The spiritual sequel to the cult hit "Demon's Souls", "Dark Souls" combines the challenging hack-and-slash gameplay of its predecessor with a more open world and greater difficulty.
"Dark Souls" is a third-person action-RPG set in a grim fantasy world. Those who have played its predecessor, "Demon's Souls", will find that almost all of the basic mechanics are the same. As a refresher for those who haven't, Dark Souls' gameplay involves defeating enemies by dodging their attacks with blocking and rolling, then countering with sword slashes, bow shots, or magic spells. Unlike most RPGs, Dark Souls is an action game first and foremost - closer to games like the Legend of Zelda than most other RPGs. Defeating enemies provides the player with Souls, a currency used to upgrade the player-character's abilities or purchase items. The game's main defining trait is its difficulty; death comes quickly, and dying takes all of your currently-held souls (i.e. those not spent on upgrades or items). The game's tagline is "Prepare to Die", and if a player goes into the game expecting a cakewalk they are in for a rude surprise.
The main difference between Demon's Souls and Dark Souls is the nature of the world. In Demon's Souls, the player began in a Nexus that allowed them to teleport to different worlds to defeat bosses. In Dark Souls, the whole world is one big connected map in a manner akin to games like Metroid or Castlevania. Therefore, exploration is far more important, whether it's to find the next area or to find shortcuts back to previous ones. The world of Dark Souls is littered with "bonfires", safe areas that restore health and allow you to manage your experience, inventory, magic, and so on. These bonfires are also the only way to fill your "Estus flasks", one of the only means of healing available in the game, so conserving resources is more important than in Demon's Souls. This adds to the difficulty mostly because using a bonfire respawns all enemies in the world, so it's possible to run out of healing supplies before you've reached a boss and be forced to go all the way back and try again. The amount of Estus a bonfire provides can be increased by feeding it "humanity", a resource that can be acquired by defeating enemies or helping other players in co-op play, but there's an upper limit to how much Estus can be carried.
While exploration and a certain amount of freedom does exist in the game, there's also some things that must be done in a linear fashion (or at least mostly linear). Bosses, for example, will often block hallways that cannot be passed until the boss is defeated. This can be frustrating if you're having trouble with the first few bosses, but after about the first hour of play the world opens up a bit more and allows you to always have somewhere else to explore to improve your character and your weaponry. In some ways it's more linear than Demon's Souls, because you HAVE to defeat certain bosses to progress (whereas in Demon's Souls it was possible to skip entire worlds as long as you got the bare minimum necessary to face the final boss), but in other ways it's more open by allowing you to explore areas that you never even NEED to go.
The game's combat is similar to Demon's Souls, but a bit more developed. The enemies are definitely tougher and more aggressive, even at the beginning of the game. Two new additions to the player's melee arsenal are the ability to kick (useful for knocking an enemy back) and do a jumping slash (useful for covering ground more quickly). In general, though, it's the same basic concepts of dodge, block, attack. The bosses are a bit less diverse than Demon's Souls' bosses, and more frustrating as well. One particular frustration is the fact that both the character's weapons and most enemy weapons will bounce back if they hit walls, meaning that slashing in a narrow corridor is a bad idea and stabbing weapons will have an advantage. However, certain bosses (and one boss in particular) don't play by those rules, meaning that fights against those bosses are mostly a guessing game as to whether a particular hit is going to connect or not. On the other hand, there are some boss fights that are so well-done and exciting that they make up for the bad ones. One boss fight killed me three or four times, but was so enjoyable to fight that I didn't mind having to go all the way back to it. The game's difficulty means that overcoming a fair boss can be exhilarating, but having to put up with a poorly-designed boss can simply be frustrating.
The multiplayer aspect of the game is similar to previous games, and comes in both cooperative and competitive modes. The cooperative mode is achieved by summoning players (or being summoned), allowing multiple characters to fight through one player's campaign. The competitive element is the option of invading another player's world. Players can only summon other players, or be invaded by other players, while in "human" form (and being able to summon or be invaded is the only benefit of being in human form), so if you don't want to be invaded it's perfectly possible to just never turn human. Complicating the multiplayer relationship is the "Covenant" system. Covenants can be joined by finding certain NPCs in the game world, and each covenant has different objectives. One covenant randomly invades those who are marked as criminals in the game's system (i.e. those who invade other players or break their own covenants). Another covenant exists to invade the worlds of players who enter a specific forest in the game world. The "basic" covenant, the Way of White, makes it easier to find friendly players and harder to be invaded.
The game's graphics and designs are as impressive as Demon's Souls' were. The designs are grounded but still fantastic, and the scale of the game is amazing. The whole world is interconnected, and it's easy to see this wherever you are. From the highest towers, you can see all the way to the lowest ravines, and the areas are huge to begin with. In many cases it's easy to figure out where you should go next just by looking around in the game world. Like in Demon's Souls, the game's music is limited to boss fights, making the "exploring the world" part of the game more quiet and dramatic and the "combat" parts more intense.
Overall, Dark Souls is a worthy successor to Demon's Souls, and any fan of Demon's Souls should check it out. The main things that might limit its appeal is its difficulty; while most players view it as being "hard but fair", it's easy to imagine the average player becoming frustrated at their repeated deaths and having to play through sections over again. If you're not up for a challenge, Dark Souls is more annoying than it's worth, but if you ARE, it's a fantastic game that can be well worth the effort it requires. 9/10.
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