Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Dark Souls

Post-Launch Review
Dark Souls (PS3)
Developer: From Software
Released: October 2011 (console) / August 2012 (PC)
Played: story complete, including Artorias of the Abyss DLC, in 49h:45min


Dark Souls is a fantasy action-roleplaying game set in the ancient, forgotten kingdom of Lordran, home of the great lords who defeated the dragons in ancient times. The player takes on the role of a cursed undead chosen to succeed Lord Gwyn and rekindle the First Flame to free the world from the curse of the undead.
As a side note, Dark Souls has developed quite the reputation as an extremely difficult game...

At Launch

Dark Souls was well received, earning average review scores of 88%. Reviewers loved the huge world and dark fantasy theme, praising level and creature design, the deep and complex combat system, the scattered lore and secrets, and the innovative online features. Opinion was somewhat divided as to whether the high difficulty was a positive or negative; many critics enjoyed the lack of hand-holding, while others noted that the game takes a level of dedication that more impatient or casual players might not be willing to give.

Post Launch

Several patches were released to fix bugs and rebalance some content.
The $15 DLC pack Artorias of the Abyss adds a whole new area set in the past, when the knight Artorias battled the Abyss in the nation of Oolacile. The additional content includes new areas, enemies, bosses, gear, and spells, as well as a PvP arena.
Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition released for PC in August 2012, and for consoles a few months later. Prepare to Die Edition includes the Artorias of the Abyss DLC pack.

The PC release has been heavily criticized for compatibility issues and bugs, as well as being locked at a low resolution and frame rate. If you're playing on PC, before you get started, I recommend installing this mod. DSfix mod will allow you to play at your monitor's resolution at a better frame rate. Still, I couldn't get it to run at all decently on my laptop (seems to be related to ATI graphics card problems) so I played on PS3 instead. 
Also, don't use the FPS unlocker included in DSfix - while you may want more frames than 30, an FPS mod can get you banned from Games for Windows Live and can cause you to fall through the level geometry because the game engine doesn't play well with high FPS.


To start things off, I'll say that Dark Souls feels much more refined than Demon's Souls. There are small but welcome improvements all over the place - unlimited carrying capacity, spells are limited but rechargeable on a per-spell basis instead of using a universal magic meter, a chance to avoid poison if you're careful enough... The biggest change, though, is to healing. There are no longer consumable healing items; instead you have a limited but refillable healing potion (the Estus Flask). You can't just farm healing items anymore - you'll run out of Estus unless you refill at a bonfire. Resting at a bonfire refills your health and Estus, but it also respawns enemies. So there's a risk/reward element: do you press on when you're out of healing so you don't have to kill the demons again, or do you let the demons respawn and do better on your second run through the area?

Despite the refinement, Dark Souls often feels more unfair than Demon's Souls. There are a lot of "bullshit" fight setups that are totally doable, but very frustrating - for example, one slow but high-damage boss is accompanied by two attack dogs, which can stunlock you if you don't deal with them. But it's extremely difficult to deal with them when you've got a high-damage, mobile boss attacking you. Another boss has two monsters to fight at once, but they can do unblockable ranged attacks if you let either get too far. Yet another example is an area full of ghosts, where you need either special items or a curse to be able to damage the ghosts at all - but you can run out of the consumable, and being cursed takes away half your max HP. It's always possible to deal with these things, but they can sometimes feel more spiteful than fair. Although, all these complaints are from early game, so maybe I was just getting the feel for the game since it's a bit different than its predecessor.

There is one curious omission from Demon's Souls. In the earlier game, when you died, your soul form had half your living form's maximum HP (and you could wear a ring to bring it up to 75% of max). This made reviving a real dilemma with three possible options: do you revive to get your full HP bar back, but risk getting invaded, do you sacrifice a ring slot to get 75% of max HP, or do you just tough it out with 50% HP? But in Dark Souls, your health doesn't drop when you die. You get a loot drop bonus for having humanity, but having humanity is not the same thing as being alive. Being alive does allow you to encounter certain NPC invaders that either drop special loot or become allies, but there's no indication of their presence unless you happen to be alive at the right part of the game - and once you clear a boss you can't get that area's encounters again, if any. You can only kindle bonfires while alive, but since you revive at bonfires there's little reason to fight to hold on to that life. So really the only incentive to be alive is the off chance you might be able to summon a co-op ally for a boss battle, while risking invasion and loss of your human form.

