Thursday, July 11, 2013

Dark Souls Prepare to die edition Review

Platform: PC
Genre: RPG

  • "I am Solaire of Astora, an adherent to the Lord of Sunlight.
  • Now that I am Undead, I have come to this great land, the birthplace of Lord Gwyn, to seek my very own sun!"
    • —Solaire of Astora

  • So ... Dark Souls. 
I think this is one of those games you either love it or not. It's From Software latest creation and the spiritual successor of Demon's Souls which came out only on the PS3. I got my hands on it and I was hooked. I couldn't stop playing it, I needed to know what was in every corner of the game and hunt every achievement I could, though interrupted by a HDD failure.

What you should know from the beginning is that, this is From Software's first PC game and they only ported it due to fan request, so if that's your platform of choice be prepared for some headaches. For starters the game is barely playable with a keyboard and mouse, Steam even recommends you use a controller when you're buying the game. Then, of course, there are frame limitations and whatnot which come with console versions of any game. But someone came to our rescue and you can download a utility called DSFix that will solve most of your issues). I can say I had a really pleasurable experience playing with a PS3 controller and also not a very bad one using the keyboard and mouse (after getting accustomed to the control scheme). Also bare in mind that this was done as a fanservice and they also threw in the Artorias of The Abyss DLC into it as a bonus. 

Now that we got the technicalities out of the way ... let's go to the game mechanics and style. It kept most of what made Demon's Souls great, but I feel they twitched the difficulty down a bit. The game keeps its predecessor's undead/dead mechanic but with a few twists to accustom the story. Dark Souls's story develops in a brand new setting with absolutely no connection to Demon's Souls Boletaria. Instead Lordran welcomes you with its arms opened, so to say, although those arms are trying to kill you in any sadistic manner possible. Unlike the hub-based gameplay of its predecessor, Dark Souls offers players a open world map to explore. With time you will find a lot of shortcuts through the place that will greatly help you later on or at least make travels a lot easier. It also looks awesome. You can see places you have been before or are yet to come from far away and the details thrown into all of it make every corner of the map great. You get a lot of "Ohhhh so that's where I was" moments, and ever time is at least a good relief that you don't have to go a long way back. But the terrain can come as a advantage or disadvantage making many fights agains a certain enemy vary in difficulty depending on the surroundings. For instance there is this Capra Demon Boss that is designed as a challenge to the player to prepare him for the upcoming areas. He is a big goat-like demon dual-wielding humongous sword in a very tight corridor. You can either try to dodge him and chop away at his health bar or use the terrain to your advantage. But if you were to fight him in a more opened space it shouldn't prove as difficult. Another lacking element is the music. Well, not actually lacking, tha game has music but only in some areas and is very subtle but enough to please you. On the other hand most of your journey you will only hear your character walking, mechanisms turning and the sound of your weapon slashing through the air, bitting from a enemies flesh or bouncing of armour or walls.

The story is presented to you very scarce. Enough to please the casual guy who isn't necessarily following the plot and there is also a lot more to discover for the one who wants an explanation for everything. You can get some extra information from the item description in your inventory and there is also a lot of space for speculation. You can find a lot of awesome lore videos on youtube that might give you a idea, usually backed up with evidence of why a certain corpse (which might seem just as something to loot) is in a certain spot. I've seen a lot of really interesting stuff and it greatly improved my already heightened appreciation of this game.  Of course, you can make your own speculations. Along the way, you will also find NPC's and they will have you do something out for them or figure something up since they are stuck. Through repeated encounters you can develop and finish their storyline and make them find their ... peace or fail at some point and see them go nuts in most cases. Also, the backstories and motivation of the different bosses impending your progress can and will make you feel like a dick for killing them most of the time.

