Dark Souls is an interesting action RPG that has received a lot of mixed reviews. The game seems to be very polarizing in that you will either love it or hate it. The reason for both camps are varied, but now that I have played the game, I can say with certainty that skill and patience are not factors for those who hate it. Rather, it is boredom and frustration with one of the worst cameras and controls ever devised for a twitch based hack-and-slash game in all of video gaming history. But I do want to add that despite having horrible gameplay controls, there is a good game underneath, and I will start by discussing what I liked about the game.
I really enjoyed the variety of weapons and their differing applications. Weapons in this game feel very different from one another based on their size and weight. Granted, this is nothing new, but realism is more emphasized in this game than in other action RPGs such as Skyrim or Zelda. This leads to the opportunity of making combat more strategic, and the game does exactly that and does it very well.
This is an extension to the above point about weapons, but this applies to enemies. The enemies in this game are well designed with multiple attack animations, each requiring differing strategies to defeat. Not all enemies are interesting and some are just plain boring or cheap due to where they are placed and their suicidal nature, but for the most part, the enemies in this game are well designed. The bosses tend to be larger than life and make for a fun fight, even if some are incredibly cheap or able to kill you in one or two hits, thus requiring you to run all the way back to them to try again, which is sometimes harder than fighting the actual boss.
Unfortunately, that is where the good ends. Now lets put some myths to rest: this game is not hard on purpose. It is hard due to laziness (or stupidity) due to a horrible camera and/or controls. This is a game that would have shined on the PC with a keyboard and mouse, giving it better precision and more buttons in easier to use positions, but the game was made for the consoles instead and was ported pathetically for the PC.
The hard part of the game is the camera and controls. I repeat, the game itself is not hard if it were not for the horrible camera in conjunction with twitch style gameplay. If the controls and camera were like modern games, then this game would be a cakewalk, and it actually becomes a cakewalk once you memorize the areas in the game. Nine out of ten deaths in this game during your first play-through, assuming you don't use guides, are caused by the weaknesses in the camera and controls. This is a twitch style game in which you die fairly quickly in 2-4 hits (sometimes less). There are two combat modes: lock-on target mode and free-look mode. In lock-on target mode, you can lose sight of other enemies; and when not using lock-on mode, you can control the camera freely. The problem with free-look mode, however, is that it is not static and still moves when the character turns, thus you have to continuously adjust the camera as you move. This becomes a huge problem in tight spaces, near walls, and during fast motion when the camera ends up in a position that either obstructs your view, or worse, spins you into an angle that causes your attack to miss, opening you up to counter attack. This is why the game is hard. If it were not for the camera, then the difficulty drops 10 fold. For the last time, the reason the game is hard is due to horrible camera and control design, a design that was assumed dead ages ago during the PS1 and N64 era. The only games that still utilize this type of camera are non-twitch style games like turn-based RPGs or strategy games. Note that another game that had a similarly horrible camera - Neverwinter Nights 2 - was essentially crucified for its camera, and it was not even a twitch game. How this game came out unscathed can only be explained with religious apologists. If Demon's Souls were not a PlayStation 3 exclusive, Dark Souls would have never been made because Demon's Souls would have reviewed very poorly. Moving on to the details.
While playing this game, I realized quickly that the entire point to the gameplay is to memorize the areas and enemy attacks in the game. The story is secondary and there is really no character building. The game is based entirely on trial and error, and in this case, the errors are frequently punished with death. When I started the game, I died several times to the 1st demon in the starting island because it took a while to figure out what I had to do. Initially, I thought that I actually had to fight him with my broken sword and shield, and I actually managed to almost kill him with just those. It turns out that you are not supposed to kill the demon yet, but rather run away from him, collect some gear elsewhere, then kill him later. Now regarding this experience, many reviewers seem to believe that this "no hand holding" game design is refreshing and new. I would like to remind these "youngsters" that games were like this a long time ago and there is a reason why we moved away from it. My fight with the 1st demon is a perfect example. The fight was boring, and I didn't know what else to do and whether or not I was even playing the game correctly. I did not notice the open door in the side of the room till about 6 or 7 deaths. If I was not reviewing this game, I probably would have stopped out of boredom and forgotten about the game, or possibly even returned it due to the PC control problems it has. This is unfortunate because the game has some good points, but many might not even give it a chance if they get bored within the 1st hour of play. Some in-game story context would help, especially in a game with a horrible camera and a new player who doesn't know any better.
