Dark Souls (XBox 360, PS3, Steam)
Now I've enthused about this one before - in fact, if you're one of the tiny number of people who follow me on Google+, you may already know most of the things I'm about to say. Likewise, if you've spoken to me within the last year or so. The rest of you should stick the kettle on as this could take a while...
A lot of people have heard of Dark Souls - From Software's follow up to Demon's Souls although beyond featuring the word "souls" and being bastard hard, the two games have no narrative in common. You should, therefore, feel free to wade right into Dark Souls even if you haven't tried Demon's. Also, From Software have rapidly become one of those developers whom I trust completely to deliver and I'll pick their stuff up on spec (although the new Steel Batallion might challenge that view).
|Putting the "giant" into Giant Rat|
I'm actually going to start this with a note on the setting before I start wading in to the nitty gritty of how the game works and why it's excellent. You're an undead guy who has been unceremoniously dumped in an asylum and left there to turn 'Hollow' - a fate that befalls all undead sooner or later. Thing is, you're no regular undead: you're the chosen one and only you can help lift this horrible curse that blights the land. So far, so good.
Initial character selection has you picking between the usual assembly of RPG stalwarts. There's a couple of melee fighter types, a cleric, a rogue or two, some magic guys and a blank slate. As is normal for this sort of game, your first decision is an un-informed one - which character will best suit your play style? But you know what? It doesn't matter as pretty soon you'll be levelling up individual stats and the idea of a specific "class" rapidly falls by the wayside. You also get to take a punt on a gift that makes you chose between an obvious early game advantage versus something that's intriguing and promises some sort of reveal later on. Once more, it doesn't really matter what you pick.
From here on in, the game is presented in a standard, over-the-shoulder, 3rd person action adventure style. The camera's not too bad - pulling in whenever a wall threatens to obscure the character - but it's not ground breaking either.
What people say about it is all true: the game is Hard, yes. You will die. A lot. Even at the very beginning. Get used to it. Most other games ease you in. You can be pretty certain that you'll make it through the first few levels of tutorials without really being in any danger. Not so in Dark Souls. From the very moment you step out of your cell, you're in danger - even in the tutorial.
|Yeah - run away. Good idea.|
As well as these marks, you'll also find bloodstains. These are where unfortunate souls have met their maker and carked it. You can interact with said bloodstains at which point you'll be presented with a ghostly replay of their final moments. Sometimes this can be very useful as you'll see them turn a corner and fall back dead as the ambush or trap is sprung. Most of the time, you don't really learn much. They'll have met their death either in some generic combat and you'll see them getting battered by an unseen opponent or they'll have fallen off a ledge, which is always hilarious.
Combat and Weapons
Simply put, Dark Souls has the best melee combat mechanic that I've ever seen outside of a dedicated beat-em-up and it's this system that really makes the game.
The player has two combat resources - Stamina and Health. Stamina is lost by performing combat actions - swinging a sword, parrying with a shield, dodging, etc. It regenerates rapidly so long as you're not blocking and this forms the key strategy throughout the game - knowing when to drop your guard to regenerate your Stamina. Let your Stamina fall too low and you're pretty much defenceless. Let your health fall to zero and you die - but you knew that already.
The amount of damage done depends largely on the weapon being employed, the type of armour being worn as well as any level discrepancy between you and your opponent. There are also several different types of damage, ranging from physical and magical to fire and lightning. Armour should be equipped to deal with the sort of damage you're likely to encounter in the next section, likewise your choice of weapon - undead, for example, don't like fire and dragons are weak against lightning.
Weapons also come with a variety of minimum stats. You'll need a certain amount of strength or dexterity to wield them effectively. You can also elect to wield the weapon with both hands, increasing the amount of damage you inflict as well as reducing the strength requirement, which is a particularly nice touch as it gives you early access to more powerful weapons - the flip side being that you lose the use of your shield. All of this adds up to a very detailed and exploitative system.
But the real trick - the thing that sets it apart - is the balancing. Everything of a comparable level will do a ton of damage. I mean proper, kill-you-in-three-hits, amounts of damage. This seems like a ridiculous level of pain until you realise that there's always something you could have done to avoid taking it. With the correct shield or a well-timed dodge, you can mitigate any damage received to practically zero. This means that the only time you ever take damage is when you get it wrong.
It's your fault - always your fault - and this is vital.