  • "Oh, hello there. I will stay behind, to gaze at the sun.
  • The sun is a wondrous body. Like a magnificent father!
  • If only I could be so grossly incandescent!"
    • Solaire of Astora

The player seeks out as a undead chosen to go to the land of gods, Lordran. A bit redundant, but it's journey starts in a prison, and after recovering his equipment he sets out on his journey just to end up at the Firelink Shrine where he is presented with his first quest, ringing the Bells of Awakening. And that's it, the start of Dark Souls. Another different approach to the RPG genre is that there is no quest log or anything to hold your hand through the game. The only thing that can limit your thirst of exploration are the monsters and bosses inhabiting the world, and of course a few doors that can only be opened when passing a certain point in the story. Although the concept of a open-world is a bit different, I haven't had this feeling of treating every new enemy like a potential mini-boss since Gothic 1. Of course that was a while ago and many things changed, but it's a feeling that just can't be put in words. Every monster has it's own fighting style and you have to pay attention to their every move. Almost just like a real-life fight. Being a game it's still reduced to patterns, but before catching up on those you can have a lot of fun during your first 2-3 or more playthroughts (the new game pluses go a long way).  

The control scheme is a bit tricky at the beginning but you can get easily accustomed to it and it's very effective. For the record, I will remind you that I played most of the game with a PS3 controller and I will refer to the controls as mapped on a gamepad. The triggers are assigned to whatever the character has in it's respective hand and the shoulder buttons to use the alternate attacks of said items. As a funny note the game let's you do, almost, whatever you want. You can go nuts duel-wielding shields or humongous weapons like the Dragon Tooth (yes, it's actually a huge fang) even if you lack the required stats. Of course they won't work and they also added clunky move animations when you try attacking with something that's over your limits (nice touch From developers). Now for normal-sane builds, if you get a weapon that's a over your stats you can wield it with both hands and it's requirements will lower a bit. Of course it's move-set will change a bit. Here's another interesting thing about Dark Souls. LIke its predecessor, every weapon has a different move-set. So, the numbers attached to a weapons damage are not everything you should look at. Most of the weapons scale with a stat or more in a way and that adds to the damage output based on it. Also you should take a newly acquired weapon and have a few swings to see its move-set and if it satisfies your playing style. I made the same mistake in Dark Souls and Demon's Souls of farming until I had enough strength to wield the biggest weapon I had (and had the biggest damage output) ... "Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me". ... just to find out it took my character quite a while even to lift the damn thing, yet alone attack with it. Since I said I farmed, I should explain the leveling up system a bit. You get a certain amount of souls from every enemy you kill and then you get to use them at bonfires to level up your character. Every level (called soul-level) requires a (increasing) amount of souls and lets you put one stat point into a attribute like strength, dexterity, faith, pyromancy and so on. You need to rest at bonfires to do this though. Resting will respawn al killed enemies except bosses and some tougher ones and will recharge your estus flasks, the healing potions of the game.  And they are also used for other reasons, like changing your equipped spells, autosaving and setting itself as the respawn point in case of horrible death. Bonfires can also do more neat stuff, for example through upgrades, you can repair your items here, instead of visiting a certain blacksmith and some other uses revealed as you progress through the story. Also, scattered the world you find humanity which, among other stuff, can be used to enkindle the bonfires and make them give you more estus flasks.

You should decide early on in the game what you want to do with your character since playing with a mix of this and that is not recommended. Also there are some attributes that are utterly useless and some limits which if you go beyond don't make much of a difference anymore. You might say that one point per level sounds a bit ... limiting, but the maximum level is around 700, it varies a bit on your class. i won't talk about these since I don't want to spoil anything and I feel that messing up your first character is a must in this game :). While for dexterity, strength, vitality, protection it's straight forward what they do ... you might wonder what is faith or pyromancy. As any RPG, Dark Souls offers the possibilty to play as a spell-caster. But even here you can choose what to do. Since there are more branches of magic. There is pyromancy, the art of wielding magic based on fire and to cast you need to have equipped a pyromancer's glove. There are also Miracles and Sorceries which require the usage of a catalyst or a talisman. Every type of magic has a corespondent attribute that limits the number of spells the player can have equipped. Some may say that the due to the unusual control scheme and brutality of the game it's learning curve is skyrocketing. When you play the intro/tutorial area you can see that they gave it to us on a silver platter. You get to fight a enemy with no weapon, then one with a weapon, then a bow, a shilded one, a combination of two types and so on (this wasn't a accurate flow of events description ... but I haven't played the beginning in a while).

