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Dark Souls (PlayStation 3) artwork

Dark Souls (PlayStation 3) review

"Dark Souls is one of the finest Zelda games you'll ever play that isn't actually a Zelda game. Don't miss it!"

This is a lengthy and extremely favorable review for Dark Souls. In a moment I will explain why I think that this unexpected but very welcome follow-up to Demonís Souls is one of the yearís finest games (as its spiritual predecessor was in 2009), but first I ask for your indulgence as I spend the next two paragraphs telling you what it once felt like to play The Legend of Zelda on the NES.

In 1989, Hyrule was different from the land we know and love today. There were no talking boats. You didnít memorize neat little songs to play on your ocarina. Sea folk wanted to kill you, not help you, and there was no personal fairy or pony to keep you company. Instead, you were typically alone in a desolate wasteland. Slimy octopus monsters chased you through trees and if you made it past them, you could look forward to impossibly fast spiders, spear-tossing demons and carnivorous plants that broke through the soil in an effort to startle you and consume you. Ghosts rose from tombstones in graveyards that you had no choice but to explore as you searched for the gameís ultimate weapon. Mystical staircases provided shortcuts so that you could more easily reach new regions and find different places to die.

Dark Souls asset

There also were dungeons: labyrinthine passageways filled with opponents more formidable than anything you encountered while traversing the overworld. Spectral hands emerged suddenly from the walls to your side, grabbed you and threw you back to the entrance, unapologetic as their surprise attacks cost you hours of progress. Floating orbs temporarily bound your hands so that you couldnít even defend yourself, and often they inhabited the same rooms where huge masses of slime would gulp you down and leave you without your precious magic shield. Knights clad in heavy armor stomped around corridors lined by stone columns and statues that fired at you from the corner of the room when you werenít paying attention. Wizards pelted you with magic as they flickered in and out of sight, dancing around the room just beyond the reach of your sword. Finding every last piece of the Triforce and then defeating Gannon in his lair at the end of The Legend of Zelda felt like a real accomplishment, but the real reason to play was the journey, not the triumphant destination.

Until I spent more than 150 hours with Dark Souls, I hadnít found another game that came anywhere close to recapturing the feel of my wondrous first journeys through Hyrule. Iíve met gamers throughout the years who started playing games on the Super Nintendo or PlayStation when they were barely out of diapers. Iíve tried to explain just how amazing it felt to play The Legend of Zelda in the years immediately following its release. All Iíve ever received for my trouble were blank stares or expressions of disgust. ďIíve played Zelda,Ē some of those people would say. ďI know how it feels.Ē

They werenít wrong, of course, but thereís an important difference between how the game feels and how it felt.

That difference is one that Dark Souls illustrates quite plainly. No one would mistake the two titles for the same game, but theyíre not as different as the refined graphics and gameplay mechanics suggest. At its heart, Dark Souls is one of the best Zelda games ever made despite not actually being a Zelda game at all. Like the more recent entries in Nintendoís classic franchise, Dark Souls doesnít feel a whole lot like an NES classic. It was cut from a similar cloth, though, and that works to its advantage.

Dark Souls asset

You begin Dark Souls as a prisoner in a dank cell lined by cobwebs and bones. Your prospects are grim. Darkness surrounds you, but then someone overhead pulls aside a stone slab and drops a corpse through a hole in the ceiling. It lands on the floor nearby, and you notice a key resting on its decomposing mass. The soldier who dropped that body just provided you with a ticket to freedom. You grab the key, insert it in the nearby lock and turn it. The door opens and you take your first steps toward freedom. Enemies lurk in the darkness ahead, though. They wonít let you easily escape. Most distressingly, a monstrous beast patrols a chamber ahead of you and thereís no going around it, only through it. When you first step through the doorway, there is only the briefest pause before the oversized guardian rushes you with a stone ax held at the ready. That weaponís head is larger than your entire body. You have a choice to make: do you stay to fight or do you rush past that foe and through a second doorway on the far side of the chamber?

You wonít always have that choice. Even by the time you leave this first area, it will be stripped from you. Thatís a bridge you can cross later, though, once youíre more comfortable with how the game works. In the more immediate future, there are enemies to kill and there are traps to avoid. Youíll need to roll quickly out of the way as an enemy pushes a huge boulder down some stairs, for instance. The boulder crashes through a wall and makes a hole. You step through the opening and there you find your savior, crumpled against a wall and despondent. He gives you more vital assistance, including a healing flask, and begs you to leave quickly. If you tally for too long, he warns, he will attack you. He has become hollowed, you understand. He canít fight the madness forever.

