Game review: Dark Souls for Xbox360

I got a little amount of cash for Christmas, not enough for a proper new game, though. But as I’ve played something like 600 hours in Dark Souls III, I figured why not get the first game and see what’s changed? So I went to the local game shop, and as luck would have it, they had exactly one copy of the Prepare to Die edition in stock.

Before I get to the proper review, I want to address some complaints about the third installment. I see a lot of fans complain that Dark Souls III is totally different from the original game, and I gotta say, I’m not in agreement with that opinion. The third game is in many ways a refinement of all these ideas that started in the first. The menus and interface are more intuitive to use, the camera is less wonky, and the fast travel system is much, much better in the final installment. But almost everything else is quite similar. Many of the items and enemies found in the first game are in the third installment, and now having played the first game, and then gone back to play the third over again, I can see all the ways From Software is elbowing me in the ribs and going “Remember that? Wasn’t it great?”

And it can be great at times, when it isn’t being clunky or clumsy. The controls are so slow to react, and the dodge roll is pretty useless in most situations. I could hold the stick to the left, press the dodge roll four times, and go every direction EXCEPT to the left. I couldn’t reliably roll and execute a thrust attack because rather than thrust at the camera locked enemy, my character would instead attack thin air in whichever direction she was facing when she finished the roll. The camera lock is even more wonky than the later From Software games I’ve played, but I had to use it because attempting to fight without it often resulted in a gloriously clumsy dance where my character and the enemy both swung half a dozen times without either ever once connecting for a hit.

I also have to say, having played the final chapter, I am amazed that this was ever considered a hard game because all the enemies, even the bosses, are so damned slow. But having played Bloodborne and two installments of Dark Souls, I now know that these games aren’t hard, not at all. They’re cheap. They rely very heavily on the ambush or surprise attack, and once you know where an enemy is, they’re actually pretty dumb. The thing is, in all cases, you have unlimited lives with relatively few penalties for failure. This is nothing at all like the NES days of limited or no continues and a frustratingly finite number of lives to beat the many levels of any given game. What I’m saying is, if there’s any game series that’s been overhyped for its difficulty, this is it. This isn’t the hardest game ever. Compared to really hard games of the past, this is a freakin’ cake walk.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the story in the first Dark Souls. In this first installment, you are a zombie who has been captured and corralled in an asylum to wait out your remaining days of sanity, only to be freed by a knight who is himself on the verge of “going hollow.” This knight pleads with you to complete his mission, something he doesn’t elaborate on and which you must spend a third of the game puzzling out before you’re clued into the answer. You must collect an item known as the lordvessel, and then kill the original lords to take their place and link the fire, thus “ending the undead curse.” (But obviously it’s only a half measure, as there’s two more games that task you with the same mission.) There’s also an alternate plot where you join the dark wraiths and snuff the fire permanently, thus beginning a new dark age. I can’t say I’ll ever try this ending because it requires being the bad guy, and I don’t like going that route when I can avoid it. Eh, I’m just weird that way.

For an older game, you might think I’d comment about the graphics being dated, but overall, I rather liked the look of Lordran and its many varied areas. I like the designs of the enemies and the bosses, and I thought the graphics were rather good for their time. One of the ways I try to remain objective about graphics is by asking “What would nine-year-old me think of these graphics?” The answer is, nine-year-old me would be creaming their jeans at the amazing settings and their inhabitants.

Nine-year-old me would probably also appreciate how very, very slow the enemies move. Everything has such an amazingly slow wind up on attacks that I had all the time in the world to decide whether to block, dodge, or attack in the time frame given to me. There’s only a few times when the enemies get faster, and that’s exactly when they get cheaper. An enemy who normally moves slow may suddenly leap ten yards for a sucker punch-like attack. They can veer a full ninety degrees mid-jump, leaping around walls, around bridges, or course correcting mid-leap should you attempt a doge roll. And frankly, it’s bullshit. I see all the time people commenting how “the enemies in Dark Souls follow the same rules you do,” and it’s a nostalgic distorted lens these people are looking through. The enemies follow a completely different set of rules to the player, and to hell with the laws of physics.

