There is a story to Dark Souls but it does little more than set up the fact that youíve been dumped in a hostile world full of dragons, demons, undead and worse. Youíre undead too actually, and thereís a prophecy that says one day an undead adventurer will come along and ring two bells in the world of Lordran where youíve been dropped. With just this piece of information to go on you are left to your own devices. Itís a big, bad world out there and there are no signs directing you where to go. All paths lead to certain death and the odds are stacked firmly against you. Surviving Lordran is going to take every bit of skill youíve got.
Your first task is to create a character, choosing from classes such as warrior, knight, thief, pyromancer and sorcerer. Different classes start at different levels and have varying stats to go with it, for example sorcerers are high in intelligence, the thief has better dexterity and warriors have greater strength. You also get to choose a gift for your character ranging from consumables like bombs or healing herbs to permanent items like the master key or binoculars. You can alter the look of your character though you donít get the same level of customization here as youíll find in other games. Once youíre happy with your character itís time to play the game.
Killing enemies is no easy task in Dark Souls. Enemies are usually far stronger than you, quicker, and have more attacks. Learning which attack an enemy is about to use based on their animation becomes an important skill to pick up. Some attacks can be parried, others give you just enough time to strike first, while others need to be blocked. Taking advantage of any opportunity, no matter how small, is another key to your success.
Anytime you kill an enemy you earn souls which is the currency of the game Ė youíll use it to buy items and equipment, pay for upgrades and to level up. Youíll come across various NPC vendors and blacksmiths who will sell you gear and upgrade your weapons but be careful not to attack them or you may never see them again. If you want to level up youíll have to make it to a bonfire, which work as checkpoints in Dark Souls. When you die (not if) you lose all of your hard-earned souls and are returned to the last bonfire you visited. If you can make it back to the spot you died you can recover your souls, but dying again will see those souls gone for good.
Bonfires do more than let you level up Ė they also replenish your health, magic and Estus flasks. There are no magic points in Dark Souls, rather you get a set number of uses for each spell and you donít get any more until you return to a bonfire. Estus flasks are health potions, and like magic you have a certain number of uses until you replenish them at bonfires. By default each bonfire will give you five Estus flasks but you can increase this number to ten by Ďkindlingí a bonfire.
To kindle a bonfire you need an additional humanity point that you sacrifice to the bonfire. Having ten Estus flasks is a big help in areas youíre stuck, but humanity is quite rare which means you probably wonít be able to kindle every bonfire you discover. It doesnít help that your humanity is lost every time you die Ė even making it back to that spot will not recover your humanity like it does with your lost souls.
There are no maps or signs pointing you in the right direction in Dark Souls. This can make your progress extremely slow, but on the plus side it also means youíll get very excited when you find the next bonfire. Like so much in this game itís the difficulty that makes things like finding a checkpoint, which is so simple in other games, feel like a massive achievement. Finding a bonfire can literally take hours of your time, and while that may sound frustrating Dark Souls somehow pulls it off without making you want to throw the controller or punch any kittens (thatís a joke by the way).
Weíve briefly mentioned some of the multiplayer aspects but letís look at them a bit closer because they are handled quite differently here than in other games (though Demonís Souls veterans will be familiar with them). Firstly, while you wander around Lordran pretty much alone, there are parallel universes in which other undead heroes are making their way around Lordran too and the walls between these worlds are sometimes paper thin.
Youíll also spot bloodstains on the ground and touching these will bring up a ghost showing you the last few moments of another travelerís life. This can reveal traps, hidden enemies, or simply stupidity on their part Ė all of which you should avoid.
In human form you are able to summon people into your world anytime you come across a white summoning marker. These are most often located near boss fights (some NPCs can be summoned this way if youíve befriended them), though you do spot them in the middle of nowhere occasionally too. You can also leave a white marker allowing you to be summoned into anotherís world to help them. Helping someone beat an area boss gives you souls and humanity as a reward, but if the host dies youíll be sent back to your world with nothing.
Itís also possible to invade worlds and attempt to kill the host player. Succeeding in this letís to take souls and humanity from them, but the downside is theyíre able to put your name into the Book of the Guilty which effectively takes out a hit on you, allowing other players to invade your world more easily.
Some of the covenants will help you invade another playerís world, while others work to protect you from invasion. You can earn rewards in the form of items, weapons, spells and other benefits for helping your covenant. Despite being nearly fifty hours into the game I havenít had much of a chance to explore the pros and cons of each covenant, which gives you some idea of the size of the game. There is literally hundreds of hours of gameplay here.
In my fifty-ish hours playing Dark Souls Iíve only come up with a few gripes. The first, and definitely most significant, is the lack of in-game information regarding game mechanics such as weapon affinity, upgrading weapons and what the different attributes do when leveling up. These may be covered in the manuals you get with the full game, but we didnít receive any for the review and it definitely impacted on the overall experience. As a pyromancer I thought that higher intelligence would boost my pyromancy spells, but after spending many points in intelligence it became apparent this wasnít the case. Also, a good weapon makes a huge difference to your progress but you need to ensure youíre using a weapon your character is suited to; otherwise itís not going to be a lot of help. Having an in-game resource to help understand these aspects would have made the game much more accessible.
Another gripe I have is that enemies frequently attack you through solid walls, while your weapon (mostly) bounces off those same walls. Trust me when I say enemies donít need any other advantages over you than they already have. Similarly, if an enemy throws a firebomb at you that lands on or near another enemy, they donít suffer any damage. This is a strange one because there are times when enemies can hurt each other, but itís inconsistently applied.
Lordran itself is a decent-looking, if occasionally dull place. Thereís huge variety in the scenery Ė one minute youíre fighting your way through buildings, then youíre deep underground, or in a forest, or off in a classic medieval-looking palace. Lighting has a real effect on your mood, and after hours of bleakness youíre going to love seeing the sun again (though all the ďPraise the sunĒ messages are a bit tedious). There are a few quirks such as occasional slow-down, bits of debris staying in the air after an object is destroyed, and the fact enemies (and occasionally yourself) can attack through walls, but other than that Dark Souls is extremely polished.
There is a deliberate lack of music throughout the game, which lets the sound effects such as enemy snarls and barks in the distance dominate proceedings. Much of the time the only sound youíll hear is that of your own feet as you run along corridors, but enemy sounds give away their location too. The clatter and bang of weapons on shields and armor is another constant throughout, and it sounds great. There isnít a whole lot of voice-acting here, but what is there is decent enough. None of the characters are particularly deep but they all play their role believably.
Dark Souls is a rare beast Ė itís incredibly tough, yet at the same time itís not (very) frustrating. Patience, pattern-recognition and determination will serve you well in your time in Lordran. Itís also a much more accessible game than Demonís Souls ever was, despite the fact that some aspects of the game need better in-game explanations. If you enjoy action RPGs or a challenge, then Dark Souls is definitely worth adding to your collection. Itís an epic game that is a whole lot of fun, despite the fact it takes pleasure in killing youÖ over and over again.
Review By: Mike Allison