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Dark Souls (Xbox 360) artwork

Dark Souls (Xbox 360) review


"The evidence speaks for itself: Dark Souls has an undeniable pull."



Dark Souls (Xbox 360) image

I hope you brought a snack.

I tried getting into Dark Souls when it was initially released, dismissed it after the first handful of levels as the most needlessly frustrating game I'd ever played, and wrote a rather impassioned "review" based on my experiences with what turned out to be little more than the opening segment. I gave it a 2/10 and said that I'd never had less fun playing a game. That article no longer exists because it represents an outdated viewpoint.

Last night, my car would not start. The problem seemed to be that the battery needed a jump, but that made no sense, as I'd left no lights or electronics on. The guy who eventually helped me noted that since batteries can only be charged while the car is moving, older batteries – and mine was quite old – can go dead simply from extended periods of inactivity. I was coming to the end of a five-day weekend, you see, and I hadn't left the house once during that time, because I was too busy playing Dark Souls.

The context: I began my playthrough late Wednesday night and saw the credits late this afternoon, a Sunday. That means that I finished Dark Souls in just under four days, and my in-game timer tells me that the entire run took just over 50 hours. That's astonishing, and it's a statistic that's causing me a great deal of conflict right now. I hated Dark Souls after my brief brush with it in 2011. I hated it during the following couple of years while critics and journalists I respect hailed it as one of the greatest games of all time. And when I finally decided to give it another chance, I frequently hated it more fervently than ever. I hated it, I hated the people who made it, I hated the people who praise it, and I hated myself for continuing to play it.

And yet I continued to play it. For 50 hours in under four days. No game has ever had that sort of hold on me, which means that Dark Souls must be doing something right, and doing it exceptionally well.

Dark Souls is a famously difficult game, and thus the fact that I've now finished it makes me feel all the more qualified to criticize it. And I will. Dark Souls is, in many ways, a bad game. It is, I'd argue, objectively bad. It's unpolished to a fault and rife with collision issues that frequently hamper your ability to play efficiently. Refinement is often the entry fee for a game this massive, and none of the technical issues (outside of the unbearable framerate drops) are more glaring than anything you'd see in, say, Skyrim. But Dark Souls is notoriously punishing. Its enemies hit hard and its checkpoints are spaced quite far apart from one another. It's a game that demands perfection from its players, which is why it's unacceptable that a weapon can sometimes pass through an enemy without connecting, or that a well-timed jump can send you tumbling to your death thanks to wonky physics or an invisible wall.

For years, I chuckled anytime a diehard Dark Souls fan defended the game's difficulty by arguing that it's "fair." That was a premature judgment on my part given how little of the game I'd actually seen, but now that I've slain the final boss, I don't retract it. Dark Souls is unfair. It asks me to develop a fluent understanding of the heavy, brutal combat system, and to study enemies and bosses carefully –usually dying at least a few times in the process – before being able to respond to their attacks and effectively take them down. That's fine. But it also asks me to die at the behest of technical and mechanical issues – collision bugs, camera problems, my character not dashing or using an item when I told him to – even after I had my strategies down. And it frequently asks me to make unreasonably long treks back to the spot of my death when I did.

That last point is the kicker. The reason people so often describe Dark Souls as "punishing" rather than simply "difficult" is that its checkpoints are extremely infrequent. It's designed to make you cautious, yet this is a game in which it's widely regarded that you'll be dying a lot anyway, that death is simply a part of the learning process. It's hard to justify that when the penalty for death is so steep. I can stomach being killed for cheap reasons if I can simply pick myself up, dust myself off and continue where I left off with little hassle, but the checkpoint system in Dark Souls often made even what should have been its standpoint moments a needless chore.

One of my favorite encounters in the game, against Seath the Scaleless, required at least a solid five minutes of walking and platforming back to the arena every time I fell in battle, and that was after I'd figured out how to simply slip past all of the enemies that stood in my way without engaging them. If dying is a part of the learning process, then setbacks like these are just a waste of time.

