In 2009 the release of Demons Souls was supposed to be a niche hit, those who love hardcore sadistic games would love it and others would just admire it from afar. But the game turned out to be a smash hit and even became one of Atlus’ top selling games ever. Due to the success it spawn a “spiritual successor” (even though we all know it’s basically a sequel) called Dark Souls. It takes the Demons Souls formula, brings in some improvements and puts the player in an open world, all of which come together to create a great and satisfying game.
Just to get it out of the way right off the bat, Dark Souls is hard, as hard as you’ve heard it to be and then probably some more. It follows sort of an old school game design which is lets you figure out everything yourself, for better or for worse. This means when first entering into the open world of Lordran, if you happen to take the wrong path to the regenerating skeletons the game won’t tell you that this area isn’t meant for you. The game will just let you die over and over again until you yourself realize that “Hey, maybe I should try somewhere else”. Dying is a big part of the difficulty curve because of what you can lose; which is souls. Souls, just like in Demons Souls, are the universal currency for everything in the games, you use them to level up, buy weapons, repair armor, but items, just about everything you can think of uses souls. The scary part is that when you die you lose all of them but have the chance to gain them back by going to your “bloodstain” which is the last place you died. But if you die before getting to that bloodstain then you lose all those souls forever.
Don’t let all this talk of difficulty steer you away from this game though, Dark Souls manages to give the player something that not many games can offer; satisfaction. With each kill, each step forward, each boss defeated Dark Souls is able to offer some “eff yeah!” moments, it always feel like you’ve defeated an area with your own skill, and on the other side when you do die it never feels like the game was cheap. Sometimes the game does put you in some overwhelming odds but smart play will always get you through any area. It’s not a game where you can just grab a sword and just start destroying enemies; each enemy has the potential to kill you so you need to go into each combat situation with a cool head.
The gameplay in Dark Souls is mainly the same as in Demons Souls. The L and R buttons control your left and right hand respectively, and both have a light and heavy move. Different weapons will control completely differently so finding the right weapon for you will be something to do during your time with the game. The main difference in Darks Souls over Demons Souls is that there are no more collectable healing items and no more magic bar in the game and the big change of no “hub” world to go back to. The potions are replaced with Estus Flasks which serve as your potions but they cannot be collected or bought, only restored after resting at a bonfire which serves as your checkpoints. The same principle applies for magic now as well, teach spell has a limited number of uses before it runs out and can only be refreshed by resting at a bonfire. This adds a lot of tension while playing because knowing you have a limited number of potions makes you ration them more and sometimes being a little too cheap on potions can kill you when you take a devastating strike.
One thing you’ll notice from Dark Souls right from the outset is the bleak world the game puts you in. You start off in a dungeon not knowing where you are and also have nothing to defend yourself with other than a broken sword. This intro kind of sets up the rest of the game, you’ll be going through beautifully designed world that will give you a sense of fear and dread as you travel through them for the first time. This kind of atmosphere mixed with not knowing where enemies spawn, what to expect around the next corner, what kind of traps the world has waiting for you, makes for one of them most tense experiences while traveling. The areas are varied from dark forests to marble castles, and even a world inside of a painting. Each area also brings its own unique challenges in forms of enemies and traps; so just because you are able to get through some areas without taking damage new areas bring drastically new enemies that have different patterns.
A big open world makes Dark Souls a joy to explore but also a wonder to look at. The hard enemies and bleak atmosphere make the game tense the whole way through. And the story always makes you want to delve more into the game to learn more about the world of Lodran. Dark Souls is able to bring all of these elements together to what I am willing to say is one of the best games of 2011.