Then we get to the bosses, and perhaps if I had played this when it first came out, I might have felt differently about them. But having come very late to this party, most were a huge MEH for me. They’re extremely slow and their few patterns are easy to read. There’s only a few bosses in the whole game that I needed more than one attempt to defeat, and those few exceptions were more because of cheap tactics or gimmick fights than actual challenges to overcome.

Most boss fights have the option of summoning an NPC companion, but their AI is really dumb, maybe even worse than the enemy AI. In one particular fight, my companion was a witch who could get stuck at the stairs above the boss’ chamber. Even if I could get her down to the fight, she would fire off a spell at the rate of once per minute, making her completely useless. This was one of the boss fights I had to do over repeatedly because despite being called The Four Kings, the boss generates multiple copies on a fast timer. So because my companion couldn’t attack, I ended up with five, six, or even seven of the so-called four kings. Cheap? The cheapest, yeah. But let’s move on.

There’s some things I liked about the items in this first game, like the ability to upgrade armor. Once I found a new set with numbers that are a little on the meh side, I could pay in souls and titanite to bulk up the protective qualities. The same is true of weapons, but making weapons with elemental damage is a bit more fiddly because titanite comes in a variety of colors, and each element requires finding titanite chunks and slabs in the right color. Some of these are such rare drops that it’s only possible to get the highest level weapon at the very end of the game just before the final boss fight. The other alternative is to spend days fighting a small number of high level enemies over and over. To make matter even more complicated, some weapons require “demon titanite” and that can only be farmed in one spot late in the game. The demon who drops it has a bigger health bar than several of the bosses, so unless a character has pyromancy and a fully upgraded pyromancy flame, it’s a long, clumsy fight.

One thing this game gets right is the grind. During the first few levels, you do have to grind a little bit and collect souls to bulk up for the challenges ahead. But around the first third or so, you don’t need to grind for experience at all. The bosses are all scaled in such a way that you can handle them with only a few levels added as you get souls for them. Later From Software games screw the pooch on this. It’s like they’re going “You know what the best part of our games is? It’s the grind!” And they are so totally wrong. What’s great about their games is the exploration and discovery. There’s this emotional impact that comes from entering an area for the first time, encountering enemies you’ve never seen and not knowing how to handle them. It can lead to feelings of nervousness, fear, or excitement, and those are all so much more effective without the grind. Once you’ve been through an area for the hundredth time to level grind, everything loses that impact. You can’t appreciate the graphics or the tactics of the enemies. You’ve seen it all before, so the details become background noise. The best part is NOT the grind. The best part is the discovery of something new.

This is not to say you don’t need to grind in the latter half, it’s just that the grinding you do is more about paying for upgrades or buying stuff like arrows or new spells. Each new item you get has to be upgraded to be effective, so there’s also grinding to find various types of titanite and the souls to pay for the upgrades. But it is nice to be able to play many areas without needing to level up all the time.

Speaking of spells, they’re a bit different than the third game. There’s no focus points, so each spell has a set number of uses, which is sort of D&D-like in how that works. With some spells, it is possible to buy multiple copies of the same scroll, and by assigning the duplicates to other attunement slots, a character can double up on the number of times a spell can be used. But there aren’t many vendors selling duplicates, so some of the best spells are extremely limited in use.

Something else this game lacks is a central hub. Vendors and blacksmiths are scattered across multiple regions, and because you can’t fast travel until late in the game, even something simple like ascending your weapons can require a long trek back to the right NPC. It doesn’t help that each class of elemental weapon upgrade requires a different blacksmith, and a couple are a huge pain in the ass to reach.

Setting that aside, it’s amazing how much better Dark Souls III is for the simple change of allowing you unrestricted access to fast travel between all the bonfires. In the first game, until you collect the lordvessel, fast travel isn’t an option at all. Even once you’ve collected it, there’s only a few bonfires that you can travel to, and you have to walk a long, long way to get to the areas you may need. You also have to rest at these locations after obtaining the lordvessel to unlock them, requiring a lot of aimless walking just to obtain what you get by default in the final game of the series.

