Dark Souls is one of the rawest, most intense games I've ever played. In the course of plumbing its depths, I've felt awe, terror, claustrophobia, agony, and triumph. I don't know that a game has ever left me so exhausted -- or so ecstatic.
Put as simply as possible, Dark Souls is Castlevania: Symphony of the Night to Demon Souls' Castlevania III. The distinct worlds that comprised Demon's Souls are gone, having been replaced by a massive, seamless world that can take upwards of 80 hours to explore. It may lack the wide open plains or mountains of Oblivion, but the scope is no less impressive.
As before, you take on the role of a lone warrior who has only a sword, shield, and a bit of magic to defend himself (or herself) against the world's demonic legions. What makes Dark Souls so effective is the sense that death is always just around the corner. One careless step will get you surrounded by a horde of zombies, or clubbed into oblivion by a massive troll.
That alone would be merely frustrating, but what makes it sparkle are the intense duels that comprise the moment-to-moment gameplay. Every single enemy is capable of bringing you to a quick and painful death, and defeating them requires a mix of well-timed counters, dodge rolls, and blocking. The clang of the weapons, the way that foes stumble back after a well-timed strike, and the way a powerful blow can knock you back even with your shield up lends the combat a weight that has rarely been equalled in a videogame.
These moment-to-moment duels imbue the world of Dark Souls with a powerful sense of terror; not the "gotcha" type scares of most modern survival horror games, but the kind where it feels like the world is closing in around you. At one point, I was sprinting blindly through a church, completely out of healing potions and near death. I rounded a corner and only narrowly dodged a massive knight with a heavy mace, then sprinted out a door and toward what turned out to be one of the game's bonfires -- the new checkpoints that serve as impromptu hubs in each of the world's areas. It was an unscripted moment that left me feeling completely exhilarated, which I would argue is the Holy Grail for any game developer.
These moments culminate in the massive boss encounters, which are rivalled only by Shadow of the Colossus for their sheer scale. Among others, they include huge dragons, a truly colossal hydra, and one very mean butterfly. Each battle is as unique as it is challenging; fighting these creatures truly make you feel like you're one tiny David versus a gargantuan Goliath, ready to be squished at any moment. It only makes it more satisfying when you finally take them down.
All of this would make Dark Souls excellent on its own, but what makes it truly special is the online integration, which puts it at the leading edge of innovation in this generation. Some of these elements are purely atmospheric; for instance, ring the "Awakening Bell" after defeating a pair of nasty Gargoyles, and other players will hear it toll in the distance. Other elements are meant to bind players together, such as the ability to leave a message with a helpful tip, or an expression of camaraderie (one player simply wrote "Good luck!" in a series of messages scattered throughout the world).
But I think my favourite online feature is the faction system, which is new to Dark Souls. Scattered throughout the world are representatives of factions ranging from good to pure evil, and swearing fealty to their cause can array you with or against both NPCs and player characters. Each faction offers its own benefits and challenges. Swear allegiance to one faction, and you may find yourself being summoned to combat non-aligned players trying to make their way through the forest. Join another covenant, and you can avoid certain bosses.
Next page: Frustration and redemption
Serving these factions can earn you some powerful skills, but there are hard choices to be made, as forging one covenant can close off opportunities elsewhere. It's a rich and completely fascinating feature; the sort that encourages a second playthrough just to see what happens when you join up with another group. And the way it's woven into the offline and online components is inspired.
It's an exciting game; one that's not afraid to go against the grain in providing a dense, challenging experience that takes patience to penetrate. It's not the sort of game that can be completed over a weekend, and some of the more vicious elements are bound to turn people off (just wait until you get cursed for the first time). Even as a fan of the series, having to run a gauntlet of enemies to get back to a boss that will kill me in five seconds was enough to send my blood pressure through the roof.
But even in my most frustrated moments, I always knew that there was some other part of the world to explore. Dark Souls is full of secrets, and half the fun is plumbing the castle's depth without the aid of a Wiki or a guide. And if you're really in a bad mood, you can always invade someone else's game to let off some steam.
Dark Souls is a vast game, and it's beyond the scope of this review to recount all the little ways in which it's a truly special experience. In many ways it's an incredibly ambitious game, but it also manages to master the individual moments that matter. Other games may be more polished -- the frame-rate is an occasional issue -- but I doubt they can match the terror that Dark Souls evokes in the simple act of turning a corner.
In short, it's everything I could have hoped for in a (spiritual) successor to Demon's Souls. I'm pleased to recommend it to anyone who wants to see the medium pushed to its limits and beyond.
Dark Souls: Specs
- Available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Age rating: 15
- Available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Age rating: 15
This haunting, challenging open-world RPG offers unmatched atmosphere and tension paired with excellent combat mechanics - though beware occasional performance spikes and the game's unashamed sadism.