So you continue exploring the asylum. You climb up and down stairs, investigate corpses of the recently slain. You find a weapon to suit your character class--the agile thief, the hearty warrior, the fire-loving pyromancer or perhaps something else entirely--and you eventually realize that thereís no way to proceed but to defeat the demon guardian with the giant ax. In the brief time youíve spent in the asylum halls, youíve already learned a lot. You know how to tip the scales in your favor and so you do, dropping down from overhead and landing a critical blow that cuts your foeís life meter in half. Then you hang back, rolling out of the way as his crushing ax blow slams against columns that line the chamber and leaves nothing but their uneven bases and chunks of rubble that once were solid stone. Itís not an easy battle, but itís a battle that you ultimately win.

Dark Souls asset

Victory grants you access to a path that leads out of the building. You ascend a rough trail dappled by sunlight and it leads to the edge of a cliff, where a giant crow swoops out of the sky, lifts you in its talons and then carries you to a distant shrine. You are deposited in the midst of some ruins; the remnants of stone houses and thatched roof inspire little confidence as you stare at the side of a rocky cliff. Trails branch off in all directions. The world around you begs to be explored. This isnít Hyrule--either the new one or the old one--but it feels almost like it might be.

The non-linear nature of Dark Souls is a carryover from Demonís Souls, which let you tackle the various stages in nearly any order you liked. Here, though, your choices about where to go and when actually mean something. The Nexus in that first game was an interesting level hub, but it led to the feeling that you were exploring only pieces of an actual world. In Dark Souls, the vibe has changed. Youíll come to a locked door and realize that eventually youíll discover whatís on the other side. It just might not happen for another hour or ten. Youíll descend a moss-lined trail into a dark forest and there youíll find a many-headed hydra at the edge of a shallow lake. When you defeat it, youíll climb the ladder it was guarding to reach a familiar stretch of forest, except now youíre coming at it from a new angle. Itís a satisfying thing, knowing that the interesting corridor you saw in the distance is a corridor that you can eventually explore.

On a grand scale, Dark Souls works beautifully. There are big, bold moments where youíre crawling along the rafters in a cathedral roof while battling knife-tossing men in tunics, or youíre dancing around the feet of beasts two stories high as lava roils around you, or just shuffling along a snowy ledge as harpies swoop down from openings in a cylindrical towerís walls. Whatís more important than such grand moments (or at least equally important), is how well everything works even when you examine the gameís finer points. Dungeons are brilliantly designed, with careful enemy placement to keep you on your toes. There are traps and enemies everywhere, but they donít have to surprise you. In one level, for instance, you can look down on a waterlogged area from above. Then you can either lure a few of the outlying enemies up the stairs to fight them one at a time, or you can rush them with blasts of magic and a wicked sword and hope for the best as you carve a bloody path through their midst. Thereís more than one satisfying approach to nearly any challenge, from the way you take down the assassin leaning against the wall you canít see around just yet to the monstrous demon who tries to corner you on the castle parapets.

Dark Souls asset

Some players wonít be ready for Dark Souls, not because itís more difficult than Demonís Souls (itís not), but because thereís so much more to it. There are more items to find and forge, more enemy weaknesses to exploit and more strategies to consider for any situation. If an enemy routinely kicks your butt, it doesnít mean the game is cheap. Youíre doing something wrong is all, and that something wrong will seem obvious when you finally figure out what it wasÖ or maybe youíll never figure it out but youíll persevere anyway because thereís always more than one way to skin a demon.

Another advantage Dark Souls holds over its predecessor is the ďcovenantĒ system. Online play was an option in Demonís Souls, certainly, but there it felt almost like an afterthought. Here, youíre missing much more of the overall experience if youíre not hooked up to the Internet. A strictly-offline approach is still wonderful, but it leaves you to miss out on the thrill of finding notes that other players have left throughout the world. ďTry using fire,Ē one person might scrawl onto a narrow passageway floor, and so you do and it works beautifully. Other players may also point the way to hidden treasure chambers, or to bonfires that serve as checkpoints. Even when you already know your way through an area, it can be fun to look at the notes and to think to yourself that such a note could have saved your butt a few hours back.

