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Dark Souls Dark Souls PS3 – Judged to be excellent

February 13, 2012

Dark Souls PS3 Video Game Review ($38 street price)

My bottom line:

Dark Souls is an epic must-buy for players who love a challenging, action-oriented and strategic RPG.  The difficulty level has been tweaked and the world greatly expanded resulting in a 100+ hour diversion with a unique on-line component.

Full Review:

Why do we play video games as adults?  The video game appeal for kids is obvious.  The fantasy or fairy tale settings, bright graphics, quirky sounds and repetitive action are a perfect complement to a child’s short attention span, quick reflexes and eagerness to play in make-belief worlds.  But an adult gamer has a different set of criteria (or at least should).  Video games have graduated to an equal footing with movies in trying to provide a completely immersive environment.  Adult gamers crave that full immersion and attachment to a game that warrants multiple playthroughs or addictive repetitive gameplay.

Adult gamers also want value for their money.  Pricing for new games has escalated along with production values of current generation video games.  The value equation is different for each game and gamer. It includes length of gameplay, repeatability and on-line play, graphics and sounds, controls, story and even post-release support.  A good game provides a satisfying mix of many of these based on the genre and intended audience.

Okay, so this is supposed to be a review about Dark Souls.  Why the diatribe about what makes a good game? The truth is I am partially rationalizing to myself (and my lovely spouse) my irrational addiction to Dark Souls.  This video game hits all the RPG hot buttons for my “generic” adult gamer.

Great production values – check

Great sounds and graphics – check

Great controls – check

Online and co-op play – check

Challenge and difficulty – double check

Lengthy campaign mode – quadruple check

The result is the best but thankfully not hardest action RPG I have ever played.

Production values:

From the beginning, the “world” of Dark Souls feels complete.  The character design, backgrounds, music, levels and sound effects blend seamlessly into a whole.  This completeness immediately sucks you into the game.  It is obvious that From Software sweated the details and diligently used every second of the 2 year development cycle to “polish the apple”.

Close-up of the characters, enemies, armor and weapons reveal small touches, like the scratches on a shield or the intricate pattern of the armor.  Some of the armor sets are absolute works of art.  Check out the Dark Knight Set or, my personal favorite, the Set of Favor.   I even found myself favoring some armor pieces over more protective ones because they better “fit” my in-game avatar.

The sounds and graphics will blow you away.  I had several non-playing family members comment on how realistic the character and on-screen world appeared, as they walked by the TV.  One said that it was like watching an animated movie.

You are immediately enveloped in the classic “Demons’ Souls” atmosphere.  The hair on the back of your neck will stand and your heart will beat faster as you progress into new and more dangerous areas.  This is especially true of crossing fog doors during your first playthrough, not knowing what lies ahead.

The story is convoluted and takes a back seat to the gameplay.  It is somewhat reminiscent of Demon’s Souls but mostly a forgettable affair about dethroning the Great Lord Gwyn.  There are again multiple endings depending on your end game choice.

Gameplay:

Dark Souls is a difficult game.  If you die, you are sent back to the last kindled bonfire.  You can level up, repair weapons and warp to other levels via these checkpoints.  However, all of the enemies will regenerate, and you will lose all of your “souls”.  To truly progress in this game, you must play without dying up until the next bonfire.  On the way, you can pick-up your lost souls since the game marks the point of death with a bloodstain.  However, if you die before reaching your bloodstain you will forever lose those souls.  Believe me, there will be controller-breaking moments due to an untimely death that cost you a large number of souls.

Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls predecessor, is generally regarded as one of the most difficult games ever made.  From Software has taken pity on us poor game players and made Dark Souls less difficult but punishing and rewarding.

Darks Souls does not penalize you with a shorter health bar while you are undead.  Your health bar will be full at all times.  However, Dark Souls introduces the concept of humanity.  You cannot kindle fires, summon help, invade, or be invaded without humanity.  Humanity also affects drop rates and the power of chaos weapons and spells.

Armor is fully upgradeable and makes a significant difference to overall character defense.   Also, armor is no longer gender dependent.  Male and female characters can equip every single piece of available armor.  Armor, weapons, rings and shields should be varied based on the particular area or upcoming boss encounter.

