Dark Souls has a big reputation in the gaming community. A reputation of being unforgiving, uncompromising, brutal and yet fair.  It doesn’t hold your hand, it doesn’t tell you where to go, it drops you in a strange and hostile world and expects you to find your own way. This is a game that expects you to work for for your victory but will reward you accordingly in a way a lot of games fall short on. In the PC release of this game, From Software hints at this by adding the tagline “Prepare to Die Edition”.

Cheery, isn't it?

Cheery, isn’t it?

Dark Souls was developed and published by the company From Software. From Software is a long standing Japanese company famous for the Armored Core series, Tenchu series, Chromehounds, and numerous others. Dark Souls originally came out in 2011 for the PS3/Xbox 360 but was ported a year later to the PC.

Having missed the initial hype train by several years I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect going in but what I found greatly surprised me. Dark Souls is a deeply nuanced, atmospheric, and challenging action roleplaying game.

Story

Dark Souls’ story is different than most games I’ve played. It’s not primarily told by cutscenes or dialogue and there’s little to no external exposition; it’s very minimalist. Instead of the story being conveyed through other characters, the player, or cutscenes it largely exists in the background through item descriptions with small hints through conversation, and bits and pieces via cutscene. And what story you do get is often up to interpretation.

The reason behind this is pretty fascinating. The director of the game Hedetaka Miyazaki, not to be confused with Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki,  grew up very poor but was an avid reader. He would read and watch whatever he could get through his local library. Oftentimes though the material would be in English and due to his lack of proficiency with the language, he would often miss parts of the story. This led him to fill in the blanks with his own thoughts and interpretations. That’s why Dark Souls’ story has to be explored and is not just laid out directly.

The game opens with a cutscene describing the beginning of the world. Immortal dragons ruled over an endless grey landscape of fog and rock while underground dwelt the giants and other beings. Until one day fire appears and several chosen from underground rise to challenge the dragons thus ushering in the Age of Fire. My description doesn’t do it justice but it really sets the tone for the game to come.

This state of affairs lasts for thousands of years, the giants build kingdoms and civilization flourishes but all is not well. Eventually the fire begins to fade and darkness begins to creep into the world threatening all. This is most signified through the undead curse that spreads throughout the world.

This curse causes someone to rise from the dead after death. Initially the subject is relatively normal but as time goes on you slowly lose your sanity and intelligence and eventually go feral attacking any non-undead that comes into contact with you. However, these are not zombies; they still possess whatever skills and equipment they had in life.

The world of the living, fearing the undead, send them to asylums to keep them from spreading the curse further and that’s where we find our protagonist. Having recently gotten the curse, he/she is sent to the Asylum to rot for the rest of his days. Over the course of the intro you escape and make your way to the first hub world. From there you’re given a vague objective and sent on your way.

When I first started playing I didn’t think much of the story. It seemed like fairly standard fare to me. You’re some kind of “chosen one” and you only through your actions can you undo the curse that’s befallen the land but it’s much more complicated and nuanced to that. As you play through the game, read the descriptions, explore the world you start to piece together this deep and intricate lore. There are so many layers to what’s going on in the world and so many different ways to interpret everything that you could spend days debating the possibilities.

That and everything about this game from the enemies, the items, the setting just oozes atmosphere and sucks you into it. Every play session would leave me with more questions and an eagerness to dive in and explore so I could learn more.

You do have to work more for this story. It’s not spelled out or given to you. But it is worth it. It’s hard to convey with words but it’s a story and setting that will suck you in if you give it the opportunity. It’s a deep sort of lore that I can’t recommend enough and will be theorizing about for years to come.

For story, Dark Souls gets a 10/10.

Gameplay

The gameplay of Dark Souls is very difficult but it is fair. The enemies are brutal, aggressive, and uncompromising but they are not invincible. Every enemy has an array of attacks and patterns that can be learned and turned against them. The feeling of adapting to and beating an enemy that’s thrashed you countless times before is amazing.