And that's where the harsh, unwelcoming tone of Dark Souls crosses the line. I'm often enraged when playing challenging games. It comes with the territory; I have a short temper. But my anger towards Dark Souls was more vehement than anything else I'd ever experienced when playing a game. It's not simply that Dark Souls felt difficult, unreasonable, or even bad; it felt disrespectful. How dare the developer employ so many cheap tricks and then punish me for stumbling into them? How dare the developers waste my time? I went on a countless number of exasperated Twitter rants throughout the course of my playthrough, even pledging to my followers at one point that I'd given up for good and that I would never, ever play Dark Souls again. And then, only a couple of hours later, I was right back in.

Let me tell you that story. See, I'd just made it through Blighttown, an enormous network of scaffolding built into the wall of the undead burg where you spend the game's opening bits. It's a dark, unforgiving segment that's a notorious make-or-break for most players, and just making it to the bottom – which involves navigating some very narrow walkways while battling fire-breathing insects and other oddities – is, as it turns out, only half of the battle. Once you're on the ground, you then need to make it through the swamps, which involves deliberately wading through poisonous water.

Now, assuming that I didn't want to ascend back through Blighttown, I was left with two options, both of which sucked. On one side of the swamp was the lair of Quelaag, a lava-spewing spider lady who guarded one of the plot-important objectives. The battle itself is outrageously difficult in and of itself (thanks to the aforementioned lava-spewing and an overpowered area-of-effect attack) and made rather unfair, naturally, by the closest checkpoint being across the toxic water, meaning that you're forced to deliberately beat yourself down before you even begin the fight. On the other side of the swamp was my second option: the Great Hollow, a gargantuan tree wherein players are confronted by the most dangerous enemy in Dark Souls: platforming. And the area was full of froglike creatures that could curse you, which results in both instant death and halved health when you respawn.

I gave each path about a dozen attempts before turning my console off and vowing never to play Dark Souls again. But it wasn't long before I was playing it again, and I will now attempt to explain why.

See, Dark Souls, more so than probably any other game I've ever played, knows how to be enticing. You can attribute much of that, not superficially, to its incredible art direction. The game's environments are bleak without sacrificing visual vibrance, and the creatures that inhabit them are magnificently terrifying. If you haven't played the game and are unfamiliar with the Gaping Dragon, I won't even attempt to describe it to you; do a Google image search and take a long look at that thing. Scary, right? Scary, and imaginatively so. It takes a very creative and very twisted mind to produce a monster design like that. How proud would you feel if you actually managed to slay it? Can you?

That feeling of simultaneous wonder and helplessness permeates throughout the land of Lordran, where Dark Souls takes place. You know that any new area that you explore will be full of things that want to kill you (and probably will), but you also know any new area could likely reformulate your definition of the term "awe-inspiring." As frustrated as I was by the descent down the Great Hollow, I knew that whatever was hidden at its base would surely be breathtaking. It was. And it was breathtaking again when I was later journeying through the pitch-black Tomb of the Giants and was treated to a brief outdoor section with a lovely view of a massive archtree sprouting from an area covered with fog. In any other game, you'd see that and say, "I sure would like to go there." In this game, you see that and say, "Hey, I was just down there a few hours ago!"

The draw of this game's world design is its interconnectedness, which is simultaneously a curse and a blessing for Dark Souls. Its spiritual predecessor, Demon's Souls (which, despite being near-identical tonally, is actually set in an entirely different mythos), was hub-based and split into segments. While that game was often even less forgiving than Dark Souls is, the benefit was that once you were finally able to soldier your way through a level, you never needed to return to it. The more Metroidvania-like approach adopted by its successor doesn't suit this style of gameplay. Exploration isn't much fun when the act of getting around can be so slow and laborious.

