Dark Souls (Xbox 360) Review

One of the more intriguing games to arrive on my home office doorstep this fall is unquestionably Namco Bandai’s “Dark Souls” for the Xbox 360. Punishing, unforgiving, torturous, and ridiculously hard are some common themes used to market the game. Yet many in the gaming world, including myself, are gluttons for punishment and often crave for an experience that is not only punishingly hard but equally rewarding. In a nut shell, that is what you get with Dark Souls. Dark Souls is a game where at times you will want to call it quits, but if you just stick with it and exercise some extreme patience the spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls can be an experience unlike one you have played before and one of the most rewarding as well. That is if you can make it to the end.

Much like its predecessor, Dark Souls is a third person dungeon crawler.  There is no story or any side quests.  There is also no map, no directional arrows, no characters to tell you where to go, no super power strength and no bad-ass weaponry.  It is game where it is just you and the open world.  But before I get into some of the gritty and grinding gameplay details, Dark Souls does set the stage for us by providing a background story.  Yet once the opening cut-scenes conclude, that is it for cut scene cinematics or other flashy segments which we typically see in this day in age of gaming.

The world in which the game takes place has been taken over by dragons.  They remained unchallenged over this desolate land until fire was introduced into the world.  The world eventually becomes illuminated by flame and presents the world with new challenges.  From this flame came the souls of lords and these lords began a fight against the dragons.  Gravelord Nito, a menacing tower of skulls and bones, unleashed death and disease amongst the dragons.  A witch and her daughters harnessed the flame and unleashed firestorms across the land.  Eventually the dragons were decimated.  Unfortunately a disease referred to as the ‘darksign’ has begun to spread across the human race and is turning them into “Undead”.  You play as one of these “Undead” and awake in a hellish world.  You must fight your way through vicious demons, nasty monsters, undead hordes, and deadly traps as you make your way to the light.  Your ultimate goal is to retrieve the Kings Crown, reach the flame of the world and reclaim your soul.

All in all, the storyline is certainly more of an epic one and well told at the onset of the game, but after the initial narrative, that is it for the rest of the game.  There is no character development or story progression.  Granted, it is clear the developers wanted to create an experience that is all about the torturous challenges where you essentially write the story, yet somehow I wished I could have experienced a bit more when it came to the game’s storyline.

Once the opening cut-scenes are completed you awake to find yourself inside a gruesome asylum.  But before you awake, you create your character and customize him.  You can name your character, choose a face, body type, hairstyle and even eye colour.  You can also equip him with unique abilities and tools by selecting one of the 10 available classes.  It is really up to you to decide which class suits your hero, but make no bones about it, it will not matter what type of character or ability you pick as you will die, and die a lot.

Right from the get go, you enter a dark world where knights, demons and other abominations hunt you down at every corner.  It is an unnerving game and you never feel like you are properly equipped for battle.  It is set in open world and there is a great deal of exploration; however, I never felt at ease.  In essence Dark Souls makes one feel naked and nowhere near ‘battle ready’.  Much of the game is trial and error and will certainly test your patience, but much like a chess match you need to strategize and become fully acquainted with the games controls before you can proceed to the next challenge that looms around the corner.

Fortunately, the game does not leave you completely on your own to figure things out when it comes to taking down enemies and some of those ridiculously hard bosses.  There is a simple little tutorial, which is about the only part in the game which is forgiving, that introduces you to some of the games basic controls.  Even throughout the tutorial you never seem to be at ease and you cannot help but become fixated on your impending doom.

The controls are easy to pick up but difficult to master.  There are light attacks and strong attacks which are accomplished using the right bumper and right trigger respectively.  There is also a dash button, guard button and the ability lock on your target.  It is all very straight forward, yet the learning curve to master these controls is a steep one.  For those of you who played Demons Souls you are rewarded as Dark Souls features the same mechanics.  Your sword and your shield will become your best friend, but learning how to dash and strike with proficiency takes some time.