Above all else, my number one rule of game design is that you can kill the player as often as you like in as many different ways as you like so long as he realises that it was his fault and that there was something he could have done about it. He must never blame the game for being unfair but must accept that, in this case, he got it wrong but he can fix it for the next time.
Defensively you have three options. You can either dodge out of the way, block the strike with your shield or attempt to parry the blow. Dodging out of the way, if done correctly, simply costs Stamina. Blocking is the simplest approach - just hold down the block button - but even the best shields will tend to let a small percentage of the damage through. Parrying is both the trickiest thing to pull off as well as the most rewarding. If you manage to time it such that the enemy's attack lands in the middle of your swift parry animation, you'll take zero damage as well as placing them in a vulnerable position for a quick reposte. These respostes do insanely huge amounts of damage as you run them through before kicking them off your blade. It's incredibly visceral and satisfying.
Either way, the sheer amount of damage being done, coupled with the Stamina system gives the combat a weight to it. Each blow lands with force. Each strike must be timed to perfection. It's no good relying on muscle memory either - opponents seem to have a random delay built in prior to their strike, meaning that any parrying you wish to do is purely reactionary - a small touch, but genius.
Killing things (or - more correctly - being there when things die) gives you rewards you with souls - the game's currency. These souls are used for everything - from purchasing new equipment to upgrading weapons to levelling up. Occasionally, enemy corpses can also give the player loot items.
Environment and Level Design
Visually, the environment is pretty much what you'd expect from a fantasy RPG. Plenty of old stone ruins, dripping sewers and bone-lined catacombs await the adventurer. So far, so whatever. They're not bad graphics by any stretch but they're hardly going to re-define the genre.
The level design and layout however...
Other than the tutorial asylum level, the rest of the world is entirely seamless. The player is free to wander off in any direction he likes and the game won't stop him. Of course, there are some areas that are probably best avoided at the start of the game and it's entirely up to the player to work that out for himself. Normally this involves completely failing to harm an opponent and dying in a single hit before realising that perhaps looking elsewhere would be a good idea.
In fact, this is one of the things that really strikes me about this game. Or not so much this game as other, modern efforts. It amazes me how much your modern gamer takes for granted. They assume that the game will tell them where to go. They assume that, if there's something there, it has been meticulously placed there to provide the right amount of challenge as the game clearly wouldn't have allowed them, in their present state, to reach that point. Dark Souls does not do this and I find it incredibly refreshing. You have to explore, to experiment - and most of the time, both of these things will result in your death.
Anyway, back to exploration. Dotted around the world are bonfires - these form your save points and dying will return you back to the last bonfire you rested at. Resting at a bonfire is as simple as lighting the thing and sitting down. It will instantly restore your health as well as fill up your Estus Flask (a limited use health potion)...
...as well as respawn nearly every creature in the game.
Yes, every time you venture forth from a bonfire, you will have to fight your way through the very same hordes you just fought on your last expedition.
This respawning, coupled with the finite health regeneration provided by the Estus Flask (or any heal spells you may have) gives a distinct "range" to your exploration. Ideally, you'll start at one bonfire and manage to make it to the next one so you don't have to turn back to restore your health. In reality, this won't happen for a long time but, with any luck, each time you strike out, you'll make it past more and more of the enemy units. In fact, those first units that you meet on your expedition will present less and less of a threat as you learn their attack patterns and animations. Pretty soon you'll be wading through them as if they were nothing... and then you'll die.
You'll die of complacency. All the while you're pounding on them without taking a hit you're forgetting the fact that one hit from them will easily take off a third of your health and leave you vulnerable for the next one. Relax for one second and this game will bite you in the arse. You must remain on top form each and every time you sally forth - even through areas you have cleared a hundred times before. It's not what I'd call a relaxing experience, but it is awesome - especially when you make it through to the next bonfire as it really feels as if you've earned it.
The level design really shines. It's a wonderfully artistic intertwining of passages and short cuts that constantly loops back on itself in interesting and clever ways. Each area tends to link to 3 or 4 other areas and there are multiple routes to find and open up. Normally, a lengthy expedition to the next bonfire or boss area will ultimately unlock a quick shortcut back to where you just came from. Subsequent trips can, therefore, be completed in a fraction of the time. Alternatively, you can take the long route and harvest plenty of souls on the way. This decision making process really comes through in the latter stages as your brain tries to act as a glorified sat nav, working out the optimum route based on challenge, time and desire for combat. It's nothing that hasn't been done before - witness Pokemon or Zelda - but it is done very well indeed.