And yet it's worth it, because Lordran's design is stunning. Stunning. And actually getting to know the world of Dark Souls – finding shortcuts and recognizing structures in the skyboxes that you've thoroughly explored – is the game's purest joy. It inspires a deep sense of familiarity. Demon's may have been a more polished game, but the truth is that I barely remember anything about it aside from a few segments that I was stuck on for quite some time. Conversely, you can't beat Dark Souls without developing an intimate understanding of its geography – about the rickety elevator at the base of Blighttown that takes you up to the Valley of Drakes, about the ladder in Darkroot Basin that's protected by a hydra, about the dome that can be seen in the distance at Anor Londo that houses a terrifying and ancient secret.

In fact, when you first arrive at Firelink Shrine (the closest we get to a "hub" in Dark Souls), look off the edge of the cliff, point to a distant landmark, and simply count down until you traverse that landmark. Someone actually went through the trouble of collecting the collision data of Dark Souls and creating an enormous, interactive, three-dimensional map of its entire world, and it's an amazing thing to pour over. From Software never once cheated; everything presented in Lordran is geographically correct, consistent in scale and relevant. It's an incredible accomplishment of design and visual extravagance, and they've even managed to pull it off without any noticeable load times.

Dark Souls also adopts one of the most important characteristics of Metroidvania, which is its freedom and sense of discovery. While certain areas in Lordran can obviously only be accessed through plot-specific means, you're rarely restricted to a single path or strategy, and accepting that slowly but surely makes Dark Souls so much more endurable.

Case in point: the boss battle against the Four Kings. It's a timed encounter, you see; each of your four adversaries appears at a set interval, and so it's in your best interest to kill them as quickly as possible to avoid taking on more than one at a time. And according to every single walkthrough and FAQ I checked on the matter, this means forgoing defense altogether and going hog wild, which, you'll note, is a total contradiction of what the game had been teaching you until this point. I might have called it rather cunning on the developers' part had the nearest checkpoint not been placed so characteristically far away, making it considerably less easy to give the fight a fair chance.

You know how I overcame the Four Kings, then? By walking away. I gave up on it for the time being, explored a few more areas that I hadn't covered yet, and then returned hours later with my stats boosted and my equipment upgraded. And when I did, I took down the Four Kings on my first try. And looking back, with a full picture of the pace and progression of Dark Souls, I'm struggling to think of an instance when this isn't possible. I always felt that the game shot itself in the foot by placing an excruciatingly difficult rooftop battle with a couple of gargoyles within its first couple of hours, but while most players will fight them early on since it's the most obvious path, the objective that they guard isn't terribly urgent and can be addressed later. I spent hours during both of my Dark Souls plays trying to kill them when I could have just saved them for later. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is fair.

See, both the best and worst thing about Dark Souls is that it becomes more tolerable and less intimidating the better an understanding you have of it. That's why its first few hours tend to turn so many players off and, weirdly, why I'm now more open to the idea of exploring Lordran than I ever was while I was still in the process of completing the game. Now I know its dirty secrets. I know how to traverse the world quickly. I know the bosses' cheapest attacks. I know the most effective order in which to tackle the game's objectives. And I have a firm appreciation for just how intricately its beautiful world is laid out.

Now, the fact that I've actually reached this point doesn't mean that I'm willing to dismiss the painful process of getting there. The truth is that I may never have had the patience for Dark Souls had I not relied heavily on the word of the experts. The game does have a system wherein online players can leave tips and clues for others, but that quickly fell apart, since my internet connection was spotty this week and Dark Souls insisted on pulling me back to the title screen every time it lost the servers. So I eventually leaned more and more on walkthroughs and help forums for lifesaving advice, up to and including hidden freaking checkpoints. There's one midway through the notoriously rough Lost Izalith that's sealed away behind an illusory wall; you'd have no way of discovering it unless you just go around smacking walls like you're Link searching for bombable surfaces. Dark Souls is full of infuriating design choices like that. It's borderline indefensible at times. Again, it's kind of a bad game.

