Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Review: Dark Souls (Prepare to Die edition)

Dark Souls is a great, dark fantasy RPG. It is set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world, where vile creatures are everywhere and nowhere is safe. The game's atmosphere is very intense and immersive, thanks to beautifully-crafted locations and dramatic music that usually plays during boss fights. The flow of the game is sort of semi-linear, meaning that more often than not there is a choice of several locations to do in your own order of preference and in many of those locations there are branching paths, often leading to shortcuts to the previous locations, hence saving you the time in case you wanted to go back.

The game starts with a mindblowing intro which gives us a little backstory of the setting and shows some of the characters that appear later in the game. It is easily one of the most captivating intros out there.

Now of course one of the most defining features of Dark Souls is its high difficulty. However, it is quite unlike most other challenging games out there. The way it is designed, dying is an important part of the game, and hence the words 'Prepare to Die' have to be taken seriously. The players should expect to die frequently, at which point the game simply continues and returns them back to the last bonfire (checkpoint) rested at with all enemies respawned. The trick is not about trying to avoid death altogether, but about picking yourself up and learning from your mistakes. It's a tactical game in that regard, because every enemy and every boss requires the right approach, and until you approach them with the correct mindset, they will keep beating you again and again. Admittedly sometimes it can be annoying having to walk big portions of the area and fighting the same enemies to get back to the boss fight, but it is almost always well worth it.

 Dark Souls is not a button masher. It's not about how fast you can hit the attack button, but more about your timing, patience, concentration, and battle strategy. Its premise is quite simple really - persistence and determination pay off. Initially a lot of the game seems overwhelming and many areas and bosses seem impossible, but eventually any challenge can be beaten. There have been times I thought to myself “There is no way I can pull this off”, but after trying numerous times and adjusting my strategy accordingly, I found myself magically overcoming everything. As a result you get an overwhelming sense of reward and accomplishment after having beaten any challenge in the game.

As far as I noticed, the game has two major learning curves, and that’s when most people are likely to give up on the game. The first learning curve happens in the first post-tutorial level, the Undead Burg. That’s when the player learns the basic tactics of combat and gets into the mindset of finding ways to make their own rules in combat as opposed to what the game tricks them into doing. For example: luring the enemies out into safer battle ground, fighting one on one as opposed to a group, and so on. The second learning curve happens at around halfway point in the game, the area called Anor Londo. This is because at this point perhaps the sharpest rise in difficulty is felt as every enemy there is tough. This area is the one where players are turned from marginally competent into expert combatants.

One of the interesting aspects also is how players can leave messages on the ground, hence allowing other players to see them and this way indirectly interact with each other. Many of those messages are helpful warning signs, giving tips on how to handle a tough enemy ahead or notices about a treasure hidden nearby, but at times there'd be some which are meant to mislead you, so player discretion is required at all times.

The game excels at many things, but if I had to pick the one thing it does best, then I’d go with the boss fights. These are some of the most engaging, most punishing, and ultimately most rewarding boss fights I have ever experienced in gaming. There are plenty of them scattered throughout the game, some are compulsory to progress further, whilst others are completely optional. The boss fights is also when most of the game’s fantastic music scores tend to play in order to set the scene and give a sense of dread and doom.

Also want to quickly cover the Artorias of the Abyss DLC, which is already included in the Prepare to Die edition. It’s pretty all right for a DLC. It gives a few new areas for the players to explore and also pits us against some really challenging bosses, even more challenging than most bosses in the original game, but once again - very much worth it.

Now I want to also mention some criticisms. Although I absolutely loved the game, it does have some drawbacks too. Well, first of all it’s important of a mention that the PC version is a pretty bad console port. Not only using mouse and keyboard feels awkward, but also most of the in-game instructions tend to refer to the buttons on an Xbox controller. However, simply acquiring a gamepad solves the whole problem. Therefore I would highly advise the use of a gamepad/controller to play this game on PC.

Now for another small criticism - one of the game’s features is that players can invade each other’s worlds and have a PvP. However, what I noticed is that this feature is a bit out of control and in some areas you get invaded every few minutes and more often than not the invaders have better gear and higher level than you, which can be only irritating when playing an already difficult game. It just feels that the PvP aspect is forced upon all players, even though some might not be wishing to engage in it. The only way around that is to play most of the game on hollow mode. It has some drawbacks, like not being able to summon NPCs to help you in boss fights, but the game can still be played in its entirety like this, with only maybe occasional reverting back to human form to kindle bonfires and that’s it.

Gotta love Frampt's cheesy grin

Dark Souls is certainly not for everyone. From what I’ve seen so far, people either love it or hate it, but you never know until you first try it, which is why I am very glad I’ve decided to do so after a recommendation by a friend. If you're looking for a casual and relaxing game, Dark Souls will not fill that niche, but it is definitely worth looking into if you’ve ever for at least a minute wanted something challenging and intense. It’s one of a kind game, delivering an incredibly immersive experience and making you shed blood and sweat in order to gain victory.

My score: 9.5/10

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