Stunt Granny Video Game Review: Dark Souls

Dark Souls - Cover Art

I was going to try to review the new Dragon’s Dogma game this week, but my PS3 died and I had to send it in for service.  I needed something to scratch the hack-n-slash itch, so I got on my PC and booted up my copy of Dark Souls.

It’s been awhile since I played and I am not sure where I am in the story on this character, so I head to the forest – one of the PvP hotspots – to find a fight.  I start an invasion, the game’s name for loading into a random player’s world with the intention of fighting them, and quickly find a target.  It looks like he wasn’t expecting company because as soon as I show up, he bolts deeper into the trees.  I give chase and the trees give way to a ruined tower that provides access to a bridge.  Thinking my sprinting friend is going to make a stand, I slow down to make sure I have the gear that I want selected.  Sure enough, I get up to the bridge and he is standing on the other side.  I start to charge across and my opponent readies his shield when I hear a noise behind me. I turn around to see a Forest Hunter, another player who has taken the role to fight off trespassers in the forest, has just invaded my target’s world.

The hunter doesn’t have to side with either of us, and he is armed well enough to not need to.  While we technically have the same goal of killing the target player, he could choose to come after me first and finish the target later.  As I am trying to judge if I have a new enemy or ally, the original target starts running again.  It looks like the tree-hugger and I have settled on a truce for now because I run after the target and he comes along without attacking me.

Dark Souls -  PVP

Invading other players or summoning them for help makes a unique multiplayer experience.

We find the runner at the exit to the forest.  I know he can’t leave the area, the game won’t let him while there are enemy players in his world, so I suspect he is looking for help.  A familiar sound rings out from the base of the staircase the target is at; he is summoning a white phantom, a player who offers to fight as a team with whoever calls them.  I stop to get a look at the newcomer but the forest guardian runs right on past and opens up on our target’s new bodyguard.  The guy was in the world maybe 5 seconds before being crushed with a giant axe.  But it was enough, because the target we were chasing is now behind my fellow invader and stabbing him in his back.  While he is pulling his sword out of my short-lived companion, I run in and cut him down with my greatsword.

As I load back into my own world, I realize how tense I am in real life and try to relax a little.  The fights in this game have a tendency to draw you in.  Feeling ready to go, I start up another invasion attempt.  I forgot how much I enjoy this game.

Dark Souls is From Software’s 2nd title in the “Souls” series, a spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls.  The games do not share any story elements and are only related through gameplay mechanics, a high level of difficulty that comes from a deep combat system with a focus on combat strategy and player skill.  Play styles are suited to the player.  Any character is capable of using any spell or weapon in the game given that the player is willing to earn the souls – currency in game used for buying items and leveling up – to use them and learn how to use them effectively.   They are also known for their unique multiplayer system: an opt-in system that allows you to call in help from random players, but leaves you open to attack from them as well.

Be prepared to see this screen a lot.

Be prepared to see this screen a lot.

Dark Souls is unforgiving, but fair.  Your first time against a boss will likely end in several deaths.  But after a few attempts you will begin to recognize attack patterns and learn how to react to them.  One of the first fights is against a giant, axe-wielding Minotaur on top of a castle wall.  It is a long narrow stretch and he doesn’t give a lot of room to maneuver around.  During the first fight, many players find themselves backed up against the tower that serves as one of gates to the encounter.  After a couple of attempts, they may notice that there is just enough room to get between the boss’ legs, allowing a brief window to attack while he turns around.  Attention to the environment also reveals a ladder on one of the towers, letting the player climb above the monster and jumping off for a high damage attack to his head.  None of these options are pointed out to the player in the game; instead the game allows the players to discover them for themselves through experimentation and observation.  Because of this, defeating a boss feels incredibly rewarding.

Winning a fight against an enemy is all about learning their attacks, and knowing how and when to counter.

Winning a fight against an enemy is all about learning their attacks, and knowing how and when to counter.

This is not a game for the easily frustrated.  Character progression in Dark Souls is just as much about the player’s skill improving as it is about increasing a character’s stats.  It is easy to make a mistake in building your character, as the game makes no recommendation on what stats to level up or what weapons to use.  But for a player willing to put a little bit into learning the system, creating an effective build and mastering it is an incredibly fulfilling experience.

The game world is surprisingly large and encourages exploration.  If you can see something off in the distance, there is a good chance you can get to it somehow.  After leaving the brief tutorial area, where to go next is entirely up to the player.  Instead of using a directional marker to tell you where to go, Dark Souls uses enemy difficulty to nudge you in the right direction.  Having a hard time making it through that graveyard and into the catacombs behind it?  Maybe try heading in a different direction.  However, if you want to keep trying, you may find a way through and get access to some powerful equipment.

Or come back later once you are a bit more powerful and get your revenge on those skeletons.

Or come back later once you are a bit more powerful and get your revenge on those skeletons.

Dark Souls is available on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.  PC and console versions have some pros and cons to consider before buying.  PS3 and 360 play a little better if you just want to put the game in and start, but they suffer from slowdown in some of the larger environments.  Also, the game’s expansion, Artorias of the Abyss, is going to cost you a little extra.  The PC version has the expansion included in the purchase and generally runs smoother, however it is recommended that you install a mod (DSFix) and use a controller as the mouse and keyboard are pretty bad at controlling the game.  The mod allows you to unlock the frame rate, normally locked to 30 fps, and gives you some nice graphics options that were not in the core game.

Again, this is not a game for everyone.  Having to find the patience to learn the combat and find a character build that meshes with the way you want to play is not something some gamers want to do.  However, if careful planning and learning from your mistakes is something you enjoy in a game, Dark Souls is one of the richest gameplay experiences available today. -Will

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