As you continue with the game, you eventually leave the starter island and end up near the top of a destroyed structure. There was an NPC there, but he only had one topic and tells you that you have to ring a couple of bells. From there you are given a sandbox to explore, albeit a very boring one since the only thing you do in the game is repeat the same areas over and over again. As far as I know, there are no puzzles or any other types of gameplay activities aside from fighting. In many ways, the game plays like an action RPG like Diablo or Sacred, although with less loot (not that I care for the overabundance of loot).
As I continued my game, I beat many bosses and had many cheap deaths, most of them due to boredom and wanting to get through the game more quickly. I stopped playing after defeating the golem up on top of Sen's Tower. I intend to finish the game eventually, but honestly, I only enjoy the boss battles and I hate the rest of the game, so I have not had the motivation to play.
General Game Problems
I am not going to apologize for the makers of the game regarding its many problems. Let's start from the top. I received the game on disk and proceeded to install. There were no problems with installation and I went ahead and started a new game. I noticed instantly that the character creation graphics looked atrocious; so much so that in conjunction with the character icon on the creation screen, I thought I was playing Planescape: Torment which was made in the 90s. Anyway, I continued to make my character (a pyromancer) and the game opened with a short introductory animation. When I got control I noticed that the game still looked horrendous with low quality, flat, and blurry textures, though the frame-rate seemed acceptable. I went online and discovered that despite having a setting in the game for 1080p (1920x1080), the game actually runs at XGA resolution (1024x768) no matter what resolution you select in the game menu. Now, I have said in the past that I am not a graphics aficionado, but I draw the line at "modern looking." Basically, all I expect is modern resolutions and something that looks less than a decade old. This game looks like a Windows 95 game which is unacceptable, even by my low graphics standards. The workaround for this problem is available thanks to a modder who released a fix (DSFix). This fix has become a shameful (to the developers) requirement to play this game on the PC. After I installed DSFix, I noticed a huge improvement to the textures, making this game look good. I generally never give games a reduction due to graphics, but in this case I have to make an exception due to releasing the game without properly implemented resolutions. This is akin to releasing a broken game, but since the game is still fully playable despite the low resolution problem, I will only knock it down 1 point rather than a full 9 points for having a broken game.
The next problem involves the controls. I won't harp on this issue too much because it has been covered to death by almost everyone that has reviewed this game on the PC, so I will just echo the sentiment and state that the developer did not put a lot of work into porting this game. In fact, they should have never ported it based on the two problems we have covered so far. The keyboard and mouse controls are incredibly unintuitive and they require the player to re-program themselves if they want to play this game. Certainly, re-programming oneself is doable, however some commands are plain asinine. For instance, the camera is not bound to the mouse! If you want to move the camera, you have to use the keys. This means that you either need to not use the mouse or not use the movement keys at the same time - and no, you cannot re-bind the camera to your mouse. To kick, you have to press h+w at the same time - yes, that's despite having 50 other unused keys on my keyboard - and no, you cannot lead into a kick by pressing left and then attack, you have to do it at the same time or it will just do a normal attack instead of a kick... not good. Can you still play the game? Sure, but it's not using the strengths of the keyboard and mouse. There are ways you can remap things using 3rd party software (except the camera to the mouse), but for now let's just call the controls sufficient to play but poorly incorporated. For some folks, this game might be completely unplayable with mouse and keyboard. Minus 1 to gameplay for having very bad PC controls and no way to remap them in-game.