Tension and frustration is the name of the game in Dark Souls.  Taking down the game’s main undead enemies is not a problem, but those giant bosses are tasking and require a significant amount of strategy.  Keeping track of your health meter is critical in Dark Souls.  A couple of hits and your heath meter can drop like rock.  If you find yourself taking too much damage at the hands of one of these creatures you may have to retreat to a bonfire.

Dark Souls allows players to light Bonfires in certain areas.  These bonfires replenish health, magic, and special items like Estus flasks which are limited vials that restore health.  Bonfires come as a welcome relief but they also come with a catch.  Enemies you previously killed re-spawn soon after you leave the bonfire.  It is rewarding to kill these enemies again as you can collect more humanity and souls (the games levelling system); however it can also be annoying as hell having to re-kill enemies over and over.

The bonfires act as a checkpoint as well.  Whenever you die in the game you are taken back to your last bonfire.  In some instances you will have to go back and re-play 10 minutes of a portion of the game just to get back.  Needless to say, the bonfires are simply too few considering the punishing difficulty of this game.

If playing solo is a bit too overwhelming, Dark Souls does offer up a fantastic co-op mode where up to four players can play the game together online.  This mode will come as a welcome relief to those who have a propensity to get stuck in certain portions of the game.  I think it is safe to say nearly all of you who jump into Dark Souls will at some point get stuck.  Dark Souls also has further online features where you can check messages left by your friends, watch replays of your friend’s deaths, and fight alongside ghosts who are other players playing in your vicinity.  You should be aware however that you cannot interact with the ghosts.  Also keep in mind that you have to have your online features enabled to take full advantage of Dark Souls’ online features.

Overall, the games visuals are decent but are simply not on par with other ‘Triple A’ games already on the market.  In many ways, Dark Souls comes across as a poor man’s Assassin’s Creed.  Dark Souls looks like an Assassins Creed game but it is not as sharp or as polished.  That being said, the development team are given full marks for creating a massive, dark, and gloomy world that managed to give me the chills on several occasions.  There is a sense of isolation in the game that is created to perfection.  The game’s environments are nicely detailed and are grim in every way.  You truly feel alone in this world and the development team did a nice job creating an atmosphere none like I have played before.

The games character designs are much better than I anticipated.  Again, you do not get Gears of War 3 quality, but what you do get looks very good and is perfectly suited for the game.  The game’s enemies look menacing as well, but they lack that polish we have seen in so many other games on the Xbox 360 to date.  I also found some repetition with some of the games front line enemies, so a little more variety would have been nice.

The game has some occasional framerate hiccups and slow-down, but overall it runs fairly smoothly.  I also noticed some clipping issues at times where enemies would morph into walls.  Yet when you consider how much detail went into the game, it comes as no surprise you would see the occasional hiccup.  All in all, Dark Souls is an above average looking game,  just do not expect to be completely awestruck by the overall look.

Much like the games graphics, Dark Souls’ sound is good but not the best we have heard on Microsoft’s console.  Overall, I just found the audio package to lack some depth.  The soundtrack, for instance, is mediocre at best; but at times the music does suit the mood.  There are instances however where there is no music at all and all of the sudden it amps-up when you run into a boss.  The rest of the game’s music loops over and over and is frankly forgettable.  There is also not much in the way of voice work either, and the little voice work you do get comes from characters that need to speak up a bit.  There is just too much mumbling from some of the characters and the voice work at times can barely be heard over the game’s music.  In any event, you will not be picking this game up for its audio, that is for certain.

Dark Souls is without question a punishing experience, but it is also equally rewarding.  That feeling of isolation, fear and desperation never seems to disappear as it manages to test even your mental toughness.  Dark Souls is not a game for everyone and is truly meant for those fans of ‘Demons Souls’ or for gamers looking for one hell of a difficult gaming experience.  The developers were not kidding when they told you to “prepare to die”.


The Good


The Bad