Dark Souls rolling review

Posted: October 9, 2011 by ryanlecocq in Reviews

You think that barrel’s going to explode?  Yeah right.

So quick refresher, a rolling review is where I describe my experience as I go along so the rating isn’t just a final reaction to the end of the game.  I’m doing one for Dark Souls because it’s so freaking long.  Big downside of being an independent journalist is not getting paid to play the games all day and having to earn the money for them somewhere else.  Anyway, the point is Dark Souls is a very dense and lengthy game that will easily keep you busy for weeks to months.  I’ll start right off the bat by saying that Dark Souls is not noticeably harder than Demon’s Souls.  The beginning is harder because some mechanics like healing have been limited and the soul curve is steeper so farming for souls doesn’t work well.  Overall though it’s very similar to Demon’s Souls in challenge.  A lot of people have complained to me about curse, but honestly that has not been nearly my biggest hurdle.  I just stocked uncurse items and dodged every single cloud from the “what the hell is that?” creatures in the sewer.

That’s sort of Dark Souls in a nutshell.  If you are logical and well prepared, you will usually triumph.  If you go in half-cocked and sprinting, you’re gonna get punked.  My three tips to Souls virgins?  Keep your shield up, never hesitate and roll.  There are many other bits you will add to your Dark Souls mantra, but start by repeating these in your head and you’ll be on the right track.  Like some sort of really unconventional I.Q. test, Dark Souls is about testing your ability to memorize and manage data in addition to your problem solving skills and reflexes.  You do that by learning every single inch of a huge game area, filled to the brim with monsters.  Learning the attacks of the enemies and how to defeat the bosses is the primary challenge of this game and believe me, it’s a challenge.  In Demon’s Souls enemies usually fell into several attack type categories and followed a pattern of attacks over and over.  They also didn’t follow you very far.  Dark Souls’ enemies will hunt you down for quite a while and often vary up their attacks and even heal themselves.  Overall I would liken it to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the game has a very similar structure with it’s addition of checkpoint bonfires instead of self-contained levels.

I decided to be the Knight and build towards a paladin with some handy miracles.  Initially I had some troubles with being slow and rolling like a refrigerator, but I refused to just equip lighter armor because I felt this was how the class was meant to be played.  After a while I got good at parrying since I could take a few hits to practice the timing with each new weapon and enemy.  The first few areas had me fighting zombies of every shape, size and species.  My progress was fairly linear, because my character doesn’t have offensive magic, but a different character could have taken a totally different starting track.  There are actually several paths you can take through the game and not every area is required to reach the final boss.  I’m hoping to get past that problem later in the game though as I want to explore every area in a single playthrough.

If I were to name the hardest thing in this game so far, I would actually have to say terrain.  All of the status effects are a bitch, but they can be overcome by stocking the right items and loading them to your palette.  Accidentally rolling the wrong way and falling to your death is an end that even the best players will come to many times.  The terrain in Dark Souls is just so much more… decrepit than in Demon’s.  Every single bridge is extremely narrow and crumbled.  Every tree is leaning right in the way.  You often have to fight enemies with the widest attacks on the narrowest ledges, over a bottomless drop.  I don’t want to say that From Software crossed from cruel to unfair, but at times I wish that just one stairway in this game was built to code.

The graphics are generally very detailed.  The design of the areas is immaculate, but sometimes background features (like trees and mountains outside the play area) look pretty shoddy.  Dark Souls makes excellent use of visual filters to create a very realistic overall look.  The sound is universally excellent.  Besides boss battles, there isn’t much music in the game, so you are generally very aware of the very detailed soundscape.  This is actually essential as sound is often your best warning of danger and being able to judge the distance and type is a huge advantage.  The control scheme is almost unchanged from Demon’s Souls which is to say it’s still the most precise and flexible layout around.

I’m 25 hours in so far and I don’t even think I’m a third of the way through the game.  I also haven’t played much mutiplayer.  Like everything in this game it’s pretty tough.  When helping another player if you die once, it’s over and you’re back in your own game.  Update soon.

===================================================

I’d seriously trade my Havel’s Ring for a Del Taco cheeseburger right now.

Dark Souls is like a constant race to outstep the difficulty curve and after a few things ‘clicked’ I feel I finally got ahead.  The first 20 hours or so of the game was mostly marked by brief triumphs in between long stretches of seeming hopelessness.  It’s not that the game is impossible by any means, just that you always feel like you’re a little bit behind.  Now that I’m able to craft weapons of every variety and have magic rings that provide every imaginable benefit, that experience is reversed.  I pretty much went around and murdered everything that was previously beyond me with my new lightning and divine weapons.  The areas in my path are still challenging, but I no longer run into anything I just plain can’t dent.

It seems that this was the developer’s intent and I fully appreciate it.  Dying repeatedly loses it’s novelty after a while and replacing that lab rat mentality of “you make a mistake, you get shocked” was almost necessary after the beginning of the game.  Now it’s more like I only get demolished if I fail to use the correct strategy.  I often go for hours without dying at this point, because I have the means to infinitely survive unless I make a foolish mistake.  Don’t get me wrong, death is still always close at hand, but not because I was a tenth of a second too slow hitting the heal button.  It’s more like if you walk into a fight with a lightning dragon with a lightning spear, don’t expect good results.

