Dark Souls Review
I know I'm supposed to love Dark Souls for its modernization of old-school video game challenge. I agree that the rest of the game industry could learn something from this medieval action-RPG and make their games a little more difficult in what Dark Souls fans will insist is a "fair" way, but I don't think that adding cheap shots around every corner and constantly having to retry the same same areas over and over (and over and over) until you perfectly execute every riposte, parry, dodge, jump, and weapon thrust through twenty to forty minutes of play at a time is the right move for most game developers.
Dark Souls is a successor to Demon's Souls, an underrated PS3 exclusive from a few years ago. It's made by Japanese developer From Software, and now it's coming to Xbox 360 as well as PS3, and this game very quickly gives you a wake-up call: you're not the hero, you're not invincible, and you're going to have to play smart and execute all of your moves perfectly just to survive. Of course, that's once you're locked in combat, but you also have to anticipate the initial attacks of a sinister army of undead and demonic creatures that will get the drop on you almost constantly. From firebombs hurled from above to huge dragons that dare you to step just one foot towards them, Dark Souls tempts players constantly and punishes exploration and curiosity. For those that can accept those deaths, come back and triumph, then this game is amazing and very satisfying to play.
Unfortunately, Dark Souls steepens the difficulty curve almost immediately. Despite the posted warnings of other players in the more innocuous part of the game's online mode, you'll still find yourself wondering what's about to jump out of the dark at you, only to be stabbed in the back because the warning wasn't terribly clear. And let's not even talk about Dark Souls' version of internet trolls that invade other people's games...
Dark Souls is certainly appealing to start. Its dark medieval style is similar to that of its predecessor and there's still nothing that looks quite like it available on the current generation of consoles, and you might even be lulled into complacency by following all of the directions given to you in the game's introductory level and making it through mostly unscathed. After that, through, you're dumped right into the deep end - sometimes literally, if you fall off the second level's steep cliffs while fighting skeletons - and are expected to quickly figure out combat, dodging, movement, and how to deal with both ranged and melee attackers that don't just stand in front of you. Much like we've seen with many Japanese action games, Dark Souls locks your character into many lumbering and often slow movements that can send you falling to your death or directly into the tip of a skeleton's sword. You can't interrupt one action with another, so you've got to be precise and sure of what you're doing.
Is it worth spending hours dying, even if every death gives you an extra fraction of the knowledge to help you beat the next boss or get to the next bonfire? Not for most people, no. Dark Souls is not meant for the casual player who works fifty hours a week, gets a scant hour or two to unwind every day, and simply wants to be entertained. This game is meant for the hardcore, dedicated player who sees repeated, frustrating deaths as a mounting challenge to try again, improve that little bit and get closer to tasting victory with each death. For the rest, it serves as an invitation to see how big a hole a thrown controller can open up in the nearest wall.
If you can dig into Dark Souls' amazing atmosphere and tight combat design, it's actually quite brilliant, but you're going to need nerves of steel and a sense of perseverance that AAA games have been moving us away from over the last twenty years. From Software's refusal to relent on the difficulty - or to implement multiple difficulty modes to ease us into the experience - is lauded by many hardcore gamers, but I feel like they're just hurting themselves. I could more readily get into this game, and even eventually play on the intended difficulty level, if I could get hooked on it a little better and just have more time learning the basics of offense and defense, but being forced to repeat the beginnings of the same levels so many times turns me right off.
This kind of frustrating repetition was fine when I was a kid and would get home from school and just play for hours without a care for homework or chores, but now, I require just a little more motivation to keep me coming back - especially as an adult with a family and a busy schedule. Even playing a review copy (supplied by Namco) as a critic, Dark Souls was a chore. It's a wonderful game, but I also found it maddening to sit down with, and despite the many hardcore players that are very satisfied with the game and insist that it's worth it, Dark Souls is simply not for me. But if you're a masochist that enjoys tough, punishing games - or if you had pretty much any fun in Demon's Souls - then by all means, buy this latest, because it's a perfect successor. Me, I've done enough yelling and cussing at this game to last me through the end of the year.