Going back to the weapons ... 
When you find weapon with a move-set you like and which scales nicely you can keep most of the game ... or until the next one that makes you jaw-drop, you can spend souls on upgrading it. And with special ore that drops from enemies you can give it special types of elemental damage. And yes, enemies are weak against one kind of them, especially bosses. I would also recommend trying every weapon you find with or without the required stats because it can lead to very hilarious moments.  

Another funny but also intense moment is a death. It can be cinematic while you're getting backstabbed but it's also a sorta panic moment. Let me put that in proper language. Every time you die, you leave a corpse behind with all your souls and you become hollow. Now here things get interesting. Since all the enemies respawn in the area it may be hard to get back to your corpse without dying. And if you die again, you just lost your harvested souls. Just think that you're almost at the next bonfire, passed a annoying battle with more then two types of enemies (yeah, you pulled too many), carrying around 80k souls (and a level up is around 12k) and you die ... to make things worse ... you die in while falling off the cliff or going into water that is too deep since you didn't notice the limit mid bossfight. And then there is hollowing that makes the player unable to enkindle bonfires and not able to see summon signs or get invaded (both from online players or special NPC's). Oh, it also makes your character look like a undead. To revert this one must consume a humanity, and visit a bonfire. Humanity can also be consumed to have a increased drop rate and curse resistance (curses are nasty, trust me). It also remains behind with the body and souls in case of death.

Since I mentioned being invaded, the game kept it's predecessors social component. If you don't know what I'm talking about, well ... just don't think about tweets. Any player can leave behind messages indicating hidden walls, enemies, a nice view or just be trolling and leave random "jump here" traps, so it's up to the player to decide what to do with the information he received. Besides these there are summon signs. On can leave a summon sign behind and be called in another player's world to help him. The connection lasts until one dies or the boss of the area is killed. There are many special ways to be introduced into another person's world or be summoned to a defend areas of other intruding players. These are tied to the covenants in the game. These act like guilds with special entry requirements given by a covenant leader and something to do after joining that increases your level and you get special rewards the higher you go. Once you find a new one you can leave the former one but might lose some bonus items or spells and anger them. But with some souls you can buy forgiveness, so you can go and try them all. The multiplayer really gives the game some BIG extra brownie points. The things you have to do, and go through to get them all are awesome and add a lot of game time to a playthrough depending on how thorough are you. Besides lending a hand, you can also invade other players and attack them. Now, the sad part is, that on the PC version there are hackers ... and besides the obvious frustration sometimes a encounter with one of them can leave your saves corrupted. But, this is just something I heard of (a lot) but didn't experience and DSFix can be set up to back up your saves.

As mentioned, the Prepare to die edition, also includes the Artorias of The Abyss DLC. These is a whole new story-arc containing multiple areas, new enemies, bosses, items and a magic type. So, it's big. Console users can also get it for a little sum of money and it was a good surprise for them since the game was out for a while and everyone was at their 10+ run. The DLC content starts as a story line that can be accessed somewhere mid-game (actually anytime, if you get there alive) and at some point will let yourself go into the new world. And because .... Dark Souls ... the first thing you encounter is a boss. I have to say there some nice new monster types and bosses around there. Also a alternate storyline that can change a certain cinematic back into the main game. 

So ... Dark Souls is a combination of a great gameplay and game design, interesting storytelling style, breath-taking visuals (although poorly optimised), intense combat, steep but fair learning curve, really awesome lore and storyline, subtle music and sadly a poor PC port, but thanks to the community it's catching ground. From Software already announced Dark Souls 2 and I just hope they won't go too mainstream with it and dumb it down.

the bad: the PC port
the good: fighting style, difficulty

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