Prepare to Die...
If you're looking for an uncompromising, brutal, challenging and rewarding game to buy...buy Dark Souls. Know this oh traveller, it hates you, Dark Souls hates you so much that it also loves you, because once you master the unique combat system and learn to respect the AI, you'll find that beneath the sheer controller throwing frustration, there's an addictive action RPG that rewards tactics far more than any other game, save for Demon's Souls it's direct predecessor.
Dark Souls has a story, it has a plot, and it even has pretty impressive cut-scenes. What it doesn't do, is spoon feed you that story or plot. Nothing gets in the way of the out and out action and exploration the game has to offer, it's seamlessly presented and the flow of the story ripples at your pace as a player. Just know that you begin the game as an undead creature and this is the story of your redemption and so much more.
That's right; Dark Souls kills you right off the bat. You begin the game as an undead. Imprisoned in a dank and dangerous Undead Asylum, there is literally no hand-holding in this game. Read the manual, read the hints that are on the floor and the rest you need to learn for yourself. Fortunately there's a pretty large and mostly helpful community out there in the lands of the net, who share their experiences and tactics as well as character builds for the game. There are advantages and disadvantages to being undead in Dark Souls, but we'll cover that a little later on.
Dark Souls is built on a Gestalt Exploration system. You learn something from each death, you learn something from everywhere that you explore and most importantly unless you have a really good edge from playing the previous game, you will die a lot. It's possible to die in the tutorial repeatedly; every enemy is a challenge, even later on if you're not careful. You may scoff at some boring weedy undead armed with a small knife when you're tromping around in plate mail, with a tower shield and a big sword.
Yet, even then you'd be wise to respect that little guy, because chances are he'll have a few friends just waiting to say hello. If you get cornered in this game, you can be mobbed and suddenly you're fighting for your life against overwhelming odds and you die. Unless you're very skilled or extremely lucky, then you might slip out with a little health and your dignity intact.
The combat system is tactical and rewarding, you learn from your battles with the various minions and monsters in the game. You can block, you can roll and you can of course use a variety of attacks. The controls are simple, but mastering each nuance of the combat is not. There's a stamina bar that depletes upon each strike, based on what you're facing and the combination of stats from your created character - set by the class that you choose to begin the game as. Stamina is vital to remaining alive in Dark Souls, because everything you do drains it. Roll, stab, slice and block - all of those actions will eat that bar away and it will regenerate
If you have your shield raised, or if you're blocking, it will come back slower.
It's possible to wield a large variety of equipment in Dark Souls, from typical longswords, two handed swords, axes, spears and the like. To the various implements required to cast magic as the sorcerer or the Pyromancer class. You can wear the heaviest armour that you can find and stack up with a protective shield, creating a veritable tank of a character. Each kill nets you souls and can reward you with humanity, souls are a vital currency in the Dark Souls world, you will use them to buy from merchants, repair your weapons and equipment and most importantly level your character's stats.
There are 10 classes in the game, from agile thieves to sturdy knights. Each one of these can be customised into something you truly desire as long as you're willing to work at getting those souls. Want a magic using thief, simply get the souls, get the stats to use magic effectively and then you have just that class. Think of your class as the base from which you build your own survivor, putting points into the stats you really think matter.
Here's a useful tip for anyone who plays the game. Upgrade Dex to 13, Strength to 16 and get a good chunk of Endurance to begin with. Dex lets you use the Short Bow and do a decent chunk of early damage with it, ranged combat will help against some of the enemies. Strength lets you wield a particularly powerful sword you can get with a little work early on. Endurance gives you the stamina required to run, block, dodge and most of all stay alive against bigger foes.
With this stats based levelling system, you can tailor your character to the exact specification desired. As long as you're not put off by the game's daunting difficulty at the outset and the frustration that can follow. I've heard of people who quit the game 10 minutes into it, they return it to the shop for something a little safer to play. It's a shame, because if you can get over that curve, it will become one of the most addictive experiences you've played in a long time.
Each victory, even against the smallest foe feels like one that you have worked hard for, especially early game when you have minimal equipment and a slim chance of survival. Once you take down a Black Knight or even a boss, you get a sense of accomplishment that can only be mirrored by finished a full game on the hardest setting. Well, Dark Souls hasn't got one of those; it begins as hard as nails and gets harder. To offset this, Dark Souls makes things slightly easier for you if you manage to remain human.