The player-versus-player aspect of Dark Souls is where online play has improved most dramatically, though. As you work through the game, youíll encounter characters who invite you to join one covenant or another. Each covenant has its own rewards, if you stick with one long enough and really invest yourself. One covenant leader hands you a ring that allows you to be summoned to defend a forest from non-covenant players who might invade it. Another leader keeps a list of aggressive players (as reported by other innocent travelers) so that you can hunt them down and give them hell. There are nearly 10 covenants in all and there are reasons to stick with each one.

Dark Souls doesnít do everything right, of course, but its transgressions are so minor that it hardly even seems fair to mention them. Over the course of 150 hours of play, I encountered around 5 or maybe 10 seconds of slowdown while battling a slew of enemies in a waterlogged area. Thatís not really a deal breaker in my mind. The game once froze on me and I lost two or three minutes of play (thanks to frequent auto-saves that a person is unlikely to even notice while playing), but that might have had something to do with me playing it for 12 consecutive hours. Iíve also heard people say that things are too difficult, or cheap, or that the world is too big and that it lacks the tight focus found in Demonís Souls. That wasnít my experience, but some things just come down to personal preference and opinion.

In case it wasnít clear, by the way, my personal opinion is that Dark Souls is just about perfect.


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (October 20, 2011)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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If you enjoyed this Dark Souls review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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hmd posted October 20, 2011:

So what you're saying is this game is pretty much King's Field V? I can dig it!
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honestgamer posted October 21, 2011:

I don't know if it's like King's Field V or not, as I've never played a King's Field game. The PlayStation art always turned me off, made the games look awful. Given how poorly PlayStation titles have aged, I'm not sure that's an impression I can ever rectify. Which is sad, possibly, if it means missing out on a great game.
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zippdementia posted October 21, 2011:

I don't come around here to comment much anymore, but I felt obligated to say what a great review this is, Jason! It actually made me cancel my pre-order of Drake's Deception to spend the money here instead. It's nice having someone talk to the "older generation" of gamers. Maybe that's what hooked me.

Or maybe it was the description of the opening scenes. Or the assertion that this is a good open-world multiplayer experience (so rare). Or maybe the game is just really good and you reported on it accurately and succinctly.

Whatever the reason, I was hooked and drawn from the depths of apathy that I've fallen into regarding video games and now I'm looking forward to my expedited shipment of Dark Souls. If only I could skip that wedding tomorrow to stay home and play it...

Anyway, maybe I'll see you online.
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Suskie posted October 21, 2011:

Over the course of 150 hours of play, I encountered around 5 or maybe 10 seconds of slowdown while battling a slew of enemies in a waterlogged area.

Even though it went multi-platform, I'm still assuming Dark Souls was made with the PS3 in mind, because there's a lot of slowdown on the 360 version.

The 360 version is also one of the most horrible games ever made. Dunno if the version you played is any different in that regard :)
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overdrive posted October 21, 2011:

I might have to add this to the list of games to look for in the future after price reductions and all that. It looks really good.
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honestgamer posted October 21, 2011:

Suskie, our assessments on the quality of Dark Souls are likely destined to remain at odds with one another.

I feel like nearly everything the game did right is something that you were never going to appreciate because you have different ideas when it comes to what an action-RPG should do. I think a lot of it also comes down to the difficulty. Please don't think I mean that as an insult. I believe that you're probably a more skilled gamer than I am (my experience is that I appreciate difficult games much less than you seem to), so I'm not saying that this is about comparative ability to kick a game's ass. I'm saying that this game is kicking your ass and it shouldn't be, but it's getting inside your head because that's what it was designed to do.

Some people will cherish that aspect about Dark Souls and they will rise to the challenge and dive into the numerous rewards that the game offers to those who take the time to consider its design and discover its secrets. Other people will resent that difficulty, and their resentment makes it understandably difficult to appreciate the many things that the game does so perfectly.

From your comments, I believe that you have had less fun with Dark Souls than you've had with nearly any game you've played in the last decade. I also believe that the game is one of the best titles to be released this year (its only real competition for me is The Witcher 2, a much easier title that falls within the same genre and rocks for completely different reasons).

