There are many videogames, RPG or not, that the mainstream game media extol to the point where it’s virtually impossible to find dissenting opinions and legitimate criticism among so-called “professional” game journalists. Among these games was the FromSoftware-developed and Bandai-published Demon’s Souls, which received widespread acclaim from the American videogame press due to its old-school-style difficulty and supposedly being “rewarding.” Its sequels and spiritual successors, among them being Dark Souls on the PlayStation 3, continue this masochistic tradition, which most certainly won’t appeal to all.
The action-based gameplay is almost identical to that in the game’s spiritual predecessor Demon’s Souls, with the player choosing among many starting classes, although they have free reign to level their character’s stats however they please by increasing soul levels gained through the use of a certain number of souls acquired from defeating enemies. One feature that the game never mentions is that players can lock onto enemies with the R3 joystick button, which will center their character’s attacks and the camera on one particular enemy, akin to the targeting systems of other three-dimensional action RPGs such as Kingdom Hearts.
Unfortunately, the battle system of Dark Souls doesn’t lend itself very well to conflict with multiple foes, necessitating the strategy of dividing and conquering, given the ease of death akin to Demon’s Souls. Fortunately, if the player’s character is in human mode (with deaths resulting in hollow form, although using items known as Humanities at checkpoints called bonfires can revive the player, and can increase the number of healing potions available to the player, other items called Fire Keeper’s Souls strengthening healing), they can recruit help from other online players and occasional NPCs to help against some tough battles, mostly bosses.
A major problem, though, is the lack of any capability to pause the game unless the player quits, a problem inherited from the game’s spiritual predecessor, even during offline play. The spacing of bonfires is also fairly iffy, with frequent needs to tread the same enemy-infested paths repeatedly if the player redundantly dies against bosses. As in Demon’s Souls, death costs the player all their gathered souls, the protagonist given a chance to recover them at their point of death, although subsequent death without doing so permanently costs them those souls. Given the risky nature of grinding alongside the other mentioned flaws, the gameplay could have been far better, but there are some good grinding spots to make things a little less hectic.
Unlike Demon’s Souls, its spiritual successor features a large world largely contiguous, and while exploring can be slightly enjoyable, the utter lack of in-game maps, a feature that even decades-old titles such as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past had, mars the experience, and necessitates that players have an eidetic memory to know how to progress, which also has frequent vague direction. The aforementioned inability to pause except by quitting the game also dampens gameplay, although the player ultimately gains the ability to teleport among certain bonfires. Even so, the interface leaves much room for improvement.
As is the case in most RPGs with blank-slate protagonists such as Dark Souls, the story naturally isn’t much of a reason to play the game, despite odd claims from its apologists that the gameplay is somehow “rewarding,” despite the widespread lack of developing scenes after tough battles that sometimes accompany a few challenging titles in the genre. The translation is largely above average, with occasional medieval English, although the novelty of seeing the intelligence-insulting YOU DIED quickly gets old after the millionth time, alongside other obvious messages such as BONFIRE LIT and YOU REVIVED.
There is very little actual music in Dark Souls, with most areas containing no musical accompaniment, although what few tracks the game does have are good, the voice acting is passable, and the sound effects are believable.
Graphically, Dark Souls is pretty much on par with its predecessor, and while the visuals superficially look decent, there is occasional graphical slowdown, even in some areas where there aren’t a lot of character or enemy models.
Finally, more skilled players might be able to make it through the game in as little as forty hours, although those not used to the Souls franchise’s masochistic mechanisms might take longer, up to eighty hours, with a harder New Game+ serving for replay value.
Overall, Dark Souls is a spiritual sequel that, for the most part, is on par with its predecessor in terms of its masochistic mechanisms, and is like its prequel hurt equally by what it lacks, such as a casual mode, pause feature, in-game maps, an engaging narrative, a noticeable soundtrack, as what it does have, namely punishing gameplay. Only those that truly enjoyed Demon’s Souls will find something to celebrate in its successor, whereas more casual, easily-frustrated players such as this reviewer are highly advised to avoid this title, and sadly, given the head the mainstream gaming press has given it, its predecessor, and its sequels, there is no indication of change or progress with regards to how the games work.
+Can get help against bosses online and/or from NPCs.
+Plenty freedom with stat customization
+Big contiguous world to explore.
+Good replay value.
-Can become repetitive with frequent death.
-Needs pause button badly.
-In-game maps, too.
The Bottom Line:
Only masochists need apply.
Platform: PlayStation 3
Game Mechanics: 6/10
Lasting Appeal: 7/10
Playing Time: 40-80 Hours