To do this, you need to avoid dying.
You can gain humanity, which can be traded at bonfires (safe areas), where you rest and heal. Where you level up and do all sorts of other things as you pick up the right tools later on in the game. You can use this humanity to revive your undead self and once human, you can kindle the bonfire. This will grant you 10 Estus Flasks over the measly 5 you get from normal bonfires. Estus is used to heal your body after you succumb to attacks, or various traps/falls in the game.
If you die though, all your souls, all your humanity are lost and left at the point you died. They appear as a glowing bloodstain and you're going to have to battle back past the enemies to get at them. If you die again, all those lovely souls are lost along with all that humanity you may have had. You also revert to being undead, so be careful.
There are advantages to being undead; you can't be invaded by other players for a start. Oh yeah, Dark Souls has some interesting online thrown in as you play. It's always connected to the online world and you'll see ghosts of other players as they roam about their own game, some involved in combat and some involved in dying horribly. You might see messages that they leave behind (you can also do this if you buy the right soapstone) - these messages can be helpful or downright misleading. There are players who delight in sending the unwary to their doom.
You can rate other player's messages and interact with NPCs in the game. Most of them are merchants and the like, many of them can become spell trainers and friends. All of them can be attacked, but again, if you attack them and manage to kill them, yes you'll get the reward and yes you'll get their items - what you lose may well be greater. Dark Souls doesn't believe in respawns at all. Not of NPCs or of bosses, or of Black Knights.
Rest at a bonfire and you'll respawn the various bad guys in the level though, so you have to think tactically. You can always grind a particularly easy area for some souls though, so resting at bonfires has major advantages. If you are human in Dark Souls you gain more power, you get better equipment drops and more frequent drops from the bad guys...also...you can summon other players to help you, as long as they're within a certain level of you.
You can also be invaded, because there is a faction of players and NPCs in the game that is dedicated to hunting down player worlds to invade and things to steal. The good news is there is also a faction dedicated to stopping them, join any of the factions and you'll gain some new gameplay mechanics and some new friends/enemies. None of this is mandatory, so you're once again, left to your own devices.
As an early hint we suggest that you take the Master Key as your first gift, unless you're the Thief - you get that gift regardless. The Master Key can be used to open early doors and grant you access to some nice early life saving loot.
One small tip: when you're rolling and dodging, Dark Souls doesn't offer a safety blanket, it doesn't stop you from rolling over the edge to a foolish death. It wants you to make those kinds of mistakes...but it won't mock you for doing so.
So with a deep and tactical combat system, a powerful character creation and levelling system as well as open world exploration thrown in seamlessly. Dark Souls is a rewarding RPG that brims with stuff to keep you occupied and a lot of secrets waiting to be discovered.
Even with the odd frame rate slow-down, which is nothing too major, Dark Souls presents a grim and gothic world that oozes atmosphere at every turn. The dungeons are truly a work of art and nothing in the game looks as though it's out of place. The area designs are fantastic and each zone has a visual theme that not many games manage to present as well. From the lofty heights of castles in the Undead Burg to the Darkroot Forest and Basin, the game is a explorer's dream. The dungeons are dark and dank, they are full of shadows and death waits at every turn. You find that as you explore the sewer area, you are actually holding your breath because of the attention to detail in the game borders on OCD in that respect. It's a horrible and filthy place to be.
The lighting effects are just as good with the pyromancy flame and fireball looking great, alongside the roaring dragon's flame as it scorches across a nearby bridge. Light and shadows are the make and break of this kind of game and Dark Souls pulls out all the stops to provide some extremely dramatic vistas in regards to the lighting engine.
Praise the Sun!
There's a wealth of animation in the game, everything has unique moves and there are even things to discover about the player character based on stats. Get your Dex high enough and you can become a pure ninja back-flipping agile thief for instance. The combat system is full of detailed battle motions, ripostes and counters flow like water and the clang of a sword against a shield is enough to often push a foe back depending again on numerous factors. Nothing is left to chance.