Death, Hollowing and Humanity
Sooner or, um... even sooner - you're going to die.
|See that big dragon thing? Chances are, it's going to kill you.|
When that happens, you'll find yourself back at the last bonfire you rested at in a Hollow state. Any souls you'd collected as well as any Humanity you'd activated will be sitting at your bloodstain, lying just before where you died. All you have to do is get back to your bloodstain and interact with it to pick up all of your souls again. Simple? Well, no. Bear in mind that, since you 'used' a bonfire, all of the enemies have respawned and, since you kinda died there once before, chances are your bloodstain's in a fairly dangerous place, recovery can be troublesome. The fact that you can only have one bloodstain active at any one time should also weigh heavy on your mind - dying whilst on the way to recover your souls will result in a new bloodstain that only contains your current souls - the previous ones are permanently lost. This does a couple of things. Firstly, it makes for a very tense situation and, especially when it comes to boss fights, you can often find yourself recovering your souls only to die again shortly afterwards leaving a bloodstain with even more souls. Secondly, it can lead to controller breakage as you lose the net worth of the Undead Burg in one fell swoop. It's fair to say that I've rage quit on a number of occasions having just lost over 100k souls in a second. But this is also what makes the game awesome. In a previous post, I mentioned the poker player. Well, this is the same thing. You're invested. There's a lot on the line. Your action (recovery) has meaning (getting back or losing a lot of currency).
The whole Hollow / Humanity thing is a little confusing at first but bear with me and I'll try to explain it as best I can. Whenever you die, you enter a Hollow state. Whilst in this state, most of the online play options are blocked - you cannot summon people to your world but you can be summoned to help others. The flip side is that you also cannot be invaded by hostile players. In addtion, you can't kindle bonfires (filling your Estus flask with extra health) whilst Hollow.
The Hollowing process can be reversed by using Humanity items found throughout the world. Using a Humanity increases your Humanity number by one. This may then be sacrificed to turn you human again until the next time you die. Increasing the amount of Humanity currently deployed increases the likelihood of you finding cool items on killed enemies as well as boosts the effectiveness of certain weapons. Of course, it also means you're risking more as this Humanity ends up on your bloodstain should you die.
Online mode is the default setting for the game. They've really tried to create a sense of persistence with this. You're always connected to the world in some way - seeing the helpful marks, bloodstains or ghosts of other players. But there's also the discrete multiplayer available to those in a Human state, which generally boils down to two options - co-op and PvP.
Of course, being Dark Souls, it's pretty brutal out there which is another reason why a lot of people are scared of using up their Humanity in this way. There is something properly terrifying when the fog walls go up - preventing you from leaving the area - and the red invasion text appears on the screen. From that point on, you're locked in. Their only purpose is to ensure you die.
Of course, with them being a Phantom, they cannot interact with any of the resident denizens and exist purely to see that you die. You, however, have no such luxury and all of the things that would otherwise kill you in a regular playthrough can still very much kill you.
To help with this, or even just make the normal game a bit easier, you can also summon allies to help you. They appear as white phantoms in your world and will hang around until either you die, they die or you defeat the end of level boss. Summoning a friend to help you out is a real game-changer. Just the simple act of another body to take the aggro from a particularly tough enemy is enough to make your life considerably easier. Actually arranging for a specific friend to join your game is problematic in the extreme due to the slightly cumbersome interface. The benefit of having your friend with you easily outweighs this though.
There is also a magnificent Covenant system - a series of nine societies that you can join, each with their own agenda and codes of conduct. Some will have you actively dragged into other realms to do battle with invaders. Others will encourage you to raid other worlds or make yourself available for some Jolly Co-operation. Either way, it's very worthwhile spending a Humanity or two and experiencing this side of the game.
So there you have it. Dark Souls is an amazing game with some properly kick-arse mechanics. The combat is superb as is the level design. Playing it will make you realise just how much hand-holding goes on in modern games and, as such, it is a very refreshing experience. Of course, it's not the sort of game I'd fire up if I was looking to kill an hour or two with some relaxing entertainment as, at times, it can be brutally frustrating and always ensures that your heart rate is way up. As such, it always makes you feel alive.
Even when you're dead.