One thing that I have noticed throughout is the incredible artistic design.  Although Blighttown and Darkroot Garden were not my favorite areas to traverse, the color palette and design of the environments and enemies constantly impressed.  Even going back through previous areas I often took a moment just to marvel at the intricacy of the level design.  Dark Souls truly puts other games with their bland and empty environments to shame with it’s miles and miles of hand crafted, play-tested perfection.  One of the most impressive aspects is the authenticity of the castles and medieval machinery on display.  Even though no part of this game is based on real places or designs, there must have been a medieval scholar on the team, because everything from drawbridges to siege turrets are fully functional and convincing.  The overall completeness and complexity of this game’s design are truly astounding and honestly the only other thing in the videogame medium I can even compare it to is Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

So for right now I’m kicking ass and feeling pretty good.  Rang the bells, made it into the city proper and still barely more than halfway through the game.  I’ll update soon with the final piece of the review and a numbered score.

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I’m going to take the opposite stance that I took on Dead Island.  Since Dark Souls was obviously created to exacting standards by a team of perfectionists, I think detracting points fairly from a perfect score is the approach they would want.  Dark Souls is a nearly perfect game.  My complaints will seem extremely nitpicky, but that goes in hand with how this game is played.  The base assumption of Dark Souls is that the game functions flawlessly so that the only cause of failure is player ineptitude.  From that perspective, the game has a few flaws which I feel even the developers would agree it is honorable in this case to point out.

The first and most noticeable is the rare but inconvenient drops in framerate.  Mostly they only happen out of combat, but there are a few places (like lower Bligttown) where the game will constantly run under 10fps while multiple enemies surround you.  The fact that it happens so infrequently just shows that it’s an issue that could have been resolved with tighter coding.  In a game that prides itself on the fairness of it’s difficulty, this gives the player an unfair disadvantage.

Speaking of fairness, although Dark Souls is pretty good about never being “cheap,” there are a few exceptions.  No, I’m not talking about frustrating status effects or enemies that can’t be targeted.  Throughout Demons’ Souls and through 90% of Dark Souls, there is a standard that enemies are bound by the same rules as the player.  Their stamina can run out, allowing their guard to be broken or preventing them from spamming attacks.  They also can only heal a limited amount of times like the player.  This standard is inexplicably broken on several enemies for no apparent reason besides to make the game arbitrarily harder.  There are several enemies and bosses who will either spam a powerful attack limitless times of heal themselves infinitely to stop the player from arrowing them to death.  I understand trying to stop the player from exploiting the system.  It just seems like a copout to use the cheap tactics we’re used to in other games when that seems to be this game’s big merit.  I mean, how about instead of making the Hellkite infinitely heal in a repetitive cycle, you just make it smart enough to see the player shooting it with a bow and hunt them down.  That’s the kind of thinking I expect from such a smart game.

Finally there are a number of glaring graphical slip-ups made obvious by how detailed the game is overall.  There are several areas where trees or hillsides are close to the player and have extremely ugly textures in stark contrast to the detailed playable area.  There is also an area where the placeholder water effect was not replaced, causing a short section of water to have PSX-looking unfiltered texture.  Once again, only noticeable because the game is overall so perfect.

These are the only reasons I can’t give this game a perfect 10.  The only reason I niggle is because Dark Souls is a game that holds itself to much higher standards than other games.  From Software has really tried to create a frictionless clock and for the most part they succeed.  Overall I can say that Dark Souls is of a level of complexity and cohesion that no similar game can even touch.  Zelda and Fable are to Dark Souls like a Pinto is to a Mustang, pale shadows at best.  Dark Souls can beat you without cheating.  It can trick you without blatantly denying you information.  Best of all it can scare you with nothing more than random events that happen within the game engine.  In contrast to my other favorite game this year, Alice 2, Dark Souls is a work of craft rather than a work of art.  A nearly perfect clock that is almost always right, created by master clockmakers.  Although I can’t give the game perfect honors if I’m to hold it to the same standards as it’s creators, I must say it’s the best made game of the year.  Without contest no other even comes close to the level of design on display here.

9.5/10

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Comments
  1. Michael Vu says:

    You should note that, even though most bows won’t be able to kill the Hellkite as it keeps healing, the Dragonslayer Greatbow will damage it enough to beat its healing rate. Also, you can’e really criticize bosses for using “unfair” tactics. It’s pretty much their job to screw you over (like real bosses)!
    Please try PVP and review that. Most people seem to either hate it or love it with hardly any gray area.

    • ryanlecocq says:

      Thanks for the Critiques Michael! Important to note that this article was published a year ago and after my first unassisted playthrough. At the time, the DSwiki was in it’s infancy and multiplayer was still unpatched and nearly non-functional. In the past year I’ve played the hell out of multiplayer and I am definitely in the “love it” camp. My first character is Darkmoon Blades and I have another I frequently play in either Princess Guard or Forest Protectors. I also play both the PC and Xbox versions for a little variety in opponents.

      As for the Hellkite and unfair boss tactics, I wasn’t implying that they were unreasonable in a video game. Just that it seemed like the closest thing to lazy design in an otherwise perfect machine. I still think that the Hellkite should fly around the bridge and hunt you down. That would not only be less arbitrary, but would scare the crap out of people.

      • Michael Vu says:

        The Hellkite’s kind of a double edged sword. If the Hellkite were to constantly flying around hunting the player down, getting the Drake Sword would be near impossible. Of course, as you know, that weapon is pretty much a must-have on first playthrough.
        Also, Domhnall of Zena sells the Master Key, but he’s in the Depths.

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