Those of you who started gaming during the PlayStation era (or later) missed out on the heyday of gaming. It was a time of experimentation and creativity. A time when today’s design principles, which we often take for granted, were still being developed and established. It was also a time when games were made to take you to task. A high level of challenge was commonplace in the 8-bit generation (“easy” games were typically kiddie titles). Let me stress this, what I mean by “a high level of challenge” is mind-numbing, rage-inducing, controller-throwing difficult. Seriously, most of the newer generation of gamers haven’t experienced where the term “rage quit” originated from. The fine art of frustrating gamers hasn’t been lost though. New ones still pop up from time to time, ready to torment the new and re-traumatize the old.
Demon’s Souls was one such game, coming out of no where to brutalize the patience of anyone who gave it a shot. From the outside it looked like a standard Action-RPG, but between how well it was put together as well as arguably the more innovative online feature this console generation, it managed to rise above the insane difficulty, becoming more than the sum of its parts. Instead, the challenge became its hallmark, of sorts, and soon Demon’s Souls not only gained a cult following, but because a bonafied hit. Naturally, a sequel would soon follow...
Technically, Dark Souls isn’t a “true” sequel. Standing as more of a spiritual successor, Dark Souls shares aspects such as genre, gameplay mechanics and the previously mentioned online features. But the story is different (well, what story you derive from it), as well as some streamlining to the overall adventure process. It may not be a direct sequel, but fans of Demon’s Souls will still feel right at home here, even if home is some sort of sadistic dungeon run by a neutered Marquis de Sade.
Humanity is plagued by a curse, the Darksign, that turns them into the Undead. They are immortal, returning to life shortly after they are “killed”. This return to the world of the living comes with a cost though, siphoning the the person’s phyche with each subsequent death, culminating in complete insanity. Once an Undead hits that point, they are extremely dangerous, referred to as Hollow (i.e. feral). Your journey begins as one of these cursed folks, incarcerated within the Undead Asylum, a place where all the inflicted are sent to preserve the rest of humanity. Soon, you discover a prophesy that speaks of a chosen one whom will journey to Lordran to ring the Bells of Awakening. This sets off a quest to wipe out the Darksign for good.
The key to Dark Souls is the same as it was in Demon’s Souls: risk vs reward. And that risk is HUGE. In fact, I think Dark Souls actually bumped the difficulty up, if you can imagine that. Right from the outset, all aspects of the game are left to the player. A vague backstory and some tips from NPCs are all you get to go on. A few basic sets of instruction littered about, informing on how to slash a sword or block an arrow, and that’s about it. Once Lordran has been reached, the prologue is over and you are on your own. Here’s where the uncovered uphill run through razor hail will begin, and it won’t stop until the end credits roll. Those who have trouble with patience will find holes in all their walls and several busted controllers not long after starting the journey. For example, the very first foe I came across (following the prologue) was a couple of skeletons. Looked easy enough. However, due to the fact that my combat skills not only need to be spot on, but also need to be utilized intelligently, the encounter resulted in my untimely demise. Many times.
"Just as any masochist will tell you, with great pain comes great rewards. Dark Souls is the gaming equivalent, and I wouldn’t have it any other way."
That is what sets Dark Souls apart from the vast majority of the games available today. It expects the best from you and will not forgive you for anything less. That, in essence, is also where the Dark Souls shines. It is such a refreshing change from the hand-holding typically found in most games today. It’s frustrating, and at times will make you feel as if it has a personal vendetta against your sanity. But it is also the most rewarding experience of your gaming existence. Never before have you felt such jubilation for defeating a boss. Never before have you felt such a sense of accomplishment for simple, mundane tasks like passing through a group of ghosts. You will earn everything, and you will be proud of every step you make.
It was a bit odd, during my play through, to find myself making comparisons to games like Dead Space and BioShock. They couldn’t be more different from Dark Souls. Yet, there I was, thoughts of my Isaac Clarke’s alter-ego dancing through my head. Then it hit me, the similarities lie in the atmosphere. Dark Souls, hearkening to the title, is dark and brooding, filled with lonely environments prowled by lizardmen, the undead, and even demons. Danger lurks at every corner, in every building, behind every tree. Part of this rests with the difficulty, as you know that one slip up equals restarting that area with all the enemies repopulated. Layered over that is the art style, which is both beautiful and terrifying. Broken down structures whisper of better times. Shadows cover the landscape in a black sheen, forbidding you to uncover its secrets.