Weapons and armor can be upgraded much more frequently and up to a higher level than in Demon’s Souls.  Drop rates for all but the highest upgrade materials are mercifully high and can be increased with humanity and the Covetous Gold Serpent Ring.  The best armor sets and weapons are upgraded with Twinkling Titanite, which is available from a vendor at roughly the mid-game level.

The beginning of Demon’s Souls is extraordinarily hard, requiring perfect play for a 20 to 40 minute stretch.  This is a lot to ask while you are trying to master the mechanics and figure out the game.  Many players never finished the game because they could not get past the tough beginning.

Fortunately, Dark Souls does not require perfect play for such an extended amount of time at the start.  You pick up your equipment, health potions (Estus Flasks) and eventually have your first thrilling boss encounter within 2-5 minutes.  You are then warped to the world hub where you can truly start exploring at will.

The difficulty level ratchets up smoothly as you progress in the game.  As in Demon’s Souls, each boss must be approached in a very strategic manner.  If you need help, online play allows you to summon a friendly phantom to help you conquer a particularly hard boss.

Patient gameplay is absolutely required.  Run through a new level and you will quickly find yourself at the last bonfire without any souls.  There are occasional cheap hits but they can be survived or avoided with careful navigation.

I cannot emphasize the importance of mastering the controls.  Once you do, the game is significantly easier and more fun.  Experiment with different tactics and try to find your play style.  Once you have settled on a melee, magic or hybrid character, equip complimentary equipment.  You will soon be a butt-kicking machine ready to pounce onto the next boss fight.

Controls:

Demon Souls introduced a revolutionary set of controls for RPG’s.  The controls were absolutely spot-on and responsive allowing you an incredible amount of control over your character’s sword fighting or magic wielding.  Dark Souls keeps the same controls and adds the ability to jump (believe me this is a big deal for Demon’s Souls veterans).  It’s a bit tricky as the run button is contextual.  A double click will make you jump, a click from a standing position is a backstep, a click from a walk/jog will cause a roll and a click while running will make you broad jump.

There are also some subtle adjustments to equipment loading.  Equipment burdens over 50% will slow you down to a crawl and make your character a sitting duck for most fights.  This was not the case in Demon’s Souls, which let you run at a modest pace while over encumbered.

In Dark Souls, running speed is reduced above 25% encumbrance.  But the Dark Wood Grain will let run at a fast clip at up to 50%.  Even better, this ring changes the rolling animation to a very cinematic gymnastic flip.  You cannot be hit during a flip dodge making this ring essential for boss fights or PVP battles where evading is paramount.

Stamina management is utterly important regardless of your play style.  You will be immobile while your stamina bar recharges.  Fierce attacks, heavier weapons and shield blocks require more stamina, adding a strategic wrinkle to enemy encounters.  The Crest Shield, the Child’s Mask and the Cloranthy Ring buff your stamina recovery rates and are favored by agile players.

Newbies will have to work hard on their sword fighting skills while Demons Souls veterans should have no trouble with the mechanics.  Once the controls are mastered, the game difficultly will significantly decrease.  Backstabs are easier to pull off allowing low level characters to take on mid-bosses or optional tough enemies earlier in the stage.  You will be rewarded with an advanced drop but risk a one-hit-kill (OHK).  Expert gamers can make use of the risk-reward gameplay style during speedruns to reach special items or just navigate quickly through the large worlds.  Check out Youtube for some amazing speed runs using this technique.

RPG Elements:

Depending on your skill, you may be able to complete the game in 10-30 hours but completionists can look forward to hundred+ hours of adventuring while searching for that elusive rare item.  Dark Souls does not hold your hand in any way.  You are given some very loose clues as to where you should go.  As a result, you will end up investigating every nook and cranny of the various inter-connected areas. This can be frustrating if you happen to wonder into the wrong area with a low level character.  It’s also a bit of a clue.  If you are suffering from OHK’s, you are probably in the wrong place.

There is no questing in this dungeon crawler. The game world presents you with different interconnected areas with a mini-boss or boss fight required to proceed.  Some boss fights can be skipped altogether.  Also, it is possible to evade most enemies by running if you have good evade skills and have memorized the level layouts.

Your RPG skills will be taxed by the many tactical and strategic decisions depending on your build.  There are a myriad of options and play styles available based on your leveling and upgrade decisions.  Besides character stats, most items are upgradeable.  Weapons, shields and armor also have unique attributes (like special two handed attacks or resistance buffs).   Boss souls can be transformed about mid-level into unique specials.  These soul weapons are a bit of a disappointed as most are weaker than fully leveled standard items, and require rare grade material (farmable in late-game from a very tough re-spawnable mini-boss).