Before we get too far in, you should be aware that Dark Souls, like its predecessor, is very indirect about its story. The main thread is easy to pick up on - you have been chosen to succeed Gwyn to preserve the Age of Flame - but light on details. You pick up the history of the world mostly through optional dialogue, events, and item descriptions. It's very worthwhile to piece together the clues and learn about the world, because there's some really great lore behind everything - but you don't have to if all you want is a solid action RPG.

Now, with all those comparisons to Demon's Souls out of the way, let's properly talk about Dark Souls.

The game's intro is mostly pretty light. It's rough if you rush and don't pay attention to the enemy, but for the most part the Undead Asylum, Burg, and Parish are quite straightforward (except for that semi-hidden, very tough black knight). But Blighttown will probably hit you like a brick. It's a toxic area full of poison and deadly drops hidden in darkness. And to make things even worse, there are frame rate issues (but only in Blighttown). One of the messages you could leave for other players in Demon's Souls was "the true Demon's Souls starts here" and I find that sentiment very relevant to Blighttown.

Visuals are mostly good. Character art and animation are excellent, with very well differentiated gear materials and appearances, and fluid movement. Textures and environment detail aren't great, but when you get a chance to pull back and see just how big the environments are, and how fantastic the open areas and vistas and architecture look, it's quite easy to overlook the lack of fine detail in the world. Anor Londo is a particularly beautiful area - soaring marble palaces, cathedrals, and bridges in a valley of perpetual sunset. The Tomb of the Giants is great for exactly opposite reasons - claustrophobically tight ledges and tunnels on a mountain of skeletons, so dark you can't see five feet in front of you (entering the Tomb is another "the true Dark Souls starts here" moment).

Some of the bosses are really great too. The great wolf Sif is the size of a couple of buses and holds a greatsword in his jaws. The Gaping Dragon's intro is quite deceptive, a huge "OH SHIIIIIT" moment. Dragonslayers Smough and Ornstein are... well, just really nasty. And the final boss is an insanely aggressive swordfight set to sad piano music that somehow makes the battle feel even more epic.

There's so much to find all over the world - tons of hidden items, bonfires, NPCs, and even whole boss battles you could easily miss. There are over 170 weapons (including shields and spellcasting stuff) and more than 50 armour sets, each with their own distinct stats, abilities, and appearance. There are 28 sorcery spells, 20 pyromancy spells, and 23 miracles. With so many items to find, you have a ton of options for build customization, and plenty of hidden items to find. As a hint: try cutting off boss tails for unique hidden weapons (though it's very hard with some bosses). All of the hidden stuff gives the game plenty of replayability, too, since you can't get everything on a single playthrough, and you surely won't have seen all the events and found all the NPCs.

Each weapon has its own move set - weak, strong, and jump attacks for both one-handed and two-handed wielding. With all the different stat bonuses and weapon behaviours, and a few crazy unique abilities, it's well worth trying out many different weapons to see what you like. Do you want a fast but weak sword, or a strong but slow one? For a normal weapon, piercing or slashing damage? Once you get your hands on some upgraded stuff, will you use straight physical, lightning, fire, magic, or divine damage? Will you choose a weapon linked to strength, dexterity, faith, or intelligence? Can your equip load handle a heavy weapon? And that's just weapons - shields also give you a choice of resistances and weight, with light shields allowing you to parry and heavy shields allowing you to bash.

Game controls are very responsive, which is great for combat: all those different attack styles and swing speeds give each weapon a unique style and feel. Your weapon might seem weak statistically, but give it a few swings and compare the speed, arc, and radius. One particularly interesting weapon type is spears, which allow you to attack without dropping your shield, and have a long but very narrow attack range.

Pyromancy is probably my favourite thing about Dark Souls combat, because it's not (directly) tied to a stat - spell power is determined solely by the strength of your Pyromancy Flame (though a couple in the DLC are boosted by strength, and some are sped up by dexterity). This is great because it provides a cool, flashy magic supplement for characters who don't want to invest heavily in faith or intelligence - I played a heavy melee tank who could adapt to fire damage or toss a few fireballs on the side, which adds a bit of versatility. And not all pyromancy is damage; there are also a couple of neat utility spells that can do stuff like fire protection, poison enemies, or corrode gear.