The great thing though is how well paced it all is. While you can learn the patterns and moves of an enemy and beat them, there’s always something new around the corner. You’re like Batman encountering a new villain. You can, and will, get beat up on your first encounter but you go back to your bat-cave, you learn, you adapt, and you come back and beat the enemy.

Darksouls-Gif

You learn to keep your wits about you. (It’s also a GIF, please open separately)

Dark Souls plays as an action rpg. The camera sticks behind the player and you use a variety of spells, weapons, and shields to dodge, attack, block, and defeat the enemy. Where the gameplay really shines is the sheer variety of weapons, items, and playstyles. There are a million different ways to play the game. Especially since the game never locks you to a single playstyle. Want to be a beefy knight that also uses magic? Want to be a sneaky thief with a massive hammer? Want to be a wizard who also uses a bow? There is no limit to how you can build and play your character and this really bumps up the replayability.

Adding to that, there’s a new “game plus mode” which lets you carry over your stats and items while also ramping the difficulty up accordingly. This is a great way to try new styles and enjoy the game’s added difficulty. Where Dark Souls sets itself apart though, is that there are multiple new game runs possible. You can beat the game with the same character and save up to seven times, increasing the difficulty with each cycle. It’s a ton of fun trying out new styles and learning to beat the enemies all over again as the difficulty continuously increases.

Another unique feature is the multiplayer component of the game. As you play through the game, there’s a variety of ways you and other players can influence and affect the worlds of others. Players can leave messages on the ground for other players to see offering tips and other pre-made commentary. The usefulness will vary from message to message. Some might offer useful tips for enemies or bosses ahead while others might tell you to jump off a cliff. You can also see shadow versions of players that happen to be in the same area as you and this really helps the game to feel alive while still maintaining your own distinct world.

Plus, if you’re so inclined, you can summon other players to help you, be summoned yourself, or even have your world invaded by another player whom you then duke it out with. The summoning and invasion components however are completely optional but are a great option, particularly with friends, to have and enjoy.

The system isn’t perfect though and in some places I feel directly works against the interest of the players. Co-Op and summoning other players revolves around the “Humanity” resource. Unless you spend this resource to make your character Human you can’t do it, which I feel detracts from the cooperative potential of the game. After awhile it’s not so hard to come by but initially if you run out Humanity it can be hard to obtain the resource. No game should make a player have to work to play the game with friends.

Turning your character human comes with advantages and disadvantages. It allows you to summon other players and computer characters and also increases the chance of enemies dropping stuff. However, it also opens you up to invasion by other players seeking a player versus player experience. While this can be fun it also can be unbalanced and unfair to the player being invaded. The game matches players to each other by a level range. If I’m level 10, then someone invading me will be around the same level. However, the game does not account for the equipment being worn at all. It’s very easy to be invaded by someone on a “new game plus” run who might be your level but also possesses end-game equipment. It contradicts the premise of “hard but fair” when you’re trying to co-op with a friend but repeatedly get invaded and smashed by someone who shouldn’t be able to get matched to you. It’s not a gamebreaker but it detracts from what otherwise is a very fun experience.

For the PC edition though, controls are a mixed bag. Dark Souls was From Software’s first PC game and it shows in the controls. While you can use the mouse and keyboard, I would not recommend it. Doing so results in controls that are not responsive or easy to use. I use a wired Xbox One controller and it works great but any dedicated gamepad would do well. While it’s understandable for a company’s first PC release, it can be a detriment to the experience for players who might not have a gamepad they can hook to their PC.

As far as Replayability goes, this game has it in spades. Between the multiple playthroughs, numerous playstyles, and huge variety of enemies, equipment, and items this is a game I’m going to be playing for years to come. You will definitely get your value with Dark Souls. I’ve sunk about 40 hours into my first playthrough, and I expect to get that much each with subsequent plays.