Luckily, you can always plug in your controller and play the game like you are on a console. I found the game much easier to play with a controller even though I could have probably gotten used to the keyboard and mouse controls. The fact is that I already had the controller plugged into my PC and ready to go, so I figured what the heck? The problem with a controller, however, is that they are limited in turning speed, and no controller will ever have the speed or accuracy of a mouse. Most PC gamers will not like the trade-off because it degrades gameplay in twitch style games.
Now let's talk about something that is not fixable: the camera. The camera in this game is the second worst I have had the displeasure of dealing with in all of my 30+ years of gaming. It is only 1 position below the deplorable camera of the 1st Devil May Cry on the PS2 which utilized similar camera logic. Due to the fact that this is a 3D action game, the camera is paramount in importance because when you are fighting, you need to have a good angle at what you are fighting against. The hardest part of this game is fighting the camera, not fighting the enemies, but I already covered this in the paragraphs above. Unfortunately, it is somewhat difficult to nearly impossible to avoid this problem in-game unless you memorize every area in the game and know exactly where you should stand in all areas (which you do indeed learn in time). This, however, does not help the new player, nor any player, who does not plan to spend dozens of hours learning the nuances of this game. This really is my biggest complaint about the game because it really does break what might be considered a good combat system, and it greatly reduces immersion. At no time did I ever get sucked into this game because I was always more worried about camera angles and avoiding being blind or rolling over a ledge than I was about the enemies who were sometimes dumb as doorknobs. If the game didn't have an auto-rotating camera, then almost every fight in this game would be trivial because you will never get turned around, blinded, stun-locked, or put in tight or funny positions during combat.
The only reason I scored this game slightly higher than Devil May Cry is because they actually give you two camera modes unlike Devil May Cry which only had one automatic collision detection mode. Dark Souls uses collision detection mode by default, but you can turn that mode off which makes the camera more manageable, but it still rotates automatically with the rotation of your character, thus it is still an obstacle during gameplay. Minus 3 points from the gameplay category because it really is very bad design and significantly effects gameplay.
Characters and Story
These don't really exist in Dark Souls. You wake up in the beginning and are told to do a few things around the world. Later you're presented with a choice of who to side with in the end. There aren't really any interesting characters, game changing choices, or any motivation to push the game along aside from fighting. Even the world itself is kind of static and not all very interesting. It reminded me a lot of Karnov or Rygar on the NES in many ways. Unfortunately, this is supposed to be a modern RPG or an action-adventure, and that means that story is important, or at least, it would have helped the game significantly. Minus 3 points for lack of story, boring, static environments, and lack of characterization.
None. Although I loved some aspects of the game, none of them are really revolutionary or innovative. Certainly the camera is the epitome of regression, but I already penalized that heavily elsewhere. That said, I will give it one point for the effort put into creating good animation sets and interesting fighting gameplay. Again, none of what was done is "new", but the effort alone is worthy of note.
In summary, I feel like this game has some good things going for it, but the comparison made between this and Skyrim (for GOTY 2011) are completely asinine in terms of the amount of time and effort that went into each game, respectively. Skyrim is a full game with many aspects and dimensions, while Dark Souls gets boring and has no outlets to hold my interest. It's only fun for so long and then there is nothing to do. That said, I am convinced that Dark Souls offers a great combat system, but it is impaired by poor camera and control design, lack of content, boring, unchanging environments, and repetitive gameplay. I would definitely look into Dark Souls 2 to see if they improved on the controls and camera; and if they did I just might give it a shot because I believe that there can be a great game under the hood of this franchise. Due to the potential in the series, I gave it a bonus 3 points as "Reviewer Slant."
9 - Best game of the generation in every category but unoriginal or not innovative
8 - Excellent (very few issues)
7 - Very good
6 - Above Average
5 - Average
4 - Below Average
3 - Very Bad
2 - Atrocious
1 - Game is broken or has major bugs.
World Design: 5/10
Reviewer Slant: "Has Potential" +3