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Dark Souls (Xbox 360) artwork

Dark Souls (Xbox 360) review

"Simply exhilarating."

Dark Souls (Xbox 360) image

Anyone who's spent time perusing this site should know that many of us contributors cut our teeth in the days of the NES and other retro systems. Our love for those systems has not diminished over time, as not only do we continue to review those old games, but also have gained an affinity for new-age retro titles made in the fashion of their forefathers, sporting pixilated sprites, chiptune music and so on. They might not be the same as those classic Mega Man or Castlevania games, but they're obvious homages and a great way to experience new challenges while feeling like we've never left that classic age of gaming.

But it's also pretty awesome to embrace the modern age, where the graphics are gorgeous and the audio sounds like an orchestra took up residence inside your television. And it's even better when one of those beautiful modern games eschews today's anti-frustration features such as constant checkpoints and tutorials all but holding one's hand throughout the duration of their experience. A game like Dark Souls, which contains all the brutality of the average "tough as nails" NES game, but looks and sounds as good as anything else released in 2011.

In the land of Lordran, the Age of Fire seems to be coming to an end. Virtually every resident of the kingdom has gone Hollow, essentially becoming weapon-wielding zombies capable of doing little besides assaulting anyone daring to interlope upon their property. But you're different. A non-Hollow undead capable of altering destiny, of reigniting the flame. Or, at least, you might be, as no one is going to let you walk up to said flame without a fight. First, you have to find a way out of the asylum you've been imprisoned in for some period of time. Do that and you'll have to ring a pair of bells to open the gates to a deadly fortress meant to test an undead's worthiness. And then obtain a sacred vessel from the city of the gods. And then capture the souls of some of the world's strongest beings to power said vessel, finally granting you access to the charred wasteland where the fire resides. Nothing comes easy.

And so you'll create your character. You'll pick a class, only finding out later this choice means little besides allocating your initial stats. Some have more strength, others have more dexterity or intelligence; regardless, with a bit of work, you can turn characters into whatever you want them to be no matter what they were at the beginning. You'll customize your guy's face, ignorant of how it'll be hidden under various helmets most of the time. And you'll even be given a gift, allowing you to choose between stuff that may or may not be useful. One gift makes a mockery of the asylum's boss -- an imposing demon wielding an impossibly massive club. Another allows you to pass through doors you might not find the keys for until much later. Great if you're an experienced player looking to sequence break. A non-stop blooper reel for novices who find themselves regularly blundering into monsters far too powerful for them.

There are so, so many ways you can build your character. A barely-mobile warrior wielding a massive battle-ax while equipped with the heaviest armor Lordran has. A nimble acrobat capable of rolling and dodging around enemies while poking at them with a rapier. A mage, a cleric, an archer. Or a bizarre amalgamation, such as my pyromancer who could incinerate foes…or wade into their midst flailing around with a gigantic sword larger than him. No matter what you pick, some challenges will wind up easy and others will be extremely daunting. I cruised through a group of spectral warriors known as The Four Kings because the key to that fight is simply being able to cause damage quickly and my sword had no troubles accomplishing that. On the other hand, when I traveled off the beaten path and found the Moonlight Butterfly, my sword's effectiveness was blunted, as it loved to fly out of reach and bombard me with spells.

Fortunately, that and several other bosses do offer a work-around if your build isn't ideal. Your character is undead, but by consuming a particular item, you regain humanity, at least until your next death, allowing you to find summon signs and call forth an ally. That magic-spewing butterfly got a lot easier when I summoned a powerful mage to match it spell for spell. Sometimes this help can play a key role in putting down a deadly foe; other times, they simply serve as capable distractions that give you a chance to catch your breath and adjust your tactics.

Those distractions can be necessary, as time never stops in this game. If you go to a menu, monsters can still attack you. If you stop to chug a dose of life-restoring juice from your Estus Flask, they can knock you out of that animation before you've regained health. At least the game is fair in that regard, as you can whack the spells right out of a wizard's mouth or stagger a warrior before he can swing his sword. That can feel satisfying -- especially when you're able to prevent a corrupted knight in the game's DLC from using dark powers to turn his damaging slashes into deadly ones, keeping things manageable in that confrontation.

Often, "keeping things manageable" feels like the Dark Souls version of "breaking the game". Every challenge can be overcome, but can you find the way to do so? Early on, the game tests you to see if you're capable. You're not told which way to go; it's up to you to discover that one route out of hub zone Firelink Shrine leads to appropriate challenges for an early-game adventurer, while others lead to likely death at the hands of nimble, powerful skeletons or ghosts invulnerable to basic weapons. One boss you'll see before you've gotten particularly far into your journey is a powerful, machete-wielding demon flanked by a pair of dogs in a cramped dead-end alley. You'll have to be nimble, quick on the controls and probably more than a little lucky to simply survive the first five seconds of that battle.

And if you can't survive, you'll miss out on so much of Dark Souls' world, which contains varied environments ranging from crumbling villages to pristine castles to swampy, ghoul-infested shantytowns. Dank sewers, rotting catacombs and thick forests all wait to be explored, each with its own treasures hidden around corners and at the end of passageways. Embers allow you to improve your weaponry, making them far stronger or, perhaps, giving them attributes making them handier against certain types of foe. Each weapon has its own move-set, ranging from thrusting rapiers to bludgeoning hammers. Rings can be used to increase your resistance to various types of damage or status ailments, or simply improve your carrying capacity, allowing you to wield heavier equipment while maintaining some semblance of mobility. With all the good stuff contained in this world, you'll want to explore every nook and cranny.