The running, climbing and generic animations are all spot-on and there's a whole host of gestures to perform when you meet other players in the cooperative side of the game. Basically, the game is just packed with quality animations. The only problem that I can see people having is that once someone dies, they are now at the mercy of the amusing rag doll system and that can make for hilarious combats as your feet drag the floppy undead warriors body around with them, throwing it off the cliff side and so on.
I'd have liked to see more death animations before the bad guys bite the dust, but it's a minor niggle and the game doesn't lose out because of it.
The aforementioned rag doll system provides a slightly amusing tint to the game, but it's also useful for some of the bigger attacks and the explosive power of some larger spells. Physics is good though, its Havok engine based and things break nicely as you battle around a group of barrels for instance, or you're thrown into a large collection of crates by a particularly big bad guy's swipe. Some of these enemies can knock you off your feet with a single blow. It ties into the animation system quite a bit too, so you get a real sense of physicality with this combat, compared to other games. A strike on your shield can literally leave you open if you don't keep an eye on your Stamina bar.
The AI does have various tells, attack patterns and it can be exploited sometimes by clever players. Though there have been a couple of patches that have fixed a few exploits here and there and already some of the strategies developed by the community have been countered. For the most part though, the game offers an amazing kind of AI that provides a meaningful challenge and tests your grasp of the level and the various minions that you'll encounter. Boss AI is vicious at times and some of them are often masters of one hit kill moves they will pull off with no warning.
The AI of the bigger meaner bad guys knows how to counter, watch for their combat tells. If a Black Knight armed with a rapier and a small buckler ever goes into a particular pose, don't attack, or you'll learn just how deadly a riposte of that kind can really be.
The sound-scape for the game is a great one. There's a lot of spot and ambient audio that amps up the atmosphere here in Dark Souls. There are some wonderful combat sounds and the clang of metal against metal, especially when a heavy metal shield blocks a massive sword is superb. Then you have the various sound effects for spells and the like.
There is a nice soundtrack to the game, again, it's evocative and atmospheric and it fades down when you're exploring and rises when you're in combat. The bonfire music is rather nice and it serves to give you a sense of safety when you know that just outside that area are bad guys who want to serve you your spleen for supper. Dramatic moments are framed by suitably dramatic musical pieces and the rest of the game is spent in quiet contemplation of the sound effects and the noises that monsters might make, just so you know there's something to be scared of close by.
Dark Souls isn't bogged down by endless narrative, so the voice work is sparse and works well in the context of the game.
Dark Souls script is full of character, everyone seems to be laughing at something and whilst it isn't the best writing for a fantasy game...it works to put you on edge and keep you completely paranoid through the whole game.
You can summon up to 2 other players as phantoms to help you in your boss and mini-boss battles, you can be invaded by other players and you can invade other worlds. You can see the ghosts of players as you play; you can witness their horrible demise if you interact with their bloodstain and you can read and place messages to help and hinder. You can share a commonality with the players of Dark Souls at bonfires too. You'll see them briefly sitting there, almost real, especially if they belong to your Covenant.
If you offer humanity at the fire, you can help reinforce their Estus flasks and give them a little hope in the dark.
You can leave certain items to become vagrant, which will go off to invade someone else's world as a phantom.
So whilst there's no cooperative campaign, Dark Souls unique take on online play means that you'll at least connected to others at all times and it feels like a shred of hope in a vast dark journey.
Saves and Game Length
The game auto saves, there are no hard saves and this game is brutally difficult at the best of times. Bonfires act as checkpoints and let you return there if you die.
Dark Souls will probably last around 60 hours; the world is massive and seamlessly connected. Then there is New Game+ and the joy of speccing up a new custom character to try out a brand new build and tactical set.
If you can get past the steep curve, know the game will challenge you like nothing you have ever played before, know that you're going to die numerous times and prepare yourself for that eventuality. Dark Souls is a refreshing take on fantasy RPGs and most of all its fun and addictive. You will relish every victory no matter how minor and you will learn from every mistake. It is a game that is worthy of high praise because it's a game that treats you as an adult.
Dark Souls (to me) is harder and more rewarding than the previous game and that makes it oddly more appealing. It is also self-contained so you don't need to play the previous game to get the best out of Dark Souls. You will of course be far more familiar with the way combat works if you do.