And there’s more tedious complications. Every bonfire requires collecting humanity to “kindle” the fire so you can get the full amount of health potions for each region. Granted, it’s not all that hard to farm humanity in a few areas, but it amounts to yet another bit of make busy work that gets in the way of the good bits. And to get the highest level of kindling requires finding a “rite of kindling” item that’s found in the darkest region of the game. This is a huge pain to find precisely because there’s only three light sources in the whole game, and they all kind of suck. You’d think a torch would be a basic item to include in one of the vendor’s stocks, but no, you either have to get enough intelligence to handle low level sorcery and use cast light, or you have to traverse the harder, darker levels without light in search of a skull lamp, or you have to wander through a lava filled level in search of a “sunlight maggot.” (It’s not a maggot, by the way. It looks more like a flea. Don’t know if that’s a mistranslation or if From Software just doesn’t know what a maggot is.)

Humanity is a huge, HUGE problem for this game because in addition to needing it for kindling bonfires, you also need humanity to improve resistance to curses and up your “item discovery.” I put that in quotes because it’s a bullshit stat, and it’s always a bullshit stat in all of From Software’s games. You are at the mercy of a random number generator, and whether you have a high item discovery or low, the actual item drop rate is pretty much the same. Which leads me to ask what the point of the stat is when it doesn’t work in ANY of their games?

Add to this the problem of inventory management. The many vendors scattered throughout the areas only sell items, and there’s only one NPC to “sell” items to. He doesn’t arrive until halfway through the game, and half the time you need him, he’s asleep with no way to wake him up. Even when he is awake, the rates he offers for all equipment is at best pathetic. It’s so much easier to sell stuff in Dark Souls III, and the rates on items make more sense. Until you unlock that selling vendor, you’re stuck using a really crappy storage box to keep your inventory from growing out of control. The interface for the storage box is….let’s just say not good and leave it at that.

Repairing equipment at the bonfires requires buying a toolkit, and thereafter it is possible to repair all your stuff with souls. This often requires a small amount of grinding, but so long as you remember to do it frequently, the cost isn’t worth more than a few hundred souls. That’s around five or six enemies per repair cycle, so it’s certainly better than the way repairs worked in Bloodborne.

The final fight is a mixed bag for me, but it’s mainly because I came late to this party. I’ve already beaten the Soul of Cinder multiple times, and Lord Gwyn has only one move set that’s slower than the same pattern Soul of Cinder uses. It’s also really easy to get Gwyn to attack near a stalagmite, making most of his attacks slip just over the character’s head. So far from being the hardest boss of the game, Gwyn is more like a mid-level challenge. He’s not super easy, but it wasn’t that hard to finish him off in three attempts. (And the first two were my fault because I was carrying too much equipment, resulting in a lovely “fat roll” that got me hit every single time.)

You might think that with my many complaints, I didn’t like Dark Souls, and you would be wrong. In spite of all its blemishes and problems, I really did like playing this. I spent 108 hours on my first playthrough, and I know I’ll be playing again to try out the other classes and the DLC. (No, I didn’t do any of the DLC for this run. There’s already so much to do, and I didn’t want to go into those new optional areas with an overpowered build.)

I don’t think it’s fair to label it as brutally hard because that kind of hype scares off gamers who might enjoy this for the many hours they will spend exploring new regions and uncovering new enemies and items. I know that the hype turned me off of playing this when it came out, and now having played the game to the end, I can say the hype is overrated. Is Dark Souls hard? Not nearly as hard as some fans would lead you to believe. Is it fun? YES. Is it a good game? Yes, although each installment improves on past problems and adds new options.

Overall, I’d give Dark Souls 4 stars. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s fun and just the right amount of challenging to keep me engaged from beginning to end. I think it’s a shame the core fans spend so much time talking up its difficulty as its best quality because what they should really be talking about is the many hours of fun it offers. I would recommend this to anyone who is a fan of fantasy games regardless of their skill level.