Regardless of how difficult it may be to do so. Much like those old NES games, a lot of stuff isn't exactly clear. I needed Nintendo Power to figure out what to do in so many old games and I found myself occasionally relying on the Internet here. Two areas of the game are extremely well-hidden, requiring you to whack through multiple fake walls to find their location. After finishing the asylum, a giant bird flies you to Firelink Shrine, leading you to believe your time in that jail has ended permanently. Nope -- by performing a tricky maneuver or two, you can find that bird's nest and get carted back there. And you'll want to go, as you'll not only get to fight a few new enemies, but also gain some useful items, including one unlocking the way to yet another well-hidden optional area.

And like some of the most memorable NES games, the difficulty here resides as much in the terrain as the enemies. You'll find narrow, winding walkways and crumbling bridges everywhere, forcing you to watch your footing constantly. I remember when I finally reached that city of the gods. I was in a great mood; not only had I gone through hell to reach this place, but it was brightly lit and actually contained large, wide-open spaces that were easy to maneuver through. And then I found myself walking on narrow rafters high above the ground while fighting nimble knife-throwing enemies. And that was followed by a hellish sprint up ramparts while knights shot massive arrows powerful enough to send me flying off into the distance. Those wide-open spaces? Nothing more than a tease to lure me into a false sense of security, making it even more heart-breaking to watch my guy die over and over again, losing souls with regularity.

That last part is what hurt the most. Every time you kill something, you collect a number of souls. If you die, you'll lose every soul you possess, but if you make it back to where you died without perishing en route, you can regain them. Failing in that means those souls are lost permanently, and souls mean everything in Dark Souls. They're used as experience points, allowing you to increase your stats. They're accepted as money when you meet merchants. They're consumed in order to repair or upgrade equipment. Every time you kill a major enemy and see tens of thousands of souls roll into your stash, you'll be pondering how best to use them. Every time you lose them, you'll mourn the loss of potential progress.

If you're a skilled player and online, it might be easy to obtain new souls to replace the old, though. Dark Souls has a lot of online functionality, ranging from being able to leave helpful messages for other players to the act of invasion, where one can can enter another gamer's world for a duel to the death. During a free online weekend, some poor chap tried doing that to me, dying twice in the process and handing me a lot of souls both times. That was a good day!

So, I've written a really long review gushing over this game, so it must be near-perfect, right? Ah, I wouldn't go that far. At times, the hit detection is a bit off, while enemy tracking often can be a bit too good. A few bosses are nothing more than tougher versions of previous foes. And most importantly, it's hard to shake the notion that the people at FROM Software suffered from their own strain of ending fatigue while putting this one together. For most of this game, I was really digging the varied stages that composed this game's world, as well as how seamlessly they all fit together, with doors and ladders and elevators regularly accessible to connect new places to old. But down the stretch, it seemed they ran out of good ideas, so they just threw in some frustrating concepts that provide difficulty without fun. The Demon Ruins are loaded with degraded bosses as regular enemies, while the bordering Lost Izaleth opens in a massive chamber covered with lava causing crazy damage unless you equip a particular ring. The Tomb of Giants is a pitch-black locale where you'll be stumbling along blindly unless you've found a light source.

Fortunately, I was able to supplement those tedious late-game areas with the DLC chapter, which contained some neat stuff, including a few of the game's best bosses. Perhaps that was the best part of Dark Souls -- whenever I found myself annoyed or frustrated with something, I could always find something else to do, whether it be grinding souls to improve my equipment or simply trying my hand at new regions of the game to see if could root up something that could help me in my journey. While I can't say everything about this game was great, I stlll loved it. I loved the challenge, I loved the world and I simply loved the sense of gambling that I had while exploring, where I could go a bit further and see if I could hold out a bit more…or run back to the last bonfire to restore my health and Estus flask to prepare for another, hopefully more efficient, attempt at things. When you've played games for well over 30 years, you find it takes a lot for something to feel memorable because you've already experienced so much. Dark Souls might not be flawless, but it is memorable.


overdrive's avatar
Community review by overdrive (June 12, 2018)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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honestgamer posted June 12, 2018:

This is one of your strongest reviews in some time, polished and easy to read, with points that clearly build to make credible points I can appreciate as a reader. It feels to me like you had a lot more fun writing this one than you do writing the usual Kemco outings, It did feel a bit too long to me, but a lot of that probably comes down to my familiarity with the game. If I were someone who hadn't ever played the game for myself, I'm sure I would have been still more delighted by your vivid descriptions. So I don't really have any constructive criticism to offer here, because overall I think the review is great just as it is.
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overdrive posted June 13, 2018:

It is a bit long, but you should have seen it before I trimmed it down! I think I cut out a few sentences, trimmed a few others and cut out 2 or 3 paragraphs. Every once in a while, a game comes along that I can't say enough about and this was one of those. I mean, out of fairness to my "friends" at Kemco, I had a lot more fun talking about this game than most that I've played. I came into it with this idea of how I wanted it to go and then, a few hundred words later, I realized it was going in a whole different direction and I didn't really have control any more. And it took a bit of work to get things manageable again.

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