The gameplay is your typical third-person Action-RPG dungeon crawler. Weapons, magic, items, an inventory system, the whole shebang. Once you pick your class and create your character, you’ll be thrust upon the world...handicapped, at least in the traditional sense. As I said, there is no hand-holding here, and that begins with the narrative. There’s a brief, almost muddled backstory, and that’s it. Everything else will be discovered in bits and pieces either through markers from other players (more on that in a bit) or NPCs. Dark Souls puts very little focus on character development or deep story telling. Whether this is a good or bad thing is up to preference. Leaving a lot of story aspects up the the player’s mind does double duty, bringing them closer to true role play and increasing the overall difficulty, as a lot of progression is done by feeling your way through rather than story direction.
Helping that along is some of the tightest controls to be found in the genre. The combat is visceral, precise, and feels right with every swing, every block and every jump. The collision detection is spot on, for the most part. I did find a couple of instances where a given foe should have taken a mace to the skull, yet somehow managed to stand in front of me, unscathed. However, by and large, the hit detection is just as solid as the combat mechanics. Any harm that comes to your character and any mistakes that are made all fall upon the player. No matter how frustrating things can get, there is no “this game cheats”. Nay, fellow adventures, your failings within Dark Souls is exactly that: YOURS.
The game world takes a different approach this time around. Where Demon’s Souls was a bunch of segments connected via a single hub, Dark Souls is a massive land, regionally divided. Progress is saved by Bonfires, where in addition to acting as a respawn point, also refills heath, magic (no mana here), and special items such as the Estus flasks (health potions). This isn’t a total sandbox though. Explorers will find road bocks along the way, there are bosses that need to be defeated before new areas open up. Think of it as a reward, as the simply brutal fear and and intimidation, followed by the sense relief when a boss is beaten, will leave you breathless and sweaty. The environments blend together crumbling bridges, seeping forests, broken down castles, and wispy waters to provide terrifying, yet intriguing world that, regardless of the massive challenge, draws you in and won’t let go. No matter how many deaths you accrue, you WILL want to keep going, just to see what the rest of this frightening and horrifying land has in store for you.
Death comes at every turn. Be it arrows flying at your skull, an ogre trying to mash you into pulp, falling off of narrow precipices, swinging blades or even the landscape itself, where shrubbery becomes the embodiment of your nightmares, you will die. A lot. Death comes at a cost too. As I mentioned, you’ll respawn at the Bonfires you stop to visit and the enemies (aside from the bosses) will repopulate the realm. In addition, all the souls you have collected will be left behind, resting on the bloody splatter where your life was terminated. Souls act as money or points within Dark Souls, facilitating upgrades or equipment, leveling up your character, buying new spells, so on and so forth. This is probably the most visible example of the risk vs reward system, because once you resurrect, you’ll have to decide if going back for those souls is worth it. Do you chance another defeat or do you leave the coveted currency?
One of the best features to come out of Demon’s Souls was how it handled online connectivity. In fact, for many (myself included), it was the most innovative use of this generation’s online functionality thus far. In addition to cooperative and competitive PvP play, a hint system was added. As long as the game was connected to PSN (Demon’s Souls was a PS3 exclusive), blood stains of other players could be found in your game world, with a ghost of the other player acting out their final moments. Think of it as if each copy of the game provides a parallel universe, a carbon copy where each player is making identical journeys with different decisions. Acting as a sort of warning, it provided players with some idea of the dangers ahead. Also, notes could be left, allowing this Earth 2-like community to help each other out by providing tips for how to handle the various scenarios. Dark Souls brings all of that back, this time allowing Xbox 360 players to see what all the fuss was about. It also adds Humanity. As one of the undead, you are a hollowed soul. Acquiring Humanity is what allows you to invade other players’ realms (PvP) as well as bring others over for a deadly co-operative love-in. It also acts as a motivational piece, as these folks aren’t invading your realm for fun. They are after your Humanity and will kill you to get it. Successfully defeating your foe carries the same rewards, as you’ll gain their Humanity in return.
There are plenty of other secrets to be had within Dark Souls. Covenants, curses, reoccurring NPCs, and strange results from what would be considered the most mundane actions all add even more to that dark and brooding experience. This isn’t a light and happy romp. Nor will it provide an easy trek to the end credits. But just as any masochist will tell you, with great pain comes great rewards. Dark Souls is the gaming equivalent, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Release date : 2011-10-04
Publisher : Namco Bandai
Developer : From Software
Gameplay : Action
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