And yet I admire the hell out of it. I don't actually like it, and there are very few people to whom I'd wholeheartedly recommend it. But the evidence speaks for itself: Dark Souls has an undeniable pull, and if you can push yourself over the hump that I couldn't be bothered to clear the first time, you will see this adventure through to the end whether you like it or not. You'll know that you've hit that point when you can be taken to a place like Anor Londo, a staggeringly massive castle inspired by Il Duomo, and come to the immediate realization that the makers of this game wouldn't have put all of those buttresses in for show... that sooner or later, you'll have to treacherously scale one or two of them. Why? I don't know. Because the front door to the palace is locked? Or something? Who cares. Soak in the terrifying beauty of it.

So after several years of unyielding contempt for Dark Souls, I now offer a handshake and a begrudging tip of the hat to From Software. I pray that Dark Souls II is a more welcoming experience, because I know I'm going to play it, whether I want to or not.

Rating: 7/10

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (February 24, 2014)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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Ben posted February 24, 2014:

A fascinating read - nice job. I can't believe Dark Souls (sort of) won you over.

I'm not sure if I can be bothered picking up where I left off after the Capra Demon (it's a huge time commitment for a game I don't find enjoyable), but I do feel like I'm missing out by not seeing the other 40 or so hours of the game.
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wolfqueen001 posted February 24, 2014:

Great review, dude. I guess I missed your old review before you deleted it, but I may have rad it when you first posted it anyway. What you write here is a very interesting personal dilemma for yourself, but you explain it beautifully, and your score feels justified despite all the scathing criticism in the beginning of the review. It's amazing a game can achieve such a pull as this one appears to have. Most people would give up, as you did at first, and never return. I consider myself a patient person, but I don't even think I'd be able to tackle this. (I'm going to try Demon's Souls soon and find out if I can even stand a chance.)

I did notice one tiny typo, so I'll include that here.

I knew that whatever was hidden at its based would surely be breathtaking.
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Ben posted February 24, 2014:

Here's another one:

If dying is a part of the learning process, than setbacks like these are just a waste of time.
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Suskie posted February 24, 2014:

Thanks to both of you for catching those, and for reading. I'm glad you both enjoyed it!

Ben: I kinda can't believe it, either. And it sounds like you gave up at exactly the point when I originally did. Did you fight the Bell Gargoyles?

WQ: Demon's Souls would be better for testing the waters, yeah. It's actually even harsher in certain ways, but like I said, the hub-based structure makes the whole experience more welcoming once you get into the swing of it. It's also probably around half the length of Dark Souls, honestly.
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Ben posted February 25, 2014:

Yeah, I defeated the Bell Gargoyles. I think I did it on my third try - though I had a lot of luck, if I recall correctly.

The Capra Demon was the last straw for me. Took me 15 tries to beat it, but I knew what I wanted to do after my third go. Felt a very unfair fight, with the terrible camera and being immediately crowded by the two dogs.
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Suskie posted February 25, 2014:

Ha. I would've loved to see your reaction to a later level in which both he and Taurus Demon are common enemies. There's this one hallway where you have to fight, like, six Capra Demons in a row.

I agree about the camera, though. There's this one late-game boss called Centipede Demon that you fight in an arena covered almost entirely with lava, meaning you have to actually engage him on the extremely narrow strips of land surrounding the pit, and both he and the walls frequently interfere with the camera's stability. One player even left a tip before the fight: "Beware of locking on." Heh.

Edit: Just put together an accompanying blog entry, if anyone's interested.
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honestgamer posted February 25, 2014:

You know, I never had any trouble with the Capra Demon. I know it didn't take me more than 2 or 3 attempts to beat, and I had it pretty easy with the gargoyles, too. The boss I had trouble with was the duo at the end of Anor Lando, which I had to attempt many times before I was finally successful. Throughout the game, I'd say the part that gave me the most trouble was actually getting to the bosses...
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Suskie posted February 25, 2014:

I remember having problems with Capra on my first play, but oddly, I actually beat him on my first attempt this time. One of only, I believe, two bosses in the game that I did that with. (The other being Pinwheel.)

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