Dark Souls Game Review
For the most part, Dark Souls is a triumph of audio design. Particularly noteworthy is its score, which provides a superb, subtle and haunting extra dose of atmosphere to your play without ever drawing undue attention to itself. It also adds urgency and tension to ‘stand out’ moments, and it’s beautifully mixed in to the 5.1-channel surround soundstage too.
Most of the in-game effects work superbly as well. Combat sounds realistic, and the upsurge in audio ‘scale’ during boss battles is palpable and satisfying.
The only consistent bumnote in the game’s audio track is the dialogue. Bandai seems to have instructed pretty much all of the voice actors to deliver the game’s thankfully fairly sparse dialogue in a very subdued, almost monotone manner. We guess this is intended to maintain the game’s off-kilter and lonely atmosphere, but unfortunately its biggest effect is that it makes characters sound silly. And silliness is certainly not something that fits well with Dark Souls’ otherwise intense and foreboding atmosphere.
As with pretty much everything about Dark Souls, the game’s online elements are unusual, innovative, in many ways pretty brilliant, but also a bit obtuse.
The first hint you’ll get that there are other real people who can infiltrate your game world will be glowing orange messages on the floor. These, rather excellently, have been left by other players while playing their own games to provide tips, warnings, humour or even, in some naughty cases, deliberately bad advice.
While at first these messages might sound like incongruities or even pollutants to the game’s lonely ‘one (undead) man against infinite odds’ atmosphere, actually the little messages add a sense of community and even emotional relief that the game ultimately benefits from.
You can, of course, leave your own messages for players in other worlds too, once you’ve found the necessary artefact.
Another little early indication of your world crossing paths with that of other players comes in the shape of bloodstains on the floor. If you ‘activate’ one of these, you get to see a shadowy replay of the death of the player that died on that spot in their game. Occasionally this can be marginally helpful in figuring out how to beat an enemy, but mostly it’s just a bit of sadistic fun that you will probably stop bothering with quite quickly.
You can also set the game to show ‘ghosts’ of players in other games who happen to be playing in the same location as you. Another interesting idea finds the game generating so-called ‘vagrant’ enemies in your world if a player in another world loses a large amount of humanity or a certain item.
There is a positive benefit to having other players doing their thing in the same vicinity as you too: ‘synergy’. This means that if you cast a spell while another player is near, the spell will be more powerful. Though to be honest, we never really experienced this in action.
Things step up a few gears when you’re in human form. For at this point you will find some locations where white lettering on the floor provides an invitation written by another player to join with them and up up to one other player to take on an area boss together, in co-op mode. Again, you can leave such messages yourself once you’ve collected the necessary item.
This co-op alement is actually the biggest incentive to pursue being human, as taking down some of the bosses is way easier with two or three of you involved than it is with just one – not least because it means that the bosses have to divide their attentions between more players rather than focussing all their terrifyingly powerful attacks at you alone.
Yet another cute little trick we experienced a few times finds your store of health flasks rising by one if you happen to be the first person to use a bonfire after another player has just ‘kindled’ the same bonfire in their own game (kindling involves trading a humanity point in order to boost the number of health flasks you get each time you rest at a bonfire).
The most controversial aspect of Dark Souls’ online play is its Invasion system. This allows other players to invade your own world for real, and try to kill you. If they do, they get extra humanity. If they lose, they forfeit humanity. We’ve only been invaded a couple of times, but on both occasions it was by a much more powerful player who dispatched us with ease. Or maybe it was just us being rubbish again…
The actual invasions themselves are quite tense affairs and certainly offer a change of pace, but ultimately – even though they thankfully aren’t allowed if you get to a boss battle – we found them (and their threat) rather annoying distractions from our true purpose.
One rather cool thing, though, is that if you join a certain cult that appears part way through the game, you can put the names of anyone who invaded you into a Book of the Guilty, from where other players in the same covenant can simply select the name of the invader and enter their world as ‘Spirits of Revenge’ to try and get you some justice.
The Last Word
If you like your games to reward your efforts with a swift, continual and readily attainable sense of forward progress, Dark Souls is not for you. Its immense and wilful toughness makes advancing even a few extra yards through its world a huge test of patience, nerve and skill, and on your first play through, at least, you won’t get anywhere unless you’re willing to boost your level just by ‘grinding’ the same relatively straightforward areas again and again and again.
If you fancy yourself as a skilled player who loves nothing more than to have a game constantly throw ‘beat me if you dare’ gauntlets down, though, Dark Souls is an outstandingly rewarding, imaginative, endlessly inventive and beautifully presented experience that fully understands that if you’re going to make people work so hard to progress, the rewards on offer need to be as grandiose and spectacular as the challenges.
Online elements: 14/20
There are any number of sequences in Dark Souls where your jaw will be left hanging open in awe, but the moment that first sealed our addiction to wanting to see what other spectacles the game might have to hold was the appearance of the enormous red dragon at the end of a long, impossibly high bridge. Awe-inspiring.
Sometimes, if you’re not needing to grind up your level, there’s a lot to be said for just legging it through sections of Dark Souls. Most of the foes don’t react particularly fast to your presence, so you can just sprint past them in a bid to get to a boss or other tough enemy without losing health flasks during skirmishes en route.