This is a tough score. The game has excellent replayability, an enemy design that is difficult but not in an unfair way, and great controls but only if you’re using a controller. Not only that but tying the cooperative play to a physical resource sometimes makes it’s hard to pair with friends and no game should restrict co-op in such a fashion. It’s an amazing base to build on but something I hope is further tweaked and improved upon in future releases. Dark Souls gets a 7/10 for gaming.

Graphics

Graphically, Dark Souls is also a mixed bag.

On the positive side, the atmosphere and art direction is amazing. Every building, every item, and everything in this game serves to further the atmosphere of the game and looks amazing. No two areas look alike which helps keep the game fresh and engaging as you play. The character and enemy design is amazing. From skeletons to giants to undead knights, there’s a ton of variety and attention to detail and it makes the game look fantastic.

On the downside, there are some technical issues with the PC release of the game. In the options, you can select any resolution but no matter what you pick it will only put out a resolution of 1024×720 and scale it to whatever resolution your monitor has. What this means is it stretches the image to fit your monitor which results in a blurry and unfocused look. While this isn’t as noticeable on the console versions where you’re playing on a TV at a distance, this is very noticeable on a computer monitor which typically sits less than three feet from your face.

There is a fix/user modification available online which lets you fix this. The fix alters the resolution the game runs and makes the game look so much better and can be tailored to whatever resolution your monitor runs at. Not only this but it also adds the option for anti-aliasing (eliminates the jaggy edges you see in games), Screen Space Ambient Occlusion (better contrast between light and dark scenes), and other options. While the fix is relatively easy to use and is very much worth it, it shouldn’t be up to the players to fix these issues. It’s not entirely unexpected given this was From Software’s very first PC port of any of their games but it still detracts from the visuals.

In the image below, you can see the difference between vanilla Dark Souls and Dark Souls with the resolution fix applied. Make sure you right click on the image and open it in another tab so you can see it properly. The different is staggering, especially in motion. Without the fix everything is much blurrier and lacks definition. While the fixed version is far sharper and that’s without any of the extras applied. Playing without this fix is like playing a game with vaseline coating your monitor and does not do the game justice.

No Fix (Left) Fix Applied (Right)

No Fix (Left) Fix Applied (Right)

Adding to this, as much as I love the overall design and look of the game, even with the resolution fix the textures are still clearly from a 2011 console game. There’s a lot of low-res textures in the environment. This won’t be immediate apparent if you’re not looking for it but it’s worth mentioning.

Out of the box, because of the amazing art direction and enemy design but ultimately blurry and low res visuals/textures Dark Souls gets a 6/10. If you take a moment and apply the resolution fix though, which I will link at the end, it rises to an 8/10.

Conclusion

So after all that, should you buy this game? You absolutely should. It has a deep, nuanced story that keeps you exploring, a gameplay style that is very challenging but fair, and an art style that oozes atmosphere and character. Add gobs of replayability and variety on top of that and you have yourself one of the best games of that generation. Dark Souls went largely unnoticed by me for quite a while, but I’m glad that I played it. It’s one of the best games I’ve played recently and will continue to play for years to come.

It currently retails on Steam for 19.99 and is a steal at that price. It also frequently goes on sale for as low as 4.99. It is an amazing value for the money.

It’s not without it’s flaws but if you can look past those, you will find an amazing game. Dark Souls, lumps and all, gets an 8/10.

However, if you’re going to play it on PC you owe it to yourself to make some tweaks to ensure you’re getting the best experience possible. You will want to keep the following in mind.

  • Use a controller. The mouse & keyboard controls are awful. The Xbox 360 and Xbox One controllers make for excellent gamepads but there are a lot of great options out there.
  • Dark Souls Resolution Fix. Apply the resolution fix. The game is held back visually if you don’t and doesn’t look nearly as good.  It’s easy to apply with the instructions from the page but there are also plenty of youtube tutorials as well.
Overall Score
80 %

Story 100%
Gameplay 70%
Graphics 80%

About The Author

Big fan of all things Tabletop Gaming, Video Games, and Science Fiction/Horror. I also build and fix computers.

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