I wish more of the Dark Souls coverage would focus less on the game's difficulty--which is very real, and which the game's own publisher promoted aggressively--and more on the host of other things the game does so perfectly. That's one thing I tried to do in my own review. Debate has come down to "You love the game because you're a masochist" versus "You hate the game because you suck at games" and it's clear to me that there's a lot more at work here. Sometimes, I think that gamers just can't be allowed nice things.

As for the PlayStation versus Xbox 360 thing, I've heard people on Twitter tell me that yes, they're playing the Xbox 360 version but that's not why they hate it. They assure me that they know someone who says both versions are precisely the same. They are same the people who are experiencing the most slowdown and they're the people who are least able to appreciate the spectacular beauty of the game world and the finer points of its design, but they have a friend who says that platform is not an issue, so what would I know? I'm just playing the PlayStation version, so I'm guilty of a lapse in judgment right from the start. Of course, the game's developers did build and engineeer the title specifically for the PlayStation 3 hardware and there's not even an Xbox 360 version available in Japan, but apparently that's irrelevant.
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Suskie posted October 21, 2011:

You don't quite have the full picture, Jason, but since you're basing most of that what I've said on Twitter (which was pretty much just me venting), that's not your fault. I actually do have fairly complicated reasons for hating the game as much as I do, and it's not simply about the difficulty, but rather how the level of difficulty clashes with other design choices they've made.

Honestly, don't be surprised to see a review from me in the near future. I know I've only completed a small chunk of the game (15 hours, which is apparently around 10% of it), but here's the thing. When I played Demon's Souls, I very frequently wanted to quit, but I didn't, because I wanted to give the game a fair chance. Turns out it wasn't worth, seeing the game to the end didn't change my opinion of it. I've been through this before. I have a lot that I want to say about Dark Souls, and I'm not going to suffer through 130 more hours of this crap to say it.

By the way, for as much as I disagree, this was a very good review. Might've even convinced me if I hadn't played the game already.
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honestgamer posted October 21, 2011:

Thanks for the comments on the review, Suskie! I didn't expect to convince you with my review or my follow-up comments. Dark Souls clearly isn't the game for you. While I believe that it would improve SOME in your eyes if you experienced the whole thing (it has a lot more variety and feels a lot different by its end than Demon's Souls ever did), I can't picture a scenario where you reach the end and realize with surprise that you liked the game. Just considering that possibility makes me chuckle. I'm glad that even though we disagree on the game, you were able to appreciate what I did with the review and to respond respectfully. That's the sort of thing I expect from this community and it's something that I hope will continue for a long time to come.
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Suskie posted October 21, 2011:

You know, it's weird. Dark Souls is almost identical to Demon's Souls; the one big difference is that it's now set in one enormous world. You paint this as a positive thing and I understand your logic (although I'd liken it to, say, Metroid Prime rather than Zelda). At the same time, this new approach to level design is one of the major reasons I became so much more frustrated with this game than I did with Demon's Souls. I'd go into more detail, but I'm actually writing my "review" as we speak, so hopefully it'll become clear.
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zippdementia posted October 21, 2011:

I'm curious to see both sides of this argument! Regardless I've heard the game is much harder than Demon's Souls (from everyone but Jason) and I have to say I can't wait for the challenge. I've been playing UNcharted on Crushing and God of War on God mode and it's just barely doing it for me.
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honestgamer posted October 21, 2011:

It was easy to cheese Demon's Souls by building a sorcerer-type character and then taking everything out from a distance with magic. That worked more often than not, and in fact you could defeat the final "real" boss by standing at the top of a short set of stairs and just throwing magic at him (he wouldn't even move to attack). In Dark Souls, you have to use actual skill with melee weapons. That was an adjustment for me, but once I got good at close-range combat, the game became much easier. Once I learned to use the right weapons and strategies on the right areas, enemies and bosses, things got much simpler and I was able to relish the exploration. There were still places where I died--a lot--but it was always because of my impatience, my lapses into a frame of mind where I told myself that games like this allow you to just run in and start hacking things to bits. That never works here. Keep it in mind and the game is a delight.
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Suskie posted October 21, 2011:

Uh, I just submitted my review, but there was no preview screen and it's not listed under my submissions page. Did you receive it?
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honestgamer posted October 21, 2011:

It's in the queue. Someone should get to it soon, possibly me.
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Suskie posted October 21, 2011:

Thanks. Sorry it was a bit shoddy, mechanically. I usually do my proofreading from the preview page, and I forgot that there no longer is one.

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