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Dark Souls
Graphics: 8.5
Gameplay: 8.7
Sound: 8.9
Control: 8.3
Replay Value: 8.5
Rating: 8.6

When the game’s slogan is “prepare to die,” you know you’re in for it. But provided you have the fortitude and determination to push through Dark Souls, you will be richly rewarded. I’m not as impressed with the core mechanics as other critics seem to be, and I believe the beauty and mystery of this world often dulls in the face of ceaseless chains of death (which results in repetition), but the game’s hardcore appeal can’t be denied. Furthermore, there’s little doubt that fans of Demon’s Souls will be plenty satisfied.

Visually, the game is appropriately dark and intimidating. Something horrifying and downright deadly could lurk around every corner and every once in a while, you catch glimpses of breathtaking scenery. The diversity of the landscapes is fantastic and the detail on particularly large bosses is absolutely mind-blowing. I think From Software goes a touch heavy on the grays and browns – it gets a little monotonous – but then again, this is not an attractive, cutesy atmosphere. Besides, the environment has a profound effect on the player, and that’s what matters most.

In many ways, I think the audio of the game is the biggest highlight. Much of your adventure is surprisingly quiet as the soundtrack picks its spots, but it’s this subtlety that puts you in touch with your terrifying quest. The sensation is always palpable. Because you always feel on the verge of death, that silence often adds to your fear and anxiety; it’s as if the world is just waiting to unleash a fatal monster or event. The effects are crisp and accurate, and the relatively small amount of voice acting is great, too. It all combines to enrich the experience.

You are an Undead chosen to make a nearly impossible pilgrimage. You will first choose your class, a unique gift, and a little perk, and you’re on your way. During the introductory part of your adventure, you will take on some basic enemies and eventually take down a huge demon with a spiked club. The latter is plenty challenging enough (depending on your chosen class), but that’s just a taste. A huge raven picks you up and brings you to Lordran, a land full of secrets, ordeals, and nightmarish creatures. Your goal is to ring both Bells of Awakening.

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You just gotta reach ‘em. Both paths are jam-packed with peril and trepidation and with every step, you’re risking it all…literally. When you die, you’ll be returned to the last bonfire at which you rested, and you will have lost any souls you collected. The good news is that if you can reach your bloodstain from the previous death, you can get all those souls back; the bad news is that if you don’t reach it and die again, the first batch of souls is gone forever. You just have to be resilient; you have to upgrade your equipment with shards, level up, and find helpful items.

There are some new elements we didn’t see in Demon’s Souls. First up is the chance to side with a certain Faction, a group that will grant you special abilities depending on the situation. This also has an impact on the multiplayer, as other players in the same Faction can’t invade your quest. More on that in a second. Another difference is the world, which seems bigger and less restrictive. Some areas remain locked until you take down one of the game’s many bosses, but this environment is more dynamic and larger in scope.

Souls represent the game’s currency. That’s why they’re so damn valuable, and why death can be immensely frustrating. But it also forces you to be conscientious; every step of the adventure requires your undivided attention. One misstep and all your hard work could be gone, which might result in some enraged controller snapping (I would have an extra controller handy, just in case). At the game’s central hub, you can pick up new skills and equipment, but remember that Souls are used for both, so you frequently have to make difficult decisions. Bonfires are also used for saving and resting; they become sources of great relief.

It’s an engaging, brutal, rewarding journey that features a ridiculous number of challenges, many of which are original and invigorating. But I felt continually cheated by a camera that sits way too close and a lock-on mechanic that fails in particularly trying situations. The lock-on for Demon’s Souls was iffy, too, but the camera is a whole new problem. You’re routinely blindsided because visibility in the immediate area is limited, and huge bosses can cause the camera to go completely haywire. It happens more when not locked on, but it remains an issue.

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Due to the cramped nature of so many spaces, this drawback never seems to go away. Plus, the fidgety lock-on system becomes more problematic with multiple enemies. Now, if you’re playing as a ranged character, the camera issue becomes minimal in severity. You might not even notice it much. But as a Warrior, Knight, or Bandit, you’re going to notice it instantly; it rears its ugly head during the very first boss fight. My last problem is a layover from the game’s predecessor: I just don’t think using Souls for everything is a good idea.

Overall, though, in a game where survival is key, you won’t find anything even remotely similar to Dark Souls (well, except for Demon’s Souls). It challenges you on a number of different levels and the mesmerizing world will keep you coming back for more. Besides, the multiplayer feature remains highly attractive and innovative. The inherent difficulty encourages you to team up with other players, which is a great experience and one that can be supremely helpful. Furthermore, the ever-present danger of players invading your game is a nice touch.

Dark Souls tests you. It puts you in an absurd situation and asks you to not only survive, but to conquer. You have to be careful but at the same time, you can’t remain idle. You can’t sit around beating enemies after resting at a bonfire (enemies respawn when you do so), because you just won’t get anywhere. Sure, you’ll level up but you are tasked with progression. Everything from flaming barrels rolling down steps to freakish creatures lurking in the shadows can spell your end, and the surge of satisfaction that accompanies a fresh feat is indescribable.

However, I maintain that mechanically, the game isn’t as sound as it should’ve been. With slower characters, the responsiveness is called into question, and the camera simply accounted for too many of my deaths. It seems I have to fight the mechanics almost as often as the enemies. Lastly, because you die so often, you find yourself retracing your steps a lot. Some won’t mind but this got quite repetitive for me; it felt even more repetitive than the retracing in Demon’s Souls. Nevertheless, I’m sure this game is perfect for just the right person.

The Good: Fantastic, immersive world. Nail-biting audio. Beautifully designed bosses and epic encounters. Different classes offer very different gameplay experiences. Immensely satisfying and rewarding. Multiplayer is an innovative bonus.

The Bad: Brutal difficulty can diminish enjoyment. Camera is often a major issue. Lock-on system still isn’t quite right.

The Ugly: “Wow…getting pretty sick of all this dying.”

10/3/2011   Ben Dutka