This is getting long, so I'll talk about the DLC and wrap up. The additional content adds some new areas set in the past, when Knight Artorias battled the forces of the Abyss accidentally drawn forth by the sorcery of Oolacile, the wild forests known as Darkroot in the present. The new areas are visually distinct and quite nice, particularly the first look at the Royal Wood. The bosses are interesting, but the optional one is the best: the black dragon Kalameet. You have to fulfill a few hidden conditions before you can properly take on the boss, but once you do it's one of the most challenging in the game, with a huge health bar and some crazy attacks - a dark fire breath that drains stamina (even on block), a tail slam that smashes your armour durability to pieces, and a telekinetic grab that makes you more vulnerable to damage for a short time. That tail slam is actually really nasty, because if he kills you, now you don't have enough souls to repair your armour.

Anyway, Artorias of the Abyss DLC is totally worth it. As a $15 addition to the default game it might be a little steep for some players, but OK with me. Though of course you should just get Prepare to Die Edition if you have the option.

As a final note: I was a little disappointed with the difficulty by the end of the game, but that may have been because of my very recent experience with Demon's Souls and my particular character build. I was playing an extremely tanky strength character and actually had quite an easy time with the final boss - beat him on my first try. Then I hyped myself up for a massive difficulty spike in New Game + and one-shotted the first boss. I don't mean to brag - I did spend quite a bit of time farming upgrade materials to build some of the best possible gear for a first playthrough with a heavy strength build - it's just something I thought worth noting for a game with a reputation for being extremely difficult.

Recommendation: play it.

Dark Souls is just fantastic. The massive world full of hidden lore and secrets really hooked the explorer in me; the deep and complex combat and gear systems appealed to my need to analyze and optimize; and the great dark atmosphere and story kept me investigating. And there's even time to stop and admire the magnificent views. Like I said in my review of Demon's Souls, this is a game that's not for everyone - it requires skill, patience, and a willingness to fail over and over until you succeed. Just know that if you can't handle it, you're missing out on an excellent game!

And as a bonus here's a .gif image that really sums up the feel of the game:


  1. Great review! I am a big fan of the game since I started playing. Bought mine at Kinguin, check it, really low price!

  2. Hope it's not overly late for me to drop a comment here, I just went blog-hunting on Google and stumbled upon yours sir. Based on your latest posts, I can see you've played Dark Souls 2 as well. I like your detailed review on Dark Souls by the way.

    Now this has been bothering my mind for a long time, but doesn't it feel like the bosses in Dark Souls are more intimidating and "real" as compared to those of Dark Souls 2? I think bosses like Sif and the Gaping Dragon are tremendously satisfying to fight, unlike Covetous Demon (aka Jabba the Hut) from DS2.. In games like the Souls games, boss fights really matter a lot, so I'm a bit disappointed with the bosses of DS2..

    1. I've been thinking on Dark Souls 2 for a while and I'm leaning towards the conclusion that its mechanics are better than DS1 but its world and lore design are a little weaker. The DLC has some great bosses, though.

    2. Yes, you get me. Dark Souls 2, in my opinion, has better mechanics. I'm constantly annoyed by Dark Souls' auto-lock system that keeps switching from one target to another, that's the biggest flaw in the first game which was thankfully fixed in Dark Souls 2. In terms of lore, I think Dark Souls 2 is very weak, unfortunately. I absolutely loved my 75+ hours of experience playing it, but the world doesn't feel as connected as Dark Souls'.. I started with DS2 first, nevertheless, but I was a bit disappointed. Then I played the first Dark Souls and about 20 hours into it, I was confident enough to conclude that DS would offer a much better experience to me than DS2. Not that I said the first is better than the second, or otherwise, I'm just saying that I had more enjoyment playing the first Dark Souls. The lore, the atmosphere and the realm really won me over.

      Sorry for my rant, I just have to let it all out ha-ha.. Great blog by the way. I'm looking forward for more. Cheers! - your new follower