huge fights with big demons and the like, and every one feels like the hardest thing you've ever done.

Fortunately, the game gives you some powerful tools to reward you for skillful mastery of the mechanics.

Here's an example of one aspect of combat: your defensive moves consist of dodging, blocking, and parrying.  Each has various strengths and weaknesses; blocking, for example, blunts a lot of the damage of an attack, but depletes your stamina, forcing you to wait a bit before executing an attack yourself.

While it's certainly possible in theory to make it through the entire game using only one of these defensive techniques, it would be damn hard.  Each is incredibly valuable in at least some situations, so mastery of the three, plus fluidly switching between them as needed, is almost necessary to progress.

There are some other subtle features that make combat a deep and satisfying experience (there are several brands of magic to explore, for example).  While I'd love to discuss my favorite aspects of all those details, it's not appropriate here.  Let's just leave it by saying that Dark Souls may have the most challenging and satisfying combat of any game I've ever played.  Seriously.

Role-Playing at its Finest
So the combat mechanics are great, what about everything else?

Dark Souls also does the role-playing thing incredibly well.  The basics are familiar: a variety of statistics govern your character by determining total HP and strength of attacks and all that jazz.

As you kill enemies, you'll automatically absorb their souls.  These souls can then be spent to increase your attributes, though only at the relative safety of a bonfire.  Seems pretty straightforward.

This system is complicated by two incredible factors:

First, resting at a bonfire revives (nearly) every enemy you've defeated.  All the random mobs you had to dispatch to make it to the bonfire are back, and any progress you made to your next objective is reset.  You can't inch your way to victory in Dark Souls, making the danger of every zone all the more devastating.

Second, any time you die, you drop all the souls you've accumulated.  You can recover those souls if you can reach the point where you bit it, but all the enemies are back, so it's just as perilous as the first time.  If you die again, you drop your souls as before, overwriting the previous recovery point - you just lost those souls for good.

Put all of it together, and you start to experience the sheer terror that your character must feel - with imminent death lurking in every new area, you're in a constant state of heightened awareness.  Every sound makes you jump; every corner makes you paranoid.  It's fantastically immersive.

There's also some complexity in terms of the way that your attributes influence gameplay.  There are obvious things, like your resistance stat increasing your character's resistance to poison, but the effectiveness of weapons and spells scale differently with different attributes.  This effect is amplified when you consider different weapon upgrades and enhancements, some of which alter the weapon's scaling.

None of this is explicitly explained, which is kind of cool.  You're left to your own devices to figure out how things work (much like your character would be, given his or her circumstances).

I hope by this point you're seeing how beautifully complex the gameplay is.  Not only are the enemies punishing, but you also have to learn a lot of details about the mechanics to do well.  It's an exciting game to explore.

That said, the gameplay certainly isn't flawless.  There are a couple sections of the game that are simply terrible because they rely on pseudo-platforming.  While the game is generally frustrating, these areas where you might frequently and accidentally roll off cliffs are miserable.  Thankfully it really only happens twice over the course of the game, but they are pretty bad.  The overall quality of the rest of the game more than makes up for those bits, though.

Honestly, I think I could end the review at this point.  It is an incredibly deep and satisfying RPG and is worth playing on those merits, even without mentioning the story or the world.

But it nails that, too.

An Intricate World to Explore
Dark Souls presents a story unlike any other game I've played.  You have to work for every bit of the lore because very little of it is fed to you.

The game starts with a cryptic cinematic describing old gods and their war against dragons.  When you take control, your character is nearly naked and decaying in a cell.  Someone throws you a key and you make your way into the tutorial area.

(As a side note, Dark Souls does something else I've never seen before - you will almost certainly die in the tutorial area, perhaps repeatedly.  It doesn't pull punches at any point, including at the very beginning when it's telling you how to move the camera. I think that's pretty sweet.)

You'll eventually find yourself in a vast world full of interconnected zones.  Your only hint at what to do is an NPC sitting nearby, and he doesn't give you much to go on.  What's more, it's an open world, but there aren't any obstacles to prevent you from going the "wrong" way (aside from foes that will absolutely crush you if you're not prepared).  You learn what to do and where you can survive through exploration and failure, again adding to the immersion.

If you want to know why all this is happening, you'll have to piece together fragments of story obtained by reading item descriptions and talking to NPCs repeatedly.  Even then, it's all very subtle, but at the same time it's fascinating.  There's detailed lore if you're willing to look for it, but it's never forced on you if you'd rather focus on the gameplay.

Even if you opt to excuse yourself from the lore, you're still in for a treat.  While the graphics aren't the best around, the world is surprisingly detailed.  Each area has a unique vibe, and it's genuinely fun to look at all the scenery and doodads scattered around.  Hell, the different zones are detailed enough that they tell stories themselves.  Dark Souls is a beautiful game, even if the graphics are dated from a technical perspective.

Though to be fair, the sound quality plays a big part.  The music is fantastic - haunting at some times, intense at others; every tune contributes to the overall experience quite nicely.  And the voice acting is similarly superb.  Every character you'll meet sounds just a little unsettling in unique ways, but it fits with the context so well that I feel it has to be intentional.

And overall there's a lot of content to explore.  My first playthrough took about 50 hours.  From there, I was genuinely excited to tackle a the "New Game+" mode, which added another 20-25 hours because unlike most games, it further ratchets up the difficulty.  Many bosses were significant challenges even with my high level and powerful gear.  Of course, you could also approach the game from scratch using a different playstyle, like focusing on magic instead of melee, so the game has oodles of replay value.

To sum up: Dark Souls is a satisfying game set in an amazing world.  It's very hard, but if you stick with it, you'll find one of the most amazing gaming experiences of all time.

My Rating: 10/10 - epic.

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