Any game can deliver a few cheap scares. It takes a special one to terrify you. Dark Souls is such a game. It's a thoughtful, atmospheric, and mysterious role-playing adventure that challenges your mind and your mettle. It takes the concepts of deadly environments and unflinching difficulty introduced by 2009's infamously tough Demon's Souls and cranks up the challenge, the fear, the frustration, and the eventual triumph. Dark Souls' enormous world is vast and dangerous, filled with terrifying fire demons and homicidal lizardmen, all with a single goal: to annihilate you. And so you die, over and over again, as you make your way through this strikingly fearsome land. But in Dark Souls, death and resurrection is a core mechanic, not a roadblock, and because the combat is so precise, you ultimately feel in control of your destiny. Dark Souls plays by its own rules, and in doing so, provides an unforgettable adventure that seeps into your being and invades your thoughts. It's a landmark game, destined to be loved and talked about by anyone who has the pleasure of unraveling its mysteries.
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Like Demon's Souls, Dark Souls is a third-person dungeon crawler with precise and responsive combat. You create a character, select a class, and enter a bleak kingdom populated by undead horrors, shrieking gargoyles, and iron-clad knights. The tutorial introduces you to the impending terrors in fine fashion. You fight a gargantuan ogre, get rolled over by a giant ball, and encounter a sad fellow who issues you a warning in his final moments. After this sinister and enthralling introduction, a giant raven flies you to the shrine that serves as your initial hub. And so begins your exploration of Lordran, where non-player characters offer a few vague notions of where you are and what you must do, but little else. NPCs muse on their undead conditions and emit disturbing giggles, but Dark Souls doesn't focus on plot, character development, or questing in the traditional sense. Rather, it provides you with a captivating world spiced with narrative details, and encourages you to craft your own tale. You might expect that such thin storytelling might lead to aimlessness, but Dark Souls is anything but aimless, in part due to the structure and design of its large, seamless world.
Demon's Souls was a collection of large levels attached to a hub area; Dark Souls is a single, massive realm, separated into distinct regions. You can't explore with impunity, however: certain areas open up to you only when you beat bosses. Watching a giant closed gate swing open after a nail-biting battle is a fantastic reward for proving your dominance: You are filled with trepidation and excitement at the prospect of investigating a mystifying new territory. That region might contain dim forests, crumbling castles, dilapidated bridges, and ominous fortresses. Each area has its own defining visual characteristics, yet feels like it belongs to the same melancholy medieval universe. A giant red dragon perches above a stone bridge and breathes fire upon you. Undead knights clad in capes charge at you. Ghostly figures descend on a murky village. Dark Souls is beautiful and terrifying all at once--yet as horrifying as it is, it draws you in. No one should ever want to reside in a land in which death lurks around each corner. Yet once you're there, Dark Souls convinces you to remain, promising new vistas to ogle and new creatures to slay. The biggest blight on this land is the inconsistent frame rate. It isn't a pervasive issue, but things get choppy in certain areas. The slowdown isn't likely to affect your exploration, but it's noticeable enough to stand out.
Spells aren't just limited to sorcerers; any class can use any weapon or spell, provided your statistics support them.
You eventually unlock shortcuts between regions and make good use of them, especially when trying to best Dark Souls' immense and numerous bosses. They include twin gargoyles atop a parish roof, a giant fire demon, a huge wolf with a sword in its mouth, and a deceptively beautiful butterfly that sings a soothing lullaby when it isn't trying to murder you. And there are minibosses too, such as a blue dragon guarding a narrow path and a giant diseased rat skulking in the sewers. Every boss looks gruesome, and each plays differently enough to keep you on your toes. Even standard foes are wonderfully hideous in Dark Souls and are suited to their environment. Each enemy attacks differently from others, with some taking advantage of openings to whittle away most, if not all, of your health bar. However, smooth animations and clear sound effects signal the most powerful moves, allowing you to block properly or roll out of the way. Yet each dog and demon has enough different attacks to make every encounter a surprise; it's a great mix of consistency and unpredictability. And with so much combat variety, you might find use for multiple weapons and sets of armor, each with its own attack and defense benefits (one for fending off poison, one for fire protection, and so on). One moment, you might look like a hooded wraith in your gold-trimmed cloak; the next, your gleaming armor gives you the look of a virtuous silver knight.
Fortunately, the combat is weighty and exact, which is why Dark Souls feels fair and rarely cheap. In all but a few instances, the collision detection is flawless. When your blade makes contact with a shield, it glances off; when it meets flesh, it sinks into it. If you hit a wall rather than the flaming minotaur rising above you, he will take advantage of your error. These might seem like small details, but without such accuracy, Dark Souls wouldn't be such a triumph. Combat isn't perfect: a drake might clip into a mountain and get stuck, or you could perish due to mistakes caused by the finicky lock-on mechanic. But such issues are easily overlooked, and more apparent than they might otherwise have been, because the action is usually ultraprecise.
Not every player message offers sound advice.
Thank goodness for such precision. Without it, you could never survive in this wild world. On your travels, you cross narrow beams and avoid deadly swinging blades. Evil shrubs spring to life and pierce you with their branches, and the bones of skeletons you just defeated reassemble themselves before your very eyes. And so you die. Often. Afterward, you resurrect at the most recent bonfire you rested at. These bonfires are scattered around the world, though they are far enough apart that you don't feel totally secure in your travels. Resting at one saves your game, replenishes your health and your supply of health flasks, and restores the number of times you can cast a particular spell. (There is no mana bar in Dark Souls.) The catch: every enemy, apart from bosses, respawns when you rest.
Death also means losing the souls you have in your possession. Souls are the game's currency and are used to level up, buy equipment, improve your weapons and armor, purchase new spells, and more. If you want to retrieve those lost souls, you must return to the bloodstain that marks the ground where you expired. And so you must ask yourself while exploring: Is it worth the risk to press onward, and accumulate more souls, or should you spend them now? It's a more difficult decision than you might think. With so many beautiful and terrifying possibilities waiting out there, you will feel yourself drawn to continue, even knowing you might sacrifice your very lifeblood.