You decide where and when to go allowing for as much level grinding and item farming as you want prior to a boss fight.  Most levels will trigger a shortcut to the boss close to end.  These shortcuts can also be used to access hidden areas or powerful items in early game, once you master the rolling technique and have memorized the layout.

Replayability and online component:

Dark Souls refines Demons Souls’ revolutionary online play with some helpful tweaks.  When online and in soul form, you can invade or invite other players for PvP, coop or a combination of these.  Invasion rules vary depending on your covenant.  Online play is rewarded with unique upgrade items.  After the 1.05 patch that removed most duplication glitches, your only choice to obtain these items is online play.  You can choose to help or battle others of roughly similar levels.

Online play is not for everyone.  You will encounter expert players that have staked out strategic positions and carefully planned their inventory to maximize an advantage online.  Online encounters can be frustrating if your build happens to be a bad matchup (you are a pyromancer and your invader has heavy fire defense) or if you are invaded while carrying many souls or humanity.

Solo players should play offline.  The game will still provide you with AI phantoms that can be summoned for key boss fights.  You can play online with the added protection of a friend if you are at a level or location that is invader territory.  Another option is to create several characters to experiment with build types and online/offline play.

All-in-all, Dark Souls players benefit from online encounters.  Your fighting skills will improve and you may score that elusive item required for a covenant upgrade.

In the end:

Dark Souls is the best fighting dungeon crawler available for any platform.  Do not be dissuaded from picking up this masterpiece because of the reported difficulty of the game.  This time around, From Software has mercifully tamed the beginning.  In addition, there are several powerful campaign items available from the start if you are willing to die a few times (see my tips and tricks below).  The right equipment, strategy and upgrades will help you survive the toughest boss battles.   Expect to be rewarded with some challenging boss fights, cinematic cut scenes, spectacular environments and a true sense of accomplishment as you progress through the game.

Tips and tricks for new players:

  • The knight has the best starting equipment with a 100% physical block shield, heavy armor and a strong weapon.  The armor can take you through the whole game if regularly upgraded.  Even if you don’t favor melee, select the knight and level up based on your desired build since armor is expensive.
  • The pyromancer spells do not upgrade based on any stat but rather based on souls.  This makes the pyromancer superior to a magician, which requires regular intelligence upgrades for more powerful magic spells.
  • The cleric has the highest starting Faith, access to an expensive early game miracle and can wield Astora’s Sword after only 2 level upgrades.
  • The sorcerer has 3 spell slots and a powerful ranged spell but little vitality and endurance.  Pure sorcerers are for advanced players only.
  • The warrior has balanced stats favoring melee with decent starting equipment, including the best shield in early game.
  • Astora’s Straight Sword, the Dragon Crest Shield, and the Spider Shield are available from the beginning, if you choose the Master Key as your gift.
  • Fast rolling can be used to reach Blightown at the beginning of the game. Once at the swamp level, the bonfire is located close-by to the left.  From the bonfire, you can access 6K souls, green and large titanite shards, the pyro armor set (strong poison and fire resistance), the server, the great club and the Poison Mist pyromancy.  The Crimson Set is located 2 levels above the waterwheel past a long bamboo corridor and tree branches.
  • Grind out to level up or improve your weapons and armor if you are dying too much in early game.
  • Read the online messages in early game.  Most users’ posts are helpful.
  • Boss fights are fun and challenging but must be approached strategically.  Analyze the attack pattern and weak points of a boss during a fight.  Much can be learned from an untimely death.
  • Master the backstab, block, parry and counter.  You cannot rely on magic alone because mana is renewable only at stage save points.  Sole magic users will see a steep difficulty increase in late game as most enemies have high magic defense.
  • Buy the Crest of Artorias as soon as you can.  The enemies can be lured off the cliff next to the door, yielding 7k souls on every run through.
  • Concentrate on endurance in early game until you can wield your weapon or armor of choice.  Then level up based on your favorite build and play style.
  • Take advantage of early game encounters with black knights as they drop rare and powerful items.  Only engage them when you are holding some humanity to increase the drop rate.  Increase your endurance as much as you can and enchant your weapon with resin to give yourself a chance to win with a low level character.  Use backstabs or a ranged spell.
  • Do not rush forth or you will die.  Once you have cleared an area, you can run through it but adventure with caution into new territory.
  • Unlike Demon Souls, there are no differences in male or female characters.
  • Unlike Demon Souls, armor is important and is upgradeable.  Mix and match items as needed.
  • Melee builds should concentrate on basic weapons with high stat modifiers.  Strength-based characters with an upgraded enchantable weapon can do more damage than similar level non-melee builds with fire or magic weapons.
  • Humanity is incredibly important in early game.  You must be in human form to summon help for a boss fight.  Humanity also increases the drop rate for unique items that make a great difference in early game.  Do not waste humanity to recover health.  Do not overkindle.
  • Twinkling Titanite is also very important and rare in early game.  Do not upgrade an item with it carelessly.
  • If you need humanity (and who doesn’t) in early game, farm the rats in the tunnel leading to the Undead Burg and under the bridge.
  • You can kill the first vendor in early game for some quick humanity, the residence key and the Uchigatana.  He does not sell overly useful items.
  • The difficulty visibly ramps up in Anor Londo.  Make sure you are prepared for the boss fight easily the toughest one in the game.  Equip the Stone Armor, the Silver or Black Knight Shield and a good fire weapon.  Choose from Havel’s Ring, the Thunder Stone Plate Ring, the Blue Tearstone Ring, the Cloranthy Ring or the Dark Wood Grain Ring based on your build and play style.  Summon an ally to prevent both bosses from engaging you.
  • If you want to exploit the Snuggly The Crow cheat, do not patch the game (make sure you are offline prior to inserting disc into the PS3 the first time and then stay offline).
  • You must complete multiple playthroughs to obtain all the rare items.
  • Kindle the Duke’s Archives starting fire.  The level is long and the enemies are tough and incredibly punishing with their crystal armor and weapons.
  • Good luck the first time in The Depths.  Go through very cautiously and have your most powerful weapon equipped.
  • The Claymore is worth many deaths in early game.  If you can reach the bonfire, the Red Dragon will fly off leaving the Claymore unguarded. Otherwise, water veil, high endurance and fire protection items may help you survive the flame attack long enough to grab it.  Equip the Black Knight Shield and you can walk up to it.
  • Chopping the Red Dragon’s tail yields the Drake Sword. To get it, enchant your strongest weapon with lighting and wield it two-handed.  As the dragon flies off his perch onto the bridge, run along the right wall until you reach his tail.  Two to three swings should do it.  The timing is tricky.  It helps to swing only after you have reached or are just past his tail.  Early swingers will be treated to a deadly shower of fire.
  • The Drake Sword can help you obtain Havel’s Ring in early game.  Havel is very powerful but slow and easy to backstab.  Do not roll as his fierce attack tracks.  Instead circle to your right as he swings. He will be wide open for a backstab after a miss.  Six backstabs with the Drake Sword will finish him off.
  • Go ahead and start fresh with a new character if your build is not working out or if you missed a non-renewable precious item.  The game allows for up to 10 character profiles.
  • Kill Knight Lautrec of Carim during your first play through to get the Ring of Favor and Protection.  After getting your reward for freeing him, equip your heaviest weapon (Drake Sword) and do a two-handed fierce attack or push kick him twice. He should fall off to his death. Quit and reload the game to get lots of humanity and his ring, both of which are incredibly useful in early game.
  • Essential pyromancies – Iron Flesh, Power Within, Fire Orb and Water Veil
  • Essential miracles – Heal, Homeward and Sunlight Blade
  • Essential sorceries – Soul Arrow, Crystal Magic Weapon, Hidden Weapon (online PVP)
  • Essential weapons – Claymore,  Lightning or Fire Lucerne, Lightning or Fire Gargoyle Halberd, Black Knight Great Axe
  • Essential armor – Stone Set, Gold-Hemmed Black Set
  • Essential upgradeable armor – Crimson Set, Paladin Set, Black Iron Set, Xanthous Set
  • Essential rare items – Astora’s Straight Sword, Queelag’s Fury Sword, Grass Crest Shield, Gargoyle Helm, Great Lord Great Sword, Silver Knight Shield, Black Knight Shield, Spider Shield
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